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

Grove. Nov. 2015. 416p. illus. notes. ISBN 9780802123985. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780802190864. PERFORMING ARTS
OrangeReviewStarNesteroff, a stand-up comedian-turned-writer, conducted 200 original interviews and extensive archival research to chronicle American comedy over the last 100 years. He combines anecdotes and gossip with scholarly evidence to explore American comedy from its roots in burlesque and vaudeville (Groucho Marx, Phil Silvers, and Buster Keaton were popular child acts) to radio, an industry in which Ed Wynn, Jack Benny, and "Amos 'n' Andy" reigned. Mob-run nightclubs spawned the "blue comedy" that came under fire from Sen. Estes Kefauver in the 1940s, but it was television that boosted comedians to the heights: Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Jackie Gleason, and Silvers all starred in popular programs. Nesteroff also highlights the importance of the late-night talk show as a vehicle for showcasing stand-up comedians and how the craft changed in the 1950s from the impersonal telling of jokes. ("This guy went into a bar") to the personal ("I went into a bar") with the emergence of comics Lenny Bruce, Red Foxx, and George Carlin and eventually Eddie Murphy and today's stars, Louis CK and Marc Maron.
VERDICT Both pop culture enthusiasts and entertainment scholars will relish this important history of American comedy. [See Prepub Alert, 5/11/15.]
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