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The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy

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In The Comedians, comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff brings to life a century of American comedy with real-life characters, forgotten stars, mainstream heroes and counterculture iconoclasts. Based on over two hundred original interviews and extensive archival research, Nesteroff’s groundbreaking work is a narrative exploration of the way comedians have reflected, shaped, and In The Comedians, comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff brings to life a century of American comedy with real-life characters, forgotten stars, mainstream heroes and counterculture iconoclasts. Based on over two hundred original interviews and extensive archival research, Nesteroff’s groundbreaking work is a narrative exploration of the way comedians have reflected, shaped, and changed American culture over the past one hundred years. Starting with the vaudeville circuit at the turn of the last century, Nesteroff introduces the first stand-up comedian—an emcee who abandoned physical shtick for straight jokes. After the repeal of Prohibition, Mafia-run supper clubs replaced speakeasies, and mobsters replaced vaudeville impresarios as the comedian’s primary employer. In the 1950s, the late-night talk show brought stand-up to a wide public, while Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and Jonathan Winters attacked conformity and staged a comedy rebellion in coffeehouses. From comedy’s part in the Civil Rights movement and the social upheaval of the late 1960s, to the first comedy clubs of the 1970s and the cocaine-fueled comedy boom of the 1980s, The Comedians culminates with a new era of media-driven celebrity in the twenty-first century.


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In The Comedians, comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff brings to life a century of American comedy with real-life characters, forgotten stars, mainstream heroes and counterculture iconoclasts. Based on over two hundred original interviews and extensive archival research, Nesteroff’s groundbreaking work is a narrative exploration of the way comedians have reflected, shaped, and In The Comedians, comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff brings to life a century of American comedy with real-life characters, forgotten stars, mainstream heroes and counterculture iconoclasts. Based on over two hundred original interviews and extensive archival research, Nesteroff’s groundbreaking work is a narrative exploration of the way comedians have reflected, shaped, and changed American culture over the past one hundred years. Starting with the vaudeville circuit at the turn of the last century, Nesteroff introduces the first stand-up comedian—an emcee who abandoned physical shtick for straight jokes. After the repeal of Prohibition, Mafia-run supper clubs replaced speakeasies, and mobsters replaced vaudeville impresarios as the comedian’s primary employer. In the 1950s, the late-night talk show brought stand-up to a wide public, while Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and Jonathan Winters attacked conformity and staged a comedy rebellion in coffeehouses. From comedy’s part in the Civil Rights movement and the social upheaval of the late 1960s, to the first comedy clubs of the 1970s and the cocaine-fueled comedy boom of the 1980s, The Comedians culminates with a new era of media-driven celebrity in the twenty-first century.

30 review for The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy

  1. 4 out of 5

    Robert Lopresti

    This book probably annoyed my wife more than any book I have read in years. I seldom went two pages without interrupting her with: "Did you know Jack Benny refused to perform for segregated audiences, starting in 1940?" or "When Redd Foxx was a dope dealer his partner was Malcolm X!" or "Rodney Dangerfield was a crooked telemarketer!" or "You will never believe where the phrase "stand-up comedian' originated." This book takes us through the history of American comedy, all the way from Frankie Fay This book probably annoyed my wife more than any book I have read in years. I seldom went two pages without interrupting her with: "Did you know Jack Benny refused to perform for segregated audiences, starting in 1940?" or "When Redd Foxx was a dope dealer his partner was Malcolm X!" or "Rodney Dangerfield was a crooked telemarketer!" or "You will never believe where the phrase "stand-up comedian' originated." This book takes us through the history of American comedy, all the way from Frankie Fay (the first burlesque M.C., and the subject of the best dirty riddle I have ever read), right through Stephen Colbert. No matter how well you think you know your favorite comics you will learn a ton more.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jeff Swartz

    I am a sucker for this kind of book. I like a good History book, especially when it covers a subject I am interested in. At 57, there isn't an era of comedy covered here that I don't have a connection to. To clarify, I wasn't around for vaudeville, but I certainly remember seeing Groucho Marx and Jimmy Durante on my television screen at an early age. This book touches on just about everyone, but never goes too deep. If like me, you grew up reading Rolling Stone profiles of Steve Martin, Sam Kiniso I am a sucker for this kind of book. I like a good History book, especially when it covers a subject I am interested in. At 57, there isn't an era of comedy covered here that I don't have a connection to. To clarify, I wasn't around for vaudeville, but I certainly remember seeing Groucho Marx and Jimmy Durante on my television screen at an early age. This book touches on just about everyone, but never goes too deep. If like me, you grew up reading Rolling Stone profiles of Steve Martin, Sam Kinison and every SNL member who made it big, you will not get much new information here. Likewise with the histories of The Tonight Show, SNL or the Daily Show. If you didn't read these articles growing up (or did but are only 24 years old), you will find a ton of good information here! The book does a nice job of showing you how the comedy torch was passed, albeit begrudgingly, from generation to generation. It is also fun to see the stories of people like Lorne Michaels and Steve Martin come together and pull apart like strands of DNA. An interesting footnote, Because I was reading an advanced copy, there were no photos as there will be in the finished book. 10 years ago this would have been a real loss, but now, hello google and hello you tube, not a problem. In fact, a real enhancement that the author doesn't have to shell out time or money on. PS-while a few of their members were mentioned separately, a few paragraphs about Kids in The Hall would have been nice. I know, I know, they are Canadian, but so influential to their time here in the states.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Stewart Tame

