The American Historian

Reviews

The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy by Kliph Nesteroff. 2015

Review by Stephen R. Duncan

In The Comedians, stand-up comic turned historian Kliph Nesteroff offers a sweeping view of the evolution of comedy in the twentieth-century United States. Nesteroff traces stand-up comedy from its early roots in vaudeville through postwar nightclubs, the 1980s “comedy boom,” and into the podcasts and YouTube videos of today’s digital age. Basically a synthesis bolstered with primary research (mostly from Variety magazine and interviews by the author), The Comedians narrates the long arc of American comedy history.

Nesteroff touches on most of the major figures in the field and across the spectrum of race and gender, from obligatory discussions of Eddie Cantor, Milton Berle, Lenny Bruce, Redd Foxx, Joan Rivers, and Jerry Seinfeld, to the less famous but equally significant Jackie “Moms” Mabley and Rusty Warren. The brightest moments in The Comedians blend titillating tales with relevant political events. Comics’ surprisingly fond reminiscences about mob-run nightclubs, for instance, mesh well with Nesteroff’s account of senator Estes Kefauver’s 1950s crusade against organized crime, which paved the way for the current comedy club circuit by loosening the mob’s stranglehold on urban nightclubs (pp. 58–65). And Nesteroff’s depiction of comedians’ soul searching in the days after September 11, 2001, is the book’s highlight, intimately revealing humor’s social role amid a national crisis (pp. 347–52). General readers and aspiring comedians will find much to savor in Nesteroff’s saucy stories of professional funny-people.

Academic historians, however, will find little to sink their teeth into. Lack of context is a frequent problem, and Nesteroff rarely shows how and why changes in comedy styles occurred. “Whether it was at a vaudeville theater in the 1920s . . . or a comedy club used as a cocaine front in the 1970s, the comedian’s struggle was remarkably similar through the generations,” Nesteroff asserts in his introduction (p. xiii). Throughout the book, differences over time are collapsed into vignettes of performers’ triumphs and tragedies. Discussion of vaudeville’s origins in minstrelsy, for example, gets frustratingly short shrift. More puzzlingly, Will Rogers garners only a single mention, while his style of political humor is lumped in with Bob Hope (p. 350). The contexts of the Depression, World War II, and the Cold War—which frame the best works on American humor by scholars such as Joseph Boskin, Mel Watkins, Stephen Kercher, and Peter Robinson—are likewise vague. For instance, Nesteroff attributes 1930s “Chitlin’ Circuit” and Apollo Theater star Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham’s fading postwar career to the fact that “his time just ended” (p. 186). But a closer look would have shown that the civil rights movement and the sophistication of black artists and intellectuals, from James Baldwin to Maya Angelou, fundamentally changed perceptions, including self-perceptions, of African Americans. While these changes made Markham’s clowning seem degrading (even as it masked an underlying satire of white authority), they opened the door for other black comedians such as Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor.

Analytically, Nesteroff might have considered addressing why comedy is often such a grim world behind the scenes and how humor brings the shadowy corners of the American psyche to light. As Sigmund Freud noted over a hundred years ago, humor expresses a society’s subconscious—thus the tradition of comedy as a vehicle for difficult truth-telling, from the court jester through Stephen Colbert’s roasting of George W. Bush at the 2006 While House Correspondents Dinner. More exploration into the craft of comedy would have been helpful by revealing the psychic methods in the madcap. The Comedians provides an entertaining introduction to the history of American stand-up, but scholarly readers will find themselves waiting impatiently for its analytical punch line.

Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library by Wayne A. Wiegand. 2015

Review by Donald Davis Jr.

The public library in Marshall, Texas, “became a mecca for poor kids like me,” Bill Moyers remembers—one of many reminiscences in Part of Our Lives (p. 182). Now, building and expanding on themes introduced in his previous books and essays, Wayne Wiegand has achieved a long-desired objective by producing an engagingly-written and richly-documented narrative of Americans’ love affair with their public libraries. At a time when many question the viability of the public library in an age of instant information, the acknowledged dean of American library history caps his brilliant career with this meticulously researched survey of how Americans, individually and together, have used and valued their local libraries from the mid-nineteenth through the first decade of the twenty-first century. What he found bodes well for their future.

What makes this a “people’s” history is its grounding in the testimony of library patrons rather than the witness of library benefactors, librarians, and historians. That is, the book gives a “bottom up” rather than a “top down” perspective. From evidence provided by the library users, this volume reveals that public libraries derive their value not so much from their heralded role as a democratic institution for equal educational opportunity as “for the useful information they made accessible; for the public spaces they provided; and for the power of reading stories they circulated that helped users make sense of phenomena in the world around them” (p. 3).

The narrative history divides neatly into ten chapters, each with relevant illustrations, beginning with a survey of social libraries before 1854. Then, eight chapters treat the following 150 years from the opening of the Boston Public Library. A concluding chapter provides a final assessment as the twenty-first century suggests the road ahead. The rich array of personal comments and reminiscences derived from manuscript collections, the poignant anecdotal incidents gleaned from newspapers and library annual reports, as well as numerous databases searched, all demonstrate the prodigious research in original sources that form the basis of this work. These sources and secondary works appear in the extensive bibliographical notes at the end of the book. Not simply recounting praises for the public library over time, Wiegand provides ample historical context for the stories he relates. Thus, he does not shy away from problem issues such as selection of materials, censorship, segregation, homelessness, and social discrimination.

Wiegand concludes that public libraries have solidified their role in the electronic era. They act “as a stage to mediate the parameters of local public culture to the satisfaction of most in a relatively peaceful, albeit somewhat messy way. That they do not perceive their public libraries as an appendage of big government may be another reason Americans love them so much” (p. 269). The local public library can and does function as an institution that enables people to explore their uniqueness, as well as their community, in ways that enable all to develop as social beings.

This volume is groundbreaking in its scope and methodological approach and will likely be the benchmark for scholarship on the public library movement in America well into the future.