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Make 'Em Laugh: 'The Comedians' Tells The Story Of Stand-Up

A lone figure on stage, making people laugh: That solitude is what makes stand-up tougher and riskier than other kinds of comedy.

Kliph Nesteroff is the author of the new book The Comedians, which traces the history of that solitary comic in the spotlight. He tells NPR's Renee Montagne that much of modern stand-up grew out of two great traditions in American humor: African-American and Jewish American. And many great Jewish comedians — performers like Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner — polished their jokes in the resorts of the Catskill Mountains, known as the Borscht Belt.

"The Borscht Belt and the Catskills are interesting," Nesteroff says. "They were an outgrowth that kind of spawned because vaudeville collapsed. So, the stock market crashes in 1929 and vaudeville now is not profitable. They have these enormous, ornate theaters that seat 5,000 people; the heating costs are enormous alone, you know. And people can't even afford to go to the shows. But a few years later, then we see the growth of the Catskills in upstate New York, people are trying to escape their troubles of the Great Depression, so they went up there to have a good time, it was inexpensive, and it was predominantly Jewish comedians performing for a Jewish audience."

Interview Highlights

On the Chitlin' Circuit

The Chitlin' Circuit was African-American comedians performing for African-American audiences because comedy was segregated back then. It just wasn't allowed. You could be an orchestra leader or a singer and be African-American addressing a white crowd. But it was not acceptable in those days for a black comedian to address a white crowd, because as a comedian on stage, you are superior to your audience. You are giving them your point of view — and in those days it wasn't allowed, so the Chitlin' Circuit alleviated that thing.

On the unlikely friendship of Redd Foxx and Malcolm X

Malcolm X and Redd Foxx were best friends in the late 1940s. They were both street hustlers, they were around New York. They used to break into a dry cleaner at night, steal the suits that were hanging on the rack, and then sell those suits the next day off a rooftop down the street — and that's how they made their living. They eventually drifted apart into their own universe, but yeah, they were very close friends.

[Foxx] influenced a lot of people, and he doesn't get the credit. He's really a man who's responsible for a lot of important firsts. Jumping ahead to 1966, he's the first African-American comedian to headline a Las Vegas hotel. In 1967 he became the first African-American business owner in Beverly Hills, when he opened up the Redd Foxx club. But going back even earlier to 1956, this is really important — he was the very first stand-up comedian to record his act on a vinyl record.

On the first female comics

World War II was very interesting. Just like women entered the workforce during World War II because the men were overseas, so too did some female comedians. So in my book, I talk about a woman named Jean Carroll, and Jean Carroll was the very first, in my opinion, female stand-up comedian. She simply went up and she told joke, joke, joke, joke, joke. So she became a bit of a star during the second world war, and she got a lot of stage time, and she got rave reviews.

And so all throughout the late '40s, Jean Carroll was like a novelty — she was the female comedian. She was a precursor to Phyllis Diller, a precursor to Joan Rivers, a precursor to Lily Tomlin. And incidentally, Lily Tomlin, when she was a child, she used to play dress-up, put on an angora sweater and pretend that she was Jean Carroll. But when the war ended, in typical 1950s fashion, she did something that a lot of women did, which was retreat from the workforce and become a housewife ... so Jean Carroll never had the career she should have had.

Minnie Pearl, who people know from Hee Haw, should have gotten more credit. She was touring around the Southern circuit, all throughout the '30s and '40s, as a female stand-up comedian. Moms Mabley, on the Chitlin' Circuit, was hilarious — and a lot of her stuff holds up because her character was hysterical. She deserves a lot of credit.

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