We live in a time when institutional comedy is a given. What with MacFarlane Inc. unmovable, hit movies by Judd Apatow that start in darkness and inevitably end in domestic bliss, and Vine-posting teens making millions as they rediscover hundred-year-old slapstick, the funny business can seem like a delightful way to earn a living. But in his new history of American comedy, Kliph Nesteroff makes stand-up seem like a compulsion, like a drug, like a matter of life and death. There is a reason his book is called The Comedians. It’s because they wouldn’t let him use his preferred title, Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy. That became the subtitle. To Nesteroff, everything about the subtitle is what is most interesting about comedy—the brokenness and the hunger that feed the turnstile, the assortment of egos pinned to the bare-brick walls. Nesteroff doesn’t even try to explain how a joke is funny—the death wish of many who write about stand-up. Instead he is driven to ask, What kind of person gets up on a stage? How did the Vegas lounge act come into existence? and What the heck was the deal with Buddy Hackett and his funny faces? The important stuff.
The 35-year-old writes about comedy and show business with such brash knowingness, I bet there are readers of his blog, Classic Television Showbiz, who think he’s a schlubby old Catskills cat. He could be the guy who stole young Leonard Maltin’s milk money. Beyond posting interviews with great and bygone comics like Professor Irwin Corey, Orson Bean, and Pete Barbutti on his site, he has written a series of deviant noir blog posts for a Web site run by WFMU, a free-form radio station in New Jersey. There he profiled the comedian Frank Fay, often considered the first stand-up and also a fascist: “In January 1946, several months after Germany had been defeated, a rally of ten thousand white supremacists gathered at Madison Square Garden. They delivered speeches in support of Franco, Mussolini and their fallen hero Adolf Hitler. They promised that the defeat of Germany would not go unpunished. The podium was beneath a banner that saluted their guest of honor. The event was called ‘The Friends of Frank Fay.’ ”
This is showbiz darkness that James Ellroy would be proud of if he still gave enough of a damn to buy a bag of punctuation. In his writing Nesteroff presents a tableau of American weirdos desperate to connect and dreading the truth that will be uncovered when they do. Three years ago he was on comic and podcaster Marc Maron’s show WTF, and Nesteroff suggested listeners check YouTube for comedians like Jack Carter or Milton Berle working a crowd. Listen to the laughter, smell the fear, but watch the eyes. “If you watch them in almost any television footage doing stand-up, they’ve got this sense of desperation in their eyes,” Nesteroff explained. “Look at their eyes—they’re darting around, they’re never comfortable onstage.
These are guys who were in showbiz their whole life, and they were still not comfortable—there seems to be this undercurrent that they’re terrified that at any moment the audience is going to turn on them or not laugh at what they say.”
The Comedians begins in early-1900s vaudeville, moves briskly forward with chapters devoted to subjects like radio and nightclubs, and finishes with the discovery of Robin Williams’s body. The book is an anecdotal history of American ambition: Nesteroff could be talking about salesmen or politicians or conceptual artists. But because his subject is those who do stand-up, there’s something ridiculous, funny, and sad all at the same time in his writing. It’s a massive story that he nicely underplays, laying one carefully chosen quote, one face-planting story after another while conveying a worldview that could be summed up as “Shecky.”
The 1950s comedy legend Shecky Greene was the founding Vegas lounge comic and one sick puppy: “I really didn’t want this fuckin’ business,” Greene tells Nesteroff in The Comedians. “Every job that came kept me from quitting.” Onstage he looked in control, but Greene was bipolar, depressed, and when he got drunk, he would wander around Caesars Palace pushing the statues off their pedestals. The book features a story about Buddy Hackett in a nightshirt, with a pistol, hunting Greene down in a bar. Hilarity ensues. To Maron, what’s great about Greene is what’s great about Nesteroff’s writing: “The rage, the sickness, the darkness that motivates people in this field—Kliph puts it in front of you and then you watch it combust.” He describes Nesteroff’s style as “the Semitic momentum of bitterness and shattered narcissism that I think runs through a lot of these guys.” There was Shecky before Shecky, and Shecky without end, amen.
