Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Comedians

Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy

by Kliph Nesteroff

An expansive and endlessly entertaining history of stand-up comedy, spanning more than a century from vaudeville through radio, television, the counterculture, and the comedy boom, to the present.

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 448
  • Publication Date November 08, 2016
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2568-2
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $18.00
  • Imprint Grove Hardcover
  • Page Count 448
  • Publication Date November 03, 2015
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2398-5
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $28.00

About The Book

In The Comedians, comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff brings to life a century of American comedy with real-life characters, forgotten stars, mainstream heroes and counterculture iconoclasts. Based on over two hundred original interviews and extensive archival research, Nesteroff’s groundbreaking work is a narrative exploration of the way comedians have reflected, shaped, and changed American culture over the past one hundred years.

Starting with the vaudeville circuit at the turn of the last century, Nesteroff introduces the first stand-up comedian—an emcee who abandoned physical shtick for straight jokes. After the repeal of Prohibition, Mafia-run supper clubs replaced speakeasies, and mobsters replaced vaudeville impresarios as the comedian’s primary employer. In the 1950s, the late-night talk show brought stand-up to a wide public, while Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and Jonathan Winters attacked conformity and staged a comedy rebellion in coffeehouses. From comedy’s part in the Civil Rights movement and the social upheaval of the late 1960s, to the first comedy clubs of the 1970s and the cocaine-fueled comedy boom of the 1980s, The Comedians culminates with a new era of media-driven celebrity in the twenty-first century.


“Comedy buffs and social historians will forever be in Kliph Nesteroff’s debt for this book. A heady mixture of show business anecdotes, gossip, and in-depth research on everything from vaudeville to podcasting. What’s more, it’s a great read: I couldn’t put it down.” —Leonard Maltin

“Kliph Nesteroff is a ‘comedy nerd’ in the deepest sense of the word. He goes obsessively into the darkness that has been festering culturally, psychically, and personally behind the faces of funny going back almost a century. He is the preeminent historian of modern comedy.” —Marc Maron

“If you think you know a lot about stand-up comedy, this book will expose you as the fraud you secretly reckoned you were. Remember Frank Fay? Exactly.” —Norm MacDonald

“Kliph Nesteroff and this book are devoted to what I truly love—the art of comedy.” —Mel Brooks

“[An] excellent book.” —Jason Zinoman, New York Times

“An informative and engaging account . . . Nesteroff provides a clear through-line from vaudeville to the New Millennium. Yet it’s the anecdotes about personality and style that elevate the book beyond mere history.” —Bill Desowitz, USA Today

“[A] brilliant tome . . . Nesteroff is brilliant in bringing the polish and shine back to old routines and examining their humor and genius . . . The book is a serious study, but it is also clever and amusing . . . [A] fascinating read.” —Michelle Martinez, New York Journal of Books

“Both breezy and exhaustive . . . peppered with tidbits to store away for future cocktail parties . . . [The Comedians] is a book fascinated by personalities, warmly disposed to even the most irascible of them, and motivated by all the ways American culture and American comedy create each other.” —Mindy Farabee, L.A. Weekly (Best Books of 2015 By L.A. Authors)

The Comedians . . . is right up there with I’m Dying Up Here, Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, and Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon, in terms of thoroughness, engagement and lasting significance.” —Julie Seabaugh, L.A. Weekly (Best Local Comedy Author)

The Comedians is everything it should be, including very funny. This historically rich history of comedians in America is fascinating . . . If you’re a comedy nerd you’ll love this book.” —John McIntire, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“A quirky and funny history . . . A joyfully encyclopedic summary of a century of comic effort.” —Rob Hardy, Columbus Dispatch

“[A] gem . . . Reads like a who’s who of comedy titans while also digging up some talented, under-the-radar stars . . . An informative and breezy read.” —Briana Rodriguez, Backstage

The Comedians humanizes comedy, and American history, like no other book this year.” —Brian Boone, Splitsider (15 Best Comedy Books of 2015)

“Nesteroff . . . infuses The Comedians with his passionate love for the stand-up form and its wide-ranging cast of practitioners. This very appealing book . . . stretches from the vaudeville circuit to YouTube and many fascinating (and uproarious) points in between.” —National Book Review (5 Hot Books)

“[A] phenomenal achievement . . . Juicy, often funny, sometimes dark and disturbing . . . I loved this book, and it will hold a cherished place on my comedy bookshelf.” —Betsy Sherman, Arts Fuse

“Lively (and often very funny) . . . Nesteroff is adept at appreciating and presenting [the] dynamic process between creativity and complacency, invention and reaction, with the rigor of a historian and the keen interest of a veteran comedy nerd.” —John Semley, Globe and Mail

“A definitive volume. A lively, raucous, and immensely entertaining love letter to funny business.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“This is by far the most comprehensive and entertaining history of comedy I’ve ever read. The Comedians captures the whims, fancies, and larger-than-life personalities that have shaped the entertainment—and political—landscape in the US, from vaudeville to the present. A well-researched, stunning portrait, this book will knock your socks off and change the way you think about comedy’s sociological impact.” —Mel Morrow, Boswell Book Company (Milwaukee, Wisconsin)

“One of the most comprehensive and accessible accounts of the art form to date.” —Alison Herman, Flavorwire

“Highly recommended.” —Longform

“In the past decade, there have been several superb history books about comedy . . . but none will entertain comedy nerds as much as Kliph Nesteroff’s The Comedians . . . His sprawling and savvy book should burnish his reputation. It’s a serious history without a trace of self-consciousness, comedy’s answer to Luc Sante’s Low Life.” —Jason Zinoman, New York Times Book Review

