By tracking the evolution of American humor, Kliph Nesteroff proves that comedians can do more than make us laugh. They can show us who we really are.
Last June, President Barack Obama stepped into the garage-turned-recording studio of comedian and podcast host Marc Maron for an hour-long interview. The very fact that the two had a conversation, which touched on domestic politics (things that annoy Obama) and domestic squabbles (things that annoy Michelle), gave credence to one of the central theses of Kliph Nesteroff ’s illuminating recent book, The Comedians. The medium of comedy both reflects and impels the increasingly visible battle for the political and cultural allegiances of Americans. Consider the president’s earlier appearance on comedian Zach Galifianakis’ Web series Between Two Ferns, during which Galifianakis asked, “I have to know: What is it like to be the last black president?” Tolerating this type of goofy irreverence is a radical turn from even 50 years ago, when, as Nesteroff notes, a club owner in San Francisco received flack after giving the stage to comic Mort Sahl, whose routine included jabs at then-President John F. Kennedy. (Joseph Kennedy called in connections with his son, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to have the IRS close down the club.)
By taking us back to the early days of American comedy, with its roots in big-tent entertainment, Nesteroff spotlights the incongruities of that era’s social mores: Benjamin Franklin Keith, one of the eventual principals in the Keith/Albee partnership that controlled many of the American vaudeville theaters, got his start in the 1880s “selling tickets to exhibitions of ‘prematurely born Negro babies.’” As the country grew more religious and national tastes changed, so too did Keith’s. His wife was a devout Catholic who objected to anything objectionable, and so the comedians and actors who traveled the country performing the circuit had to keep it clean. “If a representative of the [management] objected to the content of an act, a request to cut the material was sent backstage in a blue envelope.”
Local morality codes allowed police to arrest those deemed to be acting in a lewd or obscene manner. Of course, lewd and obscene—then, just as much as today—are terms of interpretation. Usually the courts sided with the comics, though not always; too many entertainers spent nights in jail awaiting vindication and many more were cowed into self-censorship. Yet as society became priggish in some ways, in others, things hadn’t budged. Keith was no longer peddling tickets to see dead black babies, but America’s original sin of racism persisted. Many comics, including Bob Hope, were practitioners of blackface and often employed racial and ethnic stereotypes in their acts.
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