Gerald Nachman’s Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s (Pantheon) is a narrative history of the post-Catskills standup comedians of the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras, starting with Mort Sahl and ending with Bill Cosby. It’s a surprisingly thick book, and surprisingly serious, too, though I’m surprised that Bob Gottlieb, the normally sharp-eyed editor, didn’t give it a few more nips and tucks. The chapters on Sahl, Tom Lehrer, Shelley Berman (I’d wondered what happened to him), Woody Allen, and Mike Nichols and Elaine May are especially good. No footnotes, and Nachman sometimes lapses into uncritical enthusiasm, but it’s still a solid read, good enough to make you curious about ex-headliners you’ve never heard of, or can just barely recall from childhood memories of The Ed Sullivan Show.
I smiled to see so many of these Formerly Hip Comics complaining about the frequency with which young comedians make use of what now appears to be the most popular 12-letter word in the English language. (They don’t seem to think much of David Letterman, either.) I look forward to seeing what tasteless outrages Chris Rock is bitching about when he’s 64.