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Going for laughs while baring one's soul

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, the On Comedy column in the Dec. 25 Books section misidentified the college attended by comedian Robert Klein. Klein went to Alfred University.)

Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse: My Life in Comedy
By Phyllis Diller with Richard Buskin
Tarcher, 288 pp., $24.95

It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me: A Lifetime of No Respect But Plenty of Sex and Drugs
By Rodney Dangerfield
Harper, 288 pp., paperback, $13.95

The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue: A Child of the Fifties Looks Back
By Robert Klein
Touchstone, 384 pp., $24.95

No one is more seriously revered than a comic icon. So it's good to be reminded sometimes that comedians are actually funny. When they tell their story, they display a compulsive need to keep the punchlines rolling, to pace the tale as if it were one long routine.

That's especially true of Phyllis Diller's and Rodney Dangerfield's recent memoirs, ''Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse" and ''It's Not Easy Bein' Me." Neither writer can go more than a page or two without a rim shot. When Diller speaks of her first husband, she can't resist tossing in a line from her act at the time, indented and italicized: ''Fang is the cheapest man alive. On Christmas Eve, he puts the kids to bed, fires one shot, and tells them Santa committed suicide."

It may seem glib, but it would be impossible to get a truthful look at Diller's life without the joke to punctuate the narrative. The jokes lifted Diller, and Dangerfield, from their troubled personal lives and made them stars. For Diller, comedy was an escape from the emotional abuse of her first two husbands and the conventional role her family forced her into at a young age. When she first started in the field, in the late 1940s, comedy was considered unladylike, a profession ranking slightly higher than burlesque in respectability.

Comedy meant independence to Diller. She tells the story of how her first husband tried to manage her career and club owners tried to shape her. But in the end, no one could control Diller. A self-help book gave her the confidence to get onstage and belt out a bawdy musical parody or lash out, seemingly playfully, at those who tried to control her. Diller doesn't write the cleanest prose, but hers is the story of a fascinating transformation from weakness to strength as she changed everything about herself, from her stage act to her personal life to her looks, famously, through plastic surgery.

Dangerfield's experience was almost the opposite. He started out as Jack Roy, an aluminum-siding salesman moonlighting as a comic and failing miserably. A contemporary of Lenny Bruce's, Dangerfield was hoping comedy would liberate him from his mundane existence, but he never hit his stride and wound up quitting for 12 years.

By the time Dangerfield came back, the scene was starting to change. The standard vaudeville shtick was no longer the buzz of the nightclubs but had been replaced by storytellers and characters. Perhaps chief among them was Robert Klein. Ask any comedian who came up in the late 1960s or early '70s who his or her main inspiration was, and Klein's name will top most lists. While more outrageous acts like George Carlin and Richard Pryor got most of the attention, it was Klein who made it hip to be brainy and introspective.

The changing of the guard helped to energize Dangerfield. Jack Roy became Rodney Dangerfield, an Everyman shlub in a loose tie and ill-fitting suit. The hard knocks he had tried to escape through comedy became the palette for his new persona, which would sustain him until he finally hit the jackpot in the '80s with the film ''Caddyshack" and a series of HBO specials.

He truly loved his craft and would give advice to any comedians who would listen, including Klein, to help them avoid the mistakes he'd made. Curiously, Klein's book, ''The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue," ends around the time he met Dangerfield, after he'd had the beginnings of success with Chicago's improv mecca, Second City, and started doing stand-up while working toward Broadway. If Diller and Dangerfield write about how comedy shaped their lives, Klein tells the story of how his life led him to comedy, and stops there.

A spirit of warmth and intelligence permeates Klein's writing. It's rare to see a comedian's onstage personality translate so readily to print (Lewis Black's recent ''Nothing's Sacred" deserves mention here), but Klein pulls it off beautifully. Even his preface is funny.

But unlike Diller and Dangerfield, Klein doesn't work with punchlines, and that's part of the generational shift that separates him from the first two. All came from working-class families and had public educations, but Klein's acting talent allowed him to jump from Alfred State College, in New York, to Yale's drama program. Klein was a history, theater, and music buff from early on, and these interests influenced his voice as a comedian. His routines are compositions, like songs, with verse and chorus instead of setup and punchline. There are clean lines and characters in his comedy, and a sense of drama, and he is able to capture that in print.

Klein's characters are surprisingly well drawn, from his fellow busboys at the hotel in the Catskills where he worked as a teenager to the love interests referred to in the title. Each stage of his life is marked by his relationship with a woman, and his maturation as a person is evident through each one. For all his academic aspirations, Klein was still a Brooklyn kid whose first sexual experience was as a teenager, sneaking out to Harlem to find a prostitute with his buddies. Klein has a remarkable memory for detail. He can describe where someone was sitting in a room and use setting to drive plot like an ace novelist.

Diller, Dangerfield, and Klein have written three funny books. When taken together, they chart most of the history of modern comedy, starting with Diller and Dangerfield in the '40s and moving all the way to the '80s, when Dangerfield gave such people as Jerry Seinfeld (who was influenced by Klein) and Roseanne Barr (who took Diller's routine and made it into her famous ''domestic goddess" persona) their first big breaks on TV. Three very different voices, but three great stories.

Nick A. Zaino III writes the Globe's Comedy Notes column.

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