    As the subtitle says, this is a history of American comedy from vaudeville to the death of Robin Williams. Odds are, your personal favorite comedian is given short shrift in this book--if they're even mentioned at all--but that's because Nesteroff gives EVERYONE short shrift. The subject is huge in scope. It's not much exaggeration to say that entire books can be (and have been) written on the subject of each paragraph in this tome. What Nesteroff has given us is an invaluable overview of comedy As the subtitle says, this is a history of American comedy from vaudeville to the death of Robin Williams. Odds are, your personal favorite comedian is given short shrift in this book--if they're even mentioned at all--but that's because Nesteroff gives EVERYONE short shrift. The subject is huge in scope. It's not much exaggeration to say that entire books can be (and have been) written on the subject of each paragraph in this tome. What Nesteroff has given us is an invaluable overview of comedy history and the outside forces (if any) that helped shape it. His prose flows well, and the text is bristling with incident and anecdote. If the book has a fault, it is that it is too superficial. People and events fly by and are gone before you're ready to move on. It's not entirely Nesteroff's fault; there's simply too much history to be contained in a book this size. He gives an overview and a bibliography. Further digging is left up to the reader.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Ollie

    Books like this one are what it’s all about, people. I am a comedy nerd and the current comedy boom is the sweet stuff that dreams are made of. My dreams, anyway. Yes, with any boom comes an excess of participants. Most will fade away when said boom goes bust, forever forgotten. Unless of course some avid fan (read: nerd) writes a book about them. Enter the Comedians by Kliph Nesteroff. Documenting the life and history of comedy for the past 100 years seems like a daunting task but it’s pretty cle Books like this one are what it’s all about, people. I am a comedy nerd and the current comedy boom is the sweet stuff that dreams are made of. My dreams, anyway. Yes, with any boom comes an excess of participants. Most will fade away when said boom goes bust, forever forgotten. Unless of course some avid fan (read: nerd) writes a book about them. Enter the Comedians by Kliph Nesteroff. Documenting the life and history of comedy for the past 100 years seems like a daunting task but it’s pretty clear early on that Nesteroff is the right man for the job: his writing is clear and engaging, and very thorough. The man knows his stuff. Another great aspect of the Comedians is its flow. Instead of devoting tiresome chapters or going on and on about certain topics grinding the narrative to a halt, the Comedians instead briefly flashes a spotlight on a trend, or comedian, or club and smoothly moves the story right along. Everything serves to propel the narrative forward. From the old vaudevillian days to the latest comedy boom, we learn about the birth of standup, the feuds, the clubs, the trends, the mob, the locations, the shows and characters that helped the genre evolve through all the years. The results are engaging and damn-right exciting. The only flaw in this book is that unfortunately Nesteroff cuts his story a bit short, ending his chronicle in the late 2000s and leaving us craving more. But then again, that’s a pretty great problem to have. The Comedians is an informative and imperative read for anyone interested in show business and entertainment. And for comedy fans it’s absolutely essential.

  5. 4 out of 5

    victor harris

    The earlier sections of the book when it covers the comedians who came out of vaudeville was interesting. The Marx Brothers, Milton Berle and many others paid their dues in the declining backwater of the vaudeville circuit before they made the transition to radio and TV. As the book develops it becomes dry reading and even a chore to plow through as it reads more like a list of comics and venues. Probably closer to a 2.5 rating as it does give a good snapshot of comedians like Woody Allen, Sein The earlier sections of the book when it covers the comedians who came out of vaudeville was interesting. The Marx Brothers, Milton Berle and many others paid their dues in the declining backwater of the vaudeville circuit before they made the transition to radio and TV. As the book develops it becomes dry reading and even a chore to plow through as it reads more like a list of comics and venues. Probably closer to a 2.5 rating as it does give a good snapshot of comedians like Woody Allen, Seinfeld, et al. Also has good coverage of how the Mob dominated the stand-up comic world and how Hugh Hefner proved very progressive by offering outlets for black comedians who were largely invisible in more high profile settings. Unfortunately there is no unifying story line that holds the narrative together and it could have used editing to slash some of the clutter.

