Initially, former comedian Kliph Nesteroff didn’t like being labeled a historian. But with The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy, out now from Grove Atlantic, Nesteroff’s produced one of the most comprehensive and accessible accounts of the art form to date.
Beginning with the early-20th-century vaudeville circuit and continuing up to modern-day icons like Marc Maron and Louis C.K., The Comedians is almost overwhelmingly dense with both anecdotes and analysis, illustrating stand-up’s maturation with portraits of everyone from low-level midcentury club comics to African-American performers working their way out of the Chitlin’ Circuit to undisputed masters like Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor. To get a handle on over a century’s worth of show business history, Flavorwire spoke to Nesteroff recently about his book, the challenges of explaining older comedy to a contemporary audience, and what he makes of the state of comedy today.
Flavorwire: What interests you about comedy, and what attracted you to writing a history of it?
Kliph Nesteroff: Well, I used to do stand-up. I did it from 1998 until 2006. I think most people that do stand-up are already interested in comedy, and people that are funny, have not just a knack for comedy, but a passion for it. So it was a natural outgrowth of that. I’m not sure which came first, but all of that came before I was actually writing about it. I had already been a writer; I was obsessed with beatniks when I was a teenager, so I was obsessed with beatnik poetry and stuff like that. Then I started doing stand-up, and that, of course, entails writing. So I was writing all the time no matter what.
Then when I quit stand-up, for whatever reason, I started writing a little bit about comedians that I had found through comedy records. One of the first was this guy named Murray Roman, who I found a comedy record by in a Vancouver flea market. It had a kaleidoscopic cover with, like, five images of this guy’s head. It was obviously from the late ‘60s — he was wearing tinted sunglasses on the cover, and the name of the LP was You Can’t Beat People Up and Expect Them to Say I Love You. It was a reference to police brutality in the late ‘60s.
So this record really intrigued me, and on the back cover, the liner notes were by Tommy Smothers of the Smothers Brothers. Near the end of my stand-up career, I got invited to meet the Smothers Brothers when they came through town. I was talking to them backstage, and I was saying, “I have this record by this guy named Murray Roman, who I don’t know anything about. It’s the weirdest comedy record; it’s got psychedelic reverb on the punchlines in the record, and then blends to music and back to stand-up. Who was this guy?” And he said, “Oh, Murray Roman was a writer on our show, but he died in a car accident really young and is forgotten.”
I found that interesting and kind of curious. I was already writing about other stuff, so I decided to write an article about this guy Murray Roman. I phoned Tommy Smothers up and talked about Murray and interviewed him for this article I was writing for WFMU online. Halfway through the interview, he said, “You know who knows more about Murray Roman than me is Steve. Have you talked to Steve yet?” I said, “Steve?” And he said, “Yeah. Steve Martin.”
I said, “No, I haven’t talked to him yet. I guess I must have misplaced his number somewhere.” Tommy said, “Why don’t I call him and tell him to call you? Because he was Murray Roman’s partner in the writers’ room on the Smothers Brothers Show.” Sure enough, an hour later, I’m just sitting in my underwear in my shitty Vancouver apartment. The phone rings, and it was Steve Martin. We spoke for about an hour, and I talked to Steve about Murray Roman, and he had fond memories of him. Near the end of the interview, he said, “Well, who else are you writing about? Because I’m interested in a lot of those old comedy guys.” He started quoting lines from this obscure comedian Jackie Vernon that Steve Martin had read on Wikipedia. We started talking about Vernon for the rest of the conversation and nerding out.
So I wrote this article about Murray Roman. All the germination was just from this random record I had found. It led to not just a decent article, but Steve Martin’s phoning me at home. That was this exciting, weird, and kind of unique thing, and I don’t think, had I kept doing stand-up all those years, that I would have had Steve Martin phone me. But doing this kind of unique thing, I did. It was an interesting lesson. I don’t even think I realized it at the time; I realize it now more because I have context for it. My passion for comedy is shared by people that are in comedy, and that by doing comedy, I might get attention, but by being passionate about what I’m passionate about, might get more attention.
Now that the book is out, I’m getting all these great shout-outs from people like Mel Brooks and Albert Brooks and Bob Odenkirk — all these people that I respect immensely, but also that people who are doing stand-up would kill to have a relationship with. So I’ve managed to have this back door entrée into the giants of comedy based on what I do. It all kind of springs from that.
