This is Part Two of my long form interview with author Kliph Nesteroff regarding his epic historical tome; The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and The History of American Comedy. I strongly encourage you to read Part One of this interview which can be found here.
As I mentioned in the last piece, 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 book. I'm a comedy fan since way back.
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 (Mort Sahl anyone?). 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 there was too much to cut. I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did.
MN: This book opens up a lot of discussions. I'm interested in the reputation of certain comedians and how they change over time. One of them you mention that I identify with is Shecky Greene whose name is synonymous with the sort of Catskills, hack comedian, but at one time quite edgy.
KN: It's strange how that happens. It's a matter of misinformation turning into the telephone game. Shecky Greene never played the Catskills. People always use him as shorthand for "the Catskills Comedian". I wrote a little about The Catskills in my book and I say, that the phrase "Catskills" itself is something of an insult. If a guy is described as a "Catskills comedian" it's a put down. It's never a good thing when someone is described as Catskill style. They use that to describe someone who is out of touch. Shecky's name is the same as Henny Youngman. People always say, "Take my wife, please" to describe that comedian. I don't know what that is, how that is or why that is, but it is. I think it might be a matter of sloppy journalism, sloppy shorthand and really what I'm trying to do in my book is set the record straight. I've received a few bitchy emails in the past few weeks where people are trying to correct me. They will say, "I'm really enjoying your book, but you should know that blah, blah, blah-this is how it happened. Not what you say in your book which is clearly wrong." It's the other way around. I'm trying to set the record straight in my book. They are basing their conclusions on books they previously read that are inaccurate. I don't know how Shecky Greene became shorthand for bad comedy, but he did somewhere along the line. People who were contemporaries of him say that he was the comedian's comedian of that era. He and Buddy Hackett were the two guys in the 60's who all the other comedians looked up to, the comedians that they would to go see all the time. They were the comedians that other comedians laughed at.
MN: Right, and the fact that they were so gangsta. They were like the gangsta rappers of their day. The way they rolled through Vegas. Wasn't there a story where one of them smash up a car into a fountain?
KN: That was Shecky. He was very anarchic, very rebellious. He owned the town so he could get away with anything if the mob likes you. So it didn't matter how many crimes you were committing. If you were Buddy Hackett and Shecky Greene you were always given a pass. You were always forgiven. It would not be the same today. You would probably be sent a bill for all the damage you created. Back then it was kept quiet, kept covered and it was forgiven. They were beloved. I don't have an answer on why that happened to Shecky Greene. I'm sure it happened at some point during the 70's when people first started to parody show business. A lot of famous comedians of the 70's like Steve Martin, Albert Brooks, and the big comedy shows like Saturday Night Live, SCTV really focused their whole persona on making fun of old show business. Andy Kaufman, Tony Clifton they were making fun of the Vegas show business. Bill Murray with his Vegas lounge singer, Steve Martin's magician, Albert Brooks's ventriloquist- it's all making fun of the Ed Sullivan style of comedy from the 50's. So at some point the name Shecky became synonymous with bad comedy because whenever you see anyone else perform with the name Shecky they are making fun of comedy. It certainly happened and it's funny because they use Shecky as shorthand, they use "Take my wife, please" as shorthand but the people who use that shorthand have no knowledge of Shecky Greene's act. They have no knowledge of Henny Youngman's act. They don't pay attention. They don't want to see it because they assume it is horrible and because of that everything got distorted.
MN: That's a very interesting thing to me. I was using Shecky Greene as an example. These tropes develop and harden all the time.
