The Rebel Comedians of
The 1950s and 1960s
By Gerald Nachman
Pantheon. 672 pp. $29.95
When people call the 1950s boring, they don't realize that they're calling Dwight D. Eisenhower a genius. If he hadn't cast himself as the national sedative, his compatriots might have figured out that they were living through one of the most revolutionary periods since the country's origins. Spurred on by the largest single surge of mass upward mobility in history, the era's culture was hardly the petrified forest of later dismissals. A decade that made household names of Tennessee Williams and James Baldwin, along with Method acting, Abstract Expressionism, psychoanalysis, rock-and-roll and Walt Kelly's Pogo, the '50s were seismic in disguise.
Few figures are as symptomatic of the era's contained volatility as the gallery of innovative comics Gerald Nachman profiles, analyzes and gives their long-overdue due in Seriously Funny. Often satirically impudent, basing their comedy styles on their own personalities rather than supplying machine-gun jokes, they also gave so-called mainstream America its first exposure to unrepressed minority attitudes -- for which read, primarily, urban Jewishness, although plenty of WASP flakes joined the party, and black comedians and, to a still lesser extent, female ones also made inroads. For the time, this was a heady brew: Told that the success of his 1962 LP "My Son, the Folksinger" had inspired a PhD thesis about Americans' "deep secret wish to be Jewish," song parodist Allan Sherman mused, "Won't that be news to the New York Athletic Club?"
Starting with Eisenhower-scourge Mort Sahl's 1953 debut at San Francisco's soon-to-be-legendary nightclub the hungri i -- short for "Hungry Id," we're told, and a prescient name if ever there was one -- Nachman's survey is an uncommonly rich and informative look back. Along with extended, insightful studies of not only Sahl but also Lenny Bruce, characterized here as "The Elvis of Stand-Up," he serves up fascinating takes on major players ranging from such long-acknowledged but now remote titans as TV pioneers Sid Caesar and Ernie Kovacs to Bill Cosby and Woody Allen. But Seriously Funny is perhaps most valuable for the host of lesser but still emblematic talents who also rate portraits, including, among others, Tom Lehrer, Shelley Berman, Jean Shepherd, the pre-sitcom Bob Newhart, the pre-"Producers" Mel Brooks, the Smothers Brothers, Dick Gregory and vinyl prankster Stan Freberg. Plus, of course, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, both of whom, despite distinguished (his) and erratic (hers) later careers, probably never had more influence as knowing observers of modern mores than during their brief stint as the country's reigning chic comedy duo.
Luckily for us, most of these people are still alive and well and, with one important exception -- Cosby -- sat for interviews, sharing their often fascinating appraisals of themselves and one another as well as any number of impish asides. (With typical insouciance, Lehrer the moonlighting Harvard math professor, who walked away from a comedy career most pros would have killed for, admits to fondly collecting press clippings that call him "the late Tom Lehrer.") Choice anecdotes are plentiful. Plagued throughout his career by rumors of mental instability, the brilliant Jonathan Winters -- whose roster of Middle-American zanies Nachman compares, not unreasonably, to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio -- is recalled on a night when "he toured Manhattan bistros with a defused hand grenade, shouting, from time to time, 'Everybody goes when the whistle blows!' "
What makes Seriously Funny more than a nostalgia trip, however, is the keenness of the author's judgments. At his best, he can sum up a whole career in an epigram: "[Woody] Allen wasn't the clown who wanted to play Pagliacci; he was the clown who wanted to discuss Pagliacci." Generously, he packs his pages with excerpts from the routines that made these comics famous, which are both very funny and, in hindsight, evocative. When he quotes Dick Gregory asking a white audience, "Wouldn't it be a helluva joke if all this were burnt cork and you people were all being tolerant for nothin'?," you're transported back to a world when integration was, not least, a form of sophistication.
Inevitably, readers will quarrel with a few of Nachman's choices. While he makes a good case for the ground-breaking side of Phyllis Diller's freak-show act, I wish he'd found room for Carol Burnett, the only comedienne of the era (including Lucille Ball, another no-show here) who didn't traffic in self-hatred. A chapter on Godfrey Cambridge, about whom the author clearly has almost nothing to say, is embarrassingly brief. Nonetheless, in every important way, Seriously Funny is as close to a definitive book on this subject as we're likely to get. *
Tom Carson is Esquire's "Screen" columnist and the author of "Gilligan's Wake," a novel.