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.
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.
“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.”