KLIPH NESTEROFF’S The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy is a comedy history that’s getting that rarest of validations: praise from comedians themselves. John Hodgman, Marc Maron, Norm Macdonald, and Mel Brooks (to name but a few) have all endorsed it. Nesteroff met up recently with Ben Schwartz, a comedy writer who’s working on his own history of American humor for Fantagraphics, to talk all things funny at Langer’s Deli (where else?).
BEN SCHWARTZ: Why is comedy so hard for some people to write about? What are they missing?
KLIPH NESTEROFF: I think it’s mostly people that aren’t funny that have trouble writing about it. And that’s not an insult; it’s just a fact. You’re either born funny or you’re not, and I think that no matter how long a person writes about comedy — whether it’s Bill Carter or Richard Zoglin, neither of whom are funny — they will always miss a level of insight. No matter what, there’ll always be an undercurrent that rings false.
How long were you a standup comedian yourself?
From 1998 to 2006. Eight years, which is not that long in standup terms. But it’s longer than Dick Cavett ever did standup, by the way.
Well, it’s long enough to know what it is.
It was long enough for me to do well. By 2002 I had moved from Toronto to Vancouver, and something about the change from the large market to the smaller market made me more creative. There was less pressure, and the comedians I met were people like Graham Clark, Phil Hanley, and Zach Galifianakis, who were all very inventive. So, from 2002 to 2004 I had a big cult following in Vancouver and did very, very well. Landed on the cover of both the free weeklies. I was very proud of myself. Then I peaked. I went as far as you could in standup in a market that small, and it was either stay there or move. But at that point, I could not move to America legally.
Having gone through that experience must have helped your empathy for a lot of the people you write about.
Absolutely. I think when I write about comedy it resonates with comedians in particular, not just audiences. Comedians are big fans of my work because there is an undercurrent of understanding. When I wrote my article about Shecky Greene, a lot of it was about anxiety and depression, bombing and killing and drinking. And that article was one of the first things that Marc Maron talked about on his show, before we knew each other. His opening monologue was devoted to my article about Shecky Greene. It resonated with him, the idea of the anxiety and the struggle. Even when you get to a high level of success, which Shecky Greene had, that fear doesn’t go away; that anxiety doesn’t go away. For him, it went away when he was onstage, but it didn’t go away when he was offstage.
Are the people you’re writing about necessarily your favorite comics?
No. There were two considerations. The first is, “How significant are they to the history of comedy?” — and by “significant” I mean influential. Did they influence the next generation? Did other people who became big comedians start doing comedy because they were exposed to that other person? So, that was the first consideration. And then the other was whether or not their story has been told before. So, Parkyakarkus [the stage name of Harry Einstein] is not necessarily an influential comedian. He’s notable because of his kids [Albert Brooks and Bob Einstein, a.k.a., Super Dave Osborne], but was he influential as a performer? No. Nobody really took Parkyakarkus’s style and ran with it, except arguably his children. But his story hasn’t really been told properly or been given wide exposure. And it’s one of the greatest showbiz stories. So, I’ve tried very hard to zero in on stories that had not been told before.
When you get to the ’50s, you focus on Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, and Jonathan Winters. Why did three such radical comics come along at the same time? Those three alone are more dynamic and groundbreaking for me than the entire 1960s.
I don’t know, to be honest. But I think it wasn’t dissimilar to what happened in all the arts in the ’50s, for whatever reason. I guess maybe you could argue that it’s a postwar thing. Cinema changed; it became darker and bleaker. Jazz changed; it was no longer happy dance music, it got weird, experimental. Literature became more experimental in the ’50s, too. The Beat Generation stuff was influenced by postwar guys who weren’t quite Beats, like Kenneth Rexroth and Kenneth Patchen, and other people named Kenneth.
I think comedy was informed by a lot of that. You had these venues and audiences that were supposedly more intellectual. And if you look at guys like Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Jonathan Winters, they were all fans of those new styles of media as well. Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce loved jazz and were influenced by jazz musicians.
One thing that surprised me in your book was the stuff about the last days of Lenny Bruce. He’s so lionized as a free speech martyr today, but at the end of his life he himself regretted going through all those trials.
