The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy

The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy

by Kliph Nesteroff

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ISBN-13: 9780802190864
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 11/03/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 327,916
File size: 17 MB
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About the Author

In The Comedians, comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff brings to life a century of American comedy with real-life characters, forgotten stars, mainstream heroes and counterculture iconoclasts. Based on over two hundred original interviews and extensive archival research, Nesteroff’s groundbreaking work is a narrative exploration of the way comedians have reflected, shaped, and changed American culture over the past one hundred years.

Starting with the vaudeville circuit at the turn of the last century, Nesteroff introduces the first stand-up comedian—an emcee who abandoned physical shtick for straight jokes. After the repeal of Prohibition, Mafia-run supper clubs replaced speakeasies, and mobsters replaced vaudeville impresarios as the comedian’s primary employer. In the 1950s, the late-night talk show brought stand-up to a wide public, while Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and Jonathan Winters attacked conformity and staged a comedy rebellion in coffeehouses. From comedy’s part in the Civil Rights movement and the social upheaval of the late 1960s, to the first comedy clubs of the 1970s and the cocaine-fueled comedy boom of the 1980s, The Comedians culminates with a new era of media-driven celebrity in the twenty-first century.

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Vaudeville Comedians

At the start of the twentieth century, the United States had close to five thousand vaudeville theaters. There were small houses with less than five hundred seats, medium theaters seating a thousand and large palaces that accommodated anywhere from fifteen hundred to five thousand people. The result was an immense working-class circuit, an underbelly where future stars learned their craft.

The theaters were owned and operated by a small handful of moguls, greedy men of massive wealth with a pathological need for profit. Benjamin Franklin Keith was one of them. The father of vaudeville's largest circuit, Keith got his start in the 1880s selling tickets to exhibitions of "prematurely born Negro babies." Other money-hungry weirdos copied the idea and the industry hailed Keith as the groundbreaking innovator of the "incubator baby shows."

The Keith circuit controlled the majority of vaudeville theaters west and south of Chicago. "It is a very rich corporation," said a 1905 profile. "Its Chicago offices resemble those of a New York financial institution." And it was every bit as ruthless. Corners were cut to maximize profit: The heat was turned off, the dressing rooms were unkempt, and the comedians' pay was low. Travel tickets, if covered at all, were the cheapest possible. The front of a major vaudeville house might look ornate and dazzling, but behind the curtain it was a parade of literal rats and figurative rodents.

At the turn of the century parishioners attacked vaudeville as a sinful venture. Organized boycotts adversely affected ticket sales. Keith's wife was deeply religious and prodded her husband to follow church directives. Comedian Fred Allen said, "Mrs. Keith instigated the chaste policy, for she would tolerate no profanity, no suggestive allusions, double-entendres or off-color monkey business." Keith realized it would be wise business if he could get into the good graces of the church; receiving its endorsement while the competition suffered a boycott would be a great advantage. Keith aligned himself with religious types and entered a financial partnership with the church. Soon it was bankrolling Keith's larger shows and had made him the most dominant vaudeville force in the Midwest.

Edward Franklin Albee was another mogul and an early partner of Keith's. Together they conspired to crush all competition. They triumphed through intimidation. If it was an independent theater they wanted to take over, they publicly smeared it as a merchant of sin. Its reputation tarnished, they swooped in and "saved" their acquisition with a clean Keith-Albee bill.

They could dish it, but they couldn't take it. If anyone criticized Keith-Albee, there was trouble. Variety was the show business paper of record, and when it dared publish objective criticism of Keith-Albee shows, Albee banned Variety from his property. Any performer caught reading it was immediately fired from the circuit.

"Edward F. Albee became an almost dictatorial figure in American vaudeville," wrote vaudeville scholar Charles W. Stein. "Our appraisal of him lies midway between unmitigated ogre and enlightened despot. He gobbled up one chain of theaters after another, built huge new ones and succeeded in merging Keith-Albee with the Orpheum circuit."

The Orpheum circuit had been Keith-Albee's largest competitor, with theaters in Calgary, Champaign, Davenport, Decatur, Denver, Des Moines, Duluth, Fresno, Kansas City, Lincoln, Los Angeles, Madison, Memphis, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Oakland, Omaha, Portland, Rockford, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Seattle, Sioux City, Springfield, St. Louis, St. Paul, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Victoria.

