The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s
By Gerald Nachman
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In 2003, Gerald Nachman explored the change that came over standup comedy during the 1950s and 1960s, writing Seriously Funny. Although Nachman's book predates Kliph Nesteroff's The Comedians by a dozen years, the two form a thematic duology with the earlier book covering a later period as comedy broke away from the roots that Nesteroff explores.
Nachman has identified 27 comedians who helped create the new form of comedy that could tackle meatier issues in new ways. Stepping away from the joke-telling tummlers of the Catskills or comedians who got their start in Vaudeville, these comedians expanded the role of stand up comedians to include political satire and telling stories instead of merely jokes. The order of the book means that Nachman often talks about the comedians in passing before he more fully explores them, most notably references to Lenny Bruce and Godfrey Cambridge in chapters earlier than their own.
Although the discussion of comedians is organized, more or less, in chronological order by their importance, the chapters are not in chronological order, instead jumping around to discuss (often repetitively) the comedians' strengths and weaknesses before looking at their origins. For some comedians, Nachman quotes from their routines at length, while for others, he simply describes the type of material they perform.
Nachman has his own feelings about the comedians he is writing about and it comes through in his writing. Mort Sahl stands at the top of his hierarchy, while he views Lenny Bruce as overrated and he doesn't seem to like Joan Rivers very much. Looking at the book from 2021, one has to wonder if Nachman was aware of Bill Cosby's issues even if he didn't feel he could discuss them in the book. In both the chapter about Cosby and the Smothers Brothers, Cosby comes across as arrogant, unlikable, and completely at odds with his popular image in the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first century.
Nachman's writing is not particularly engaging and his transcriptions of comedians' routines lack their voice. I frequently found myself putting the book down to find recordings of the comedians doing their routines, and not just the 27 comedians Nachman focuses on, but also their influences, like Stoopnagel & Budd, Vic and Sade, and other mostly forgotten acts.
Although Nachman's book includes a lengthy (48 page) introduction, there is no attempt to offer a summation at the end of the book. After his 21 chapters describing the 27 comedians, he ends with his chapter on Joan Rivers and has no follow up or attempt to synthesize what these disparate biographies and comedic styles might mean.
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