Comedy at the Edge by Richard Zoglin

If I could sum up Comedy at the Edge in one word it would be breadth. Richard Zoglin, editor, and writer at Time compiled an extensive and impressive amount of information for his book through both primary and secondary sources of information. His book is the story of the people, places, and events of the seventies that changed the stand-up comedy business, on-stage language mores, and the show-biz industry’s view of the stand-up comedian.

Although the title says the 1970s, the book begins in the 1960s because, “No cultural era, of course, has a neat beginning and end.” (Zoglin, page 6) The book is a highly researched work that starts with Lenny Bruce’s career as an impetus of the seventies movement to break with borsch-belt comedy. This includes an account of the well-known story where Lenny Bruce and George Carlin end up in the back of a paddy wagon when police closed one of Bruce’s shows on the grounds of obscenity.

The book has autobiographical sketches of many of the influential players in seventies stand-up, such as George Carlin and Richard Pryor, who both began with safe borsch-belt comedy in the sixties and moved into their more honest and revolutionary incarnations in the seventies. Zoglin uses some of his chapters to compare and contrast comic styles. Albert Brooks versus Steve Martin, Andy Kaufman versus Robin Williams, and social comedy (Pryor, Carlin) versus showbiz parody (Brooks, Martin). Other comedians highlighted rather extensively in the book include David Steinburg, Robert Klein, Elayne Boosler, and Jerry Seinfeld.

The book also has chapters on the television shows and comedy clubs that allowed stand-up comedy to have more of an influence and be recognized as an occupation. Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show impacted the careers of comedians instantaneously in the seventies as evidenced by overnight successes such as Freddy Prinze. The first incarnations of the comedy club with The Improv and Catch a Rising Star in New York, and later, when The Tonight Show moved west, the rise of the Comedy Store in Las Angeles began the comedy club formats such as open mic nights, showcases and the three-man show. Early comedy clubs were an experimental ground for trying out new ideas as well as places ‘to be seen by agents and  bookers, especially for the all important Tonight Show booker.

Zoglin also describes two important events that also significantly changed stand-up comedy in America. First, the Comedians for Compensation strike of the Comedy Store made it possible for comedians to make a living because it forced comedy clubs to actually pay comedians which up to that time were the only people in the comedy clubs not getting paid. Zoglin’s coverage of the strike gives a fair overview; for a much more detailed account I would recommend I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-up Comedy’s Golden Era which details the rise of the Comedy Store and the Comedians for Compensation movement in extreme depth. It also provides more personalized accounts of the era covered by Zoglin’s, Comedy at the Edge. The second key event is the comedy club boom of the late seventies. It made stand-up a viable career option because comedy clubs opened all around the country. The book describes how the early eighties changed the focus of stand-up from a career to a stepping stone for sitcoms, improvisational shows, movies. The eventual bust of the comedy boom closed numerous clubs.

Whenever possible, Zoglin conducted interviews with comedians, their families, club owners, agents, and bookers. He acknowledged the continuum of time as some comedians’ careers began before or continued out of the seventies, but focused on the importance of their influence in seventies comedy. Zoglin provided detailed notes about the sources used for each chapter; he was up front when he did not get direct interviews.

The book’s amazing breadth of information is sometimes eclipsed by the lack of depth. By no means was I expecting Zoglin to cover each topic ad nauseum, as there are entire books on the comedians, comedy clubs and events of 70s comedy covered by Comedy at the Edge. The challenge Zoglin undertook in writing this book was colossal, and some sentences were so over packed with information they had to be re-read. However, I felt some chapters were a little less researched than others, and they appeared very flat in comparison to the better-researched chapters. Chapter 10 entitled Women ought to have been called ‘Lack of Women’. It was disappointing to learn that women comics were included as an afterthought to this book, and it shows in Zoglin’s lack of primary sources. However, I feel that Zoglin made good use of the information he had for writing this chapter.

Despite these few issues, I feel Zoglin proved himself to be a tremendous researcher and reporter in this book. He provided a broad picture of this era in comedy which any researcher could use to springboard to other books if they wanted more depth on any of the subjects covered by Zoglin. I would highly recommend this book to anyone wanting to learn more about the history of the stand-up comedy business or as an introduction to stand-up comedy in the late sixties and seventies.

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