As George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Steve Martin were making names for themselves, they were also building a sturdy foundation for stand-up comedy. In a new book, Comedy at the Edge, Time magazine editor Richard Zoglin honors perhaps the most important generation of stand-up comedians.
When a new breed of stand-up comedians emerged from the comedy club trenches of the 1960s and 1970s, comedy audiences, deep in revelry, were unaware that an entertainment revolution was upon them.
Richard Zoglin’s new book, Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America, takes readers back to that time, virtually embedding comedy fans into a scene happily bloated with the colorful, brilliant, and at times, tragic trailblazers of contemporary stand-up.
Exhaustively researched and filled with engaging anecdotes and incisive commentary — Zoglin estimates having conducted about 300 hours of interviews with over 130 people — Comedy at the Edge deftly recreates an era of comedy when a two-drink minimum seemed like a bargain.
Zoglin, a senior editor at Time. examines the likes of Richard Pryor and Richard Lewis as well as celebrating less currently revered comics like David Steinberg and Elayne Boosler. In fact, the book might be as essential as the people it profiles, a tribute to the rebel icons who elevated stand-up to an art form and redefined the idea of what’s funny, while shaping a new cultural consciousness along the way.
Punchline Magazine recently chatted with Zoglin about his book.
I’d imagine one of the challenges in writing this kind of book would be the scope. How do you decide whom you talk about, what you talk about and in what depth?
That was a big challenge for me to begin with– just figuring out what period I wanted to talk about. But once I started thinking about it, it just seemed logical. When I heard so many comedians talking about Lenny Bruce, even though I wasn’t a big fan, particularly, having listened to him, I realized how he did change stand-up comedy, and how when you start from after his death, it seemed like a very good starting point.
His death coincided with the beginning of the counterculture years, Vietnam, the late 60s. And then a year or two after his death, Carlin and Pryor emerged, and then Robert Klein. And that seemed to just launch the popularity of stand-up comedy in a way that it hadn’t been before.
One issue I was dealing with was that some of the comedians in the 70s — like Steve Martin and Albert Brooks — were not at all like Richard Pryor and George Carlin. But to me, they were still part of the artistic ferment of the times; they were rebels in a different way. They weren’t political or social commentators; they were sort of artistic rebels. And that was in the spirit of the late 60s and the post-Lenny Bruce era.
So one challenge I had in writing the book was kind of tying them together and making them seem like part of the same movement. And then it was a question of just how far to take it. I decided not to really take it into the 80s, the real boom in the clubs, because it seemed like by the early 80s, most of the major people I was talking about were not doing stand-up anymore or had lost most of their edge. It seemed like a logical time to end.
You mention Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Robert Klein. But Klein is sort of the odd man out in that group– especially as we look at him now. In 1997, HBO aired 40 Years of Comedy, a George Carlin retrospective. The host, Jon Stewart, talked about “the holy trinity” for comedians, and the three names he mentioned were Lenny Bruce, Pryor and Carlin. So where does that leave Robert Klein? His last special, The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue, was Viagra jokes kind of stuff. Then I read your book, and was inspired to look at his older material and it was great.
It’s interesting for me to hear that. Klein stayed around, and he adapted his material to his age. I agree. He’s doing those Viagra jokes and it doesn’t make him sound at all hip or edgy. But, boy, back then he was really influential.
Klein really came up as a counterculture era guy. He had longish hair, he was college educated and really seemed in sync with that whole late-60s protesting generation. He talked about politics, was critical of the government and corporate greed and so forth. He had all the right attitudes.
The second thing that made him so influential was his style. Something about the rhythms and the way he kind of combined jokes with improv-type acting. Throughout his routines, he would do all the voices, but in a really fast-paced way that really was sharp. He was a laugh-getter. In terms of laughs per minute, I don’t think anyone could beat him. And yet he did it where it didn’t seem like schtick.