Well, keep in mind that in the last two years of his life, he was probably going through a deep, deep depression. He was gaining weight; he was bankrupt. The house that he died in was getting foreclosed on at the time. So, I’m sure a general depression had as much to do with that conclusion as anything else. I don’t know if it was surprising or not surprising. But I can certainly relate to that. In that era when there was nobody else really doing that, it’s got to be a lonely thing. And when you find that you’re bankrupt at the end, and sick, and dying, I can see somebody having regrets. I mean, he was only 40 when he died.
But you don’t hear that from people. It’s always, “Lenny the fighter, Lenny the hero.” And it’s like, “Yeah, he didn’t see it that way toward the end.”
It’s interesting: I never found Lenny Bruce funny, ever. But in studying him and watching his Steve Allen appearances, I did come to admire how casual his delivery was. Whereas every other comedian of that era was very rehearsed and note-for-note — with the exception, I guess, of Sahl and Winters — Lenny Bruce was just so casual. It sounded like today, when a comedian goes up onstage and doesn’t start his act immediately, and instead starts making observations about the crowd. Which I actually don’t even like, but back then nobody did that. If you listen to Lenny Bruce’s records, you can hear him doing that. And I find that fascinating. For me it’s less to do about what he’s talking about — religion or whatever — but just the style of casual conversation onstage. That’s what I think is really the important thing.
What about Winters?
Honest to God, I never really got into Jonathan Winters either. And I’m not somebody who is trying to defy the accepted idea that he was a brilliant improvisational genius, because he probably was. But I heard records and I saw sitcoms, so I don’t get to hear or see the improvisational genius. Improv doesn’t really work when you’re filming. You’ve got to be there, and that’s that.
You compare Woody Allen and Chris Rock to Henny Youngman. It seems strange at first, because they’re both considered artists and intellectuals, and Youngman is thought of as a hack, yet the joke is so central to what all three of them do. Rock and Woody Allen are much more ambitious than Youngman. But his act is sort of the basic Model T of comedy — and it still works.
Henny Youngman gets short shrift, just like Shecky Greene does, because people just associate the name with corniness. But I mention in the book that Rodney Dangerfield, who in the ’80s was considered the hippest old guy, was doing a version of Henny Youngman’s rhythm. A Henny Youngman that smoked pot and hung out with hookers, that’s basically what Rodney was. And so it comes as no surprise to learn that in the late ’40s, when he was still going by “Jack Roy,” he would sit in the front of the Paramount Theatre and see two consecutive Henny Youngman shows in order to study his rhythm. Woody Allen himself says that he’s “in the Henny Youngman tradition.”
I think attitude has so much to do with standup. You can get away with so much without having any material if you have the right attitude. Janeane Garofalo and Margaret Cho get away without saying much sometimes, because the audience is so geared to their persona. They think, “This is a champion for our point of view.” So, the audience will cheer sometimes even when they don’t have a joke. But if you have an attitude and a persona that appeals to an audience like that and you put jokes into the mix, then you can become much more popular than you would be just with the attitude alone and just with the jokes alone. Rock and Allen both did that.
Think about it. Henny Youngman just had the jokes but not the attitude. Rodney Dangerfield took the Henny Youngman jokes and added an attitude, and he became that much more popular and that much more hip. And if you have that angle, that persona, it’s going to be all that more powerful. I think in his era, Henny Youngman probably was seen as a guy with a specific point of view. But it got lost along the way. He was also phoning it in for the last 30-40 years of his life.
The subtitle of your book is “Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels.” Someone like Jerry Seinfeld probably wouldn’t fit into any of those categories. Why that subtitle?
That title is a gimmick. And it was originally supposed to be the title. My publisher tacked on this part that says The Comedians, which I didn’t like. I wanted Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy, because it’s eye-catching, exploitative. Not because everybody in the book is really a drunk, a thief, or a scoundrel.
Let’s talk about Redd Foxx a little bit, because he’s such a big figure in Los Angeles comedy. He had a club on La Cienega in the ’60s and ’70s. Do you feel he’s been underrated as far as his influence in comedy goes?
Yes. He pioneered the comedy album. His records were famous for being uncensored, though they were still censored to a degree. He had a routine called “The New Fugg.” But it was still not stuff you could do on TV.
