Monday, April 02, 2018

Book Review: Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-Up in the 1970s Changed America

by Richard Grooms, Fiction Department, Central Library

Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-Up in the 1970s Changed America
Richard Zoglin

Like many boomers, I look back on the '70s stand-up comedians as the peak of that art form. Richard Pryor, Andy Kaufman, Robin Williams, and George Carlin, among many other standouts, made their mark and did most of their best work then. When this book came out in 2008, no one had done a book on this topic in decades. Writing about comedy is like dancing about architecture, but Richard Zoglin rises to the challenge and the book is a real pleasure to read. And funny, too. Zoglin takes care of the inherent difficulty of writing about something so ephemeral. You can’t just YouTube this stuff. You have to network with collectors who own rare and unique tape collections and know where to search in broadcast libraries. It’s not a well-documented scene.

Comedy at the Edge starts where modern American stand-up starts with: Lenny Bruce. Bruce pioneered political, cultural and religious comedy that was risk-taking and personal. He made it relevant. He broke free speech and obscenity barriers. Even though many of his routines haven’t aged well, he influenced generations of stand-ups. They’re all in his debt, whether they know it or not, and most of them know it. Even after the Bruce Big Bang, it wasn’t until the late '60s that some comedians started to let it loose like Lenny. George Carlin and Richard Pryor wrecked their careers big time when they decided to go frank, go relevant. They eventually came out on top, but it wasn’t easy. The '70s brought an era of new freedoms, and many stand-ups followed in the wake of Carlin and Pryor. It’s amazing to read about how, for a generation, comics worked without getting paid because they wanted to do comedy so bad. The idea was to get exposure in New York, and later LA, so that producers, directors, and agents would notice you. Then, if all went well, you’d transition to TV and movies, leaving stand-up behind. Most never made it. Zoglin ably conveys the risky, chaotic atmosphere of these clubs. These funnymen (and they were almost always men—women weren’t welcome in this world) thought this was a macho environment and thrived in it. Or did when they weren’t moaning about it. The women who broke down the walls of the boy’s club, such as Elaine Boosler and Paula Poundstone, were funny but not threatening. Most women couldn’t hack it, at least not for a long time.

In the '80s, comedy boomed. Clubs spread throughout the country. Stand-up, and a bi-coastal comedy sensibility, started to go mainstream. By the '90s, the revolution was complete. Somewhere in there, as a result of the stand-ups, America became a little freer, a little more cosmopolitan, a little edgier, and a lot more honest in terms of its humor. And singles could take their dates to somewhere besides a movie. You can get to know someone well when you find out what makes them laugh.

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