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on May 29, 2003
Although this book has flaws, I found it very interesting. It covers many famous comedians, whose work I had either enjoyed (Newhart, Woody Allen, Cosby) or had encountered here and there (Kovacs, Freberg, Nichols and May). The book worked as a series of mini-biographies which were compulsively readable, and as a bonus, there were very funny bits in each chapter as he quotes from the routines.
There were flaws, but I could live with them. There were a few errors, and the structure of most of the chapters could have used help. (The chapters tend to start with an overview of the comedian's essence, then shift to biography. In some instances, this came across as repetitious.) Don't expect a history of the era (say for a assessment of how the shift from Paar to Carson affected the direction of comedy.)
The most serious drawback to me was that there was no concluding chapter after we had covered all the biographies, because I had a few questions by then and wanted Nachman to try to draw stuff together. (Chiefly, why did his Fifties comics, apart from Phyllis Diller, tend to fall silent or burn out fast, while the Sixties comics, apart from Bruce and Dick Gregory, seem to go on forever?)
Still, this was a very enjoyable book. My wife is looking forward to reading it, having seen me enjoy it. I say regard it as a useful overview of an era and not a definitive last word on the subject.
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on May 6, 2003
Gerald Nachman is the ideal writer to capture the excitement of the ground-breaking satirical comedy of the 1950s and 1960s. A respected critic and a very funny man himself, he knows how to do his homework. Better yet, he writes crisply, with style and humor. Nachman began earning his spurs in the 1960s, reporting on, among other theatrical things, new voices in comedy for major newspapers on both coasts. He's an expert on funny. He even looks funny.
Now he has put that golden era in perspective. "Seriously Funny" (Pantheon) is the definitive word on the comedy revolution that changed the way we laugh, at least for a few fantastic years.
This book will please two audiences -- those who want to relive the euphoria they felt when the revolt happened, and the younger crowd that always wondered where these people came from, whether they were any good, and where they are now.
Mort Sahl, Sid Caesar, Tom Lehrer, Steve Allen, Jonathan Winters, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Bob Newhart, Lenny Bruce, Shelley Berman, Godfrey Cambridge, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Joan Rivers are all there, among several others.
Nachman's 30,000-word introduction, a sweeping overview that explains the roots of the revolt, acknowledges its ephemeral nature: "It's hard to find traces now of those brilliant, perceptive, funny comedians. The comics who came later mostly aimed for the gut and the groin, not the brain or the soul." And he laments: "The laughter they left behind in all of those little underground clubs is long gone, but their legacy still smiles brightly, warmly, and merrily."
Nachman seems to have combed through all published sources available, adding personal interviews with the principals and their associates wherever possible. Some cranky characters such as Mort Sahl and Bill Cosby declined to cooperate in this project, but many others added fascinating detail on their career zigzags and what they're up to today. Sahl may be surprised to see that Nachman produces a 48-page profile of him, perhaps the strongest piece in the book, pieced together from Sahl's recorded material, Nachman's occasional encounters with him over the years, and a crystal-clear analysis of the man.
Offstage, Nachman reports, some of these wits were prickly, some were grey and businesslike, some still had the comedy magic. Sadly, many of them are wasting away in retirement. You want to shout: "Shelley Berman, Jonathan Winters, come back. We need more of you."
A deft touch with the language pulls the reader through this 659-page book. Some of Nachman's gems:
-- Of Vaughn Meader's short-lived career as an impressionist specializing in the voice of John F. Kennedy, he writes: "One twist to the single-bullet theory that didn't make it into the Warren report: the same bullet that killed JFK also murdered Vaughn Meader's career."
-- Of Woody Allen's lesser movie scripts: "If the actors were delivering the same lines in a club, they'd be drenched in flop sweat."
-- Of Lenny Bruce: "Bruce gouged under the skin, creating jucier, Jewishier characters in his gallery of gargoyles and showbiz sharks, and made much more racket."
"Seriously Funny" is a brilliant combination of dense research and incisive interviews, presented through the eye of senior critic.