Part of it was also about being black. Redd Foxx’s television debut, of all things, was on The Today Show, and then shortly thereafter, Merv Griffin. So, two appearances on white shows. That was 1965. And this is a guy who has been doing standup since 1948, so it took him 17 years until he appeared on TV. Not 17 years until he was good at standup, but 17 years until he got on television.
When did he get to Los Angeles?
He was in LA pretty early on: 1949–’50. That’s when he met Slappy White. They became a comedy team. The South Central LA disc jockey Johnny Otis paired them up. Then he went to New York. He didn’t open the Redd Foxx Club until ’67, after he had made big money. In ’66, the Aladdin Hotel opened in Las Vegas, and it was the first Vegas showroom to headline black comedians. Redd Foxx and Godfrey Cambridge became headliners at the Aladdin.
So, there’s a lot of firsts with Redd Foxx. First guy to do comedy records, black or white; first black comedian to headline Vegas; and the first black man to own a nightclub in Beverly Hills.
Why did he want to do comedy albums?
The guy who ran the label — Dootsie Williams, of Dooto Records — wanted to sign him. Dootsie Williams had this freedom all of a sudden to do whatever he wanted, to experiment, because he was making good money releasing doo-wop records. Foxx used to play all the South Central rhythm and blues clubs, so when Dootsie went to see one of his acts — the Medallions, or the Penguins — he would catch glimpses of him. Dootsie told him, “I want to record your act,” and Redd Foxx said, “No, I don’t want to. That seems stupid to me. You listen to a joke once, you don’t want to hear it again.” Dootsie said, “Well, I can give you $500,” and Foxx still said, “No, get out of here.” And then two days later, he realized he was broke and decided, “Hey, I could use that $500.”
So, he didn’t start making records looking for a new way to reach an audience.
He did it strictly for the money. But it did help his career, because he became a cult item with black audiences. Not with white audiences, but with black audiences. And he did tour, and became popular. The records sold well. Think about it: if they’re cranking out 14 albums in two years, between ’56 and ’58, obviously, they would only do that if they were selling.
The most interesting Redd Foxx record, historically, is much later. It’s called “Live” Las Vegas, and it came out on Warner Brothers in 1968. One side of it is a show he recorded at 2 p.m., and he keeps making references to how everybody in the audience is a white tourist from Crackerville. And he bombs the whole way. But it’s him complaining about these crackers not getting the jokes. It’s really quite interesting.
Richard Pryor and Paul Mooney both loved Foxx. But most people, if you mentioned those three names, would not see any connection between them, other than the fact that they’re all black comics. What is it that they saw in Foxx?
Well, the thing is, Redd Foxx — who I don’t think you or I ever saw live, and we certainly never saw him in his prime — his live act was different than what was recorded. He did talk about racial politics when he was on Merv Griffin. He talked about getting beat up by the police and stuff like that. Just by the virtue of being black in that era, you kind of were political. To a black audience, especially, you were making a political statement just by being a black person in a white forum. You were a representative. A black man in a suit, smoking cigarettes, on television: it was political, period. Whether it was Dick Gregory or Redd Foxx didn’t matter. You weren’t a character with a costume, like Pigmeat Markham or Moms Mabley, you were a person.
Merv Griffin — I don’t know if I emphasize it enough in the book, but he really doesn’t get his due for what he did. Not only did he give Redd Foxx his prime time debut and the freedom to do his act, he also had Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Lily Tomlin under exclusivity contracts in 1965. He allowed all three of those people to appear on his show regularly and do whatever they wanted. He didn’t censor them. George Carlin did a bit about the Ku Klux Klan and George Wallace and the John Birch Society. And he sat down next to Merv, and Merv was like, “George! I haven’t heard you do that kind of material before. We’re going to get letters.” But he let him. He didn’t censor him. He was a fan. And he doesn’t get credit for that.
Why doesn’t he?
Because Merv turned into more of a square. He started phoning it in, and people think of him as the Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune producer, or the guy from the Rick Moranis sketch. But in the sixties, he was kind of hip. And he really gave a forum to Redd Foxx, and Dick Gregory, and people like that.
