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Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s Paperback – September 1, 2004

4.1 out of 5 stars 23 customer reviews

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It's been said that analyzing comedy is a bit like dissecting a frog: you arrive at a greater understanding of the frog but the frog does tend to die in the process. The purpose of Gerald Nachman's Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s is not to provide a laugh riot of his subjects' best punch lines, but rather to explore their lives, careers, and influence. Nachman's scope is impressive. He provides detailed biographies not only of household names Sid Caesar, Lenny Bruce, Bob Newhart, and Woody Allen but also comics like Jean Shepherd, Shelley Berman, and Will Jordan whose legacies have far outpaced their name recognition. Nachman has done his research; the book profiles 26 comedians, each in exhaustive detail, and no fan of this era will feel cheated at the end of its 768 pages. There are plenty of entertaining show biz anecdotes (Sid Caesar throwing a lit cigar at young writer Mel Brooks, Bill Cosby punching out Tommy Smothers) along with tales of the darker sides of Mort Sahl, Jonathan Winters, and others whose private lives were far less amusing than their stage acts. But what makes Seriously Funny so compelling, and its dopey title at least partially forgivable, is the author's meticulous attention to each comedian's imprint on the landscape of comedy itself. And while the jokes cited often seem a bit stale and obvious, it bears noting that they were revolutionary when these comedians first made them. --John Moe --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Something happened to comedy beginning in the late 1950s. Geniuses like Mort Sahl, Mel Brooks, Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen took a tired medium ("Take my wife-please" was about as good as it got) and transformed it into a sharper, meaner, more personal and more politicized art form than any comedy that had come before. It was, as Nachman notes in this broad survey, a "satirical revolution." Suddenly, police might arrest a comic for obscenity (Bruce). Or the American president might demand an explanation of a punch line (Sahl). Or network censors might freak out over politically charged TV scripts (the Smothers brothers). As a group, Nachman argues, these comedians changed the cultural landscape, pushing the boundaries of humor, art and good taste. But for many, genius had a price. Jonathan Winters spent time in a sanatorium; Bruce succumbed to drug addiction; and Sahl became paranoid and unbalanced, oddly obsessed with JFK's assassination. The list could go on-and does. Nachman (Raised on Radio) covers 26 comedians here. Necessarily, some details are lost. But whatever Nachman lacks in depth, he makes up for with his enthusiasm and firsthand knowledge (he interviewed many of his subjects himself, repeatedly, over decades). Even better, Nachman knows when to shut up and let the comics speak for themselves (Sahl on Barry Goldwater: "The fascist gun in the West"; Allen on the modern condition: "Not only is God dead but try getting a plumber on the weekends"). A must-have for comedy fans, this book is also a notable study of America as it shed its gray flannel suit and began, finally, to laugh.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 659 pages
  • Publisher: Back Stage Books (September 1, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0823047865
  • ISBN-13: 978-0823047864
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.4 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #848,360 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Michael Samerdyke on May 29, 2003
Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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.
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By A Customer on April 27, 2003
Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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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