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Laughing matters

Politically daring, wildly gifted, '70s comics remade the genre

Email|Print| Text size + By Saul Austerlitz
January 27, 2008

Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America
By Richard Zoglin
Bloomsbury, 247 pp., illustrated, $24.95

In an era when Dane Cook - who must have been trained as a scientist, since his entire career has been an experiment in how not to make people laugh - is the recipient of his own HBO series, it is hard to imagine a time when stand-up comedy was not only relevant, but downright dangerous. Back before "Seinfeld" and "Def Comedy Jam," stand-up took place on barren stages in back rooms, its practitioners in danger of being hauled off in police wagons if they told an off-color joke or used an obscenity. Lenny Bruce is the best-known martyr for comic free speech, but after his untimely, drug-related death, in 1966, a new generation of comics picked up his fallen mantle, crafting comedy that was both personally and politically incisive. These sons (and a few daughters) of Lenny are the subjects of Time writer Richard Zoglin's wise, concise, effortlessly erudite "Comedy at the Edge," which takes the still-fledgling art form from Bruce's death to the early 1980s, when "The Cosby Show" 's enormous success made it clear that comedians' futures were to be found on soundstages, not nightclub stages.

In Zoglin's terse description of the differences before and after Bruce burst like a meteor onto the comedy scene, the old-timers were "necklace" comics, "stringing disconnected one-liners together." These comics - men like Milton Berle and Don Rickles - treated comedy as a line-by-line affair, intent on making audiences laugh without worrying much about authenticity. Bruce had described himself as "a surgeon with a scalpel for false values," and his successors, inheriting the scalpel, contributed a belief in comedy as self-expression. The new generation - George Carlin, Robert Klein, Richard Pryor - were playing themselves onstage, intent on sharing not only their jokes but a portion of themselves with audiences. They came to bury Henny Youngman, not to praise him.

Comedy became a flourishing business in New York, Boston, and Los Angeles, with successful comics playing six shows (!) a night, an early and a late gig at each of the three local clubs. Success, in this world, was narrowly defined; club owners paid their performers little, and even the most beloved comics scraped by with part-time jobs and savings until Vegas or "The Tonight Show" came calling. Comedy had become a discipline, a ritual you applied yourself to, day in and day out, until you attained perfection. Sometimes the discipline could be unnerving. Paul Reiser, then a very green performer, remembers that "sometimes onstage, you'd forget. You'd be doing a bit and it would feel familiar. And you'd say, Is it familiar because I did it an hour ago at the other club? Or did I just say this a minute ago?"

The new comics split into two overlapping but mostly distinct categories: the storytellers and the performers. The latter was made up of everyone from mile-a-minute rappers like Robin Williams to performance-art practical jokers like Andy Kaufman to showbiz parodists like Steve Martin and Albert Brooks. The former consisted of both political and personally oriented comics, and included Carlin, Klein, Jerry Seinfeld, and Richard Lewis. Zoglin has a good ear for the routines that best exemplify a given comic's routine, and his off-the-cuff descriptions of their techniques (Pryor's white-man imitation is characterized as his "bland, uptight, Dudley Do-Right voice") are generally spot on.

Politics was the instigator of the initial countercultural surge in comedy, driving Carlin and Pryor to shed their jackets and ties, grow their hair long, and rail against the establishment. (Carlin on Muhammad Ali: "He had an unusual job: beating people up. Government wanted him to change jobs. Government wanted him to kill people. He said, 'No, that's where I draw the line. I'll beat 'em up, but I don't wanna kill 'em.' And the government said, 'Well, if you won't kill 'em . . . we won't let you beat 'em up.' ") But the taste for politics soon faded, replaced by comedy's 30-year-and-running fascination with mundanity, usually introduced by the phrase "Didja ever notice . . . ?" Observational humor began with Klein's egghead recountings, more like short stories than jokes (he described his grade-school teachers as "older women who had gone to normal school in 1899, graduated in two years, took religion and first aid. They gave them each a bun in the back - a chignon - a large black dress, and Boy Scout shoes and sent them into schools to say, 'No talking!' "), but eventually mutated into musings on airline food and the differences between white and black drivers.

In no time at all, though, observational comedy shined its shoes, carefully parted its hair, and went hat in hand to the agents and scouts looking to fill "Tonight Show" slots and cast sitcom roles. There was still room for neurotics like Larry David, who once walked into a room, took a look at the crowd, said "I don't think so," and walked right back offstage, and oddballs like Andy Kaufman, who would read "The Great Gatsby" to audiences until they were catatonic with boredom before offering to play a record instead - which turned out to be a recording of Kaufman picking up his reading where he had left off. The real success, and the real money, were in polite, family-friendly humor, the kind that could play NBC at 8, not the Improv at 11. Zoglin has little but praise for Seinfeld, but his delicate approach makes it clear that he regards him as the shirt-tucked-in conclusion to a gloriously messy story.

With no politics and little personality beyond his fussbudget persona, Seinfeld was the perfect TV comic. Brilliant as he was, Seinfeld left few imitators, and little room for comics to maneuver. How many more jokes could be told about hair plugs and cereal? Stand-up, always lacking in self-confidence (Zoglin describes it as "the only major art form whose greatest practitioners, at any given time, want to be doing something else"), has become a shell of its former self, hollowed out to the extent that it is difficult to remember that any structure ever stood on its now-empty lot. "Comedy at the Edge" is a potent reminder of just how magnificent it once was.

Saul Austerlitz is a frequent contributor to the Globe.

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