'The Comedians' Stand-Up History And Some Laughs
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And for those of you facing some of that fierce holiday travel this week, we've got a bit of vintage humor for you. There's a new book out called "The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, And The History Of American Comedy." Author Kliph Nesteroff traces what we know today as standup comedy, taking us back to the early 20th century.
KLIPH NESTEROFF: The idea of what a comedian was was very different back then. In vaudeville, comedians often wore costumes. They had partners. They would go around on roller-skates delivering punch lines. The old cliche of the seltzer bottle and the baggy pants, that was all very much a reality at the turn-of-the-century in comedy in vaudeville. There was a guy named Frank Fay who changed the whole game. It was revolutionary at the time. He decided to go up on stage without a costume. He had been doing baggy-pants comedy, and he couldn't live with himself. He hated gimmicks, you know. So he'd go up on stage with a - just wearing a tuxedo and a carnation in his lapel - the same way he would have offstage - just stood on stage and told jokes. Slowly but surely, his style gave way as it influenced other young comedians. Guys who were starting out, like Bob Hope and Milton Berle and Jack Benny, they were all influenced by this guy, Frank Fay. But at that time, they were just called comedians. The phrase standup comedy didn't come later, until the mafia started to control show business.
MONTAGNE: And that goes back to speakeasies. When Prohibition ended, those illegal gin joints became legitimate nightclubs - still though, in many cases, controlled by mobsters. Just one of many examples, The Green Mill Cocktail Lounge in Chicago was co-owned by Al Capone associate Machine Gun Jack McGurn.
NESTEROFF: In my book, I interviewed a 90-year-old comedian, kind of an obscure guy who never made it, named Dick Curtis. And he worked all kinds of small, mob-run nightclubs. And he argues that the mafia invented the phrase standup comedy because in those days, they managed a lot of fighters. A lot of boxers were owned by the mob. And a fighter that could stand up and take abuse and keep punching was called a standup fighter. And a guy that the mob could rely on was called a standup guy. So a standup comic was a guy who could go up on stage, take abuse from hecklers, joke, joke, joke, joke, very reliable performer. They called him a standup comic.
MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, we'll hear about some pioneers of standup, including one of the first women to do standup comedy, Jean Carroll.
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JEAN CARROLL: I have a little girl, a rotten kid.
CARROLL: And you know, as a matter of fact, when I see children in an audience, I get such a feeling. I love kids. I used to go to school with them.
CARROLL: And you know, like when women complain about children sometimes can be very testing, you know. But I'm telling you, like I heard one woman say when her little boy was 3 months old, she could have eaten him up. And now she wishes she had.
MONTAGNE: According to Kliph Nesteroff, author of "The Comedians," Jean Carroll's fans included a very young Lily Tomlin, who of course created a naughty child character of her own, Edith Ann.
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LILY TOMLIN: (As Edith Ann) I will tell you one last secret. Sometimes, when I'm happy, I feel just like crying. But when I'm sad, I never feel like laughing. So I think it is better to be happy. You can get two feelings for the price of one.
TOMLIN: And that's the truth. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.