  6. 4 out of 5

    John G.

    Absolutely one of the very best books you will ever read about the history of stand-up comedy! This is a scholarly, exhaustive, but yet entertaining study of this unique creative art form. It's gritty too, plenty of tooth and fang and comic dish. The author is a real student of the craft and this book isn't fluff piece or PR released. He commented on and corrected a lot of misperceptions I had that I had seen multiple times across the board. The research and writing are impressive, I believe the Absolutely one of the very best books you will ever read about the history of stand-up comedy! This is a scholarly, exhaustive, but yet entertaining study of this unique creative art form. It's gritty too, plenty of tooth and fang and comic dish. The author is a real student of the craft and this book isn't fluff piece or PR released. He commented on and corrected a lot of misperceptions I had that I had seen multiple times across the board. The research and writing are impressive, I believe the author did some features on WFMU about comedy history. His experience as a stand-up himself helped him fashion some amazing and insightful interviews. Hands down, this book is a must have for fans of comedy, stand-up and entertainment in general. Bravo!

  7. 5 out of 5

    Kaitlyn

    I feel bad writing a review and rating a book i couldn’t finish but I’ve tried twice! I don’t remember when I first tried but I know I probably didn’t make it much further than I did this time. The big difference is now I know exactly what is wrong with it and how to verbalize my complaints. There is no argument to be made here. Clearly the sheer amount of research done led to this book’s publishing. The writing is mediocre, or maybe it isn’t, as he relies far too much on others’ words for me to I feel bad writing a review and rating a book i couldn’t finish but I’ve tried twice! I don’t remember when I first tried but I know I probably didn’t make it much further than I did this time. The big difference is now I know exactly what is wrong with it and how to verbalize my complaints. There is no argument to be made here. Clearly the sheer amount of research done led to this book’s publishing. The writing is mediocre, or maybe it isn’t, as he relies far too much on others’ words for me to tell. A history book should answer a question and make an argument. What is the argument here? Comedians face much the same struggles today as they did 100 years ago? Okay... and? Why? What does this say? I would only continue reading if it was assigned for a seminar class and we could spend 3 hours ripping it to shreds. Sometimes I do miss graduate school, but I’m not in it! I got my degree! I don’t have to read this “history”

  8. 4 out of 5

    Still

    Astonishingly funny & enlightening read. Nesteroff knows the turf & strides upon it like a giant among comedy fans. Really rich in detail -you can almost feel the flop sweat trickling down your collar. Enthusiastically recommended. If you love to laugh this book pays off. If you're looking for tragedy - it's got that. Gossip? Down low & gritty? Look no further.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Austin Gilbert

    It's a monumental task to cover 100 years of comedy and still keep it at a readable length, but this one does it. Fantastic book. Wildly entertaining, fantastically informative. Can't recommend it enough.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Fred

    This book is a great overview of the history of comedy from Vaudeville to podcasts and everything in between. It is well organized moving from vaudeville and traveling shows to radio, television, night clubs, comedy albums, late night, comedy clubs and the internet. It is humorous but not written for laughs. It is historically grounded but meant to be enjoyed for the anecdotes and personalities. If there is a fault to the book it is that it could have been two or three times the length. Many man This book is a great overview of the history of comedy from Vaudeville to podcasts and everything in between. It is well organized moving from vaudeville and traveling shows to radio, television, night clubs, comedy albums, late night, comedy clubs and the internet. It is humorous but not written for laughs. It is historically grounded but meant to be enjoyed for the anecdotes and personalities. If there is a fault to the book it is that it could have been two or three times the length. Many many people get only a cursory mention. But Nesteroff is giving an overview and wants to paint the big picture which is why I loved the book. I lengthy biography of Richard Pryor or Bob Hope, as valuable as they may be, will not show how comedy has changed over the years. This is the value of Nesteroff's book. Occasionally it gets bogged down describing the social setting of a time, like when he discusses the communist witch hunts of the 50s or the Vietnam war protests of the 60s. But this is a minor critique. If you love comedy or are interested in the entertainment culture over the last 100 years this book is highly recommended.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Yaaresse

