Book review: Comedy At The Edge

by Richard Zoglin

People have been cracking jokes since the dawn of time, but stand-up as we understand it is one of the few artforms that America can reasonably claim to have invented.

Comedy At The Edge charts how this emerged from vaudevillian ‘take my wife, please’ gagsmiths of the Borscht Belt resorts; describing how the besuited comedy establishment was challenged by a new breed of stand-up upstarts, who combined social commentator with rebellious rock-star cool.

The book’s subtitle ‘how stand-up in the 1970s changed America’ is misleading; this new breed of comedian emerged from the changing wider culture, not the other way around, even though the ironic, mocking stance they took has now permeated every branch of society. With the rock and roll of the Fifties and counter-culture of the Sixties, the status quo became something to be challenged, not respected – but comedy lagged behind, taking until the Seventies to reinvent itself. But once it did, its smart, confrontational swagger dominated American entertainment – leading to the boom, and subsequent bust of comedy clubs in the Eighties – and making a generation of stars though sitcoms, movies and talk shows.

Author Richard Zoglin, a critic at Time magazine, starts in the only place he can: with Lenny Bruce, the pioneer who risked everything to say exactly what he wanted to say, and so paved the way for everyone who followed. Zoglin pays rightful credit, but isn’t too blinded by Bruce’s legacy to acknowledge that this groundbreaking comedy was often unwatchably bad, especially to modern sensibilities.

Comedy At The Edge really picks up the story with those who followed in Bruce’s well-documented footsteps. Comics like George Carlin and Richard Pryor, genuinely changed the face of comedy, pacing the way for Steve Martin, Robin Williams and Andy Kaufman.

Each comic is given their own chapter – giving a brisk but thorough biography, but, most importantly, placing their work in the wider context of this fast-evolving new entertainment. The well-researched book has a cracking pace, readable tone and an intelligent understanding of this fascinating subject.

Even if you think you know these comics, the fact they are placed in the wider scheme of things makes this a definitive history of the entire comedy revolution. And then there are of the comics who are less well-known, especially in the UK, like Robert Klein, Albert Brooks and Elayne Boosher, one of the few women in this testosterone-drive boys’ club. Once you’ve read their chapters you’ll immediately want to find their work for yourself, which is surely a sign of positive, passionate players.

The story continues apace. Minor players like Jay Leno and David Letterman become huge TV stars. Steve Martin quits for movies. Andy Kaufman dies. Clubs start springing up all over America.

Some of the key players weren’t even comics, of course, but agents, producers and promoters. One of the most important was Mitzi Shore, who made the Los Angeles Comedy Store the hub of the new movement. Comedy At The Edge covers the controversial strike there, which led to comics, for the first time, being paid to perform.

Zoglin leaves the feeling that this marked an end of an innocence – when comedy became a career rather than a calling. And the last chapter in the book shows how successful that can become, focussing on Jerry Seinfeld, but in fairness acknowledging his talent more than his bank balance.

This book’s a knowledgeable, fascinating account of the whole of modern stand-up came into being from the cornerstones laid down by those American pioneers, challenging themselves and their audiences not to accept the same old stale conventions. Britain had their own parallel developments, of course, from Beyond The Fringe to the anarchists of early alternative comedy – but when it comes down to one-man-and-a-mic stand-up, America in the Seventies was where it was forged.

All of which makes Comedy At The Edge a must-read for anyone with even a passing curiosity about stand-up.

  • Comedy At The Edge is published in the US by Bloomsbury at $24.95. It is available on import from Amazon UK, priced £11.36. Click here to order.

Published: 11 Apr 2008

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