Saturday, November 28, 2015

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

I just finished reading Kliph Nesteroff's new book, "The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy."  Nesteroff proves my long-held opinion that comedy has a rich history.  His book is well written and well researched and it provides a fascinating history of stand-up comedy.  Nesteroff relies on extensive research to shed a light on long-forgotten performers.  His astute account of Frank Fay's career is one of my favorite parts of the book.

I have to say, though, that I do not agree with Nesteroff on every point that he makes.  I disagree with his assertions that drugs make comedians funnier, comedy never ages well, and the hippie movement created a marvelous renaissance that is immune to criticism.

We have truth in labeling when it comes to the "Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels" part of the book's title.  Comedians do not emerge from these pages as endearing figures.  They are egocentric, temperamental, rude, vulgar, angry, anxious, insecure, paranoid, deluded, bitter, self-destructive, alcoholic, and drug-addled.  The passage of the book that left the most lasting impression on me was the following:
Buddy Hackett abandoned [Lenny] Bruce after his first drug bust.  "The first time that Lenny got busted in Philadelphia, I called Buddy," says comic Frank Man. "I said, 'You hear what happened to Lenny?'  He said, 'Yeah, I heard.' I said, 'What can we do to help him?' He said, 'I'm not going to do anything to help him!  He’ll probably stick a needle in my kid’s arm!'  That was the end of the friendship between Buddy Hackett and Lenny Bruce."

Many of these comedians displayed personal habits so repulsive that, as Hackett suggested, their appearance should compel a right-minded person to hide their children.  Hackett, himself, was known to crazily pull out a weapon when he got angry.  The book documents incidents in which Hackett shot up a car in a hotel parking lot, shot a picture off a wall in a green room, and flung a knife at another actor on a movie set.  I'd say that, if you hung out with Hackett, you'd be wise to watch that the funny guy didn’t fire a bullet into your kid's leg.  It might just be that comedy is a form of insanity.  Pagliacci let us know that, when you strip away the clown make-up and the funny costume, you just might reveal something underneath that is dark and ugly.

I have devoted my blog to celebrating the work of comedians.  But, I admit, celebrating a comedian for their work is a far easier task than celebrating a comedian for their personal behavior.  I couldn't love a comedian more than I love Phil Silvers, but reading stories about Silvers' gambling addiction could if I let it poison my affection for the man.  The compulsive gambler is not, by anyone's standards, a beloved figure in our culture.  He is, to use the words of Casino's Nicky Santoro, a "lowlife" and a "degenerate."  It is disturbing to consider the possibility that our enjoyment of comedy comes down to having our funny bones tickled by lowlifes and degenerates.  But I realize that it is better I enjoy Silvers' comedy without ruminating over Silvers' gambling activities.  And maybe there was a lot more to Silvers' personal life than his gambling.

No one comes out untarnished in "The Comedians."  Jack Benny inevitably turns up in histories of vaudeville, radio and television as a saintly figure.  He wasn't an alcoholic.  He wasn't a womanizer.  He wasn't a gambler.  He treated his staff well.  He maintained a stable and happy marriage.  He was everyone's friend.  This is the first show business history that I read that casts Benny in a less than flattering light.  He was a plagiarist.  He was a jewelry smuggler.  He bad-mouthed the Marx Brothers.  He gave shitty career advice to Silvers. 

Of course, an argument could be made that the gossipy tome focuses the Hubbel Telescope on the comedy community's blemishes.  And maybe most people like it that way.  Hedda Hopper said, "Nobody's interested in sweetness and light."  But there is a difference between a warts-and-all account and an all-the-warts-all-the-time account. 

I had an editor who was willing to publish my Lloyd Hamilton biography if I removed all of the material about Hamilton's alcoholism.  He thought it would be better if I focused the book on Hamilton's work.  But I disagreed.  The plain and simple fact was that Hamilton was a great artist and a great drunk.  Those two aspects of the man had to be presented in a balanced way to accurately tell his story.

Honestly, this is just my personal impressions as a comedy enthusiast.  I offer these thoughts nothing more than a caveat.  It is in no way meant to diminish Nesteroff's fine work or to diminish the likely enjoyment that you will have reading his book.

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