Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-Up in the 1970s Changed America
by Richard Zoglin
Reviewed by Chris Bolton
If things had gone according to plan, you wouldn't be reading this review because I never would have written it.
I would have worked for Powell's for a couple of months before the sketch comedy troupe with whom I'd moved up to Portland started doing enough regular shows to pay our bills, expanded into a national tour, booked a spot on Conan or Letterman, and eventually landed an HBO series on the way to scoring a movie deal.
That was the plan, anyway. Since you're reading this review, it's safe to assume things didn't quite work out that way.
This, of course, is the most common story among comedians. The ones we hear about -- the Seinfelds, the Lenos, the DeGenereses -- are the cream of the crop, the lucky few who make it past the dives, through the obstacle courses, and onto our TV and movie screens. The rest, sadly, fall by the wayside.
Comedy at the Edge is Richard Zoglin's fascinating exploration of the last great comedy boom: the period in the 1970s when, as the publisher claims, "stand-up changed America."
This seems like a ludicrous boast until you take a good look -- or, rather, listen -- around you. How much of our popular vernacular can trace its roots to stand-up? From groan-inducing catchphrases like "Well, excuuuuuuse me" and that Tim Allen grunt that made the '90s so hard to live through, to current phrases (like "Well played" or "Not so much") that have seeped into the mainstream consciousness thanks to comedians like Jon Stewart, whose Daily Show is nothing if not a half-hour stand-up routine with an interview awkwardly wedged between bits.
Zoglin's focus is stand-up, but that's just the splash whose ripple effect consumed the entire lake. Consider the impact his subjects -- among them Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin -- have had on TV, movies, books, the Internet, and the ironic smirk our society continues to wear many years after we were told 9/11 had wiped it away once and for all.
Much of Comedy at the Edge devotes an entire chapter to a single comedian. Zoglin starts with the godfather of the movement, Lenny Bruce, who led stand-up from the gag-a-minute Catskills style that prevailed throughout the '50s (think Henny Youngman and Jackie Mason) to an angrier, more obscene, more truthful form of performance art.
Bruce's life was short, but his legacy was powerful. It had a major impact on George Carlin, a comedian best known for his innocuous Hippy-Dippy Weatherman bits on Carson, Ed Sullivan, and Merv Griffin's shows.
By now [Carlin] was one of the hottest young comics in the country....But he was having trouble reconciling the clash between his "A life," the short-haired comic doing jokes about radio DJs and TV commercials, and his "B life," the backstage Carlin who smoked dope and felt a bond with the protesters.
Not that change came easily. Carlin grew his hair out and started riffing on matters that were close to him personally: talking about masturbation and growing up Irish-Catholic in the '50s; doing anti-war riffs in conservative middle-American clubs; breaking taboos with his "Seven Bad Words You Can't Say on Television" piece. And, of course, drugs:
"Listen, folks," he said. "I want you to know something, I don't say 'shit.' Buddy Hackett says 'shit' right down the street. Redd Foxx will say 'shit' on the other side of the street. I don't say 'shit.' I'll smoke a little of it..." That got him fired for good.
Another comic, Richard Pryor, was similarly inspired by Bruce's legacy and his own struggles with a thoroughly racist nation. Bill Cosby had already proved in the '60s that a black comedian could be hugely successful -- but Cosby left the issue of race entirely out of his act. Pryor, on the other hand, seized it with both arms and shook the hell out of it. While Cosby won great fame with his warm, funny recollections of a colorful childhood, Pryor had a different take on his early years:
Talking about his Peoria childhood, [Pryor would] say he had a Puerto Rican mother, a black father, and lived in a Jewish tenement building in an Italian neighborhood: "I would go outside to play and the kids would say, 'Get him! He's all of them!"
Zoglin's book examines how each comedian broke down barriers -- or in some cases, rebuilt them. Steve Martin, for instance, pushed away from social commentary once the field became crowded with wannabe Carlins and Pryors, moving toward a self-referential snarkiness that would be right at home today.
When he appeared in big halls, he'd offer sympathy for the folks at the top of the balcony, reassuring them that they'd be able to see everything. Then, for his first bit, he would introduce "the magic dime trick." When someone up front would leave to go to the bathroom, Martin would enlist the rest of the crowd in a practical joke: when the poor sap came back, Martin instructed them to laugh at everything he said even before the punch lines. Three thousand people playing a prank on one unsuspecting schlub. It was brilliant lunacy.
And it made Martin a rock star among comedians, playing to sold-out amphitheaters with 20,000 screaming fans -- until, finally, Martin reached a saturation point where the audiences were chanting his signature phrases at him before he could get the words out.
Comedy had never been so big, or so influential. The '70s comedy scene led to the creation of Saturday Night Live, which was so tremendously influential and has spawned so many imitators -- from countless sketch shows to The Daily Show, which is clearly inspired by SNL's "Weekend Update" segments -- that its impact on the culture can scarcely be overestimated.
Comedy at the Edge will be a riveting read for anyone who's interested in comedy and social evolution, but it will perhaps have the biggest impact on those of us who, either now or in the past, had career ambitions in the industry. The book offers fascinating examinations of individual comedians and paints a vivid portrait of an organic, thriving scene that will earn the envy of anyone who's ever soaked in flop-sweat on an open mic night.
Today there are no superstar comedians to compare with the '70s generation's, and stand-up is a dying form (witness our version of a "rock-star comic," Dane Cook, and weep). When almost anyone with a blog and a sarcastic sense of humor can be elevated to cultural stardom, why should anyone pay a three-drink minimum? Comedy at the Edge is a stirring reminder of a time when taboos were shattered, not merely prodded over and over, and a handful of brilliant, tormented, unbelievably talented trailblazers made a difference.
And, for those of us who dreamed of making it but never actually got there, it's a delirious, bittersweet fantasia of what might have been.