Johnny Carson didn’t give a forum to a lot of new black comedians, and neither did Steve Allen, by the way. Allen, who is always considered a champion of civil rights, Mr. Jazz, had no black comedians on his show. I don’t think it had to do with either of them being racists, though I think it had a little bit to do with their life experience. Ed Sullivan, for instance, always used black acts, going back to when he was booking what they called “band shows” at Madison Square Garden. He always used black acts on those. And that became the template for his TV show. So, he never really thought twice about booking black performers on television. When Toast of the Town started in 1948, he used Pigmeat Markham right away. But Steve Allen never used black comedians, and he said that it was because white audiences would not accept them. Which was obviously not the case; Ed Sullivan used plenty.
Why do you think it is that the thing we remember about a comedian is so often the last phase of their career, when they get old or square? You talk about Merv, and you could say the same thing about Bob Hope. Carson wanted to quit TV before he turned into Bob Hope.
I think it actually has mostly to do with the age we happen to be. So, that’s what we remember, is the end of their career. Whereas if you or I were in our 90s, maybe we wouldn’t remember the late Bob Hope best. For me, the Milton Berle I think of is the old Milton Berle with white hair and liver spots, smoking cigars and being interviewed on Hard Copy about how he changed television.
In the ’60s, comics like Robert Klein and Lenny Bruce started insisting that you have to write your own stuff. Klein is saying, “I don’t respect guys who don’t.” Lenny is saying he does, but “they’re not doing what I do.” Do you think that division is important?
I think it’s been important for the past 50 years. Before that, it wasn’t. There was a paradigm shift. And I do think it’s important, because when people started writing their own material, it made stealing jokes less acceptable. Stealing was never truly acceptable, but it was even more common then than it was now. And it was easier, because people wrote their material that could be put in anybody’s mouth. “Did you hear the one about the guy and the girl walking down the street?” Anybody can tell that joke. But if you’re telling a joke that you’ve written about when you were walking down the street, it’s a little bit more theft-proof, or it’s more provable that you’re ripping me off. So I think for that reason alone it’s important.
Today, with the internet, it’s easy to prove when people steal a joke word-for-word, because it’s almost always recorded or written down. You can just compare.
The one form of joke thievery or comedy thievery that’s never mentioned is impressions. You’re not allowed to steal a joke, but if you steal an impression, nobody ever calls you on it.
What about comics who copy each other’s personas? Like Denis Leary imitating Bill Hicks …
Louis C.K. used to do a bit in Boston about how he was an asshole, and Denis Leary said, “I love that bit about how you’re an asshole.” And then the next show — Louis C.K. was still a nobody at the time — Leary was doing a bit about being an asshole. A year later, he comes out with that fuckin’ song, “Asshole.” And a lot of the examples of how he’s an asshole in that song were lines from Louis C.K.’s standup act.
But that’s just more a straight-up steal. The Denis Leary/Bill Hicks thing to me was more like somebody taking a style, an attitude.
The idea of stealing a style is tricky. There’s a fine line between influence and stealing. Which is which? Jay Leno started out reciting George Carlin routines that he had memorized from Class Clown. Jimmie Walker started out reciting Clay Tyson routines; Tyson was James Brown’s opening standup act. Norm Macdonald is considered a guy with a very unique cadence, but early Norm Macdonald sounds like a guy doing a David Letterman impression. “Hol-y Lord!” That’s Letterman.
But usually people who are influenced by one comedian, if they’re truly funny, they’ll eventually shed the influence and come into their own. Richard Pryor shed the influence of Bill Cosby, because he’s truly funny. So, I don’t know if stealing a style is theft unless that style remains ingrained in them for the duration of their career.
Do you find that comedians are interested in the history of comedy?
If you talk to kids who are doing standup now, who are 19, 20, 21: to them, an old comedian is Ben Stiller, or David Cross. That’s their history. That’s their influence. I think most people who do comedy are fans of comedy first, and then they become comedians. Richard Pryor was a Redd Foxx fan, Tommy Chong was a Redd Foxx fan, George Carlin was a Lenny Bruce fan. Everybody was a fan of a comedian who came before.
Ben Schwartz has written jokes for the 84th Oscars and Letterman monologues, and his screenplay Home By Christmas is on the 2011 Blacklist. He is currently working on a history of American humor set between the two world wars.