Pop Culture

Excerpt: ‘Comedy at the Edge’

In the rock ’n’ roll 1970s, a new breed of comic, inspired by the fearless Lenny Bruce, made telling jokes an art form. Richard Zoglin gives a backstage view of the time, when a group of brilliant comedians ruled the industry and changed it. Here's an excerpt from “Comedy at the Edge.”

Opening ActIn the mid-1970s, when I was a freelance writer living in Greenwich Village, the Improvisation was, pound for pound, the best entertainment value in New York. At this bare-bones, storefront club on the seedy western edge of the theater district, for a few bucks’ cover charge and a couple of drinks, you could sit for an entire evening, well into the wee hours, and watch stand-up comedians virtually nonstop.

Most were young and unknown; many weren’t very good. But a few of them were terrific, and  an evening at the Improv always had the excitement of discovery, of getting an insider’s early look at the innovators in an art form that seemed to be changing before your eyes.

First times are always the best, and at mine (early in 1975, as best I can figure) the highlight was a trio of comics whom I remember as if they were murderers’ row in a 1930s All-Star Game.

First came Ed Bluestone, a dour, brainy monologist who did wry, deadpan wisecracks about his Jewish upbringing.

(The only line I can recall — about his Sunday school lessons in Jewish history that played like a weekly soap opera — “Bam! The Jews are enslaved by rabbits!”). He was followed by Richard Lewis, a lean, jittery young comic whose own brand of Jewish angst took the form of nervous pacing and tortured run-on sentences that caught the audience up in the kind of rolling, rhythmic laughter that comedians like to compare to waves crashing onshore.

Finally, there was a soft-looking, glassy-eyed weirdo whom I had encountered earlier in the evening — when he barged ahead of a few of us waiting in line at the Improv’s tiny restroom, located all too conspicuously in the hallway between the bar and the showroom.

He had a pipsqueak voice with a vaguely Eastern European accent, and onstage he nervously told bad jokes, lip-synched to a recording of Mighty Mouse’s theme song, and then, just to cross everybody up, did an impression of Elvis that blew the house away. A few months later I saw Andy Kaufman for the second time, on the premiere of Saturday Night Live.

Those days now seem both far away and oddly current.

After springing up in the 1970s, enjoying a nationwide boom in the ’80s, and falling on hard times in the ’90s, the comedy clubs are back. New York City alone, as I write this, has nearly a dozen — compared with just three in their ’70s heyday.

But the sense of adventure has been replaced by the programmed predictability of a General Motors assembly plant. The comics all sound pretty much alike these days, with the same patter to loosen up the crowd (“Anyone from out of town?” — in thirty years no one has come up with a better icebreaker), the same recyclable loop of stand-up topics (sex, New York subways, commercials for Viagra).

On weekend evenings, the clubs typically squeeze in three shows, spaced an unforgiving two hours apart: four or five comics, two drinks and the check, and you’re out the door in ninety minutes flat.

When I took out a pen at one club on a recent Saturday night to make some notes on a comic doing pretty good impressions of Bill Cosby and Dr. Phil, a bouncer suddenly appeared in front of me, ordered me out of the room, and read me the riot act: no note taking without the prior consent of the management and the comics. Just when did the fun go out of stand-up comedy?

For me, and so many others growing up in the baby boom years, stand-up comedy wasn’t just fun; it was an obsession. I organized my homework around the stand-up comedians on The Ed Sullivan Show and the other TV variety shows that filled so many of the prime-time hours in the 1960s.

I communed with them in private on the all-but-forgotten medium of long-playing records. So intent was I on savoring my first comedy album — Bill Dana as José Jiménez — that I held off listening to the entire record in one sitting, saving the B-side for a day just to extend the pleasure.

Later came Bob Newhart and Bill Cosby and the Smothers Brothers; collections of Stan Freberg’s great song parodies; the novelty hits of the early ’60s like My Son, the Folksinger and The First Family.

Beginning in the late 1960s, however, stand-up comedy began to change.

It became somehow more essential. It seemed smarter and more current, and it connected more directly with my generation and the things we talked and cared about.

And much of that change was inspired, I realized only many years later, by a comedian whom most middle-American kids like me didn’t have in their record collection: Lenny Bruce.

Like Bruce, the comedian-cum-social commentator who challenged the guardians of public morality and died of a drug overdose in 1966, stand-up comedians who reached their artistic maturity in the late ’60s and ’70s saw themselves as rebel artists. Unlike the comedians of an earlier generation — who, for the most part, told jokes written by others — they wrote their own material and used it to express their personal point of view about what was happening in the country, the culture, and their own lives.

