Let’s talk about guns first. They’re far from a funny subject in 2015.
To any student of American film comedy, Richard Pryor is well-known for ending a domestic spat by emptying a gun into his wife’s Mercedes. (She wasn’t in it at the time.)
But try this from Kliph Nesteroff’s “The Comedians”: Danny Thomas is sitting next to sitcom director John Rich at the first table reading of the script for Thomas’ doomed late-life sitcom “Make Room for Granddaddy.” Said Rich about the beloved TV star of the ’50s: “To my surprise, he was chewing tobacco as we read, and had brought along an empty coffee can to use as a cuspidor, sitting just a few inches away from my left leg.” Rich politely asked the venerable comedian to move it a little farther away. In response, Thomas reached into his brief case, “pulled out a revolver … ‘I keep this handy so I don’t have to move anything.’ ”
How about Buddy Hackett, who was, according to Lenny Bruce “pound for pound ... the greatest talent in the world” of comedy, according to comedy writer Marvin Worth. Hackett’s mush-mouthed delivery and Disney movies were the epitome of comic lovability in his prime. According to Nesteroff, “as his status heightened” in show business, “he grew nasty for no discernible reason.” Comic character actor Marvin Kaplan reported that on the set of Stanley Kramer’s “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” “I was leaning on a couch and he threw a knife at me.’ ”
The subtitle of Nesterhoff’s extraordinary book “The Comedians” tells you everything you’re going to get inside – “Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy.”
The dark side has been left in here, whether we’re talking about famous goody-goody comic Eddie Cantor on radio stealing other performers’ punch lines and hooking up with as many women who would have him or Flip Wilson as “unpredictable” because of his “offstage cocaine habit” as the “two youngest members of his writing staff – Richard Pryor and George Carlin.”
This is a broad scale history of American comedians from Vaudeville deprivation and competition to modern-day joke theft disputes between Denis Leary and Bill Hicks and Dane Cook and Louis C.K.
Roundly disliked comedian Jackie Mason had made himself so unpopular with the wrong people that one night someone shot a few bullets into the bedboard of his hotel bed.
Then there’s Don Rickles, much-loved “Mr. Warmth,” the now-aged and revered blowtorch of American insult comedy. His manager Joe Scandore was “pretty well connected” to the mob according to comic Art Metrano. The Vito Genovese crime family.
According to comedian Frank Man, “Rickles and I had the same manager early on ... Scandore was with the mob. They provided the money and they got you the right jobs. I didn’t want to get involved with anything like that but they were all mob-connected. He seemed like a nice guy.”
This is a remarkable book simply because of its insistence on not prettifying an obvious fact about American comedy: its denizens are, by and large, not exactly exemplars of mental hygiene. Nor are they paragons of virtue. The book doesn’t revel in darkness but it makes sure we see the shadow world behind the public world of radio, TV, movies and concerts that the public has always known.
Nesteroff is a former stand-up comic with an utterly amazing blog called “Classic Television Showbiz.” His premise is simple “whether it was a vaudeville theater in the 1920s or a Mafia-owned nightclub in the 1940s, a coffeehouse run by filthy beatniks in the 1950s or a comedy club used as a cocaine front in the 1970s, the comedians’ struggle was remarkably similar through the generations.”
And in his hands, it’s always wildly, crazily revealing and readable.