KN: It happens a lot. A more recent example is David Letterman hosting the Academy Awards. There is a common belief he bombed and that it was one of the worst hosting jobs in Academy Award history. Part of that legend is partially by Letterman himself because he would make self-deprecating jokes the years that followed after he hosted the Oscars. You can go back and watch it on YouTube and judge for yourself. I think you would find it quite funny. A lot of the remote bits, a lot of the pre-taped bits are hilarious and if you listen to the tape they get huge huge laughs. I believe Stephen Colbert's performance at the White House correspondents dinner has the same reputation as Shecky Greene or David Letterman's Oscar hosting because the media, in the way that it was reported, The Washington Post didn't even mention Colbert was there. The ones that did mention him said he wasn't funny, but that performance gained legendary status once it got uploaded to the Internet. This happened concurrently with the inception of YouTube. Now you can see that performance to see how brave it was, how bold it was. It doesn't get big laughs and it's not because what he's saying is unfunny, it's because people aren't comfortable with the boldness.
Now we have a better historical record because of YouTube and the Internet. It's amazing how many contradictions there are now when you read some of these old show business books. They will tell you a story that is entrenched in reality, for instance Jack Benny "Your money or your life" also known as "the longest laugh" of all time. One: who cares? What does that even mean? "The longest laugh." Does that mean that something is the funniest? You can go back and watch the episode and it gets just normal laughs. The legend has been passed from book to book that it was "the longest laugh" or "the greatest laugh" of all time. You can hear that it's the same length laugh you would hear at The Comedy Shop. You can see now what was legend and what was fact. We have more resources at your fingertips. Anyone can be a historian with a Google search. That wasn't the case several decades ago. You would have to go the microfiche at the library. You would have to pull up files, you had to go to the museum and have them pull up tapes of the Honeymooners.
MN: I'm old enough to remember.
KN: It was much easier to get things wrong because of that. You had to take people's word for it. People could take my word for it and could agree to disagree. A lot of people who have been reading my book over the past month and a half have been telling me that each page has sent them down into a YouTube wormhole to look up some of these people to see what they were like. That gives greater context for the book and is more illuminating. It's almost interactive. In the 90's there were books where they would include a CD or a DVD. Now we don't have to do that. You can do it all on your laptop to tie it all together.
MN: I certainly did that. That's why it took me so long. Usually a book like that I read in about a week and a half, but that took me about three weeks. I would read and then think, "I got to see everything Mort Sahl ever did," which is fun. That's why you read these kinds of books because they are engaging. I looked at your blog briefly but haven't spent a lot of time with it. That's where you keep an active relationship with these subjects. Is that where a lot of this research lives?
KN: Yeah, well it was. The reason that blog looks the way it does is because it was started a long time ago in 2005. In 2005, blogs looked like that and unfortunately my blog still looks like that. It has never been aesthetically updated for the modern Internet. I don't even know how to do that.
MN: I don't think it matters.
KN: To some people it matters. It looks like it's out of touch. That's where I have a lot of transcripts from many comedians. It was actually a dumping ground. I was actually writing articles for WFMU on their website. I would interview people for the articles and while I had them on the line, I would go off topic and ask them other things. This guy Don Sherman, a very obscure comedian, I interviewed him for an article I'd written about Hanson's Drugstore. He ended up telling me an anecdote that Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda were high on acid with a treatment and asked him if he would write a screenplay which became Easy Rider. Sherman turned them down. So, that kind of anecdote didn't make it into my story about Hanson's Drugstore but I transcribed it and put it on Classic Television Showbiz.
MN: Right, I make documentaries. I come up against the same thing and release the outtakes later because they don't fit into the narrative but they are still something you want out into the world.
KN: A lot of people prefer the transcripts I post to the articles I write. Some people don't like my writing but like the stories. So yeah, it just became a dumping ground, a fun way to match images and material and reviews I would find with the words of the people. It was more of a hobby than anything else but then it picked up an audience. Once it developed a cult following it motivated me to continue doing it. I don't do it as much as I used to. It takes up a lot of time and doesn't pay anything. Now that I make a living doing this, of course, I have to focus on where the money is. Yeah, that was a dumping ground. I continue to be active using each Internet venue for different reasons. Instagram I use specifically for photography. Twitter I use for jokes and links and promoting myself. The blog I use for transcripts. So each has a different purpose.
MN: Each one is a tool to be used differently. I do the same thing.
KN: Lot's of people do the exact same thing on every platform.
