The Magazine

He Who Laughs

Are comedians funny, or harbingers of social change?

Jun 2, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 36 • By ZACK MUNSON
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Comedy at the Edge
How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America
by Richard Zoglin
Bloomsbury, 256 pp., $24.95

What do four Jewish comedians, three goyish comedians, and one black comedian have in common? Well, according to Comedy at the Edge they--Robert Klein, Albert Brooks, Andy Kaufman, Jerry Seinfeld, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and others--"changed America." At least that is what Time's television critic, Richard Zoglin, believes.

All attempts to explain social change through the narrow prism of short-lived pop culture phenomena aside, Zoglin's work is quite informative, and not entirely unpleasant reading. He describes, in a largely chronological though sometimes too-serious way, the development of what today is called stand-up comedy.

Zoglin has conducted extensive interviews with comics, club owners, managers, producers, and hangers-on. And his subjects rarely bore. They are, for the most part, carousing, drug addicted, and emotionally unstable (there's no business like show business!), and Zoglin captures their plentiful highs and lows. He offers little insight into the more sordid gossip and better-traveled stories, such as Richard Pryor setting himself on fire; but he does give some details that bring these strange characters to life.

Pryor, in response to an unimpressed audience member, "suddenly unzipped his fly and peed in her direction." When David Brenner catches Robin Williams using his material on television, Brenner warns Williams's agent, "If he ever takes one more line from me, I'll rip off his leg and shove it up his ass." After a concert one night in the mid-1970's, legendary manager Jack Rollins issues a "rueful assessment" of his client Robert Klein, then at the height of his success: "Effective, but not winning."

Zoglin also does a good job telling the story of the rise of the comedy club, from its humble beginnings in a seedy New York dive called the Improv, to its growing influence in supplying talent for TV and film and the boom that filled American towns and cities with Seinfeld wannabes. This story is worth a book in itself, and takes up a sizable part of Zoglin's, and is populated with yet another group of familiar names and characters. Some succeeded: Billy Crystal, Richard Lewis, Richard Belzer, Garry Shandling. Some skyrocketed: Jay Leno, David Letterman. And some--well, some aren't so familiar, but apparently did do standup comedy in the 1970s (Argus Hamilton, anyone?).

This is an engaging and informative book, but it has a serious flaw. Zoglin begins with the obligatory tribute to Lenny Bruce; e.g., Bruce was a genius among other, lesser geniuses (including comedy lightweights such as Mort Sahl, Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, Jonathan Winters, and Woody Allen). But of course, Zoglin admits, "Bruce was hardly (to get this heresy out of the way first) the funniest of the lot." Heresy offstage, breathless sycophancy resumes:

His battles against the protectors of public decency, to be sure, helped knock down barriers to free speech and led the way to a more open popular culture. .  .  . No other comedian (or any American entertainer, for that matter) again faced anything close to the legal harassment that Bruce did. But even that does not get at the core of Bruce's impact--the reason why he was the indispensable comedian for a new generation of stand-up comics.

Five hyperventilating pages later, Zoglin finally gets at what he was getting at, the real thrust of Bruce's influence: "[Bruce's] vibrant, manic, free-associating mind games could be dazzling, almost intoxicating. Bruce showed that stand-up comedy could be the expression of an engaged, thinking, neurotic, impassioned human being in his raw, crazy complexity."

The sad truth is that Lenny Bruce was not "complex." He was a drug addict. His career was always on the brink. He was unstable, and often incomprehensible. Zoglin admits that this was a detriment to Bruce's comedic abilities but insists that it helped change American society.

Zoglin elevates Bruce's outlandishness and confuses it with creative radicalism. And that confusion informs Zoglin's attitude to the whole subject. For him, the stand-up comic is, or should be, an artist forever pushing the boundaries of taste, decency, social norms, our perception of truth. He is some kind of social critic. Not merely some kind; he is probably the most important social critic on earth. Again and again Zoglin returns to this theme.

Of George Carlin's send-up of self-contradictory terms such as "jumbo shrimp" or "mobile homes," Zoglin insists that "as a social satirist, he was more penetrating than ever." Andy Kaufman's obnoxious lounge singer/alter ego Tony Clifton was a "corrosive satire of the sadomasochistic underbelly of show business." Carlin's bit on Roman Catholic sin is "a masterpiece of autobiographical vaudeville" (plausible) "and theological criticism" (what?) while Robin Williams's comedy "(intentionally or not) showed how [our media-saturated] culture was turning into mindless cacophony, making us crazy."

Intentionally or not? Maybe Williams was just trying to be funny. The fact is that the rapid transformation in American social mores during this period had a much greater effect on what was considered acceptable than Lenny Bruce's outlandishness. And it was far more responsible for opening the doors for Carlin, Pryor, and the comics who followed. The countercultural upswing began in the 1950s, in which Bruce played just a minor role, and blossomed in the 1960s, shaping what the new comics had to say as well as creating audiences who wanted to hear it. This is the point that Zoglin doesn't seem to grasp: Comedians don't tell us where we should be and why; they show us where we are, and why it's such a funny place to be. The great stand-ups of the last four decades have excelled at this.

Comedy at the Edge is full of messy people retelling their messy lives, with memories obscured by age, drugs, alcohol, ego, envy, regret, and (sometimes) success. These characters are not easy to categorize. Zoglin manages to string them together with some coherence, but his fixation on social criticism is forced, ill-placed, and ultimately unpersuasive. Imputing social, moral, or political significance to comic talent suggests that comedy has to have a point. To which anyone who has ever laughed at anything can only respond: Some people are just funny; isn't that enough?

Zack Munson is a comedian and writer in Washington.