Stand-up comedian Kliph Nesteroff has parlayed an obsession with the obscure roots of his chosen art form into one of the year’s most compulsively readable books, The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy. Beginning with the often violent acts that gave vaudeville its yuks, Nesteroff traces the evolution of the American comedian from such overlooked figures as Frank Fay, the first man to stand still and tell jokes, all the way to the superstars of today such as Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock. Fans of sentimental celebrity biographies be warned — Nesteroff pulls no punches in detailing the sordid connections between the comedy clubs and the Mob, for example. What emerges is a revolutionary portrait of American culture on the move as it confronts rapidly changing demographics, technologies, and, of course, the simple pain of being alive.


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