After hearing comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff's interview on Marc Maron's WTF podcast I knew I had to drop everything and pick up his epic historical tome; The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and The History of American Comedy.
The book did not disappoint and subsequently sent me down a Youtube spiral as I tried to learn as much as I could about the comedians of the previous century. I got a chance to do a long form interview with Mr. Nesteroff where we cover lots of ground. I divided it into two parts for Huffington Post readers because I didn't want to tease you with excerpts. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
MN: I was wondering if there are any other books that cover this subject matter? Or is this the first of a kind?
KN: I believe it's the first in this approach. There is a book called Seriously Funny by Gerald Nachman, which deals primarily with the coffeehouse scene of the 50's and early 60's. There's a book called Last Laugh by Phil Berger from the 70's. For many years, this was the only book about stand-up. That was sort of about the 40's and 50's. It covered Lord Buckley, Jack Roy and Rodney Dangerfield. There was a guy named Joe Laurie Jr. that I quote in my book, who wrote a book called from Showbiz from Vaude to Video, which is mostly about Vaudeville. It was mostly books that would cover a specific time period. My book was a bit more expansive, more ambitious I guess which was the publisher's concept, not mine. Mine was going to be like those others. Zeroing in on a specific era, which I was about, "Comedians and the Mafia." I believe my book is the only one that covers all that expansively.
MN: That's interesting. Usually when a publisher has an idea, it usually isn't a good one. That seems like a good one. Did you feel comfortable going in that direction? Is this something you had ambitions towards?
KN: Well, they offered me more money and more time. They extended the contract for a year for a bigger book and more money. That was kind of the reason. I wasn't sure that I would be able to make Vaudeville interesting, because despite my reputation as a historian I had no interest in Vaudeville. It didn't appeal to me. Certainly the comedy scene is intangible and not relatable to modern comedy, but I figured out a way to make a through line that a generation leads into another and that it does all connect. But I wondered if I could make that interesting or not. I figured out a way by zeroing in on the sex, drugs and rock n' roll aspect of it.
MN: It's true. I think it becomes interesting because it becomes contextualized. You can see how the modern comedian was born out of that. You can see that throughout.
KN: It's impossible to contextualize it without connecting every dot. You cannot leap from Vaudeville to Larry David without any type of context. When comedy clubs first started opening in the 70's, frequently they would have murals on the wall of the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin and it didn't make any sense because there was no relation to the guy onstage like Freddy Prinze to a mural of Charlie Chaplin. It seemed disconnected and stupid that they would equate the two, but by connecting all the dots then it kind of starts to make sense. Then you see a pattern, a series of dominoes falling in a way the way Lenny Bruce leads into George Carlin, George Carlin leading into Louis CK makes sense but just jumping from Lenny Bruce to Louis CK doesn't make sense. So I worked very hard on my book to make sure they all kind of lined up. I'm sure when someone looks at the cover and sees people like Eddie Cantor next to someone like Conan O'Brien, t may seem irrational but there is a connection there by connecting ALL the dots and not just equating one with the other. This cliché when people talk about the Catskills, they say that "The Catskills was the training ground for modern comedy," I would always cringe and recoil when I hear that kind of phrase because it doesn't seem logical to me. It doesn't make sense to me that there's any kind of parallel to equate Larry David with the Catskills comics. So by connecting all the dots between how the 30's lead to the 40's, the 40's lead to the 50's, the 50's lead to the 60's and the 70's lead to the 80's, then there's context for all of it.
MN: It seems like you were putting in the evolutionary steps that were missing.
KN: Yeah, that was sort of the purpose.
MN: Speaking of the cover, this is off the cuff, but was it the publisher's idea or yours to do the Sgt. Pepper takeoff?
KN: It was the publisher's idea. I had absolutely nothing to do with the cover and nothing to do with the design, the concept, and the selection of people that are on it, had nothing to do with me.
MN: How did you develop the thesis for the book? I notice the chapters cover a wide swath. The chapters are divided into these really easy to digest sections. There's one about the Nightclub comics, comedy records, all these different things. Did this come through the research?
KN: There are two themes to the book. The two themes are struggle and influence. In terms of what I chose to include, I read all the books on comedy. I read every book about stand-up. There's not that many. I have problems with all of them at the same time, so many of them cover the same territory. I think The Comedy Store strike in the 70's, which I believe I talk about for 2 pages. I didn't want to get into it too much; it's been covered before. Its importance may be overstated. All the scholarship in comedy tends to tell the same stories. They talk about how Johnny Carson can make you a star overnight, how if he called you over to the couch, it was an anointment. That story is a cliché now. Same as Jack Benny, every book about Jack Benny talks about the so called "longest laugh" in which a robber comes up to him and says, "your money or your life?" and he says, "I'm thinking, I'm thinking". Those stories are not in my book because I feel like they have been done to death. So I tried to highlight stories that have not been told before, like the death of Albert Brooks's father. The story of the Jerry Lewis talk show. Interesting stories, and maybe the Jerry Lewis talk show is not as important in those days as Johnny Carson anointing somebody, but it's a story that hasn't been told before. That was one of the considerations. What were the stories that have not been told before that would still service the history of comedy. And then the theme of the book "influence and struggle" was very important. What was influential?
