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

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Jokes change from generation to generation, however the revel in of the comedian transcends the ages: the drive, jealousy, heartbreak, and triumph. From the Marx Brothers to Milton Berle to George Carlin to Eddie Murphy to Louis CK—comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff brings to life a century’s worth of rebels and groundbreakers, mainstream heroes and counterculture iconoclasts, forgotten stars and workaday plodders on this crucial history of American comedy.

Beginning with the nationwide vaudeville circuits that dominated at turn of the 20 th century, Nesteroff describes the upward push of the primary true stand-up comedian—a wide range show emcee who abandoned physical shtick for straight jokes. The tip of Prohibition ushered in a surprising golden age of comedy, as funnymen were made into radio stars and the combo of the “Borscht Belt,” the “Chitlin Circuit,” and Mafia-run supperclubs furnished more jobs and money than ever before. The ones were the times of the Copacabana, tuxedos, and smoking cigars onstage, when insulting the boss could lead to a hit man at your door and obscenity charges could land you in jail. Within the 1950s, past due-night tv cemented the status of the comedy established order even as young comics rebelled, arriving at the beatnik coffeehouse scene with cerebral jokes and social angst. They soon found their very own option to fame through comedy records that vied with top musicians for Billboard spots. Then came the comedy clubs of the coke-fueled 1970s and 80s, Saturday Night Live and cable TV, and with the web, an entire new generation of YouTube stars, podcast personalities, and Twitterati. Throughout the decades, Nesteroff reveals the contradictions between comedians’ private and non-private personas and illuminates the frequently-seedy underbelly of an industry built on laughs.

Based on over 2 hundred original interviews and extensive archival research, The Comedians is a sharply written and highly entertaining take a look at 100 years of comedy, and a valuable exploration of the best way comedians have reflected, shaped, and changed American culture along the best way.


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