I've just finished reading Kliph Nesteroff's excellent book The Comedians and would like to recommend it to any comedy fans. It takes you through the history of, mostly, stand-up comedy in the States, from the vaudeville of the turn of the 20th century up to the present day.
If you've ever wanted to know the relationship between stand up comedy and the Mafia (how any comedian working in the USA in the 30s thru the 60s was, de facto, working for the mob), or get the inside guff on everything from Jerry Lewis's failed chat show, Bud Abbott's dad's midget circus, or the prodigious endowment of Milton Berle, this book has it all. He's conducted extensive interviews, and read through every other book and Variety article there is, to give the most comprehensive insight into this world.
This is demonstrated best by the anecdote of Joe E Ross's untimely death, culled from various sources and told in an unreliable narrator fashion by half a dozen of his contemporaries:
Bobby Ramsen: He expired onstage.
Hank Garrett: Joe E Ross died performing.
Sammy Shore: And that was it.
Bobby Ramsen: His wife went to get his pay.
Steve Rossi: His agent went to get the money.
Hank Garrett: This hooker went to collect the hundred dollars.
Chuck McCann: I went and got his check.
Will Jordan: Chuck says he got the check.
Hank Garrett: It was supposed to be for a hundred, but they only gave her fifty.
Steve Rossi: They said, "Wait a minute. This is only half the amount!"
Hank Garrett: The booker said, "Yeah, well... he never finished the show."
This book led me to wonder, are there any books that offer equivalent insight into the, very different, British comedy scene? Here are a few that I've read (and a couple I haven't yet). Can you recommend any more?
Ha Bloody Ha - William Cook
This remains the most insightful book I've read about British comedians, as a result of being purely interviews with the then top comedians in the country, broken down into various categories including First Gigs, Worst Gigs etc. Very much from the horses' mouths, and very much covering the bases, as up to date as one can be in a book from 1994. (While Googling the blog post, I have found William Cook's own suggestions, from 2006, of the Ten Best Books About Comedians )
From Fringe To Flying Circus - Roger Wilmut
I read this when it came out in paperback, circa 1981, and it was at the time alone on the shelves as a book about comedy. Until this time comedy, and indeed the media, had not been considered the stuff of academic study and, with the exception of Clive James' TV reviews and Woody Allen's humourous essays, I don't remember anyone else writing seriously about comedy. Until this point I hadn't realised all these comedians, from Cook & Moore through Monty Python and The Goodies, had come via Oxbridge.
Footlights - Robert Hewison
Accompanied by a BBC documentary, which I still have on VHS somewhere, in which 100 year old student skits and songs are revisited by a very young Fry, Laurie, Slattery and friends, this only has a marginal overlap with the world of stand-up, but again is a revelation for anyone who'd previously thought Cambridge comedy began with Peter Cook & Jonathan Miller (Jimmy Edwards, Stinker Murdoch & Richard Baker are among many surprising alumni).
The Edinburgh Fringe - Alistair Moffat
How I Escaped My Certain Fate - Stewart Lee
Banquo Before Breakfast: 50 Years Of The Edinburgh Festival - Iain Crawford
Crying With Laughter - Bob Monkhouse
And a few I haven't read but plan to seek out, when I have the reading time*.
Didn't You Kill My Mother In Law? - Roger Wilmut
The Comedy Store - William Cook
Beyond A Joke - Bruce Dessau
Off The Mic - Deborah Frances-White
Any more I should put on the reading list?
* What's the reading time? Asking that very question just brought this book up on Google.
Feb 15 - Buxton Pavilion Arts Centre Studio
Feb 17 & 18 6.50pm - Kayal, Leicester Comedy Fest
March 9 - Aberystwyth Arts Centre
March 15 & 16 - Dram! Glasgow Com Fest
March 23 - The Bill Murray, London
Apr 6 - Victoria Theatre Halifax
Apr 8 - Rondo Bath
Apr 13 - Hexham Queen's Hall
Apr 22 - Swindon Arts
Apr 27 - Stroud Subscription Rooms
Apr 28 - Merlin Theatre Frome
Apr 29 - Perth Concert Hall
May 1 - Chiddingstone Castle Kent
May 5 - Artrix Bromsgrove
May 6 - Stafford Gatehouse
May 13 (4.30pm) & May 14 (5.30pm) Komedia Brighton
May 19 - Carriageworks Leeds
May 26 - Aberdeen May Fest
June 2 - Eden Ct Inverness
June 15 - Crescent Arts, Belfast
June 17 - Dalkey Festival, Dublin
June 23 - Hertford Comedy Festival
June 24 - Ludlow Fringe