MN: So anyway, it was the second part of the answer which was "the influence" right?
KN: So my selection was determined by who was influential. My definition of influential is somebody who does comedy for the next generation because of somebody in the previous generation. Or when someone becomes famous because of a specific entity. In the case of comedy records, that propelled a lot of people's careers whether it was The Smothers Brothers, Bob Newhart or Shelley Berman. The comedy record is very important. Who started that craze was Redd Foxx. I underscore Redd Foxx a lot because he was influential. Influence shouldn't be confused with funniness. It may not be someone I find funny or not, but it influenced the next generation. Milton Berle influenced people to get into comedy like Don Rickles. A guy like Frank Fey influenced Milton Berle or Don Rickles' style. They have their style because of him. Jack Benny influenced Mel Brooks. I have a lot of quotes in there from Larry David who has called the Phil Silvers show his favorite show because it was a bald man in glasses by the way. It's really important to chart this influence. The way the chapters are broken up, well vaudeville obviously was the most influential genre for comedy in the 1920's. Radio was the most influential genre of the 30's and 40's. Television was the most important genre of the 50's. Nightclubs, coffeehouses and comedy clubs were the most important platforms, so that was kind of how I pick and choose.
MN: Right. Something I found interesting was how the technology of the times was also influential and this might be something you picked up along the way but there seems to be a subtext which is that as the technology was developing, comedy was developing alongside of it and it was changing comedy in turn. The advent of the comedy record was such a big deal like how TV wiped out radio comedians and so on and so forth. The technology, was that something you knew early on or was it something you came into?
KN: Well people always say that the Internet is changing the showbiz landscape. Showbiz is different. The money is different. It's cutting into the bottom line of television- that kind of thing. That is the truth when every kind of technology advances a little bit. That happened to vaudeville with radio, it happened to radio with TV, so it always happens. It's not new. People say that the new showbiz of the Internet is some unprecedented thing, but it's not. It's very precedented. Every generation or so, there's a new style of technology that changes the game. My website, when I first started it back in 2004, was called classic television showbiz. I've always been interested in the nefarious influence of corporate culture on showbiz as well as television. The whole purpose was to sell consumer goods. The whole purpose of radio was to sell consumer goods. The show business aspect and comedy was just like an afterthought- a conduit to selling soap, to selling shampoo, to selling war. So I find that kind of interesting. You can always connect how the media will make the comedian famous. In the 20's, a vaudeville act would tour with the same act and never change it because they would not have heard your act from one town to the next unless they were following you around, or if they have seen you multiple times, and that was rare. There was no mass media where everyone would be seeing or hearing the same thing instantaneously. It was very important. Simply by promoting my book I know how important media is. You can't leave it up to accident that people will find your stuff. They connect and are joined at the hip: The history of comedy, the evolution of showbiz with the evolution of media.
MN: Yeah I agree, and that was sort of what I was looking for. It's something that seems to people unprecedented when it's referred to about the Internet, but if you place it within the context of history it's really not and it's the same outside of showbiz as well. Everything is displaced by the thing...
KN: I always tell people, I don't like the phrase historian because it makes it sound like the book is going to be boring, but history is really context and once you have context everything becomes interesting because you have an understanding. So comedy records and podcasts are sort of the same phenomena in a lot of ways. The Internet and the way it threatens television are the same as the way television threatened movies or television threatened radio. There's a similarity in the context. I get interviewed a lot these days about political correctness. People complaining, "you can't say anything anymore, you can't joke about things anymore," which I think is bullshit because I have context for history. If you look at Lenny Bruce you know that once upon a time you couldn't joke about anything. Restrictions are looser today. Things are freer today. You can say anything. You can joke about anything now. In the 50's, Lenny Bruce would joke about things and get arrested, contrary to the belief of these people who rail against political correctness, things were more constricting for comedians once upon a time. So if you know your history you have a context for this. You have an understanding for this. You can point out the fallacies of these arguments with people who don't necessarily have that historical context.
MN: Exactly, I think it's a good way of putting it. My next one about how race relations come up throughout the book. Did you find it difficult to track all the concurrent scenes? I know that because of the way things were before and during the civil rights movement that comedians got different sorts of breaks, which in turn you get all these alternate undergrounds. You were talking about that one record label. I can't think of what it is now, but they just put out black records or "race records" rather. I was wondering how you tracked race as well as the different subcultures that were happening around the same time? Is that something you had in mind before you started working on the book?