As a bonus, the narrative is sprinkled with some of the performers' best lines and how they came to be. For example, Woody Allen, in his early gag-writing days, was a veritable joke machine, writing easily and prolifically for other comics. Many of his weird one-liners still make me laugh today. Example: He first suspected his parents didn't love him when they put a live teddy bear in his crib. And Jonathan Winters, famous for being "always on", is said to have adlibbed to a lady who complained "You're not handicapped" when he parked his car in a spot reserved for the handicapped, "Madame, can you see inside my mind?"
This history of intelligent comedy is anything but a doorstop. It is a feast. No, it's more than a feast. It is a smorgasbord so big it threatens to collapse the table. It's hard to believe so much history, mirth and critical analysis can be squeezed between two covers.
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on April 27, 2003
I looked forward to reading this book from the moment last fall that I learned it was due out in April. To say it was a letdown would be to put it mildly. Although Nachman lists the dozens of interviews he himself conducted for the book, the text is overwhelmed with quotes from old bios, fan magazines, newspaper reviews, etc. And Nachman has an annoying habit of skipping around in such a haphazard, non-chronological manner, that the reader is easily confused. He's also sloppy when attempting to place certain events in historical context -- for instance, he lists "All in the Family," The Jeffersons," "Sanford and Son" and "Different Strokes" as "late-60's" TV series,when in fact they were early-to-mid 70's. There are several more such sloppy mistakes. His earlier work, "Raised on Radio," is far superior -- and it's obvious he enjoyed writing it a whole lot more than he did "Seriously Funny."
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on April 20, 2003
This book provides a chapter each on comedians such as Mort Sahl, Tom Lehrer, Jean Shepherd, and many others from the 1950's and 1960's. It appeals of to those of us who are nostalgic for those comedians and that time period.
Author Gerald Nachman has authoritative knowledge backed by extensive research. Most of the comedians covered by his book are in their 70's and 80's, and he has interviewed many of them. For the most part, he avoids over-analyzing comedy or lapsing into pompous amateur sociology.
Overall, however, I find the book to be a mile wide and an inch deep. It's very time-consuming to plow through the whole thing. In the end, I did not come away feeling that I knew much more about Mort Sahl or Jean Shepherd than I did from reading the record jacket of "The Future Lies Ahead" or the book flap of "In God we Trust, All others Pay Cash."
I wish that Nachman had a better editor. At a detail level, the inconsistency of dates is a constant source of annoyance. I felt like someone could be 40 years old one year, and 47 years old ten years later.
On a larger level, I would have shortened the book by trimming some of the name-linking and uninformative quotations. Instead, I would have appreciated some bullet-point style presentations that encapsulated timelines, career highlights, and best available recordings.
This could have been a better book.
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After reading this book, and RAISED ON RADIO I'm convinced... Nachman is a brilliant chronicaller of generations, passioniate and on such a mission his enthuisiasm gushes through with each Peabody Award waiting to happen phrase whether or not you share his enthuisiasm. - - Like RAISED ON RADIO, the book is neither definitive nor wishy-washy either. The chapters simply paint portraits of the people. In fact, the book goes a bit DEEPER into the subject manner than RAISED ON RADIO though not too deep. Further, though Nachman did interview subjects and did research, a lot of the information isn't exactly new (atleast if you're a nerdish comedy album collector and already into what the book is about.) - - And although yes, sometimes he goes on and on to make a point, especially in the way he breaks down the personalities of the comics he analyzes, I have to say, Nachman's writing is so delightful its forgivable (whether or not some of the chapters could have been cut in half.) Also what I like about this book is the choice of comedians go well beyond the obvious and really make you think... recognizing not just the Lenny Bruce's and Mort Sahls, but radio and TV comics that paved the way... (Bob and Ray, Ernie Kovacs and Steve Allen included !)

All in all, this is a great book presented through the mind of a brilliant columnist... and yes NACHMAN definitely is a columnist... a master storyteller who can schpiel by the column inch and hold your attention all the way. The only danger of reading this book is that after each chapter you want to go out and get the CDs... but with so many comedians covered, that's a lot of bread !

Though I happen to be a fan of the topics covered in this and RAISED ON RADIO, I have to say, whatever Nachman decides to write about next, I'm fair game for it !