Do you think your book will encourage comedy fans to rediscover or discover for the first time, overlooked work?
I’m definitely hoping the book will turn people on to some of the comedians whose work has been largely overlooked, like Klein– and to a lesser extent David Steinberg. It amazes me how many people – even those in my generation who are hip to comedy — don’t know, say, that Albert Brooks did stand-up before he got into movies. And Klein’s image as a kind of establishment, Alan King-type comic does him a disservice; I wanted to remind people what an influential, terrific comedian he was.
I always thought that if my book did nothing else, it would at least put down on paper — as best you can convey it on the printed page — and in one place, some of the best routines of these great comedians. And if it also helps boost the reputation of these comedians as major comic artists, and not just people who passed through stand-up on their road to other, more “important” careers, then so much the better.
There are stories in the book about how both Steve Martin and Albert Brooks hit a wall with stand-up. You draw out a nice contrast between the two of them, which I think helps explain again for people who only know Steve Martin for really ridiculously broad Pink Panther remakes what he was all about. And then there’s Albert Brooks, whose last movie, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, might be his edgiest.
Well, Looking for Comedy was actually a little disappointing to me, but it certainly brought him back. It was a nice return to his stand-up origins. And, I think that some bits in it were really good, quintessential Albert Brooks.
But, it’s amazing to me that Albert Brooks’ stand-up material has been almost totally forgotten. I was talking to some guy around my age [who said], ‘Oh, did Albert Brooks do stand-up before his movies?’ People don’t remember his stuff. When I was growing up and in school, when Albert Brooks first came along and Albert Brooks was on The Tonight Show— you sort of organized your weeks around it. They were big events, to see what he would do.
I think both of those guys were really tongue-in-cheek, kind of ironic making fun of being a stand-up comedian. I just don’t think you can do that forever. You do hit a wall. When you’re constantly making fun of yourself, there’s a limit to how far you can take that. And then, you run out of material or you have to move on to something else, and I think both of them kind of realized that. They made a great contribution and they moved on.
You talk about how George Carlin is rarely personal in his stand-up, and yet, there’s something so engaging about him. But when I’ve seen him perform, I still feel that I’m seeing who he really is.
That’s true. You get a sense that it’s really George Carlin talking to you. There’s no wall between his real self and what he presents onstage. I think it’s really his views and his attitudes. But, he’s a fairly private guy, and he isn’t going to sit up there and talk about his sex life or his girlfriend in a personal way. So, he does it in that social observer kind of form, you know, looking at society and not making it really personal. He did in his early Class Clown kind of stuff, but even that was done in a way that there was a little bit of distance there.
I don’t remember him saying, ‘And then there was the time the nun beat me for doing this’ or whatever. He translated it all into the more general. You knew it came out of his experiences, but still it wasn’t that revealing of his specific experiences. You knew what George Carlin was like after you watched him onstage. You just didn’t know a lot of details about his personal life. He never talked about his wife, for example, and Pryor would talk about his girlfriend and dating white women and all that was a big part of his stand-up. Carlin would never go there.
It seemed that a lot of comics were doing drugs in the 70s. There’s a cliche about rock bands, that when they clean up they get worse. Is that true of stand-ups?
[Laughs] I’d say no. I think that some of Carlin’s stuff when he was in his heavy drug use is some of his weakest, actually. And he got better. I think he hit a period in the late 70s, when he was really heavily into drugs, where his material was pretty erratic and he was also pandering a lot to the drug crowd. And, then, he really renewed himself when he got clean.
In the early 80s, he got a little better. And, then, I remember seeing a concert in the early 90s, and I was really amazed that he went back and got more political and was doing really sharp stuff. He talks pretty articulately about drugs. It does help you in some ways. In performance, I think he said that it helps you, because it gets you rolling as a performer. But in terms of coming up with material and writing, I don’t think drugs help.
