Laugh Lines

As any comedian knows, the quickest way to kill a joke is to study it too closely or attempt to explain it. So how can one be serious about comedy? These books manage to capture the fleeting charm of comedy without stepping on the punch line.

Chaplin: His Life and Art by David Robinson

Robinson’s volume is a magisterial biography for an epic life, written with surprising grace. Like the man he writes about, Robinson has a natural fluency, as well as the ability to wring emotion out of Chaplin’s fluctuations in fortune. “He remembered that as he looked at the little figure he thought of the battles she had fought in her life, and wept,” Robinson writes of Chaplin’s mother’s death. Readers may be surprised to find they are weeping, too.

The Silent Clowns by Walter Kerr

This book, though out of print and challenging to find, is undoubtedly the best book ever written about American comedy. Kerr, better known as a drama critic, covers not only the silent triumvirate of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, but also half-remembered stars like Harry Langdon and Charley Chase. Kerr, writing substantially from memory in the days before home video, is eminently quotable. He argues that “there is only one way of making comedy richer, and paradoxically, funnier, and that is by making it more serious.”

Romantic Comedy in Hollywood by James Harvey

This voluminous study of the early years of the romantic comedy, from Ernst Lubitsch to Preston Sturges, is notable for Harvey’s remarkable eye for detail. No nuance of performance or minute shift in directorial focus is lost on him, and he pays lavish tribute to the glorious early days of sound film. The romantic comedy was never better than it was in the brief decade and a half from the arrival of sound in 1927 until Sturges’s abrupt flameout. Harvey knows every movie worth seeing and the ones that aren’t worth a second look. This is a book to be read in conjunction with regular updating of one’s Netflix queue.

Comedy at the Edge by Richard Zoglin

Beginning after the death of Lenny Bruce from a drug overdose in 1966, Comedy at the Edge capably introduces readers to the generation of jokers who followed in the controversial comedian's wake. Penning sharp thumbnail portraits of figures like Richard Pryor, Albert Brooks, George Carlin, and Jay Leno, Zoglin is brisk without being glib, and explains the often-minute differences in style between comedians, without subtracting from the pleasure of their routines. Always providing the right quote and the essential summary, Zoglin crams in a few zingers of his own: Stand-up, he notes, is “the only major art form whose greatest practitioners, at any given time, want to be doing something else.” Of all the books about comedy, this is one of the funniest.

Live from New York by Tom Shales and James A. Miller

Or, an alternate title: The House that Lorne Michaels Built. This oral history is a compendium of juicy behind-the-scenes stories from Saturday Night Live’s thirty-five-year run, including sexual misconduct, flagrant drug abuse, diva antics, and the deaths of John Belushi and Chris Farley. The best of a raft of memorable stories: When Al Franken was a staff writer on SNL, he once had a mountain of cocaine on his desk as proof of his VIP status. Belushi, being Belushi, snorted the entire pile in one go. “They didn’t know whether to be thrilled that Belushi had just done this to their coke or be absolutely decimated, because that represented about half the money they had in the world at the time,” remembered the show’s producer, Dick Ebersol. Franken is now a member of the US Senate. God bless America.

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin

A superb memoir of a comedian’s early years written with the wisdom of age. Martin was an Orange County kid who parlayed his love of magic and performance into a fledgling career as a wised-up entertainer. But everything changed when Martin discovered the hugely popular comedy records of the early and mid-1960s, by acts like Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Lenny Bruce, and Tom Lehrer. All traces of the familiar had been scraped clean by these performers, supplanted by modernist self-referentiality and improvisatory daring. As an aspiring stand-up comedian, Martin realized that his entire act would have to be scrapped. “Any line or idea with even a vague feeling of familiarity or provenance had to be expunged,” Martin writes of this moment. “There could be nothing that made the audience feel they weren’t seeing something utterly new.”

Saul Austerlitz is the author of Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy published this month by Chicago Review Press.