Comedy at the Edge by Richard Zoglin

Can you imagine George Carlin playing the Copacabana? Or Law & Order: SVU’s Detective Munch, a.k.a. Richard Belzer, regaling a live audience with a Mick Jagger impersonation? Thanks to YouTube, such oddities may one day be available for public consumption, but it takes a book like Richard Zoglin’s Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-Up in the 1970s Changed America to explain how moments such as these grew into a wave of artistic innovation that continues to influence American comedy well into the 21st century.

A critic and editor at Time magazine, Zoglin frames stand-up comedians who achieved artistic maturity during the ‘70s — heavyweights like Richard Pryor or Steve Martin, as well as obscure figures like David Steinberg — as the “forgotten heroes” of the cultural revolution that rocked the country from Vietnam until the Reagan era. For baby-boomers like Zoglin, “stand-up comedy wasn’t just fun; it was an obsession” from childhood onward, with comics frequently appearing on radio and TV variety shows in the ‘40s and ‘50s. But after Lenny Bruce crossed the line between comedy and critique in profanity-laden diatribes on everyday life, stand-up morphed into something provocative and unpredictable.

In Bruce’s wake, “rebel comedians” from Carlin to Andy Kaufman shattered conventions in American comedy dating from the heyday of borscht belt entertainment. Written with palpable enthusiasm, Zoglin’s definitive history of this transformation connects news articles with biographical material and anecdotes from an impressive array of interviews, including talks with media-shy celebrities such as David Letterman and Steve Martin, as well as television producers, agents, and club owners from comedy hot spots on both coasts.

The result is a smooth read, numbering less than 250 pages. Each section highlights an artist or group of artists who pushed comedy in a direction where no funnyman (or woman) had gone before, in chronological progression from Bruce to Seinfeld. Early chapters focus on Carlin and Pryor, Second City alumni such as Robert Klein, and performers like Richard Lewis who got their start in Manhattan nightclubs. Subsequent chapters emphasize how, with the instantaneous recognition provided by television, stand-up was transformed from a burlesque stage act to a major media event, where comics like Robin Williams achieved rock star status seemingly overnight.

Zoglin recalls the ironic, self-effacing approach of Steve Martin and Albert Brooks; the cohort of LA-based comics who graduated to instant fame (and sometimes early flame-out) on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, their antics toned down to suit NBC’s nerves and Johnny’s taste; the “extremist” comedy of Robin Williams and Andy Kaufman; and the work of Elayne Boosler and others who broke new ground for female comics when women were largely absent from the stand-up scene. Their stories are poignant and well researched, interspersed with comic bits that are nothing less than laugh-out-loud funny.

However, this book’s title is somewhat misleading, for Zoglin is not as invested in explaining how stand-up changed America as he is in tracking the development of stand-up comedy and its audience during a tumultuous period of American history. (Additionally, his implication that comic superstardom is a ‘70s innovation is curious given the Elvis-sized crowds that swarmed Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis during their lucrative partnership, which ended in 1956.)

Like other chroniclers of social movements, Zoglin frames the evolution of stand-up as a process of rupture, experimentation, and reintegration into mainstream society with the rise of Seinfeld and the proliferation of comedy clubs across the United States. Ultimately, however, by focusing on how stand-up has been absorbed into mass culture, Zoglin does not allow for its continued development through experimental comedy, interwoven with improvisational sketches, or burlesque revival acts.

These caveats aside, Comedy at the Edge superbly conveys the ambiance of smoky dives in San Francisco and Greenwich Village, the Byzantine politics of TV bookings, and the personal struggles of some of America’s most gifted comics. Zoglin’s skilled incorporation of anecdotal material lights up the stage without playing favorites, as evident in his chapter on the infamous 1979 Comedy Store strike, when then-friends David Letterman and Jay Leno picketed alongside fellow comics to demand pay for their performances. It is the input from Letterman and other Comedy Store regulars that brings the scene to life, while stories from nightclub owners and performers enable Zoglin to paint an equally vivid picture of other important locales like San Francisco’s hungry i or Budd Friedman’s Improv.

As Zoglin wryly notes, stand-up “may be the only major art form whose greatest practitioners, at any given time, want to be doing something else.” And many giants of ‘70s stand-up did wind up doing something else, moving into production or serious acting. But while they may have been busy making other plans, the comics featured here left an indelible mark on American popular entertainment. This book offers some fun surprises as well as insight into an important period that might paradoxically be taken for granted, given the depth of its influence on comic sensibilities in the United States and beyond.

RATING 8 / 10