Seriously Funny

Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s
Gerald Nachman
Pantheon (2003), 672 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, hardcover and paperback editions: out of print

When I started this book I was looking for a diversion, and from that perspective it was a particularly good choice. Nachman starts with Mort Sahl and concludes with Joan Rivers. Along the way he covers all the major names, including Steve Allen, Tom Lehrer, Phyllis Diller, Bob Newhart, The Smothers Brothers, Woody Allen, and many others. The writing is lively and the material interesting. My only issue with this book is that at 672 pages in the print edition it is just too damn long. I would reach a point where I wanted to say, “All right, enough already about Shelley Berman! Now let’s please move on.” Most, though not all, of the chapters could have been cut by half. Perhaps that is why the book is no longer available in a print edition.

Still, one learns some interesting things about folks, all of whom broke new ground in one way or another. I remember Mort Sahl from the sixties more than the fifties (I was too young in the fifties), but he appears in the fifties section of the book. While he was popular onstage people who knew him personally didn’t like him much.

Steve Allen also appears in the fifties section of the book, although he had a very long career. Nachman writes, “Allen had an astonishing skill at seizing on a word or a phrase, on someone’s name, occupation, or hometown, and, in a flash, finding its comic essence…. For no reason at all except that he liked the sound of a word or a phrase, Allen would get obsessed with it and repeat it because it cracked him up.” Indeed. When Terry and I lived in Mountain View on the San Francisco Peninsula in the 1990s we went to see Steve Allen at a comedy club in neighboring Sunnyvale. I was a technical writer in those days. Steve took questions from the audience, and he asked the first questioner what his occupation was. The questioner replied, “technical writer.” Without thinking I began clapping. Allen stopped and looked over in my direction, though he couldn’t see me because of the stage lights. He said, “Why would someone applaud at the mere mention of the words ‘technical writer’?” After that, “mere mention” popped up throughout the evening. My five minutes of fame with Steve Allen.

Nachman writes about Woody Allen and Mel Brooks. Both, of course, are well-known for their movies, but both had standup careers as well. While the author writes extensively about their standup work, he also discusses their movie careers. His chapter on Bob Newhart is interesting, and it is revealing reading about how Newhart got started recording vinyl albums to support his standup career before making it big in television.

Fun stuff, all of this. Well, most of it. Nachman does mention police violence in the civil rights movement and briefly notes Woody Allen’s less than stellar personal life. Bill Cosby gets a pass, but the book was published in 2003, before his reprehensible behavior really became public. Still, interesting reading if too long by half.

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