I first discovered stand-up comedy in the early 1980s, when my parents were hosting a party and George Carlin’s “Carlin at Carnegie Hall” was playing on HBO in the living room. I wasn’t allowed in, of course, being about eleven years old at the time, but after a while I wandered in under everyone’s radar and stood leaning against the wall, watching, transfixed. I was thrilled with the exposure to naughty words – being Carlin, there were plenty of them – and I could only understand about half of his routine, but he talked about silly, nonsense stuff, too, like dogs . And I loved it.
Terminally shy, with wit that only came to me after the bullies left, I understood immediately there was power in the ability of making people laugh. One guy standing in front of a brick wall with a microphone, no soundtrack, no band, no partner, no nothing, convincing complete strangers to like and accept them, just by making them laugh. I knew I didn’t have the confidence in doing this myself – thus derailing a surefire comedy and sitcom career into librarianship – but I did spend a large part of my teens buying comedy tapes, playing them endlessly, memorizing routines and repeating them to my friends. George Carlin quickly led to a host of others, and I developed my personal Stand-Up Album Pantheon. Along with “Carlin at Carnegie”, there were Bill Cosby’s “Himself”, Stephen Wright’s “I Have a Pony”, Robin Williams’ “Night at the Met”, Sam Kinison’s “Louder than Hell”, and Richard Pryor’s “Wanted: Live in Concert”. Oh, and Eddie Murphy’s “Delirious”, too. These were, in many ways, the soundtrack of my teens.
All this was my background going into Richard Zoglin’s “Comedy at the Edge”, a study of the emergence of the stand-up scene during the late sixtes and early seventies, starting with the legacy of Lenny Bruce and moving through Carlin, Richard Pryor, Robert Klein, Andy Kaufmann, Albert Brooks, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Jerry Seinfeld, and a truckload of others. Ground Zero of the stand-up explosion were the scenes in New York and LA, with comedians working out their inner demons on stage or angling to get a shot at sitting on the couch with Johnny Carson. Zoglin knows his stuff, spending years honing his skills as a feature writer for Time magazine. His extensive interviews gives depth to the performers, placing them in a social context. The book comes off almost as a verbal history, similar to Shales and Miller’s “Live From New York” about the early years of Saturday Night Live. Essential reading for anyone who loves pop-culture history or stand-up comedy.