Middling account of the standup-comedy renaissance of a generation past, which made stars of Robin Williams, David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld and many others.
Time editor Zoglin turns in dutiful, careful profiles of the principal characters in the standup movement, but he breaks very little news—except, perhaps, to correct the notion that Richard Pryor caught fire while freebasing cocaine; in fact, Zoglin writes, “he poured cognac all over himself and lit a Bic lighter.” The author begins his genealogy with Lenny Bruce, dead but still influential, and George Carlin, who had remade himself from straight, slightly older comic to hip icon with some daring career moves that turned out to be right on the money. Carlin and Pryor ruled the early ’70s, with Robert Klein and David Steinberg not far behind, filling concert halls and Johnny Carson’s couch. Their acolytes, careful students of comedy almost pathologically driven to succeed, jockeyed for position at New York clubs such as Budd Friedman’s Improv and Rick Newman’s Catch a Rising Star. Some had modest careers, some died young, but a few—Seinfeld, the almost scarily needy Jay Leno, Richard Lewis—took off just about the time comedy was changing, as the with-it observations of Richard Belzer gave way to the vapidities of Steve Martin. Zoglin touches on some interesting matters: why comedy moved from New York to Los Angeles (because L.A. was where Carson was), why few women succeeded in standup (because Carson was scared of them). But he does little to link the auteur-jokester revolution to other cultural trends in music, film and art. Shy on any history but the personal, this is more a long People-ish magazine piece than a book.
Not especially funny, given its subject, and Zoglin more often asserts comic genius than demonstrates it with a choice line. “If you get a laugh, you’re golden,” the author rightly observes. This one goes for the bronze.