2016 Best Entertainment Book. The Comedians by Kliph Nesteroff

It’s December and time for my Books of the Year List.  I finished 120 books this year with several non-fiction titles showing exceptional merit.  I had to create a couple new categories to fit them all in.

Best Entertainment Book.  The Comedians: drunks, thieves, scoundrels and the history of American comedy by Kliph Nesteroff.  If you are a comedy geek, you must absolutely read this book.  If not, then you may feel like you’re walking uphill through knee-high snow as its 360 pages are dense with information about comedy since 1900.  What Nesteroff does best is trace the progression of comedy through time, both at the artistic level and the business side.  He describes entire comedic family trees: Jack White to Jack Waldron to Jack E. Leonard to Don Rickles to Robert Smigel and Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog.  You learn who did “Who’s on First?” before Abbott & Costello and who did the telephone operator bit long before Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine on Laugh-In.  He defines the multiple degrees of separation and connection between joke book writer Robert Orben of the 1940s and 50s and Chris Rock’s success fifty years later.  He points out who influenced (and stole from) whom throughout the 20th century.  But beyond the personalities, he also chronicles how the industry changed from vaudeville to radio to Mob-controlled nightclubs to tv talk shows to the comedy club boom of the 1980s to cable television and podcasts in the new century.  The focus is heavily on stand-up as a presentation form, but he also talks about comedy records, television (though sitcoms are sadly missing) and movies to a lesser degree.  The historical facts are the result of incredible research from written sources, supported by copious endnotes, though no bibliography, and from over 200 interviews with the subjects themselves.  As an amateur student of comedy, I have read several books on the subject and this is the best I have encountered since Steve Martin’s autobiography, Born Standing Up, in 2008.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

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