When comedians talk about where the funny stuff comes from, they tend to describe regions most of us would rather not visit. The twisted inner space of one comic differs from that of another, but there is an actual place that could stand in for most of them. To get there, you have to leave Los Angeles and head toward Death Valley.
Right off Highway 395, a few miles south of Owens Lake, just before you reach the picturesque old diner where the guy shoots at tourists who come too close, right there. That is where I find Nesteroff this past summer, in the Inyo County town of Olancha, managing a dodgy little motor inn with his girlfriend, Victoria. The idea was to pocket some money in a setting seemingly built for solitary writing. I am staying in a cabin that Howard Hughes used as a hunting lodge. A scorpion darts across the welcome mat in the moonlight while a garishly spotlighted sign looks like it’s written in blood: RANCH MOTEL.
The next morning there’s a knock on the door. It’s Nesteroff, making the rounds with a fresh pot of coffee. He’s wearing a brown fedora, cocktail jacket, and skinny tie, daringly paired with khaki shorts. As he darts from building to building, chatting up the European tourists on their way to Death Valley, Nesteroff looks like a lost whippet who’s taken well to these strange surroundings. “It was free room and board,” he says with a shrug. “We just needed to be the caretakers.” One night is enough for me, and I suggest we beat it back to L.A. for a tour. After he sweeps a pile of dead bugs from a room, we hit the road. As we putter through a series of deserted mining towns, Nesteroff talks about where he grew up and how he got into comedy.
Born in the woods of interior British Columbia, about 50 miles from the border with Washington State, he was raised in a community of Doukhobors, a sect of Russian dissenters who fled the czar and wound up in Canada at the end of the 19th century. Their radical pacifism is depicted in a painting, familiar to all Doukhobors, of peasants throwing their government- issued rifles into a fire. Today he doesn’t identify with the culture, but his last name bears the “-eroff” borne by virtually everyone in his school when he was growing up.
The culture was isolated yet modern; his mother was the office manager for a power company, and his father taught at an elementary school of 80 students. On weekends Nesteroff would go to Castlegar, a town of 8,000, where he haunted a used-book store that also sold records. In the pre-CD era you could trade one cassette tape for five cast-off pieces of vinyl. The summer between seventh and eighth grade Nesteroff looked at his cassettes—Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Alice in Chains—“and I realized what the fuck is this shit?”
He turned them all in. The first album he received in exchange was Strictly Oompah by Will Glahé and His Orchestra, in 1993. The album cover bewitched him: a stout fellow playing a tuba while standing in a giant beer stein. From that tuba an adolescence poured out. There was plenty of comedy in the discard piles, and Nesteroff amassed an enormous collection; today he declares, “I had the largest record collection for anybody my age in Canada!”
By eighth grade comedy had changed him. A plan emerged: He would run for school president. You could only campaign in 11th grade, and the winner served in the 12th. This gave the eighth grader plenty of time to plot. He gathered salacious jokes and rumors about the teachers and assembled an election day speech that was stashed between his mattress and box spring for years.
“I was kind of invisible,” he says. “People didn’t know who I was or didn’t care. I ran against a volleyball player and a jock.” He requested that he speak last. Nesteroff patterned his talk on the Old Testament, going down the list of things God did on each of the first seven days. “On the first day God said, ‘Let the water fountains taste like blood…’ ” “On the third day God said, ‘Let there be an art teacher who huffs glue in the back of the room…’ ” He culminated with “I can’t promise you anything, because school presidents have no power except for this: If elected, I promise to be the coolest fucking president Mount Sentinel School has ever known.” An accomplice cued “Theme from Shaft” (Maynard Ferguson version) on the school intercom, and Nesteroff left to howls from the student body. He won, he says, in a landslide.