I thought it was interesting that you concede, right off the bat, that because humor changes over time along with social norms, contemporary audiences aren’t going to find most of the people in your book funny. Did you see the difficulty readers might have in connecting to older comedians as a challenge?
I knew what not to do. The death knell is to describe someone as funny, or to describe somebody as unfunny. Also to cite examples of their material, because even comedy that holds up today loses something if you were to transcribe it rather than hear it performed or delivered. Also, it’s a tricky thing; I know from experience how frustrating it is to be condescended to by someone who’s older, who insists that their favorite comedian [is the best] and that your younger, contemporary comedy is not funny. Because neither of those things are true; there’s a disconnect there.
I kind of knew that as long as I was not approaching it from a perspective of pomposity, that I’m not forcing them to think these people are funny. I’m simply stating that these people did comedy, they are comedians or they were comedians. I tried my best to keep from editorializing. A lot of those people, of course, I don’t find funny. So who am I to say if they were or weren’t? My opinions are not really relevant when it comes to deciding who’s funny and who’s not.
If you go through the book, there are very few examples of people’s acts. I simply state that they did an act. Really, if there’s anything funny in the book, it’s circumstantial. What happened to these people is amusing. When there’s a strange story between Shecky Greene and Buddy Hackett, Buddy Hackett shooting up a car because there’s someone in his space. I find that funny, and I think people will find that funny, more so than if I were quoting his act.
American comedy is both a niche subject and a huge one. Comedians are traditionally considered outsiders, but there’s both material and an audience for a 500-plus-page oral history of SNL alone. Did you find it difficult to craft a narrative through-line? How did you decide what to put in and what to leave out?
I did find that difficult. Initially, when I got this book deal, the book that I had pitched was strictly [about] comedians and the Mafia. Because in the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, nine times out of ten, your boss was the Mob. I found that very compelling, because there’s always Mob stuff in American popular culture. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, every decade has a huge mob thing, whether it’s James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson movies in the ‘30s or The Untouchables in the ‘50s or Mario Puzo in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s or Scorsese in the ‘80s or The Sopranos or Boardwalk Empire. Every generation has a Mob thing that is compelling, that people are into in popular culture. But I never saw an exploration of comedians’ relation to that world, and I don’t think a lot of people know about that. I found that more interesting, because here your vocation is to ridicule, but if you make fun of the wrong person, you can be in grave danger.
That was the book that I pitched, and the publisher liked that idea, but they asked me if I would write a more expansive history of comedy that went back further and came up more current. I was hesitant; I didn’t think I was necessarily capable of that for a couple reasons. I thought I might be criticized for being overly ambitious. I also might be criticized for writing about contemporary comedy, which is not something that I normally would do. I also wasn’t sure that I could make the subject of vaudeville interesting to a contemporary audience. I myself don’t find it that interesting, or didn’t.
The vaudeville part was the hardest part. How do I make that tangible to a modern reader? How do I make it interesting to somebody who’s only interested in Richard Pryor? I think I figured out a way: I just focused on the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll aspect. A lot of it is about the depravity of touring in vaudeville or getting addicted to opium and stuff like that. I think I succeeded in making it interesting.
But initially, I thought that might be difficult, so when my agent said, “I know this is not the book that you pitched, but they’re offering more money and more time. Would you like to do it?” I thought, “Yeah, I would like to do it, because if I don’t, somebody else will, and I’ll read that book and I’ll hate it and I’ll think about how much of a better job I could have done.” So I accepted the challenge and I think it worked out OK.
Because it’s such a comprehensive history, you touch on an almost overwhelming number of entertainers. Some are well known, but a lot of them are forgotten. During your research, did you discover anyone you feel is particularly underrated, either because they’re influential or just because they had a great act?
Yeah, there are. There was nobody that I discovered, necessarily. Most of these people, I was already familiar with. But there are important cogs in the history. This fella Jerry Lester and his brother Buddy Lester — they hated each other’s guts — Jerry Lester was the first late-night host on NBC, the precursor to the Tonight Show, Broadway Open House. He gets swept under the rug, and that’s kind of important.