Once a comedian was contracted to a class circuit, his standard of living went up. "Circuits were signing vaudeville acts to three- and five-year pay-or-play contracts that guaranteed the acts forty or more weeks each year," said comedian Fred Allen. "These contracts could be used as collateral ... A vaudeville performer could present his five-year Keith contract at any local bank and borrow enough money to buy or build a home."

Keith-Albee and their Orpheum theaters had almost total control of vaudeville. Stein wrote, "Their virtual monopoly in the field of vaudeville was akin to that of John D. Rockefeller's in oil or Andrew Carnegie's in steel." It was an apt comparison. The working conditions of vaudeville were not unlike that of industrial age factories, with few benefits offered its working class. "I played dumps," said Milton Berle. "I toiled when I first started to play all the vaudeville theaters. Terrible theaters. I played small towns. One town was so small the local hooker was a virgin."

Three small circuits contentiously fought Keith-Albee during the first twenty years of the twentieth century: the Pantages Circuit of Alexander Pantages, the Loew's Circuit of Marcus Loew and the Sheedy Time Circuit of Michael R. Sheedy. Keith-Albee eventually decided they posed no threat and let them endure. As the magazine The American Mercury explained, "It was dollar-and-a-half vaudeville against twenty-five-cent stuff, with the difference in price about equal to the difference in material offered." Comedian George Jessel said of the Sheedy Time Circuit, "It should have been spelled shitty ... I'll never forget the opening in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in the dead of winter at a little theater at the end of a pier. The dressing rooms were afloat with sea water and we had to put boards and boxes on the floor to make up and dress ... It was a tough time, all right."

Theater owners dodged construction costs, cutting corners and employing nonunion labor. Shoddy methods caused the death of vaudeville comedian Rube Dickinson in Kansas City. Booked at a brand-new venue, Dickinson stepped outside to have a smoke and was standing underneath the large wooden marquee advertising him when it collapsed. As the marquee caved, so too did his head — killed under the weight of his own name.

Vaudeville houses had poor ventilation. "The vaudeville seasons would end by summer because there was no air conditioning in those days," said Groucho Marx. Moe Howard of Three Stooges fame remembered the Kansas City Orpheum, where "the dressing rooms were unclean, unheated, unventilated and rat-infested. In some of the theaters, the manager used the dressing room as a storeroom, often filled with bags of unpopped corn, sometimes up to the ceiling. The bottom bags usually had holes where the rats were nibbling."

W. C. Fields was popular in vaudeville as a comic juggler as early as 1900, but he still referred to his vaudeville days as "the most miserable [time] of my life. I would never have gone through with it if I had known what it was going to be like ... mental torture is too high a price to pay for anything."

Early vaudevillians had no defense if they got stiffed on pay. "We were completely at the mercy of local managers and booking agents," said Harpo Marx. "If they ran off with the share of the receipts they had promised us, we had nobody to appeal to. There was nothing we could do except pick up our bags and start walking to the next town before we got thrown in the jig as vagrants."

It was decades before the Jet Age, and the means of transportation available to a small-time vaudevillian were brutal. "The cities and towns could seldom be reached by any one railroad," said Fred Allen. "There never seemed to be a direct way the actor could go from one date to another without changing trains once or twice during the night and spending endless hours at abandoned junctions waiting for connecting trains. Through the years I have spent a hundred nights curled up in dark, freezing railroad stations." Harpo Marx said, "Looking back, I simply don't know how we survived it. Those early days on the road were sheer, unmitigated hell."

Some acts subsidized a meager income doing odd jobs in showbiz rooming houses. "Many of the acts did light housekeeping in little flats and others lived in boardinghouses where for a buck you could get three meals a day and a room with a window," said comedian and vaudeville historian Joe Laurie Jr. Silent comedy pioneer Mack Sennett lived in vaudeville boardinghouses "along with midgets, fat ladies, tap dancers, carnival entrepreneurs and unemployed snake charmers." He said his audiences were full of "prostitutes, pimps, touts, beggars, sneak thieves and pickpockets."

Comedians built a kinship with prostitutes and drug dealers living a vagabond lifestyle not vastly different from their own. "The Saratoga in Chicago was that kind of spot," said Laurie Jr. "You could buy anything — a double routine, parody, tip on a horse, hot jewelry or even some 'nose candy' right in the lobby. The only rule strictly enforced in this type of hotel was 'No smoking of opium in the elevators.'"