The principal sent him home, telling him not to come back to school until he heard from him. The principal never called, and Nesteroff never graduated. It was his first taste of stand-up. A few years later he moved to Toronto, enrolling in a program for comics and comedy writers, and created a stage persona. He bought some old-man thrift-store clothes and invented a character named Shecky Grey, channeling the real-life act of ’50s comedian Alan Gale that he’d found on a live album: “I was walking down the street the other day, saw a lady. I said, ‘Hey, Miss, your pants are falling down.’ ‘No, they’re not!’ ‘Sorry, I’ve already made up my mind!’ ”
“It was a 1950s rape joke,” Nesteroff says with horrified amusement. “They aren’t new to our time.”
Jason Rouse was one of the stars of the Toronto scene around 2000, and he’d take Nesteroff with him into the clubs and push him onstage. With his vintage vinyl comedy albums under his arm and vintage getup, Nesteroff “was like the oldest teenager I ever met,” Rouse says. “The 65-year-old teenager!”
And that’s a funny thing about the guy: As old as his tastes get, he seems like a completely self-contained unit, in this moment, not some revivalist. He’s digging into the past and seeing it in a way nobody quite saw it then. He makes sense now, in a time of Archer and Festival Supreme, when rockers do shtick and comics wish they were in bands.
In Canada his act was as much performance art as stand-up, which is why it went over better in alt-rock spaces than in comedy clubs. When Nesteroff moved to Vancouver, Shecky became a local star, with lines forming outside the clubs where he performed. He would fire one-liners into the crowd and smash a cymbal. It was as friendly or as hostile as you wanted it to be, like Tig Notaro dragging a stool across the stage. “And then, at the height of it, he killed it off,” says Rouse. “I think he didn’t want to be that guy. He touched the stand-up pole and then said, ‘That’s as far as I want to take it.’ ”
Nesteroff began writing about haunted figures like Gale, logging deep, knowledgeable interviews and features on the Internet. And he planned to move to L.A., biding his time helping out in a Vancouver facility that allowed patients to use drugs to keep them off the street. “I was there six years while waiting to get my American working papers approved,” he says. “I had this secret parallel life where I was, like, pumping the chests of heroin and crack addicts in back alleys and then meeting in L.A. with old comedians.”
Finally, in 2012, he was permitted entry to Los Angeles for the purpose of writing about comedy. “I find that good luck is amplified based on your geography. You can only go so far in Vancouver,” he says. “You’ve got to be where the opportunities are.”
Nesteroff has been writing what is a different kind of piece for him, an essay about his summer in the desert, which came to an abrupt and painful end. If Nesteroff ventured to Olancha to support his travels into the dark heart of comedy, he succeeded: Less than amused with how the arrangement was evolving, Victoria sent him packing. Returning to L.A., he planned to stay on a series of “comedy couches.” Comics on the road know the local performers in whatever town who are willing to put them up for a night. In one more way he was living the life he was writing about.
Half an hour after the bus from the desert dropped him off, Nesteroff went to boost his morale at Musso & Frank, where he noticed an old fellow beside him at the bar. The stranger announced that his brother had just died. “Oh, your brother died,” said Nesteroff, “and my girlfriend broke up with me.” The man dropped an arm around his shoulder and said, “Put her there, pal.”
It was Fred Smoot, a comic from the 1960s whose specialty was making funny sounds with his mouth. Looked like Fred from Scooby-Doo. Nesteroff thought he was dead; Smoot was tickled the kid knew who he was. Smoot told a story about snorting 12 lines of cocaine before he went on Della Reese’s show, Della, and acted out all the parts—the coke, his brain, Della Reese. He remembered, with tears in his eyes, the time he walked into Manhattan’s Stage Deli in 1963 and heard people saying, “There goes the new Jonathan Winters.”