Henry Morgan, a now-obscure radio satirist from the ‘40s, was very influential. He influenced people like Sid Caesar and Mort Sahl, who themselves became very influential. Morgan was the first cynical voice in radio comedy. For years, it was dominated by advertisers, the whole sound of radio. Your comedy scripts were being earmarked with a red pen from a guy from Lipton’s Tea who objected to what was potentially offensive. It was up to some corporate stooge to tell you what was funny or what wasn’t funny, what was appropriate and what wasn’t appropriate. So it made a lot of old radio comedy very bad. That’s another reason why it’s impossible to turn somebody who’s young or contemporary on to that stuff; by its very nature, it was made so that it would be mediocre and lukewarm and not that funny.
But this guy Henry Morgan came along, and he was one of the first cynical radio comedians. He always had trouble having or retaining a sponsor. He’d get sponsors and lose them within weeks because he couldn’t read ad copy with a straight face and he wouldn’t accept network notes. He was much more subversive than was allowed in radio at that time. Henry Morgan is definitely a guy who’s a lost cog and an important and influential man, and really kind of a voice in the wilderness for that time. Because he was a voice in the wilderness, a lot of people who had a cynical disposition became listeners and fans. Finally, they had a voice that represented their attitudes towards advertising and corporate America, which wasn’t really allowed on the airwaves at that time.
There’s this great image that I didn’t get to use in my book. It’s of Henry Morgan in the ‘50s, and the caption is, “Kills bad breath nine times faster than any leading toothpaste.” Which was a takeoff on advertising at the time. But the photo that accompanies that caption is Henry Morgan hanging from a noose! This was in the 1950s. He was a really interesting and influential guy.
There’s a lot of new and unique stuff happening right now and comedy, but one of the main takeaways I got from the book is that, like regular history, the history of comedy repeats itself. Podcasting isn’t the first time comedians have found new fans from radio, now isn’t the first time comedians have found a way to be “meta” about ads. Do you feel like researching the book gave you any insights into the sea changes happening in comedy right now?
Yeah, of course. History is context. I always tell people that who have an aversion to the phrase “history.” I myself had an aversion to the phrase “historian” when I was being described that way, because I was like, “Ah, shit, I don’t want to be known as that, I want to be known as a great writer!” That’s something people think is cool, but if you’re a great historian, bad historian, or historian of any kind, people don’t really think that’s cool. It seemed like a stigma to me.
But of course, history is context, and people respect what you’re doing if you explain it to them that way, because with context, everything makes sense. Without context, nothing makes sense. It is interesting to follow the patterns of comedy. Right now, the pattern we’re in is a comedy boom. We all know about the 1980s stand-up boom, and right now, we’re in the middle of the same thing. This boom that we’re in is great. It’s great for me, and it’s great for my book to come out at this time, because I get to cash in inadvertently because of the interest. But the comedy boom can also crash at any point. It’s the same as a stock market bubble: It balloons to a point where you think that it could not get any bigger, and then when it does get bigger, you think it’s gonna last forever, because we thought it couldn’t go bigger and then it did.
But then, eventually, it busts. This comedy boom we’re in will also burst. I don’t think podcasts will die, but I think they will diminish and level out, with a primary, core amount sustaining themselves. It’s funny, one of the things naysayers always said was that television’s a fad. In ten years, there’ll be no televisions, because people will get sick of it because it’s all crap. And of course, we still have TVs to this day. It’s kind of the same with comedy. People will say podcasts are a fad, but maybe they will sustain for the duration of our lifetime. Maybe the quality or the way they’re presented or the content or the amount of people that do them will change.
It’s impossible to say for sure, but I don’t think I would be able to take the fact that we’re in a comedy boom right now if there hadn’t been comedy booms before. The one in the ‘80s, in the early ‘60s, there was a boom with comedy records and coffeehouse comedians like Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Bob Newhart, Woody Allen, all those guys — that was a comedy boom, although that was kind of an alternative boom as opposed to a real mainstream comedy boom. But then all those guys develop into the mainstream. Same thing in the ‘90s; there was an alternative boom with people like Bob Odenkirk and Louis C.K. They were the alternative comedians, and it was a mini-boom for people that were into alternative music and hipster culture. Now, two decades hence, they are the leaders of mainstream comedy, which is always an interesting evolution. It’s weird to think that guys like Jonathan Winters and Woody Allen would be considered the underground, but when they started doing stand-up, they were. They were part of this coffeehouse underground that appealed to folk musicians, jazz musicians. Then they became enormous mainstream stars. There’s definitely patterns that evolve — not just with comedy, but with art, with culture, with politics, with everything in America. And that is interesting to observe.