The opiate of the vaudeville people was opium. Morphine was a close second. Trade publications were full of reports like that of vaudeville actress Edith Peck, who was arrested for morphine possession. Peck said, "Late night work made me an addict."

Narcotics addiction was so common that vaudeville comedian Lew Kelly became famous for a dope fiend act, with comedy derived from his character's stoned hallucinations. It was successful enough that it created a dope fiend genre. "There have been many imitators of Kelly in his dope characterizations," wrote the Pittsburgh Press in 1915, "but none of the imitators have succeeded in getting the originality and the genuine worth into the part that Lew Kelly imparts to it."

Drug dealing was a way to subsidize a small-timer's income. Some comics were in demand not for their act, but for their connections. Ray Ripley was a small-time comic who dealt drugs on the side until he was imprisoned in 1921. Comic Joe Perryfi dealt to burlesque acts until he was busted in Pittsburgh, his four thousand dollars in cash confiscated when he was charged with unlawful possession and transportation of ten ounces of morphine.

Booze was a tragic undercurrent for many vaudeville comedians, and when Prohibition started in 1918, drunks acquired their alcohol from unregulated sources. For an alcoholic touring the country, it meant panic if you didn't have a hookup in each town. Fred Allen said, "Prohibition posed great problems for the drinking vaudeville actor. He had to find a bootlegger in a strange city and take the word of some newly made acquaintance as to the quality of the hooch available. Usually, the stagehands could be depended upon for this information. Some of the stagehands were themselves bootleggers."

The lower-end vaudeville audience often comprised passed-out drunks. Allen recalled the Jefferson Theater in Manhattan, where "alcoholics of all sizes and in varying conditions used the Jefferson as a haven from the elements and a slumber sanctuary. At some performances the Jefferson took on the appearance of a flophouse that had put in vaudeville."

Vaudeville comedians and burlesque comedians flourished during the same era, but in separate, parallel worlds. The main burlesque circuit was the Columbia Wheel, cofounded by Harry Abbott, the father of Abbott & Costello's Bud. The Abbotts lived in the Coolidge Hotel, a New York SRO that accommodated "burlesque people, pimps, prostitutes, and purse snatchers." Abbott started the Columbia Wheel using the money he made from his Coney Island attraction Midget City — a community for little people built to scale.

Burlesque comedians struggled for attention, as naked women were the main draw. According to groping expert Irving Zeidman in his book The American Burlesque Show, strippers like Betty Duval and Bubbles Yvonne "would be mauled by the comics in the bits, and as the star strippers of the shows, would exhibit their well-proportioned breasts in full view, then their well-developed buttocks in full view, all the time shaking whatever was exposed, and smilingly walk off after four or five encores — a hard day's work well done."

Burlesque comedy relied on stock routines and characters. Its most common comedy conventions, according to Zeidman, were "rampaging husbands and racial caricature, both holdovers from the turn of the century. Also standard in all burlesque shows was the use of odd descriptive names for the cast of characters [like] A. Grafter, Stockson Bonds, Ima Peach." Standard burlesque turns had names like Under the Bed and Suck a Lemon. According to journalist Bill Treadwell, "The old vulgar gag where the policeman swung his club between his legs was done in every show."

Burlesque's primitive vulgarity brought inevitable police shakedowns. Morton Minsky of the successful Minsky's burlesque said, "The aggravation we had from the self-appointed moralists started almost at the beginning and haunted us to the very end."

Burlesque comedy was risqué, while vaudeville had pathological sanctimony. Vaudeville houses posted warnings backstage about verboten subject matter. References to sex or Christianity were out, as was any cussing — although restrictions varied from town to town and year to year. The phrase "working blue" came into usage at the time. If a representative of the Keith Orpheum circuit objected to the content of an act, a request to cut the material was sent backstage in a blue envelope. So-called blue material was considered problematic enough that vaudeville listings in local papers noted which shows were "Clean Bills." Some of the restrictions had no obvious logic. The Keith circuit had its list of seventy-three objectionable topics including "Mayor Jimmy Walker, Fiorello LaGuardia, Aimee McPherson, Herbert Hoover and Arabs." Fred Allen said, "Long after Mr. Keith's death, the circuit was still waging its campaign against suggestive material." Albee was delighted when a woman wrote him a letter saying she could attend his theaters "on the Sabbath and still feel in direct communion with God." The arbitrary Keith-Albee rules carried over into postvaudeville media. Long after vaudeville died in the early 1930s, the Keith-Albee restrictions still informed the censorship bureaus of radio.

