Stand-up comedy has come a long way since the days of Lenny Bruce. Richard Zoglin’s new book Comedy At The Edge- How Stand-Up Comedy In The 1970s Changed America, sets out to document this phenomenon. While the bulk of the book concerns 1970s comics such as Richard Pryor and George Carlin, Zoglin also contextualizes their achievements in an engaging way.
In the 1960s, Lenny Bruce was comedy’s first martyr. Carlin and Pryor were appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show, and Joan Rivers was the cutting edge of female stand-up. The 1970s were stand-up’s great renaissance, and some of the backstage stories told here are absolutely fascinating. This section (obviously) accounts for the majority of the book. Zoglin brings us into the modern era with chapters dealing with the 1980s boom in stand-up, the inevitable consolidation of the form in the 1990s, and the muted return of socially aware stand-up in the Bush era.
What I enjoyed most was the “smalltown” aspect of the form for so many years. Basically a couple clubs in New York and Los Angeles were it for most of the '70s. High drama, high comedy, and just plain getting high were the order of the day. It’s funny to hear Jay Leno talking about how he used to pick up waitresses after a gig. It’s almost shocking when Jerry Seinfeld talks about getting laid after a set.
All the big comedic “events” are covered. The famous “Comedians Strike” of 1979 pitted starving comics against Mitzi Shore. Her policy of not paying her Comedy Story talent came to an end. The performance art of Andy Kaufman is discussed, Steve Martin’s once unbelievable popularity, and of course the take no prisoners attitudes of Carlin and Pryor.
The devil is in the details here, and I very much enjoyed sections devoted to somewhat “also-rans” in the stand-up stakes. Performers such as David Steinberg, Albert Brooks, and Larry David eventually realized that their place was not necessarily on the stage, but behind it. Coming to that epiphany for them and others led to some pretty hilarious moments.
As Zoglin reminds us, really good, fearless stand-up can be as thrilling, and as dangerous as anything by Coltrane, Kerouac, or Hendrix. The 1930s-'50s are remembered as the Golden Era of Hollywood. Many consider the 1960s to be the peak of Rock. Comedy At The Edge makes a compelling argument for the '70s as the zenith years for stand-up comedy. I wholeheartedly agree.