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New Book Covers History of American Comedy, Including Its Darker Side

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The subtitle of author Kliph Nesteroff’s new book, "The Comedians," tells all: "Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy." It’s a comprehensive chronicle of the people who have made us laugh over the last century, but the often dark, desperate story is far from a chucklefest.

"The Comedians" by Kliph Nesteroff
'The Comedians' by Kliph Nesteroff

Take Joe E. Lewis, for example, once the Dane Cook of his day, now virtually forgotten. In 1927, he had his throat slit during a contract negotiation with an Al Capone associate, though he survived to joke again. Lewis was one of many nightclub comics working for the mob, a largely overlooked history and a big part of author Kliph Nesteroff’s book, which spans the laugh business from vaudeville to podcasting.

“For some reason nobody has really talked about that in conjunction with comedians before,” says Nesteroff, “and to me that is so much more interesting than a boring singer being connected to the mob. A guy who makes fun of people for a living, his boss is a humorless Mafioso who could kill you? That dynamic to me is compelling.”

Los Angeles-based Nesteroff, who’s 35, started collecting vintage comedy albums as a teenager in British Columbia. That led to tracking down pretty much anyone he could reach involved with comedy on stage, screen, TV or radio. Meaning folks you’ve probably never heard of.

Author Kliph Nesteroff
Author Kliph Nesteroff (Peter Gilstrap/KQED)

“There was all this insight,” he explains. “These guys were obscure and their careers were nothing, but they had insight into the people we did know. And that really built an incredible story I was able to work from.”

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In 2006, Nesteroff began sharing his stories on the website of New Jersey free-form station WFMU. He developed an appreciative cult following that included Steve Martin, Mel Brooks and Marc Maron.

“I think the first piece I read was about Shecky Green,” Maron says. “I was so amazed and engrossed with the way he captured show business, 'cause I have that thing in my head. I’m attracted to the dark crevices and the seediness and this sort of chaos of the personalities, and that piece he wrote on Shecky just blew my mind.”

Maron was impressed enough to interview Nesteroff on his "WTF" podcast, which helped land the book deal and a Page One dedication.

Comedian Marc Maron
Comedian Marc Maron (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

“He just has this amazing eye for lurid but compelling tales that don’t necessarily diminish people, but you sort of feel, well, of course these guys were like that,” says Maron.

For every Richard Pryor, Jonathan Winters and Joan Rivers in the book, Nesteroff covers unfamiliar names like B.S. Pully, Slick Slavin and Frankie Ray Pirelli. But the author knows what it’s like to get onstage as an unknown. Before focusing on writing, Nesteroff worked comedy clubs in Canada for eight years.

“The fact that Kliph was a standup, I think was indispensable in the writing of this book because it gives you a perspective that you can only have once you’ve done it,” says veteran standup and former "Simpsons" writer Dana Gould, who’s quoted in "The Comedians" as a pillar of the early ‘90s alt-comedy scene.

“Standup comedy is like sex,” Gould continues. “The only way to learn how to do it is to actually do it. And then once you’ve done it, you’re full of shame.”

Comedian Dana Gould and his cat Ella.
Comedian Dana Gould and his cat, Ella. (Peter Gilstrap)

To borrow from Rodney Dangerfield, it’s all about respect.

“Because it’s comedy, it is innately not as well respected,” says Gould. “Ken Burns can do the history of jazz and it’s like the Parthenon, but comedy’s like, we don’t need to deal with that, it’s just comedy.”

But still, it’s important stuff.

“It’s part of our popular culture,” says film critic and historian Leonard Maltin. “No less than movies or books or artwork of any kind. What Kliph has done is to take something that no one else has bothered to chronicle or to take seriously. I think he nailed it.”

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