I picked up two books over summer vacation, both on the advent of modern of stand-up comedy in America. I became interested in the first book, William Knoedelseder’s I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-Up Comedy’s Golden Era, after a passing mention on Jimmy Pardo’s Never Not Funny. The second book, Richard Zoglin’s Comedy on the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America, came recommended by Amazon. Though written in very different styles, both provide insight into the lives of comics during stand-up’s meteoric rise in the 60s and 70s.
Comedy on the Edge takes a historical approach, devoting each chapter to a specific comic and/or movement: Lenny Bruce (obscenity), George Carlin (intransigence), Richard Pryor (race), Albert Brooks (deconstruction), Robin Williams (improv), Elayne Boosler (gender), Steve Martin (apolitical comedy), Andy Kaufman (anti-comedy), and more. Zoglin examines the development of the west coast comedy scene (spurred by NBC’s decision to move The Tonight Show from New York to Los Angeles) and its effect on the entertainment business. Most comics of the time saw stand-up as a means to an end; work up enough good material to get an appearance on The Tonight Show and pray to God that Carson likes your act. If he did, he’d eventually call you over to the couch, a gesture recognized among those in the industry as a surefire sign of having “made it.” The approval of Carson led to TV and movie deals, making each comic’s appearance on The Tonight Show a nail-biting ordeal. Comedian David Sayh was thrilled to have made a successful debut on the show, and was so successful with the crowd that Carson gave him two more guest appearances. Sayh, unfortunately, had only six minutes of “A” material, which he used up on his first appearance (on YouTube here; it’s pretty unspectacular by today’s standards but there are one or two genuinely funny bits). Subsequent appearances were less successful and he was never invited back. Jerry Seinfeld cites Sayh’s dearth of material as the motivation for him to write for at least one hour every day.
Many of the comics featured in Zoglin’s book are marked by an unwillingness to compromise. Though Bruce came out swinging, other well-known firebrands such as Carlin and Pryor actually started out as family-friendly acts before their frustration turned them into more honest stage versions of themselves; Pryor’s turning point came during a packed show in which he took the stage, looked around, exclaimed “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing here,” and walked off.
I’m Dying Up Here focuses on the comedians’ strike on The Comedy Store in 1979 (an event that Zoglin briefly touches upon in one chapter) but takes a more narrative approach, reproducing conversations and phone calls among comics, club owners, and agents. Knoedelseder recounts the history of The Comedy Store, from Mitzi Shore’s acquisition of the LA club from ex-husband Sammy Shore in 1974 all the way through the tumultuous events of the strike and the schism that it created among comics. (The gist is this: Mitzi had been touting her club as a workshop, and so refused to pay the comics anything for their performances despite the fact that she was making money hand over fist through drink and ticket sales. In her mind she was producing stars — Comedy Store alumni included Pryor, Williams, Leno, Letterman, and Boosler after all, all of whom worked for free as they developed their acts — and she believed that they did not deserve to be paid. Budd Friedman, owner of LA’s Improv (Mitzi’s only competition), wisely positioned himself as a friend to the striking comics, agreeing to abide by whatever system of payment they eventually arrived upon with Mitzi. When The Improv was partially burned in a fire (a suspected act of arson from Mitzi’s camp), comics agreed to help rebuild while holding performances in the unburned part of the building when they weren’t on the picket line).
Knoedelseder paints Tom Dreesen, the strike’s organizer and voice, as a competent man whom the other comics trusted. His leadership at the picket line was bolstered by others (Pryor’s friend Paul Mooney was key in preliminary negotiations due to Mitzi’s respect for him), and moral support from those who were no longer tied to the club (the striking comics received several letters of support from Pryor, now a major star, and even Bob Hope). Leno (still good friends with Letterman at the time) faked an injury in the parking lot after being clipped by a car, secure in the knowledge that injuries incurred on the picket line were the responsibility of the property owner. Letterman (himself enjoying a stint as guest host of The Tonight Show) actually drove down to picket one night after a taping. Knoedelseder really tries to present Mitzi as a complex if not sympathetic figure; her sense of betrayal at the hands of all the talent she had helped to develop in the past is palpable, but so is the plight of the penniless comics themselves.
Even when a deal is reached, things never quite return to the heyday of ’74-’79 in terms of community and productivity. A clause in the agreement states that Mitzi cannot refuse a comic work because of his involvement with the strike, yet this is exactly what she does to Steve Lubetkin, a man whose multiple appearances on The Tonight Show yielded him next to nothing. In a final protest, Lubetkin throws himself from the roof of a 14-story hotel down the street from The Comedy Store.
I’m glad for Amazon’s recommendation of the Zoglin book. The two dovetail nicely and create a detailed panorama of life as a comedian in the 60s and 70′s. I recommend both of them (even though I sort of, uh, just summarized everything) but if you have to choose, Comedy on the Edge is a bit better-written and much more informational in contrast with the drama and pathos of I’m Dying Up Here (which, don’t get me wrong, is still a great read).
[Addendum: While piddling around YouTube this afternoon I came across Johnny Carson's last appearance on television, which happened to be on Letterman's show. Dig that standing ovation!]