Vaudeville may have been clean, but it bred cruelty. The method of using a giant hook to yank acts from the stage seems like an invention of cartoons, but the basis for the cliché was real. A showman named Henry Clay Miner invented it for his amateur night at Miner's Bowery Theatre in the 1880s. If the act was deemed rotten, a stagehand was cued to remove the performer with a massive hook and a violent tug. The sheer rancor of this spectacle turned Miner's amateur nights into a profitable draw.

George Burns once relayed the story of a theater owner in the 1920s whose cruelty surpassed the hook, using an even more humiliating instrument — the hoop. "A man with a hoop would sit in the front row during the performance, and if he thought the act was lousy he'd use the hoop to pull the performer right over the footlights."

If the crowd thought you stunk, they had their own props to show their distaste. "If an audience didn't like us we had no trouble finding out," said Harpo Marx. "We were pelted with sticks, bricks, spitballs, cigar butts, peach pits and chewed-out stalks of sugar cane."

Just as the hook was nestled in reality, so too was the cliché of chucking rotten tomatoes at the stage. But this was less a product of dissatisfied patronage than of vaudeville promoters looking for another gimmick. Turn-of-the-century vaudeville impresario Oscar Hammerstein came up with the idea of erecting a screen and encouraging the hordes to pitch overripe groceries. Likewise, impresario Billy Rose ran newspaper ads for his Casino de Paree exclaiming, "Sunday Nite — Amateur Nite. Come and throw vegetables at actors!"

The attraction of rotten food matched the attraction of so-rotten-they're-good performers. George Burns loved an act called Swain's Rats and Cats, which he claimed "consisted of several cats dressed as horses being ridden by several rats dressed as jockeys." Most notorious were the Cherry Sisters, a group of singers promoted by their vaudeville hosts as the worst act in showbiz. Audiences were encouraged to treat them accordingly. For those with a sense of humor, the Cherry Sisters were a must-see. Variety observed in 1924: "As terribleness, their skit is perfection. The manager, who happens to be punished by having them placed on his bill, has only one opportunity — that of billing them as a comedy duo."

Some of the most influential comedy figures of the twentieth century entered vaudeville as children. Child acts featuring Groucho Marx, Phil Silvers and Buster Keaton were among the most popular forms of vaudeville comedy.

Buster Keaton was part of the most controversial act in showbiz when he was a toddler. The Three Keatons featured patriarch Joe Keaton concentrating on a serious task at the start of each comedy sketch. He would be calculating taxes or changing a flat tire when his tiny son Buster would enter the scene, prodding and annoying his father. Buster would harangue his father over and over, incessantly, until Joe Keaton snapped with rage. What followed was a mesmerizing session of acrobatic brutality.


Excerpted from "The Comedians"
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Copyright © 2015 Kliph Nesteroff.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Introduction xiii

A Note on Sources xix

Chapter 1 Vaudeville Comedians 1

Chapter 2 Radio 26

Chapter 3 Nightclubs 53

Chapter 4 Television 95

Chapter 5 Late Night 125

Chapter 6 The Emergence of Las Vegas 138

Chapter 7 Stand-up's Great Change 155

Chapter 8 Percolation in the Mid-1960s 202

Chapter 9 Hippie Madness at Decade's End 232

Chapter 10 The First Comedy Clubs and the 1970s 274

Chapter 11 The Stand-up Comedy Boom 306

Chapter 12 The 1990s 330

Chapter 13 The New Millennium 345

Acknowledgments 359

Illustration List 361

Notes 363

Index 395

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The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Well reasearched. Decently written. Drags in places. It makrs no attempt to be funny. Given how unpleasant many people in it are described, that's just as well.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As a person who is born in the brought back memories and gave insight to those comedians that I watched on TV and listened to on albums
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Simply, excellent! Witty, thorough, readablke! You will enjoy this book! ... DAM