“No small accomplishment . . . Funny and gleefully appalling . . . The Comedians is immensely entertaining, a fast read that’s also a deep dive.” —Ken Tucker, Yahoo TV

“Kliph Nesteroff is undoubtedly the top expert in his field . . . If you have any interest in learning about the roots of comedy as we know it, be sure to get his book.” —Julianna Romanyk, Exclaim (Canada)

“A rollicking history of comedy in America.” —Macleans (Canada)

“Entertaining and carefully documented . . . I thought I knew a lot about the history of American comedy. But this book located gaps in my knowledge I never knew were there and filled them with jaw-dropping anecdotes that made my eyes spin in different directions. For comedy completists and comedians alike, this book is a real treat . . . [An] entertaining omnibus.” —Merrill Markoe, Wall Street Journal

“Comedy buffs will find a treasure chest of trivia . . . But Nesteroff’s aims are far more ambitious. He weaves comedians into the larger American story, from racism . . . and blacklisting to the counterculture and the anti-war movement . . . An interesting, satisfying read.” —Michael Precker, Dallas News

“This is one of the best books I’ve ever read about show business . . . [Nesteroff] has amassed a dishy, informal, and knowledgeable history of comedy . . . This is straight talk about largely undocumented areas of show business and it is utterly fascinating. I feasted on this book and look forward to a possible sequel.” —Leonard Maltin, Indiewire (Holiday Book Roundup)

“An antic history of U.S. comedy . . . Nesteroff writes with insider perception . . . With his encyclopedic knowledge, a talent for vivid anecdotes and tireless gusto . . . [The Comedians is] an insightful overview of the most independent and subversive entertainment genre of the last century.” —Michael Sims, Washington Post

“Extraordinary . . . wildly, crazily revealing, and readable.” —Jeff Simon, Buffalo News

“The definitive history of the comedy business . . . downright majestic.” —Fabian Wolff, Forward

“A terrific book.” —M. Scott Krause, Vegas Seven

The Comedians is as good as they come. Nesteroff hits all the highlights and lowlights of this constantly evolving art form.” —Robert Ham, Portland Mercury

The Comedians is the deep-dive history stand-up comedy deserves . . . In scope, it’s almost certainly the most important comedy book since Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s Saturday Night Live oral history, 2003’s Live From New York.” —Michaelangelo Matos, Deadspin

“A valuable book . . . a compulsively readable history of American comedy . . . The book provides terrific insights into how the comedy greats of cinema created their personae and their acts . . . The book is also, no surprise, funny . . . My only complaint about the book? It’s too short.” —Glenn Kenny, RogerEbert.com

“If you love stand-up comedy, you cannot—we repeat, cannot—skip this book . . . A hugely entertaining ride through the American stand-up comedy scene. From Shecky Greene to Twitter, Nesteroff’s survey of stand-up is comprehensive and full of carefully formulated insights . . . Whether you’re a casual fan or a serious student of stand-up comedy, you must read this book.” —Elizabeth Rowe, Bookish

“A former stand-up comedian himself, talk-show host Nesteroff adds an extra layer of professional insight to this absorbing and colorful history of joke tellers and their ilk from vaudeville to the new millennium . . . Must reading for entertainers and an essential acquisition for every library performing arts collection.” —Booklist

The Comedians is the history of American funny that we didn’t know we needed, but did . . . Indispensable . . . An invaluable, and engaging, history of American entertainment’s sturdiest art form.” —Chris Foran, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“Beginning in the always smoky, often dilapidated vaudeville theaters of the early 20th century and spanning over a hundred years, Nesteroff meticulously details the lives and careers of forgotten and famous comics . . . Nesteroff’s exhaustive research is evident and historians will appreciate his thoroughness. Encyclopedic in form, The Comedians ensures the nuanced history of the business of laughs will not be forgotten.” —Christina Ledbetter, Associated Press

“Kliph Nesteroff is the king of comedy lore . . . This is showbiz darkness that James Ellroy would be proud of . . . 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.” —RJ Smith, Los Angeles Magazine

The Comedians unpacks the Russian nesting dolls of our modern concept of standup . . . A great book that will definitely make the rounds in the comedy world.” —Eddie Brawley, Splitsider


Named Best Local Comedy Author by L.A. Weekly
An Indie Next Selection
Named a Best Book of the Year by Kirkus Reviews, National Post, and Splitsider


It’s common to hear older comedy fans complain that comedians used to be funny. In comedy, generational considerations are everything. Veteran comedian Jan Murray said, “Comedy—every era—as it dies, people bemoan it. ‘Oh, these new comics aren’t like those guys!’ But it’s wrong, because every generation breeds its own generation that talks to that generation.” Shecky Greene agrees. “People say to me, ‘You guys were better in the old days.’ Fuck the old days!”

Vaudeville comedy now seems out-of-date and out-of-touch. A veteran critic who died in 1938 predicted that vaudeville comedy was not going to age well: “It must be remembered that old vaudeville was more a matter of style than material. It was not so much what they said and did—as how they said and did it. The compiler can give the words. He cannot add the saving grace of personality.” Viewed through a contemporary prism, vaudeville comedy can be rather painful, but this doesn’t mean it wasn’t legitimately funny in its day.

And yet the actual experience of the comedian remains similar to that of vaudeville days, transcending the generations. Then as now, countless stand-up schleppers toiled in the trenches, learned their craft, bombed before hostile audiences and killed in front of anonymous drunks. The struggle of the funny performer has remained a symbiosis of drive, jealousy, heartbreak and triumph—existing then as it exists now. Perhaps the only other constant is comedy’s unfailing popularity. Phyllis Diller once said, “There will never be enough comedy. Comedy is at a premium always.”