Fred fucking Smoot. “I never found him funny, but people who like sound effects liked him,” Nesteroff tells me. “There was something mystical about the experience. It felt like a cautionary tale: Is this a warning? I don’t know…he was like a fucking weird angel who everybody thought was dead.” After Smoot left, the bartender said that the guy comes to Musso’s every week because the staff gives him a free loaf of bread.
Smoot is nowhere in Nesteroff’s new book, yet Smoot is everywhere in it. Because if tragedy plus time equals comedy, then comedy plus time equals a free loaf of bread.
On a hazy August day Nesteroff and I are walking down Beverly Boulevard, looking at the sidewalk, trying to find the spot where Groucho Marx embedded his cigar in wet concrete in 1953 (8323 Beverly Boulevard). It’s across the street from the office of the 82-year-old George Schlatter, a true showbiz legend and a friend of Nesteroff’s, so we duck in for a visit. Schlatter booked Vegas lounges back in the day and, as a TV producer, director, and writer, helped give Robin Williams, Lily Tomlin, Roseanne Barr, and others their start. He worked with Groucho Marx and Jacques Tati and produced Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. With his broad shoulders, zooty billy goat beard, and omnivorous smile, Schlatter is a formidable figure from a distant era. He’s ready to slide into a corner booth at Ciro’s (which he once managed) and order his T-bone.
After he read a piece Nesteroff wrote about Moms Mabley, Schlatter knew a kindred spirit when he found one and summoned him to his office. Schlatter just likes having the guy around. “If this was 30 years ago, having George in my corner would make me,” Nesteroff tells me later. Maybe Schlatter could have gotten him a job as a gag writer on one of his shows; nowadays he can dictate a memo to Eddie Murphy suggesting he narrate a Ken Burns-style documentary series based on The Comedians. Eddie hasn’t gotten back to him yet.
Many of the old-timers have a soft spot for the Canadian. Nesteroff asks questions about people few alive even know about, and a guy can never have too much validation. He’s also a source of obscure information. Steve Martin reached out to Nesteroff with a question after reading his post on the late Murray Roman (“Murray Roman continues to be a mystery for several reasons: He died early, most of his fans were on drugs when they heard or saw him, and his albums aren’t just obscure today, but were on the periphery even when they were released.…”). Martin later e-mailed Nesteroff, saying, “I want to tell you how wonderful your new book is…it’s an important document.” Another reason the veterans respond to him is this: He’s putting in his time. Whether hounding scores of friends to write letters in support of his employment papers or talking 93-year-old rapid-fire spritzer Jack Carter into giving probably his last interview (he died in June), Nesteroff is on the hustle, and showbiz game recognizes game.
Which brings us back to Schlatter, one of the greatest living showbiz hustlers. The latest news about Bill Cosby is blaring on Schlatter’s TV screen, inspiring a burst of off-the-record scatology and a story about a short-lived Cosby show he produced.
“Anyway, as you can see, I’m a busy man. Why the fuck are you guys here?”
There is talk of Frank Sinatra, and Pigmeat Markham, and then Schlatter turns to me and shouts, “Tommy?” Something about me, though nothing visible to the naked eye, has reminded him of Tommy Smothers.
“What is it that you want?” he asks again.
“I…wondered if you could tell me what interests you about Kliph’s work.”
“What the fuck? Look, Tommy. Shut up. In the words of my people—listen to me now—if you say one bad thing about this man,” he bellows, gesturing to Nesteroff, “I will Fuck! You! Up!”
I can almost believe him, until he flashes a “we kid” smile. With Nesteroff sitting beside me, hands at his sides, Schlatter bounds from Nixon to Amy Schumer without ever addressing the comedy historian in front of him. Then Schlatter drums his hands on his desk. There is this.
He leans over his desk at me and barks: “This man has a sense of humor, and he has a sense…of humor.” He looks rather proud of himself.
RJ Smith, a senior editor at Cincinnati magazine, is working on a biography of photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank.
This feature appears in the November 2015 issue of Los Angeles magazine.