The one big disappointment for you in terms of getting interviews was Elayne Boosler, who declined to participate. Any guesses why? Did she just not want to be associated at all with the larger idea of women in stand-up?
I think she’s just built up a lot of resentment and bitterness over her career, which didn’t exactly take off. I think she felt over the years that she always was lumped in with women comedians and never recognized for being herself. I think she now has an automatic response against doing anything. I think she was unreasonable and silly and in terms of people recognizing what she accomplished, she’s not helping her case by not talking. Though I thought I treated her pretty well in the book and I think I did recognize her achievements.
It’s funny. Bigger people who have much more going on in their careers and lives right now were willing to talk to me. Even people who are very resistant to the press these days– like David Letterman. And Steve Martin talked to me, even though he was in the middle of writing his own autobiography. He could’ve said, ‘No, I’m doing my own book.’ He could’ve declined, but he talked to me. For Elayne Boosler to be the one that doesn’t is kind of mystifying.
At the end of a passage on Steve Martin, you have a line that says partly because of him, irony “became the enveloping comedic voice of the new millennium.” That’s certainly true. But do you find irony to be exhausting?
Yeah, I do. It does get to be too much. I find it kind of exhausting to watch Stephen Colbert, like when you have just this continual tongue-in-cheek character. As I said in the book, I think Stephen Colbert couldn’t have been around if it weren’t for Steve Martin, and in his own way, he’s doing Steve Martin. But, you know, he’s obviously adapted it to something totally different.
But, he’s creating a character where every word out of his mouth is not to be taken seriously. It’s, I’m doing a character here. I’m pretending to be sincere, but I’m not sincere.’ It does get to be exhausting.
In the book’s introduction, you write about going to comedy clubs now, and how they try to get you in and out of there as fast as possible. Was part of the reason for writing the book to show the contrast between then and now?
That didn’t inspire me to write it, but that idea certainly sharpened my perception of what was different about the old days and now.
I was at the Comedy Cellar in the Village, and, man, they have their shows on Friday and Saturday nights an hour and forty-five minutes apart. They didn’t even make them two hours apart. So, an hour and forty-five minutes, and you get six comedians plus the emcee. And, they’ve got to get people in and out to clean the tables, so you’re there for maybe an hour and a half, but probably a little less. It just struck me as an assembly line. If there was somebody interesting in town who wanted to drop by and surprise people, how do they fit them in? How are they going to have room if Robin Williams wanted to stop by and do a bit?
So, who do you like now?
I don’t know. I don’t feel like I’m quite an expert on what’s happening now, but the people I kind of like are Lewis Black, Dave Attell makes me laugh some and you know, Dane Cook even makes me laugh some. I like that there’s some more political humor out there, like Greg Giraldo. I saw him at a club, it’s been a little while, but I like his stuff.
I’ve heard Jerry Seinfeld say that comedy is a sport, not an art. In sports you know who’s winning and art is more ambiguous. But, he seems to be saying something different in the book. Did you get a sense of that?
He talks about how an art form works only if you have one outlet, if all your expression and energy goes into one form. He definitely saw himself as using stand-up as a form of his personal expression. Even though his material seems kind of trivial, he still does express himself. I think he’s not adventurous or edgy, but just as a craftsman of the art of stand-up, I think he’s terrific
And, that idea of being hip without being exclusionary…
Yeah. He works to a big audience, and yet, in little ways, he’s kind of a little bit subversive. He criticizes things you take for granted in culture and society, so that, in a way, is edgy.
So, having spent all this time writing about stand-up, for the book and for decades at Time, do you have any desire to try it for yourself?
[Laughs] No, I really don’t. It never occurred to me. I don’t really like being onstage and giving speeches or anything. Not interested. I’m a critic, not a performer. I think it’s good to keep those things separate.
Author photo by Howard Schatz I Billy Crystal/Robin Williams by Rick Newman
Richard Zoglin’s Comedy at the Edge is on sale now.