Book Review

Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s

Book Review

Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s

by Gerald Nachman

Pantheon, 768 pp., $29.95

Between its title and proximate April Fools' Day release, the casual observer might assume Gerald Nachman's Seriously Funny is some sort of joke book. However, its subtitle and subject (The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s) offer the advanced student of dry humor the opportunity to quip that no, it is the anti-joke book! The "rebels" Nachman documents and celebrates are the clutch of revolutionary young humorists, sketch comics, and stand-up comedians who came along at the tail end of the Korean War and introduced the country to new and better ways to laugh. So innovative, fresh, and popular were their myriad innovations ("sick" humor, comedy albums, The Tonight Show, etc.) that their arrival doomed the aging joke-men of yore, like some biblical plague sent by Yahweh to punish the vaudevillians for having false burlesque revues before him. Each proffered something new, unique, and precious: Lenny Bruce's relentless and "obscenely" funny digs at racists and assorted other hypocrites opened the doors for the likes of George Carlin and Bill Hicks; Jonathan Winters' giddy, unpredictable, over-the-top insanity was later inseminated into a rabid grizzly, and so was born Robin Williams; Woody Allen begat Albert Brooks and taught the U.S. male how to get in touch with his inner schlemiel. Mel Brooks, Ernie Kovacs, Godfrey Cambridge, Bob Newhart -- one after another rattling the cage of an America still not fully over the trauma of World War II and blissfully unaware of the changes the Sixties would bring. Today, of course, the soldiers of the rebel assault are either dead or well into their autumn years, reflecting on lives lived large. To Nachman, each is an intricate, invaluable puzzle that must be solved, a continent calling out to be explored to its fullest. Though his underlying affection is clear, Nachman doesn't whitewash the dark sides of his subjects, from Winters' trip to the looney bin in 1959 to the rise and tumultuous fall of Sid Caesar's television empire and down, down, down into Lenny Bruce's dark descent into drugs and death. This reviewer, having known stand-up innovator Shelley Berman, can vouch personally for Nachman's look "inside" the famously neurotic, volatile wit whose temperament more than once sent his career furiously awry. The Shelley I remember is unmistakably here on these pages, now an elder statesman in a youth-obsessed world of potty-mouthed XXX comics and endless, derivative hacks. Sadly, while loud, drunk clubgoers eat up patchwork mishmashes strained from the rebels' own pure stuff, the original "method comic" says he feels "very left out. Not only as a performer but as a member of the audience." In these dark days of safe sitcom humor and assembly-line club comics, Seriously Funny is a timely reminder that comedy at its best can be as dangerous, subversive, and exciting as rock & roll at its raunchiest. The men and women profiled herein are the Beatles, Stones, Hendrixes, and Screamin' Jay Hawkinses of their own field, and they well deserve this extensive and intensive study.

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Gerald Nachman, Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, Pantheon

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