    Damn. Who knew the World of comedy was that incestuous or that cutthroat? I half expected this to be a compendium of profiles, but it is actually a history of comedy in the united states starting with vaudeville and black face and going through to the current names in satire and TV such as Colbert, Robin Williams (May he RIP), and CK Louis. I would like to of seen more current female comedians covered, such as Ellen DeGeneres, Jessica Williams, or Tina Fey, none of whom were mentioned. Still, the Damn. Who knew the World of comedy was that incestuous or that cutthroat? I half expected this to be a compendium of profiles, but it is actually a history of comedy in the united states starting with vaudeville and black face and going through to the current names in satire and TV such as Colbert, Robin Williams (May he RIP), and CK Louis. I would like to of seen more current female comedians covered, such as Ellen DeGeneres, Jessica Williams, or Tina Fey, none of whom were mentioned. Still, there was a lot of ground to cover, and the author must’ve interviewed half the industry and their kids to get the background info that he did. What you learn is that the world of comedy is often more dangerous and cut throat — sometimes literally — than funny.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Blaine DeSantis

    Wow, a tour de force of the world of comedy. A wonderful history book that covers most all aspects of Comedy from its earliest roots in Vaudeville up to the current time. Very well laid out the book introduces us to each era of Comedy and those comedians who helped make comedy such a wildly successful art form. I must admit that one or two chapters were a tad boring because comedy was boring at those times. But it is so great to discover or rediscover these comics and then go over to YouTube and Wow, a tour de force of the world of comedy. A wonderful history book that covers most all aspects of Comedy from its earliest roots in Vaudeville up to the current time. Very well laid out the book introduces us to each era of Comedy and those comedians who helped make comedy such a wildly successful art form. I must admit that one or two chapters were a tad boring because comedy was boring at those times. But it is so great to discover or rediscover these comics and then go over to YouTube and catch some clips of their work. One of my favorites is Timmie Rogers a black comic whose "Oh Yeah" routine is both hilarious and timeless. Great book, not a lot of actual comedy material or jokes, but a great, great book to learn about the history of Comedy.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Noel L Byrd

    This is a must read for anymore who has any interest in comedy. What a great history lesson.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Andy Mascola

    A history of US comedy from vaudeville to podcasts. I laughed & cried. Best book I've read in '16.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Alan

    Interesting stuff and the book left me wanting to know more about the subject and the personalities mentioned. But when I finished reading I had the feeling that this could have been a much better book or, at the very least, more entertaining. I gave it only 2 stars because I feel I remain mostly ignorant of the subject matter even after finishing the book. It read at times like a series of lists of often obscure names for the benefit of industry insiders. To make it more difficult for the uninfo Interesting stuff and the book left me wanting to know more about the subject and the personalities mentioned. But when I finished reading I had the feeling that this could have been a much better book or, at the very least, more entertaining. I gave it only 2 stars because I feel I remain mostly ignorant of the subject matter even after finishing the book. It read at times like a series of lists of often obscure names for the benefit of industry insiders. To make it more difficult for the uninformed, the timeline seemed to jump around as comedians entered and exited the vaudeville and standup circuits, radio and TV gigs and writing contracts. Although, I guess, the book could be worthy of a better grade for historical accuracy or simply the feat of collecting all of the information offered in one place, it wasn’t very entertaining. Maybe a reader with more knowledge of the history and the various aspects of American show business over the years, and particularly, a comic’s life throughout the last hundred years, would say “OK - that’s insightful, but I couldn’t decide that from the material presented. The book had no spark and very few funny or warm hearted anecdotes. The sheer numbers of names of people I’d never heard of and, mainly, very brief references to their role in standup comedy left me with no context with which to judge the author’s expertise or the validity of his remarks. Overall, the writing itself was a bit sophomoric and thesis-like. Oh well - I’m not unhappy that I read this book but I wish it had been better. I’ll warrant the subject is simply too broad and overwhelming in its complexity to be well referenced in the available space and almost assuredly beyond the scope of any single book.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Kdawg91

    I love this type of book, jumping deep into the histories of things I love. I always had a deep love of all things comedy and Mr. Nesteroff does an excellent job covering the history of the artform from its beginnings to current day. I rounded up to 4 from 3.5 however, here's why. Comedy, although being a broad subject, Mr. Nesteroff glossed over alot of stuff. He gives short shift to several artists, which I don't know if I can blame him due to the length of directions the topic can go in, BUT. I love this type of book, jumping deep into the histories of things I love. I always had a deep love of all things comedy and Mr. Nesteroff does an excellent job covering the history of the artform from its beginnings to current day. I rounded up to 4 from 3.5 however, here's why. Comedy, although being a broad subject, Mr. Nesteroff glossed over alot of stuff. He gives short shift to several artists, which I don't know if I can blame him due to the length of directions the topic can go in, BUT..I didn't like that. Then, there was a LOT of focus on the negative aspects, the sex, the violence, the substance abuse..again, I am sure it makes for a more entertaining story, but really? is it that necessary? That being said, wonderful history of the funny men and women in comedy, I recommend it.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Anne Libera

