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The Serious Side of Comedy

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.
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The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy. (Photo: Grove Atlantic)

The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy. (Photo: Grove Atlantic)

The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy
Kliph Nesteroff
Grove Atlantic

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.”

The once-long arms of traditional censorship have been clipped by the possibilities of consumption among stiff, and multitudinous, competition. The idea of a "mainstream" audience has now forked into a thousand rivulets.

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.

Changes in the consumption of comedy also mirrored the evolving (or, in some cases, quite stagnant) dynamic of race relations in America. Stand-up comics made the rounds at nightclubs. Most of the clubs—the white clubs, at least—were owned and operated by the Mob. When Prohibition ended, many illegal speakeasies and underground joints went legitimate, and the Mob seamlessly guided the transition. For black Americans, who either weren’t allowed or weren’t welcomed at white theaters and nightclubs, an alternate comedy universe emerged: The Chitlin’ Circuit (a play on the Borscht Belt, the heavily Jewish band of resorts dotting the Catskills for much of the 20th century) was a collection of theaters across the country where black entertainers could play to like audiences. Even where segregation wasn’t the law, it was the norm. Harlem’s Apollo Theater, which became the crown jewel of black entertainment in the country, was a “racist burlesque hall” until the 1930s.

The changing nature of American morality coincided with three decades of technological development in one of the most popular radio programs in history: Amos ’n’ Andy, a sitcom that began in the late 1920s. It was set in Harlem and perpetuated ugly stereotypes of African Americans as lazy and uneducated. Though there were protests from listeners who felt the actors’ portrayals were out of bounds, the sponsors stuck with the show; in the climate of the 1930s, the objections didn’t mean much. Complicating the picture, however, is the uncomfortable fact that, for its time, Amos ’n’ Andy was in one sense very progressive: “[T]hey employed more black actors than any other show,” Nesteroff writes. But by the mid-1950s, this kind of comedy was no longer acceptable in an America that was witnessing the first stirrings of the civil rights movement.

In contrast to the Mob-controlled nightclubs of the older generation, a counterculture scene developed around this time. Coffeehouse comedians were young, raised in an era of de-segregation and a nascent cultural revolution, and favored a comedy quite opposed to that of their parents. Represented by Lenny Bruce, Jonathan Winters, and Mort Sahl, they were young men and women who placed themselves at the center of their acts. In some ways, they were storytellers. This all came in great contrast to older comedians, who, as Nesteroff writes, “joked about their mother-in-law even if they weren’t married.” The traditional comedian had a shtick, a routine, and might even put on a funny wig and do a song and dance. Many acts were interchangeable. For members of this new generation, such acts were inconceivable. They were their acts. For Nesteroff, this represents the beginning of the modern era of stand-up.

In the 1960s the sexual revolution began manifesting itself in comedy as well: It was in the mid-’60s that Randy Wicker, an openly gay man, faced a live audience to speak for the first time on television about his gay lifestyle. It hadn’t been easy to get to that point: Gay comedian Ray Bourbon was harassed and arrested from the 1930s through the end of the ’50s because of his onstage acknowledgment of his homosexuality and penchant for drag. When, after claiming to have had sex re-assignment surgery in Mexico, Bourbon returned to Los Angeles in 1956, she was arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department after a show. Bourbon, who now went by the first name Rae, courageously shouted from the courthouse steps, “I am a woman!” She was convicted on charges of impersonating a woman. Being a woman wasn’t an easy gig in comedy. Nesteroff claims that there had been only one—that’s right, one—female stand-up in the preceding decade: Jean Carroll. “Gender was a stand-up obstacle,” writes Nesteroff bluntly, and Joan Rivers was one of the first to make it. Phyllis Diller was another. Yet it’s a testament to just how much gender is still an obstacle that Nesteroff devotes few pages to contemporary women in the field.

One of the beauties of Nesteroff ’s legwork is that the reader realizes just how much comedy has changed, not only in terms of material, but also in access to material. There are so many mentions of forgotten acts and long- gone shows that you’ll want to YouTube. That works, but not with the early stuff, or the risqué stuff either. It’s illustrative of a point about censorship—it works—that the very best material of Lenny Bruce, the raw subversive riffs that made him such a dangerous character in the eyes of the establishment, can’t be seen online. Since Bruce was performing before the iPhone days, his best work has remained only as hearsay.

One masterful comedic work that wasn’t ever broadcast, but that luckily can be seen online, is the 1971 Woody Allen satire Men of Crisis: The Harvey Wallinger Story. It is a thinly veiled spoof of Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s controversial national security advisor. The 25-minute film was set to air on PBS, but with the Nixon administration already threatening to pull funding from PBS, the network self-censored.

Thirty-five years later, Stephen Colbert tore into President Bush at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner. Several Bush aides walked out during the performance, a historic first: “No comedian had ever dared criticize the president to his face,” Nesteroff writes. Major coverage of that evening barely mentioned Colbert’s performance, but the video caught fire on the Internet. Allison Silverman, a head writer and executive producer of the Colbert Report, noted, “the reaction to that speech was a lesson on how many people wanted a voice of criticism at that moment in time.” In some ways, freedom of expression has benefited from the fragmentation of TV and the advent of the Internet: Somebody, somewhere, will carry your message. The once-long arms of traditional censorship have been clipped by the possibilities of consumption among stiff, and multitudinous, competition. The idea of a “mainstream” audience has now forked into a thousand rivulets.

The competing narratives of Allen’s mockumentary and Colbert’s performance illustrate more than anything else just how far comedy has traveled in the past 100 years. Americans have come to take funny very seriously, and funny has many different interpretations. We embrace the idea that comedy is a right: the right to taunt, to mock, to satirize, and to deride. But every laugh today produces a discomfiting echo.

The recent controversies regarding allegedly insensitive comedic material underscores this: Amy Schumer and accusations of racism in her stand-up; Trevor Noah and allegations of anti-Semitism in his tweets; Lena Dunham being condemned as a self-hating Jew for a humor piece in the New Yorker. One incident in particular suggests how comedy reflects the deep and still unresolved history of our country: On a recent Marc Maron podcast, Wyatt Cenac discussed an argument he had with Jon Stewart while he was a writer on the Daily Show. Stewart had done an impression of Herman Cain that Cenac felt hearkened back to “Kingfish,” a character from Amos ’n’ Andy. Stewart disagreed. Media outlets from Entertainment Weekly to the New York Times felt this quibble, gleaned from a podcast, was revelatory enough to print.

By the end of Nesteroff’s book, we understand that comedy does more than make us laugh. It allows us to confront ourselves in a mirror—even if it does come from a funhouse—and take a measure of where we stand. Nesteroff ’s colorful prose and deep research let us hold up that looking glass and see a better reflection of who we are, how far we’ve come, how fragmented our image is, and what good and bad travel companions we’ve had along the way.


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