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kliph nesteroff, the comedians: drunks, thieves, scoundrels and the history of american comedy

Many of us have been looking forward to this book for a long time. Kliph Nesteroff has an encyclopedic knowledge of American comedy, which he has shared through numerous interviews posted to his Classic Television Showbiz website. Here is a partial list of the interviewees:

Buck Henry, Paul Krassner, Franklyn Ajaye, Dick Cavett, Peter Marshall, Orson Bean, Ed Asner, Professor Irwin Corey, Norm Crosby, Bob Einstein, Rose Marie, Steve Martin, Paul Mazursky, Marilyn Michaels, Gary Owens, Betsy Palmer, Tom Smothers, Larry Storch, Rusty Warren, Mason Williams, Alan Young, Marty Allen, Shelley Berman, Pat Carroll, Jack Carter, Bill Dana, Shecky Greene, Marty Ingels, Will Jordan, Rich Little, Steve Rossi, Connie Sawyer.

You may not recognize all of those names, but Nesteroff is such a great interviewer that every segment is interesting. And virtually every interview has a moment when Nesteroff, who is decades younger than the people he is interviewing, asks about some obscure date at some obscure club fifty years ago, and the comedian says, “how the hell do you know this stuff?” Here’s a sample from his interview with Shecky Greene:

Kliph Nesteroff: I watched a segment from The Hollywood Palace in which he [pianist Herbie Dell] was onstage with you.

Shecky Greene: Yes, which one was that? The Perry Como thing?

Kliph Nesteroff: It wasn't the Perry Como one. It was the one hosted by Donald O'Connor.

Shecky Greene: Donald? No. I had one hosted by Groucho Marx.

Kliph Nesteroff: Right, there is a Groucho Marx one, a Perry Como Christmas one, and one hosted by Donald O'Connor.

Shecky Greene: Where the hell did you get all of those things?

Kliph Nesteroff: The internet.

The Comedians puts the stories in one place, and offers a narrative of American comedy, as suggested by the various chapter headings: from vaudeville to radio, to nightclubs and television, late-night TV, comedy clubs, and so on. In one sense, nothing changes ... the comics put themselves on the line night after night, failure is always a weak joke away, great success often goes to your head. But Nesteroff also shows how the Marx Brothers were different from Eddie Cantor, who was different from Milton Berle, who was different from Lenny Bruce, and on and on, with important segments on people like Richard Pryor. Along the way, you’ll read stories about people like Rodney Dangerfield that are quite illuminating, if, like me, you think he appeared full-grown in the persona we all know him as.

The interviews are what got me interested in reading this book, but it stands on its own. I’m not sure I can recommend it to everybody ... I know not everyone shares my interest in the subject at hand. And it seems almost complete ... it’s hard to think of who was left out, although I wish the Firesign Theatre got more than one page. But if you enjoy detailed stories of popular artists from the past, you will like this book. And, if you’ve never heard it, you’ll even learn one of my favorite stories, about a radio comedian who went by the name Parkyakarkas, the legendary Bob Einstein (known for everyone from Officer Judy to Super Dave Osborne to Marty Funkhouser), and the filmmaker and comedian Albert Brooks. Nesteroff even added something new to the story, at least new to me, about the man who wrote a biography of Willie Mays.

And, just to indulge myself, here is one of my favorite Albert Brooks bits, from very early in his career:

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