    Really 3.5 stars. I have mixed emotions about this book. As a professor of comedy history, I appreciated Nesterhoff's wide ranging knowledge and insight. He has some great quotes and interviews. He clearly knows his stuff. I admit that the through line of this book is standup in a way that I bristle at a bit as someone with a background in sketch and improv. But mostly I wanted less of the bar brawls, mob bosses, and joke stealers and just a bit more of what made these comedians and their work us Really 3.5 stars. I have mixed emotions about this book. As a professor of comedy history, I appreciated Nesterhoff's wide ranging knowledge and insight. He has some great quotes and interviews. He clearly knows his stuff. I admit that the through line of this book is standup in a way that I bristle at a bit as someone with a background in sketch and improv. But mostly I wanted less of the bar brawls, mob bosses, and joke stealers and just a bit more of what made these comedians and their work useful to those of us who appreciate comedy now. So....I have opinions but I'm glad I read it.

  18. 5 out of 5

    chris fortson

    Required reading For anyone who is a comedy nerd in any capacity, this is a must read. A comprehensive history lesson that paved a path from vaudeville to radio to television to stand up and back again. And tracing the family tree of inspiration and mentorship from comedian to comedian.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Pat Carroll

    From minstrel shows to Marc Maron's WTF podcast, this is a clear guide to the people and politics of standup and sketch comedy. Steve Allen's survey books and Judd Apatow's interviews have insight into performers, but not much about the biz. This book does, and it made me happy I never tried it.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Bill

    An off-the-cuff kind of popular history of what might be America's strongest art form in popular culture. Starting at the beginning of the 20th century with vaudeville, The Comedians is a quick ride through the evolution of comedy - primarily live, stand up comedy. I was surprised at the involvement of the Mob during the middle of the last century. Don Rickles' agent was a Mob boss. The book ends shortly after 9-11 and I was left wishing the author carried his account through the last decade. Lot An off-the-cuff kind of popular history of what might be America's strongest art form in popular culture. Starting at the beginning of the 20th century with vaudeville, The Comedians is a quick ride through the evolution of comedy - primarily live, stand up comedy. I was surprised at the involvement of the Mob during the middle of the last century. Don Rickles' agent was a Mob boss. The book ends shortly after 9-11 and I was left wishing the author carried his account through the last decade. Lots of short snippets and gossipy anecdotes by well known comedians.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Art

    A fun history of people who make us laugh and their influences. This book tells about comics and stand-ups and how they became headline performers. While this book traces the history and transitions of comedy, it naturally includes the evolution of entertainment venues, from eighteen-eighties vaudeville, to radio, nightclubs, television and comedy clubs. Appearing on a bill with singers, jugglers and acrobats, the vaudeville comics needed about thirteen minutes of material for their act, often in A fun history of people who make us laugh and their influences. This book tells about comics and stand-ups and how they became headline performers. While this book traces the history and transitions of comedy, it naturally includes the evolution of entertainment venues, from eighteen-eighties vaudeville, to radio, nightclubs, television and comedy clubs. Appearing on a bill with singers, jugglers and acrobats, the vaudeville comics needed about thirteen minutes of material for their act, often in big theaters. But eventually, radio and motion pictures took their toll on vaudeville, replacing it with a medium that would reach millions of people who could not get to a theater. Prohibition's end in 1933 brought the end of speakeasies and the beginning of nightclubs. Now the comedians needed three times as much comedy, forty-five minutes of material in smaller and more intimate spaces. In 1948, nineteen television stations served twelve cities, including New York, Chicago and Milwaukee. In June, Texaco Star Theater debuted, using a vaudeville-style bill, with acts paced by the emcee, Milton Berle, who came out of vaudeville. Ten years later, Jack Paar on The Tonight Show introduced a new coffeehouse style of comedy, including the Smothers Brothers and Nichols & May. Among the smarter coffeehouse comedians, Mort Sahl led to Woody Allen and George Carlin, who became the hippie's comedian. That's one branch on the family tree of comedy. This book explores the lineages of other styles. For half a century, stand-up comedy talked about other people: "Did you hear about the guy walking down the street …?" But in the mid-fifties, observational humor became first-person: "I was walking down the street …" A review from the book pages: http://www.jsonline.com/entertainment... I did well in high school improv and comedy, so I looked forward to this fascinating book. But the subtitle seems unnecessarily rough. History, high- and low-brow culture and comedy all in one book. Fun.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Dave

