‘The Comedians’ details history of comedy stage by stage

“The Comedians” (Grove Press) by Kliph Nesteroff

Written by former stand-up comic Kliph Nesteroff, “The Comedians” follows the meandering history of everything funny. Beginning in the always smoky, often dilapidated vaudeville theaters of the early 20th century and spanning over a hundred years, Nesteroff meticulously details the lives and careers of forgotten and famous comics, along with the mediums by which they have made America laugh. Radio followed vaudeville. Next came television, then comedy clubs, each with its own culture. Today, YouTube and Twitter play a major role in shaping the industry.

Nesteroff also examines comedians’ changing methods and what it took to make different generations laugh. The 1950s saw a significant shift in stand-up material. “A fella was walking down the street” became “I was walking down the street.” Though comedians still relied on writers to create the jokes (thus leaving stand-up material largely impersonal for a few more years), this transition paved the way for future comics to joke about their own lives.

Also worth noting is comedy’s significant role in society and politics. During the civil rights movement, black comics helped enlighten white audiences about what life was like on the other side of the struggle. And it was on “Saturday Night Live” where the country was given permission to laugh again after 9/11. It’s these details flooding each page that will fascinate comedy buffs.

Nesteroff’s exhaustive research is evident and historians will appreciate his thoroughness. Encyclopedic in form, “The Comedians” ensures the nuanced history of the business of laughs will not be forgotten.

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