They both reflected and helped define the ethos of the counterculture as surely as the troubadours of rock or the protest leaders of the left. They took aim at political corruption and corporate greed, made fun of society’s hypocrisy and consumerist excess, mocked the button-down conformity of Eisenhower era America.By their very presence onstage — alone in front of a mike, telling it like it is — they were advertisements for honesty and authenticity, a rebuke to the phoniness and self-righteousness of your parents’ generation.

Except when they themselves were phony and self-righteous — and then, of course, they were making fun of that, satire of a more devious sort.

They became fixtures in America’s living rooms on prime-time variety shows and late-night talk shows, and later they helped pioneer the young medium of cable TV. They released best-selling record albums and drew rock-star-like crowds in arenas and concert halls. They spoke to a new generation, the baby boomers who had grown up with television and the cold war and now jammed into comedy clubs on date night (better than going to a movie — you could talk to each other during the show), finding kindred spirits in these writer-performers who articulated their own political disaffection, social concerns, sexual anxieties, and bad-date experiences.

Their voice continues to resonate in the national conversation, from the monologues of late-night TV hosts to the insta-punditry and parodies of the Internet. Their point of view — ironic, skeptical, media savvy, challenging authority, puncturing pretension, telling uncomfortable truths — is the lens through which we view everything from presidential politics and celebrity scandal to the little trials of our everyday lives.

They were heroic figures, who often risked their careers as they reinvented a popular art. Some, like George Carlin and Richard Pryor, went through very public transformations, abandoning their sport coats and ties and recasting themselves as antiestablishment provocateurs.

Others, like Albert Brooks, Steve Martin, and Andy Kaufman, turned away from the social-political agenda of Bruce and his followers but were artistic rebels nonetheless — blasting apart the clichés and conventions of traditional show business and turning the satire back on the comedian himself. They were idiosyncratic artists, as different from each other as they differed collectively from the Bob Hopes and Milton Berles of old. There were wildly original,

Dionysian performers like Robin Williams, whom nobody could hope to imitate, and more cerebral, equally brilliant ones like Robert Klein, whom nearly everybody did. There were savvy club comics like David Letterman and Jay Leno, who went on to become the toastmasters and tastemakers of the next generation. And there was a clean-cut Long Island kid who polished his “observational” comedy to a fine sheen, domesticated the stand-up revolution, and made it safe for the mass audience: Jerry Seinfeld.

Their rise paralleled a revolution that was taking place across the popular arts, as the nation lurched through the political and cultural ferment of the late ’60s. After Dylan and the Beatles, rock artists were no longer satisfied merely to sing other people’s songs; now they were writing and performing their own work, expressing the politically rebellious, sexually charged, drug-liberated spirit of the times. The old Hollywood studio system was being challenged by a new generation of film directors who brought stylistic innovations and an irreverent, critical vision of America to the screen. From the Broadway stage to the best-seller lists, artists were speaking with new freedom and frankness; it was the era of The Graduate and Portnoy’s Complaint, Ken Kesey and Janis Joplin, Easy Rider and Hair.

Comedy was hardly left out of this cultural upheaval. Improvisational groups like Second City in Chicago and the Committee in San Francisco were developing a new theatrical style to satirize the mores and manners of uptight ’50s-era America. The rude comic book parodies of Mad magazine spawned the Ivy League irreverence of National Lampoon. College kids grooved on the pothead comedy of Cheech and Chong and the trippy, surrealist fantasias of the Firesign Theatre. Counterculture satire even established a beachhead on network TV with The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which spent two years battling the CBS censors before its premature cancellation in 1969.

The stand-up comics of the late ’60s and ’70s are the forgotten stars of this cultural revolution. At a time when the youth generation was challenging the power structure and freeing their minds, stand-up comics struck an especially responsive chord. They were great democratic artists, whose power depended on forging an intimate bond with the audience — convincing us they were ordinary folks, with the same gripes and anxieties as you and me. Unlike so many of the borscht belt–era comics, who worked the Catskills hotels in the 1940s and ’50s, they were not predominantly Jews from New York; they came from the suburbs of New Jersey and the Midwest and California.

Some were high school dropouts; most went to college, though rarely top schools. (Not an Ivy League grad among them; those boys wound up writing for National Lampoon and later Saturday Night Live.)

Even the way they told jokes, the strategy of their humor, was more populist and inclusive. The old-style comics might talk about subjects we all recognized (the wife and kids, airline flights, TV commercials), but they got laughs with the artifice of gag lines — a pun, or a witticism, or a surprise reversal. This emphasized the distance between performer and audience.

“I got no sex life,” cracked Rodney Dangerfield, one of the old school comics most admired by the younger generation. “My wife cut me down to once a month. And I’m lucky — two guys I know she cut out completely.”