    On the one hand, it's hard to argue with as a history, since it is simply packed full of little details about the history of American comics, from Vaudeville until the present. Nice surveys of black comedians on record, the rise of the Comedy Club, and television's changing impact. On the other hand, pick pick pick. What makes it readable is sometimes what drags it down, since it very much concentrates on scandal and anecdote to make for a quick and interesting read. Comedy is certainly full of d On the one hand, it's hard to argue with as a history, since it is simply packed full of little details about the history of American comics, from Vaudeville until the present. Nice surveys of black comedians on record, the rise of the Comedy Club, and television's changing impact. On the other hand, pick pick pick. What makes it readable is sometimes what drags it down, since it very much concentrates on scandal and anecdote to make for a quick and interesting read. Comedy is certainly full of drunks, junkies, sex maniacs, nasty pieces of work, and the like. But sometimes it just gets a bit like Comedy Store Babylon. Good stories are plentiful, but so are pages about penis size and who fellated who right at the comedy club table. Not to pick on Nesteroff (Kliph?), but if you only do ten pages about Richard Pryor or Lenny Bruce, why must nine of them detail their drug use,arrests, unreliability,etc. What made them interesting besides that? For some lesser comics (e.g.,Sam Kinison),you get no sense of why they might be special at all, except that they were mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Of course, anything that sends one searching for more is a good thing. So this is a good thing.

  23. 5 out of 5

    David Longo

    I liked "The Comedians" by Kliph Nesteroff but I felt it was uneven overall. I also thought it ended abruptly. Nesteroff is incredibly informative. He taught me a lot about comedy as an entertainment medium. I was especially impressed by his early 20th century chronology. Nesteroff also segues seemlessly from one topic to the next, much like a stand-up comedian. This was clever, just like the book's cover, a play on The Beatles' famous Sgt. Peppers' album cover. My criticism of "The Comedians" mai I liked "The Comedians" by Kliph Nesteroff but I felt it was uneven overall. I also thought it ended abruptly. Nesteroff is incredibly informative. He taught me a lot about comedy as an entertainment medium. I was especially impressed by his early 20th century chronology. Nesteroff also segues seemlessly from one topic to the next, much like a stand-up comedian. This was clever, just like the book's cover, a play on The Beatles' famous Sgt. Peppers' album cover. My criticism of "The Comedians" mainly stems from what I felt was an uneven synopsis of particular performers and/or programs, most notably Bill Cosby, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Jerry Seinfeld and "Saturday Night Live." While I understand that Nesteroff had an enormous task, I found it hard to accept that four of the biggest comics of all time received almost no play, nor did the 40-plus-years and running program that triggered more comedic careers than anything else. SNL received little fanfare, less than "In Living Color," one could argue. I also thought there was surprisingly little written about female comedians, at least outside of Joan Rivers. Nice effort, Mr. Nesteroff. You could have gone further, however.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Courtney

    Back when I used to have a lot of mindless tasks to do I would tap into that unspoiled brain power to plan out the reference book I wanted to research and write on American standup comedy. I have to forfeit that dream and duty now because one has been written that far surpasses anything I could produce and I am okay with that because it is AMAZING. I'm not one to buy books since I know the bulk of what I read is a one-time situation and knowing that, I must reserve my precious limited book space Back when I used to have a lot of mindless tasks to do I would tap into that unspoiled brain power to plan out the reference book I wanted to research and write on American standup comedy. I have to forfeit that dream and duty now because one has been written that far surpasses anything I could produce and I am okay with that because it is AMAZING. I'm not one to buy books since I know the bulk of what I read is a one-time situation and knowing that, I must reserve my precious limited book space for favorites of mine (which should be favorites of everyone). After reading a library copy (ew, I agree), I plan to put down my not too hard earned monies and add clutter to my tiny home because -as mentioned before- IT IS AMAZING. It's a source that I will refer to again and again and again when I have important questions like, "Was it George Carlin's or Fred Willard's former comedy partner that went on to temporarily replace Don Knotts in the Andy Griffith show?" I don’t even mean that glibly. I’m excited to have these answers and more in my hot little hands. Bonus fact: Norm Macdonald’s praise is a blurb on the book. You don’t need any further hard evidence backing up my review than that.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Eric

    Really enjoyed the early history such as vaudeville and radio's beginnings but felt that the closer we came to the modern day, the shallower the book gets which makes sense as few existing comedians are probably less willing to be open about themselves if they're still getting work. I now want to track down the vaudeville history mentioned repeatedly at the start. Lots of great anecdotes and I really enjoyed it for the most part

  26. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Campbell

    The least funny book about comedy you could ever expect to read. There are some priceless anecdotes but laughs in these pages are few and far between. Mr. Nesteroff attempts no overarching thesis or unifying framework, and unfortunately this leaves the book structured like a gigantic, pedantic timeline: In 1928... then, in 1932. And so, in 1959...

