"In 1980, there were about 10 paying comedy clubs in existence in America; by 1985 there were close to 200." So writes Betsy Borns in her appreciation of the burgeoning milieu of stand-up comedy, where an unknown with minimal talent but astute management can make up to $75,000 a year without ever cracking the big time.
"Comic Lives" is an inside view of the elements of modern stand-up from a variety of perspectives--mostly those of the comedians themselves, many of whom are at or near the top of their profession. Borns not only attempts to find out what motivates them (the book even includes a chapter on their parents), but she also touches on the rough conditions most of them have had to endure at the hands of greedy and manipulative club owners, hostile audiences and joke thieves among the ranks. She also puts the milieu in historical relief and points up the several events--among them the bitter 1979 comedians' strike against Hollywood's Comedy Store--that accelerated a disparate band of performers into a distinct subculture.
The book's virtues are far outweighed, however, by the shallow reportage in which interview statements are accepted at face value as self-evident truths, a propensity to quote the same dozen or so sources in every chapter, and some appalling writing: "Like poets, popes and serial murderers, stand-up comics begin life as children."