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on February 3, 2013
Nachman's book is a collection of profiles of some of the most creative people on the planet, comedians who rebelled against the accepted practices of joke telling and formed the basis of stand-up comedy as we know it and appreciate it today. Biographical sketches of trend-setting comedians and satirists that have greatly influenced every comic performing today and shaped the entire trajectory of the art as performed in the early 21st century are included here. These are the true innovators of comedy and their stories are told with great insight and style. There are only a few format errors in the Kindle edition but otherwise the text is written quite well. If you think Carlin is the only significant comic to appear in the late '60s, read Nachman and begin to appreciate the ground-breaking work of people like Sahl, Freberg, Diller. etc.(a decade before Carlin!)--the book does not include everyone but it does include the best!
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on May 23, 2014
A very entertainingly written history of many comics from the 50s & 60s. It covers both their professional careers as well as some things about their private lives that led them to be the funny people they were - or are (!). Enjoyed many of them when they were popular, and surprised to learn that several are still plying their trade.
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on March 1, 2015
I learned that the tremors of the Cultural Revolution which shook the '60's were first heard in the '50's in the early cafes and clubs which featured the people who make up the chapters of this book. Nachman makes great selections from the familiar circle of early stand-up and television comedians and also casts a wider net, capturing the contributions of personalities such as Bob and Ray and Ernie Kovacs, all of whom contributed to the premise that comedy was shifting from the frantic joke-machine entertainers to people who could put forth a complicated and insightfully humorous personality or present their own unique facet of a changing social consciousness. Each of Nachman' selections is portrayed first and foremost as a person, though it is interesting to see how, in some cases, that line between the person and the comic can become blurred. He intersperses small but delightful flavorings of each person's material and, thankfully, does not attempt to squeeze his own humor in among the ranks of these geniuses. His style is clear, engaging, and consistent with his material - a great read to someone interested in comedy and the changes in our popular culture.
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on March 23, 2014
I would love to rave about this book but cannot. When you assign a title to a book, you better be able to defend its validation. Mpst of the comedians discussed in the book are not rebels. You can count them on one hand- Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce and a couple of others. Based on whom the author picks to discuss, I could have added several others from that time period- Jack Carter, Jan Murray, the brilliant Guy Marks. Steve Allen- a rebel? C'mon! The same with Bob and Ray.

To the author's credit, I learned a few interesting backstage tidbits of some of the performers but I've read more detailed biographies of several of the comics listed.

The author would have been better off to focus on a couple of his favorite comedians and written a much more elaborate biography of each. Still, I'd say it is okay to get the book and read it to draw your own conclusion.
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on December 8, 2012
This book will have you, in the manner of Batman, leaping to your feet, pointing up into the air, and exclaiming, "To the Internet!" How inconsiderate it was for these geniuses to be spinning comedy gold before we were born. We missed it! Later generations will have to fill in the sorry gaps in our comedy education by trolling Wikipedia for info, YouTube for any performance clips, and e-Bay for old comedy albums. Both Gerald Nachman's historical overview of the 1950s and 60s cultural landscape and his biographical sketches are dense with fascinating details-and he drops just enough of each subject's bits into it to leave you panting for more. I discovered Tom Lehrer, who wrote and performed satirical songs like "The Vatican Rag"-"First you get down on your knees/Fiddle with your rosaries/Bow your head with great respect/And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!" A bouncer tells of how this song made Ricardo Montalban go ballistic: "Montalban says, 'I love my religion! I will die for my religion!' And Lehrer said, 'Hey, no problem, as long as you don't fight for your religion." You gotta love a guy who "blurbed all of his nastiest reviews on his next album, An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer." And how about Stan Freberg-master of record paraodies and commercials (he was also the voice of The Abominable Snowman lovin' him some Daffy Duck, "I will hug him and pet him and hold him and squeeze him."-omigodawesome). Freberg is a grand old maverick, and it's amusing to read about his tussles with suits: "Freberg recalls that after he used TV's Lone Ranger and Tonto, Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels, in a Jeno's pizza commercial, an executive from ABC called and said, 'We need a letter from Mr. Silverheels that says he's not offended at being cast in a stereotypical role.' I said, 'He's TONTO, for God's sake! What do you mean, a stereotypical role? He's made a living all his life being Tonto!' So I called him up. He told me to read it back to him and Jay said, 'You're putting me on! I'll sign the form, and tell that dame to stop screwing around with my residuals." This book is a pantheon of comedy greats that older folks will read with nostalgic pleasure, and younger folks with gnawing envy.
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