  27. 4 out of 5

    Guillermo Villegas

    "I'm not stopping..." - Robin Williams

  28. 4 out of 5

    Glenn

    Reading non-fiction often gives the reader, at least for as long as memory serves (a shorter and shorter period as I get older), a certain high ground when it comes to discussing facts and chronology. So, when I mentioned some arcane fact about an old-time comedian to my 91-year-old Dad, I was quite surprised when he tweaked my information and added to it. He then told me he is reading a book called, The Comedians, and sure enough, sitting on his nightstand was the same book I was reading. We b Reading non-fiction often gives the reader, at least for as long as memory serves (a shorter and shorter period as I get older), a certain high ground when it comes to discussing facts and chronology. So, when I mentioned some arcane fact about an old-time comedian to my 91-year-old Dad, I was quite surprised when he tweaked my information and added to it. He then told me he is reading a book called, The Comedians, and sure enough, sitting on his nightstand was the same book I was reading. We both come at this book from slightly different directions, but I was so excited to learn we were reading the same book at the same time. My Father is simply the funniest guy I know. He has a razor-sharp wit and his timing is impeccable. Lots of laughter (not only laughter) in my home, growing up. Much of my Dad’s sense of comedy was borne of a childhood and early adulthood in which so many of the big names that Nesteroff writes about in this book played a prominent role. As a teenager, Dad spent summers working at the hotels in the Catskills…think kitchen…not stage…and was exposed to the comedians who would help to shape the future of comedy, and stand-up, in particular. I don’t know how funny he was as a little kid, but I believe this exposure went a long way to develop his fascinating comic stylings. I love to laugh…love it. So, my attraction to this book was a natural interest in the history of comedy, and again, specifically stand-up. Comedian Marc Maron mentioned this book on one of the episodes of his podcast, WTF. This sparked my interest. I have always been fascinated by process and peeking behind the scenes into the lives of the most famous of the stand-up comics was so revealing in terms of how they ended up where they did. There were many interesting, funny, and to some degree, heartbreaking personal stories. Having read this book, I believe I have a clearer idea of what it takes to succeed at stand-up. The hard work, and constant risk of failure is so daunting, it’s a wonder anyone would subject him/herself to such rigors. It must be a calling. Though the book was filled with anecdotes and explanations there was, for me, anyway, one important flaw. I’m hoping (selfishly) that it is the author’s flaw and not mine. There were a great many details set out by way of quotes from comics, and others in the industry. The problem is that I simply could not keep track of who was saying what. It’s not that Nesteroff left the information out. It’s just that there were so many quotations, it was hard to tell when one “speaker” finished and another started. Looking back a page or two always answered the question. I just did not like the uncertainty. It was annoying. I guess it was the author’s intention to pack in as much information as possible, and from that standpoint, there is much to be learned here. From vaudeville to Henny Youngman, to Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Groucho Marx, to Lucy to Lenny, to Mort Sahl, Bob Newhart, Jerry Lewis, Joan Rivers, Jonathan Winters, Rodney, Dice, Pryor, Letterman, Robin, Seinfeld, and a host of new and upcoming comics, each with his/her own style, often armed with each other’s jokes. For me, it isn’t so much the joke as the presentation, and many of the classic artists discussed in this book truly reached the the top of their game, not only in material, but in presentation. The way they developed their personal styles was one of the most illuminating and fascinating aspects of the book. One aspect of the history of stand-up and the comedians who perform it is how shockingly cut-throat the business is. In addition to the pilfering of fellow comics’ acts, there were instances of betrayal, lying, cheating, and in some instances, physical violence. They say that the origin of comedy often arises out of personal tragedy or shared fear. This book was clear that this is not always the case. But it often is. Learning the background of many of the top comics over the years, shed light on where their particular sense of comedy comes from. I found this fascinating. Finally, perhaps in seeming contradiction to what I wrote earlier, with the exception of following the quotes, I found the book to be extremely well written, well researched and presented in a cogent manner. There was such density in the material, but I feel like Nesteroff was really able to get to the touchstone of each era of comedy. I read this book to learn the back story of many of my favorite comedians. I come away much better educated and with a new-found respect for the adversity and hard work involved in becoming a stand up comic.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Todd Stockslager