KN: Yeah I did. I have always been obsessed with black culture. I got into the history of comedy accidentally. I had done stand-up and the reason I was interested in comedy of that era is because I was collecting records as a teenager. So I would collect vinyl and so like most record collectors, a lot of the big things I collected was black music; jazz records, soul records, rhythm and blues records. They are not only the most valuable, but also generally the best music. It combined my two interests of black music and black comedy. A lot of the African American stand-up comedians of the era would appear on these rhythm and blues labels. Chess Records which is a famous rhythm and blues, soul music and blues label in Chicago.
Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, they also put out comedy records, Moms Mabley. They put out one record by Stepen Fetchit. Stepen Fetchit. He was a very famous actor in the 30's. He was the highest paid black actor in Hollywood for several years. Mel Watkins who is a well-known American cultural historian wrote a book about Stepen Fetchit and how he had 3 gold plated Cadillacs and would drive around and he had a white driver.
MN: (laughs) That's great.
KN: Stepin Fetchit is a character many people consider racist. He spoke in this drawl. He would be the template for the lazy Negro stereotype. So in all the movies, "Yassir, so sirrr". In cartoons they would always parody that racist Looney Tunes character which is a takeoff of Stepin Fetchit. By the 60's, he was persona non grata. The NAACP had lobbied hard to get those types of portrayals removed from movies and did so successfully and he was very bitter about that. When Dick Gregory became a big star in the 60's, Stepin Fetchit resented it. He said that he was doing social commentary in the 30's, which couldn't have been further from the truth.
MN: Right, I remember this from the book. He's a good example of the race relations I was talking about. What I found surprising in your book was that blackface had existed so long and I had this misconception that it existed in the distant vaudeville days of comedy but it went on for a long time.
KN: It was called minstrelsy. I don't really get into it in the book. It's a separate book altogether. As I mention in the book, it's not a defense of blackface. It's an explanation of blackface.
MN: Of course.
KN: People just assume that anyone who performed in blackface was a racist and that's not true. It was considered stage makeup. It wasn't strictly parodying black people; it was something you did in theater. It was for actors in the same way you would put on any other kind of makeup. It was stage makeup, which is why so many black performers put on blackface, which is a lost detail especially among white people. They don't realize that black performers also put on blackface. They would exaggerate that thing with the lips and the eyes with a pair of gloves and play the banjo. If you were African American it was considered theater. It was considered acting.
KN: I talked about that in the book. Blackface goes back to the days of road shows of the 1840's and 1850's. It gained traction in the post Civil War era and it lasted all throughout vaudeville and you still see it movies in the 30's all the time. You will see Bing Crosby or Mickey Rooney performing in blackface but when you see them re-run on TV it's really kind of shocking. After World War II it goes away and it's very rare you would see blackface after World War II because they lobbied against it after black soldiers fought and died, fighting in the name of racial equality. That kind of more or less ebbed away.
People really held on to that for a long time. Saying it was tradition and that it wasn't racist. The new black comedians like this guy Timmie Rogers who was in the book is completely forgotten. He was the first black comedian to perform without a costume. Just in a suit. That was considered really taboo. He was a regular on the Jackie Gleason show. He appeared on Ed Sullivan. He had a catch phrase, "Oh yeah!" He would do a joke and then go (high pitched voice) "Oh yeah!" Then he would do another joke and go "Oh yeah!" He was billed as Timmie "Oh Yeah" Rogers. And oddly enough, and feel free to use this in your article, but I did not put this in the book because I didn't know this until recently. I did a show in New York for my book launch with Robert Smigel and Triumph The Insult Comic Dog. He told me he decided to give Triumph the catch phrase "For me to poop on" based on Timmie Rogers. He was watching footage of old comedians when he was trying to come up with ideas. He had watched Timmie Rogers do that bit, "Oh yeah!" He decided he would give Triumph a catch phrase.
MN: Again, there's that direct link you wouldn't know unless you had context. That's a direct link between Robert Smigel and Timmie Rogers. It's interesting to contextualize all of this.
KN: Comedians are always influenced by what came before, because almost inevitably people who get into comedy, either comedy writers or comedians were influenced by what before because they were fans first, usually in their teenage years.
MN: It's like that in every art form.
KN: Right. Musicians will tell you about their favorite musicians. Filmmakers (like) Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino are such huge movie fans and were before they became filmmakers. Stand-up and comedy writers can tell you about the comedy shows the watched religiously growing up. It's because of that they end up emulating their favorites you know? Norm McDonald is a fan of David Letterman and you can hear it. If you're paying attention and a fan of both that there are elements of David Letterman's delivery in Norm McDonald's delivery. It's inevitable and it's very common in comedy
Stay tuned for part 2 of my interview with Kliph Nesteroff.
Many thanks to the lovely Courtney Eddington for editing this extreme comedy nerd chatter.