No one was expected to actually believe a line like that, or mistake it for a real commentary on marriage. Certainly not the way you believed a Richard Pryor rant about the girlfriend who walked out on him — “I don’t mind them leavin’, but they tell you why!” Or Robert Klein’s line about discovering sex as a kid in his father’s dresser drawer — “a deck of cards that I went steady with for two years.” 

The old comics made jokes about real life. The new comics turned real life into the joke.

As “in one” performers, with no script or cohorts onstage to provide support, these comedians often had an uphill battle. (Comedy teams, so popular in the 1950s and ’60s, virtually died out in the ’70s for obvious reasons: they talked to each other, not to the audience.)

They had to fight to keep their idiosyncratic talents from being co-opted by a showbiz establishment that likes to foist collaboration on its quirky geniuses. Even at their peak of creativity and popularity, these stand-up innovators were often itchy to move on.

They didn’t feel validated (or make enough money) until they proved themselves in other fields — movies, TV sitcoms, directing.

Stand-up comedy may be the only major art form whose greatest practitioners, at any given time, want to be doing something else.

Many of them had relatively short stand-up careers. Unlike rock stars, they couldn’t go on indefinitely with greatest-hits tours. The old jokes had to be constantly refreshed, and that became harder as they aged — as their material became familiar from TV and the cocoon of fame enveloped them, cutting them off from their real-life sources of inspiration.

They also faced a predicament common to avant-garde artists in many fields: how to stay on the cutting edge of a culture that has a nasty habit of catching up with them.

Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” were, within a few years, being said all over television (well, at least on cable) and in the movies.Pryor’s raw street talk, starring the once radioactive word nigger, became common parlance for every black comic or rap artist looking for street cred. Steve Martin dynamited comedy tradition with his “wild and crazy guy” shtick. By the end, fans came to his concerts wearing fake arrows through their heads and shouting “excuuuse me” along with him.

By the early ’80s, the great days were largely over. Most of the innovators of the ’70s were gone — bored, burned-out, or moving on. Martin quit stand-up cold turkey in 1981 and turned his attention to movies. Brooks stopped performing live even earlier, took his comedy into the recording studio, and then gave it up entirely for film work. Pryor kept going, but with diminishing returns, as he succumbed to the lure of Hollywood — and a coke habit that nearly killed him in 1980, when he set himself on fire in a drug-related suicide attempt. Williams —another coke abuser, who was scared straight by his friend John Belushi’s drug-overdose death in 1982 — was transitioning into movies as well. Klein, by the end of the ’70s, had stopped releasing albums and was doing Broadway. Kaufman, whose performance art stunts were growing more bizarre and self-destructive, died of cancer in 1984. Only Carlin, of the era’s major innovators, kept his stand-up career going at full speed into the ’80s, ’90s, and beyond.

Television, meanwhile, was luring away the best and brightest of the younger comics who might have replaced them. Starting in the mid-’70s, when comics like Freddie Prinze and Jimmie Walker became sitcom stars, and accelerating in the 1980s with the success of The Cosby Show, TV producers and network execs began scouring the clubs for comedians whose material and comic persona could be repurposed for prime time.

Some of them, like Roseanne Barr and Tim Allen, became TV superstars.

Others were quick flameouts. But the result was a brain drain that short-circuited the careers of many young comics, who came to regard stand-up not as an end in itself but as a road to sitcom stardom.

No cultural era, of course, has a neat beginning and end. Some comics who came up in the early ’60s, like Woody Allen and Bill Cosby, remained standup stars through the counterculture years — in Cosby’s case, well beyond — and were important influences on many of the comedians in this book. But they reached their artistic maturity, crucially, in the years before the political and cultural upheaval of the late ’60s, and their material was essentially unchanged by it. Adventurous stand-up comedy, by the same token, did not disappear with the advent of the ’80s.

Sam Kinison, the former evangelist from Texas, raised the decibel level and found new ways to offend with his primal-scream comedy. Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, and other African American comics arrived to colonize the racial territory that Pryor had pioneered.

Women like Roseanne Barr, Paula Poundstone, Sandra Bernhard, and Ellen DeGeneres brought fresh female voices to a genre that, even in the heyday of the feminist movement, was still largely defined by testosterone.

But the fertile decade and a half that lasted, roughly, from Bruce’s demise in 1966 to Seinfeld’s rise in the early ’80s was the crucial period when modern stand-up comedy came into being and transformed the culture.

They were the peak creative years for a group of brilliant and radical artists who influenced how we see the world, changed the way we talk and think — and made us laugh.

This is their story.

Excerpted from “Comedy at the Edge” by Richard Zoglin. Copyright 2008 Richard Zoglin. Reprinted with permission of Bloomsbury Publishing All rights reserved.

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