When Stand-Up Grew Up: Comedy’s Midcentury Flowering

Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s , by Gerald Nachman. Pantheon, 659 pages, $29.95.

The history of stand-up comedy divides neatly into two eras: B.M.S. and A.M.S. Before Mort Sahl, comedians were mostlyingratiating Catskill tummlers . They’d rib the in-laws, flash the occasional stiletto and never touch the politics. By the time Mr. Sahl took the stage in 1953 (on Christmas night, no less), piss and vinegar had long since forced every drop of borscht from his veins. Here was a grad-school existentialist with an opinion about everything. To prepare himself to write, the Austrian satirist Karl Kraus used to sit in Vienna coffeehouses, working up a headlong rage by reading the morning paper. Mr. Sahl did this live, impromptu and in real time. From that moment on, stand-up lost the rim shots and the nyuck-nyuck and became the high-wire act we know today: a volatile egomaniac with a smart mouth standing in front of a brick wall, giving voice to the collective unconscious.

Everyone knows how the 60′s transformed pop music forever, and how, in the 70′s, a crop of Young Turk directors gave rise to a second golden age of Hollywood. But what about the similarly epochal shift in comedy? Following close on Mort Sahl came Lenny Bruce, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Woody Allen and Bill Cosby, a group of idiosyncratic geniuses and near-geniuses who revolutionized stand-up, making it darker, more politically satirical and personally introspective. The story of that revolution has now finally been told, and beautifully so, in Gerald Nachman’s Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s , a compendium of reminiscences, biography, gossip, score-settling, revisionism and sniping.

A wonderfully touching, often maddening book, Seriously Funny is presented as a series of discrete portraits, starting with Mr. Sahl and working through the major innovators of the day, from Sid Caesar to Jonathan Winters to Joan Rivers. Almost every career arc traces a similar frown-like streak across the sky: a startling young talent struggles to find a distinctive style, achieves early fame, then lapses into one of two modes of creative perdition: obscurity or stardom. Each chapter, though, has its own surprise, pleasant and otherwise. Tom Lehrer, the brilliant satirical songwriter whose “(I’m Spending) Hanukkah in Santa Monica” was an inspiration for Adam Sandler’s own “The Chanukah Song,” quit performing early-”People do their best satirical work when they’re young,” he shrugs, without a trace of remorse-to teach math at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Bill Cosby, sadly, comes off as a churlish and unrelenting moneyhound who found his perfect decade in the 1980′s.

Almost everyone interviewed points to Mr. Sahl as the turning point. “All comics in the forties and fifties wore tuxedos,” explains the ever-gracious Steve Allen, who merits his own delightful chapter. “[T]hey were all pretty glib, pretty smooth performers …. The first time I saw Mort I wondered what he did for a living.” He deceived you into liking him by pretending to be a total amateur. He wore slacks, a sweater and an open-collar shirt-all unheard-of in the heyday of the Rat Pack and HUAC-and was the first comic to do openly political material. He cut the first comedy album, was profiled solemnly by The New Yorker , and was the first stand-up comedian to appear on the cover of Time . A 19-year-old Woody Allen caught his act in 1954, at the Blue Angel in New York. “He was the best thing I ever saw. He was like Charlie Parker in jazz …. He totally restructured comedy.”

Mr. Nachman agrees, placing Mort Sahl alongside Elvis, Kerouac, Miles Davis, Brando and Dean as one of the signal cultural eruptions of the 1950′s. So why has his reputation waned so badly? Mr. Sahl, it seems, read his own reviews, internalized the praise, and wandered through the 60′s as a kind of living totem for Candor and Audacity. In short, he became a hopeless boor. After the Kennedy assassination, he began to read undigested portions of the Warren Report onstage, alienating all but his most hard-core fans. In one last sad coda, Mr. Sahl declined to be interviewed by Mr. Nachman, saying, “I just don’t want to be in there with all those other guys. Who are all those guys? I don’t consider them in the same league.”

Enter Lenny Bruce, in any man’s league as a head-case pioneer. Bruce started out, as his biographer Albert Goldman has pointed out, a “pretty little shaygets from Long Island,” a nice gentile-seeming Jewish boy who, sitting around Hanson’s Drug Store lunch counter with some old legends, picked up the salty banter of the Jewish lower classes. When his early promise as a mimic didn’t pan out, he was relegated to the lowest rung, the strip-club circuit. He did anything to captivate the leering patrons, creating a brilliant but unremittingly obscene persona; and many contemporaries, as a result, read him as little more than a succès de scandal e. Time panned him; it was left to the jazz critics, and a few hip columnists, to act as his champion. While other comedians were making it huge on television, Bruce remained a product of the rathskeller, underground and semi-mythic, like crocodiles in the sewer system.

It was partially his own doing: He was always notoriously erratic, a revelation one night, luminous and fierce; the next, sour and genuinely unfunny. But it was his own obsession with testing community standards that made Bruce a legend. As Mr. Nachman points out, he was the last American performer to be tried for obscenity. His troubles started in 1961, when he described a sexual act that was, as a local newspaper put it, in “violation of Police Code No. 205.” Bruce is remembered as a martyr to McCarthy-era prudery, but after his arrest, the preacher and the drug addict in his personality started to dominate, and he became insufferable. Increasingly, his punchlines were designed to produce arraignments instead of mirth, and his career descended by turns into tawdriness and utter silliness. “By 1965,” writes Mr. Nachman, “he had been arrested nineteen times.” The LAPD even dredged up a Yiddish-speaking detective to monitor his act, who dutifully concluded his report with: “Suspect also used the word ‘shtup.’” Oy, caramba.

Bruce died, predictably, as a still-young man getting high. (Dick Schaap put it best: “One last four-letter word for Lenny. Dead at forty. That’s obscene.”) But his influence extends well beyond his legend as a foul-mouthed burnout. Simply put, no one in America tries to be funny, from the shock jocks to White House speechwriters, without being indebted to Mort Sahl or Lenny Bruce. And here, Mr. Nachman’s otherwise captivating book falls just short. If only he had built his story a little less around personality and a little more around theme. Why did stand-up flourish at just that historical moment? Why and how has comedy saturated American life since, even as stand-up has gone into such an inexorable decline?

The real innovation at the heart of Lenny Bruce’s act offers us a clue. He talked blue, but more importantly, he made fun of the new and growing culture of publicity. And he nailed show business: He saw that it had become a new power center in American life-a sub-department of American officialdom, in its own cunning way-and a near-absolute arbiter of public taste. With the emergence of Joseph McCarthy, the authoritarian impulse in American life had never been more naked, and Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce responded with a brutal shove in the opposite direction. But irony is cruel, and the times more complicated: Thanks to the 50′s comedians, we have a new kind of power, which pretends not to be power. Elite journalists now arrive on crooked knee before Don Imus, Bruce’s sad epigone; and the Presidential candidates, one by one, dutifully hit the sofas at Letterman and Leno. The shpritz has wended its way down to ad campaigns for Sprite. Irreverence is the national religion.

But despair not-enough of American public life remains adequately somber and hypocritical for The Simpsons to soldier on into eternity, for the unfathomably talented Jon Stewart to grace our living rooms every night. In such moments, the spirits of Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce linger.

Stephen Metcalf reviews books regularly for The Observer.