THE WORLD certainly isn't in dire need of more books about American comedy. We've already been treated to great reads like William Knoedelseder's I'm Dying Up Here, a look at the stand-up boom that flourished in 1970s Los Angeles; Tony Hendra's brilliant exploration of anti-establishment comedy, Going Too Far; and plenty of deep-dives into SNL, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the Second City, and the careers of luminaries like Bob Hope and Michael O'Donoghue.
Into this overstuffed market comes Kliph Nesteroff's The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy. An offshoot of his beloved Classic Television Showbiz website and pieces written for WFMU's recently shuttered blog, the book whips readers from vaudeville to currently reigning comic voices (Louis C.K., Amy Schumer) with brevity and flashes of wit.
As a surface-skimming account of a full century of entertainment, The Comedians is as good as they come. Nesteroff hits all the highlights and lowlights of this constantly evolving art form. He excels by bringing in the names and voices of dozens of stand-ups, writers, and producers that, while not as well known as Sid Caesar or Joan Rivers, were just as important in moving comedy from stage to radio to TV, movie, and computer screens. Few other books would take the time to get to know Stan Irwin, Tonight Show talent scout Jim McCawley, and character comic and father of Albert Brooks, Harry "Parkyakarkus" Einstein.
What the book is in desperate need of is a more strong-willed editor. Much of The Comedians shows its roots as a collection stitched together from shaggy blog posts and online Q&As. Nesteroff repeats himself frequently, and leaves in a lot of superfluous quotes and passages that could easily have been condensed and clarified. Like a number of recent pop culture histories, he assumes his readers have a baseline knowledge of most everything he's writing about: He expends too many words on the development of Mort Sahl's delivery, while almost completely ignoring the impact and influence of his political humor.
The Comedians is a fine starting point for anyone exploring the history of humors, as well as a place for more knowledgeable fans to find new layers and personalities to consider. This isn't the final word, and I don't think Nesteroff meant it as such. It's merely another addition to the library of comedy letters, and a welcome one at that.