Make 'Em Laugh: 'The Comedians' Tells The Story Of Stand-Up Kliph Nesteroff's book digs into the origins of modern comedy, from the segregated Chitlin' Circuit to the vaudeville refugees who found a new home in the Catskills, to the very first female comics.
NPR logo

Make 'Em Laugh: 'The Comedians' Tells The Story Of Stand-Up

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/460613321/460656852" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Make 'Em Laugh: 'The Comedians' Tells The Story Of Stand-Up

Make 'Em Laugh: 'The Comedians' Tells The Story Of Stand-Up

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/460613321/460656852" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

A lone figure on a stage making people laugh, that solitude is what many say makes stand-up tougher and riskier than other kinds of comedy. We're going to spend time now with some stand-up pioneers. Kliph Nesteroff is author of the new book "The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels And The History Of American Comedy." He says much of modern stand-up grew out of two great traditions in American humor, African-American and Jewish-American. Here are two beloved examples of the latter, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARL REINER: I'm interested in the origin of words, where words come from, simple words like cheese.

MEL BROOKS: Well, a lot of them you pick up on the street.

(LAUGHTER)

REINER: Words.

BROOKS: Words, words.

REINER: No, no, I mean...

BROOKS: Oh, you mean...

REINER: ...Where they come from.

BROOKS: Oh.

REINER: I see, where they come from, for instance, a word like cheese, what's the origin of the word?

BROOKS: Cheese came from the first man who discovered cheese. He looked into a big barrel, see, of souring milk, milk that was souring, and he sniffed it, and he went, cheese.

(LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: Like many other great Jewish comedians - Milton Berle, Sid Caesar - Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner polished their jokes in the resorts of the Catskill Mountains, the Borscht Belt, as Nesteroff writes, places where out of work Vaudevillians could chase a paycheck.

KLIPH NESTEROFF: The Borscht Belt and the Catskills are interesting. They were an outgrowth that kind of spawned because vaudeville collapsed. So the stock market crashes in 1929, and vaudeville now is not profitable. They have these enormous ornate theaters that seat 5,000 people, and people can't even afford to go to the shows. But a few years later, then we see the growth of the Catskills in upstate New York. People are trying to escape their troubles of the Great Depression, so they went up there to have a good time. It was inexpensive, and it was predominantly Jewish comedians performing for a Jewish audience, so there were a lot of guys. Robert Klein talks about this later because this lasted a long time. Guys who would go up on stage, comedians, they would do their whole setup in English, and then the punch line would be in Yiddish.

MONTAGNE: (Laughter).

NESTEROFF: And if you didn't speak Yiddish, you were left in the dark while the rest of the audience laughed, you know? And then the Chitlin' Circuit was African-American comedians performing for African-American audiences because comedy was segregated back then. It just wasn't allowed. You could be a orchestra leader or a singer and be African-American addressing a white crowd, but it was not acceptable in those days for a black comedian to address a white crowd. Because as a comedian on stage, you are superior to your audience. You were giving them your point of view. And in those days, it wasn't allowed. So the Chitlin' Circuit alleviated that thing.

MONTAGNE: And one of the stars to be of the Chitlin' Circuit, a young man by the name of John Sanford, became running buddies with another up-and-comer, Malcolm Little. They would both become famous for very different reasons under different names - John Sanford, Redd Foxx, Malcom Little, Malcolm X.

NESTEROFF: Malcolm X and Redd Foxx were best friends in the late 1940s. They were both street hustlers around New York. They used to break into a dry cleaner at night, steal the suits that were being cleaned on the back, and then sell those suits the next day off a rooftop down the street, and that's how they made their living. And they eventually drifted apart into their own universe, but yeah, they were very close friends.

MONTAGNE: But, Redd Foxx, he was not - kind of Chitlin' Circuitish (ph) but kind of - he was a bridge to people like Richard Pryor.

NESTEROFF: Absolutely. He really influenced a lot of people, and he doesn't get the credit. He's really a man who's responsible for a lot of important firsts. Jumping ahead to 1966, he was the first African-American comedian to headline a Las Vegas hotel. In 1967, he became the first African-American business owner in Beverly Hills when he opened up the Redd Foxx Club. But going back even earlier to 1956 - this is really important - Redd Foxx was the very first stand-up comedian to record his act on a vinyl record. This guy, Dootsie Williams, who was a very important African-American record mogul in the 1950s, signed him up. He took a risk. He signed up Redd Foxx. Redd Foxx initially said, no, man, I don't want to do it because people will have my act, and they won't come see my show live. But then five days later, Redd Foxx was dead broke and came back to do the records and said, hey, man, what was that thing you said about recording my act?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REDD FOXX: We have some neighbors. They fight all the time. The husband got real bad. He told his wife. He said, I'm going out with the boys, and if you don't like it, love it.

(LAUGHTER)

FOXX: He said, I got a date, and I'm going out. And you know who's going to help me get dressed, you. You know who's going to get my suit out of the closet, you. He said, you know who's going to tie my ties? She said, yeah, the Undertaker.

(LAUGHTER)

NESTEROFF: Until Redd Foxx, no stand-up comedian had ever recorded his act and put out a record. Now that's one of the most common things in the world, and back then, it created a craze, and Redd Foxx is responsible.

MONTAGNE: There never was a women's version of the Chitlin' Circuit or the Borscht Belt. There was nothing like that because for one thing, women, as a group of comedians, emerged much later in the game.

NESTEROFF: Well, you know, World War II was very interesting. Just like women entered the workforce during World War II because the men were overseas, so, too, did some female comedians. So in my book, I talk about a woman named Jean Carroll, and Jean Carroll was the very first, in my opinion, female stand-up comedian. She simply went up and she told joke, joke, joke, joke, joke.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEAN CARROLL: How do you like my tan? I just got back from Florida. Oh, I met so many lovely women. We used to sit around the pool and tell lies. And, you know, it really...

(LAUGHTER)

CARROLL: They had another girl. Wow, does she have a dress on. If it was any lower on the top and any higher on the bottom, it would've been a belt. But I...

(LAUGHTER)

NESTEROFF: So she became a bit of a star during the Second World War. And she got a lot of stage time, and she got rave reviews. And so all throughout the late '40s, Jean Carroll was, like, a novelty. She was the female comedian. She was a precursor to Phyllis Diller, a precursor to Joan Rivers, a precursor to Lily Tomlin. And incidentally, Lily Tomlin used to play dress-up when she was a child, put on an angora sweater and pretend that she was Jean Carroll. But when the war ended, in typical 1950s fashion, she did something that a lot of women did, which was retreat from the workforce and become a housewife and start to raise a family. So, Jean Carroll never had the career she should have had. Minnie Pearl, who people know from "Hee Haw," should have gotten more credit. She was touring around the southern circuit all throughout the '30s and '40s as a female stand-up comedian. Moms Mabley on the Chitlin' Circuit was hilarious, and a lot of her stuff holds up because her character was hysterical. She deserves a lot of credit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MOMS MABLEY: Man, the first night home with his wife, telephone kept on ringing. He's trying to gun up and answered it, got back in bed and said, who was it, darling? He said, some crank trying to get the weather bureau, kept on asking was the coast clear.

NESTEROFF: Kliph Nesteroff is the author of the new book "The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels And The History Of American Comedy." Thank you very much for joining us.

NESTEROFF: Thank you. It's my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S YOUR THING")

MABLEY: (Singing) Night, it's your thing. Do what you want to do.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.