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CRITIC AT LARGE

A Standout Book On Stand-up Comedians

May 22, 1986|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

There are two kinds of reference books about show business: very good and fairly awful. The latter tend to be fan-directed nostalgia items, under-researched and breathlessly written, to be read with sighs and possibly by candlelight.

The good ones in the movie area would include Leslie Halliwell's bare-bones but widely inclusive "Filmgoer's Companion" and "Film Guide" and Ephraim Katz's "The Film Encyclopedia" (now sorely in need of an updated edition).

These good ones identify themselves because they answer hard questions, surprise you with facts you didn't know and are impossible to put down because one revelation leads to another.

Garland Publishing, which also does Variety's helpfully current "Who's Who in Show Business," has just brought out "The Stars of Stand-up Comedy" by Ronald Lande Smith (Garland, $39.95, 226 pp.).

Smith admits to being a sometime performer himself, having read his own comic verse on radio and television. It's been enough, I sense reading the entries, to let him share that sour knot in the guy and that prickling under the arms when the comic performer faces an audience in the aching eternity before the first laugh. He writes with empathy.

He includes 98 teams and solos, Abbott and Costello to Henny Youngman, Smith and Dale to Stiller and Meara and Robin Williams. I would guess there is another mini-generation of performers known to the Comedy Store and the Improv and not included. Smith admits there are another 50 names he could have added, had he time enough to pry out the information (a gentle way of saying that the really, really big fame has not embraced them yet).

What gives Smith's book its value is that, although he describes the comic in peak-of-fame form, with well-chosen excerpts from the routines, Smith can also usually chart the life path and the extenuating circumstances that produced the style.

He is very good and comprehending, for example, on Lenny Bruce, who Smith tells us tied for first place on "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts" on April 18, 1949. He was then an impressionist doing comedy drunks, Maurice Chevalier and Frankie Laine. The later stuff came out of boredom, anger, a rough life working small, mean clubs--and the inevitable discovery that shock and surprise are sources of laughs.

No comedian has ever had a drearier, sadder last act. But, as Smith remarks, Bruce has his heirs (George Carlin and Richard Pryor among them), has been celebrated in a Bob Dylan song and a first-rate movie and is an acknowledged original who left the stand-up scene forever changed.

"The only honest art form is laughter, comedy; you can't fake it," Bruce said.

Smith is good on another hard-luck comedian, the late Allen Sherman, whose material reflected a miserable childhood (20 schools, a swinging and distracted mother) and the saving influence of grandparents who introduced him to Yiddish theater and humor. He was an overnight success with "Hello Mudder," and later an overnight flop whose last albums sold poorly but are now, Smith says, fetching $20 as collectors' items, as his enduring and endearing worth as a humorist becomes clear.

The news is not always gloomy or posthumous, and Smith's long entry on Mort Sahl captures remarkably the incisive style of a comic satirist whose humor more often relies on context than on one-liners. "I guess I appeal to anybody in pain," Sahl once said.

Smith charts Sahl's course as the sharply refreshing comic commentator of the '50s and early '60s--"Will Rogers with fangs," as a newspaper called him--then the post-Kennedy period when the times seemed out of joint for Sahl, and vice versa. Now, 30 years on, Smith writes that "Sahl continues as a relentless, vibrant satirist . . . blending attacks on liberals and conservatives, new moralities and old values." He is, says Smith, "currently on an upswing, appealing to anyone who wants to knife through the news and share Sahl's satiric insights."

Browsing Smith's book, you do realize how many of his entries are past tense, and you are moved to wonder whether the decline of the nightclub and the television variety show endangers the health of stand-up comedy.

It's not that there aren't places to be bad; it's just that it's hard to find many places to be big. And in Smith's litany you don't find many Sahl-sized names, present or past. He and Mark Russell aren't exactly a quorum, although they make a marvelous minority. But you have to hope there are still venues and audiences for more than failed imitations of Lenny Bruce, for the laughter born of truth told funny.

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