MN: Yeah I don't get it. They are different languages. That's a bit off topic. Anyway, I was wondering how many interviews you did? I know from my work I do tons of interviews. How many interviews did you do for this book? The research is enormous.
KN: I don't know. The press release says 200 interviews but I think that was a ballpark. I don't know. I have been interviewing people for other articles before I had a book deal, starting around 2006-2007. I actually was writing a completely different book ten years ago- never happened. I was interviewing people for that purpose and then got good at it, then decided I should interview people I'm interested in (untellable). The comedy thing I just started on whim interviewing people because I was developing a knack for it. I think 200 was the number. It took ten years to research and write this book, but this contract was only three years. So it took me three years to write. I didn't count, I don't know. If you go through the book anyone who is quoted "as says" is someone I interviewed first hand. If I use "said" past tense, it was from a preexisting source. So you can gauge from that who I spoke to.
MN: I have one more question. I notice in the last third of the book the pace picks up. I don't know if anyone else notices this but it feels like you can't write fast enough to keep up with all the information. It seems that firsthand information is scant from the earlier parts of the book, as most of them are dead. When you get to the comedy boom and the years preceding the comedy boom it starts to develop a breathless pace and it picks up considerably. Is this because you were personally excited by the material or had a lot more knowledge to draw from? Or maybe I'm imagining it.
KN: I think it was the opposite. In terms of research to draw from, it's too much. The pace picks up because I can't include everything. The people who are dead and have a historical context and perspective, you know who is influential. When you get closer to the modern age, you do not know who is influential. Most of the criticism I get for the book is who is not included. The people who are not included are inevitable from the last 25 years. There's not much in there about Rosanne, although she is very important. There is not much in there on Jay Leno even though he hosted The Tonight Show for 20 years. Not much in there on many modern people like Mitch Hedberg. People are bummed he's not in there. Bill Hicks, not much in there. It's not that they aren't important or great, they are. You have to pick and choose. Most of these people are still alive from the comedy boom. Who do you choose? The other day someone got pissed at me that Gilbert Gottfried isn't really in it. The pace picks up because I was fleshing the narrative to the bones with the best of my ability and also trying to squeeze it all in before it ends. It's really impossible to have a historical perspective of the last ten years. My publisher very much wanted me to write about the Internet, twitter and YouTube and I didn't want to. One, because I thought it was kind of boring. Two, we don't have an historical perspective on it yet. Without a historical perspective it becomes impossible to write history properly. The last 15-20 years are condensed into just a handful of pages- the nineties to 2015 in three pages. It wasn't a conscious decision to pick up the pace it was like; well there are just not enough rational conclusions to come to here. So I focused on monumental events like 9-11 because that seemed to be the most important uh.. seems strange to call it an event. I focused on that rather than the evolution of YouTube stars. It wasn't a conscious decision to pick up the pace. Again, that's one of the criticisms I get is that it's light on that end of history. It has to be. We don't have perspective on it. Thirty or forty years from now, you may find that part of the book more dense, more of an evolutionary map like the first part of the book.
MN: Right. That's all my questions.
KN: Did you say you found the second part more engaging than the first half?
MN: I wouldn't say that it was more engaging. I think the tone is steadily engaging throughout. I just thought that the pace seemed faster at the end. I picked up on that in the last 100 pages or so. It's hard to say I can't really pinpoint.
KN: I see what you're saying.
MN: It's just a general impression I got. Again, I didn't know if you were more psyched about the information or what.
KN: I think it was the opposite. I think I was trying to get through something I didn't wanna write about. My publisher was like, "you got to write more about Twitter." I didn't want to write about the history of twitter. Nobody cares. We lived through it. We all know it already.
MN: I agree. It's not interesting. I went through that with one of my films where the studio wanted it to be more contemporary. I was like, this is a picture about history. I went through the same thing. It's obnoxious. Thanks so much for talking to me it was a pleasure
KN: Fantastic. Thanks so much.
Thank you Courtney Eddington for editing alternatives to my my awkward phrasings.