    Review title: Comedy isn't easy Nesteroff has written what feels like a first draft of the first volume of a series that would really tell the history of American comedy. It isn't bad, but it is proof that comedy--and writing the history of comedy--isn't easy. So starting with the shortcomings: The coverage is not of all forms of comedy, but primarily that of a lone comedian, or a pair--often including a singer, or a "straight" man or woman who served as the foil of the jokes--in the earlier days, Review title: Comedy isn't easy Nesteroff has written what feels like a first draft of the first volume of a series that would really tell the history of American comedy. It isn't bad, but it is proof that comedy--and writing the history of comedy--isn't easy. So starting with the shortcomings: The coverage is not of all forms of comedy, but primarily that of a lone comedian, or a pair--often including a singer, or a "straight" man or woman who served as the foil of the jokes--in the earlier days, standing in front of an audience telling jokes. In fact, the chapter titles for the first half of the book read as a list of the venues where this type of comedy took place, from vaudeville to radio then television. It doesn't cover the history of other forms of comedy, from stage to scripted sitcoms to movies. Comedy as paid entertainment has taken many forms that aren't covered here. But if you accept this focus on the stand-up, as the lone comic became known, it does reduce the scope to a fast reading 360 pages. Nesteroff provides good detail on the history of stand-up in the mid 20th century, including the transition from old-school Vegas comics to the liberation of the 1960s and the comedy club boom of the 1980s. But when the calendar turns over to the 1990s and beyond, he blows through to the end with a minimum of insight and details on the modern comics. Five pages on the reaction of comics in the weeks after 9/11 give way to only five pages to cover the decade-plus remaining to the publication date. Another 30 or 40 pages would have brought readers up to date without wondering if Nesteroff had parked in a metered spot and had to run to feed the meter. The history he does cover is covered well, given the lack of documentation available for much of it such as African American comedy before Dick Gregory and Bill Cosby, and for all but the best known comics in the era before sound recording made it possible to capture live sessions. Because of its importance to preserving comic routines, Nesteroff devotes time to the history of comedy recordings, where I was surprised to learn that Redd Fox was a pioneer. And as I learned recently from reading histories of popular music in 1970 and 1971, he documents that drugs were a huge part of the comic scene during the same period. One thing you won't find here are discussions of what is funny and why comedy is so specific to time, place, and language. In other words, this isn't a history of jokes or routines, but if the people and places who made comedy. Which is probably a wise editing decision to keep this volume readable. Now I'm ready for a volume covering other forms of comedy and a volume on the history of the content of comedy to make this a true history of American comedy. Enjoy this one for what it is, the setup for an extended routine.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Joe Kraus

    This is an extraordinary book. I bought it on impulse at an airport bookstore and, for the next five months, read in it when I could. Every time I picked it up again I felt it’s pull, felt the big picture of what Nesteroff is doing here. It’s a perfect by-the-bedside book, something you can read for long stretches or pick up and get in a meaningful five minutes. In essence, Nesteroff accomplishes three things simultaneously. First, this is a book that will make you laugh. That’s probably obvious s This is an extraordinary book. I bought it on impulse at an airport bookstore and, for the next five months, read in it when I could. Every time I picked it up again I felt it’s pull, felt the big picture of what Nesteroff is doing here. It’s a perfect by-the-bedside book, something you can read for long stretches or pick up and get in a meaningful five minutes. In essence, Nesteroff accomplishes three things simultaneously. First, this is a book that will make you laugh. That’s probably obvious since it’s a history of American comedy, but I’ve seen people be decidedly unfunny when they discuss humor. Nesteroff doesn’t try to be funny himself, he just curates some of the best and most pointed humor out there. Second, this is a comprehensive history. I’m not aware of any book like it. This starts with Vaudeville and ends with Marc Maron’s podcast, and I – despite trying – I can’t think of a significant element he’s left out. This is loaded with footnotes, but they’re unobtrusive. It succeeds as a reference work to comedy, certainly the best I know of, and I am considering parts of it for a class that might deal with Lenny Bruce. It is, in other words, ambitious enough to be academic at the same time as it’s a flat-out pleasure to read. Third, and most subtly, this is an argument. American comedy, as Nesteroff sees it, is a single story. It may have multiple chapters, but its practitioners have always understood themselves as influenced by their predecessors. As remarkable as Lenny Bruce was, he didn’t invent anything. He just inflected the tradition a little bit, taking from the Marx Brothers and Jack Benny before him, and influencing George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and the whole stand-up comedy boom of the 1980s. What Nesteroff accomplishes, with an ambition I can hardly imagine, is to fit together different pieces of comedy history into chapters that comprise a whole. This could work as a textbook, but I say that hesitatingly because it implies a coldness or seriousness to the project that, page-by-page, it never seems to have. If you don’t know the history of comedy, I can’t imagine a better place to get it. If you think you do know it, you’ll like this all the more for allowing you to connect dots that – until now – seemed detached from each other.

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