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They made us laugh; some made us think

Special to The Times

STAND-UP comedy was a bit slow to embrace the counterculture. As rock ‘n’ roll provided a rebel soundtrack, movies served up biker and LSD freakout flicks and Broadway unfurled “Hair,” comics remained more or less square throughout the 1960s. Of course, Lenny Bruce was an exception. He had fervent admirers among his brethren yet no one wanted to follow the martyred comic onto the cross. Between “Ed Sullivan Show” appearances and Vegas and Catskills engagements, too much was at stake.

Although performers of Bruce’s generation -- Mort Sahl, Bob Newhart, Woody Allen -- did break from the Borscht Belt-Shecky Greene mold, none emerged as an authoritative alternative voice.

Then came George Carlin. He’d been a mainstream comic for the better part of a decade when, in 1969, he grew a beard, traded his suit for jeans and began crafting topical material. His conversion became the flash point for the stand-up comedy revolution, according to Richard Zoglin, author of “Comedy at the Edge.” Carlin, along with Richard Pryor, serve as the spiritual linchpins in Zoglin’s entertaining though somewhat overreaching look at the transformation of stand-up from shtick to substance.

Zoglin, an editor and writer for Time, breezily tracks the biggest names to emerge from the new comedy movement -- among them: Robert Klein, Albert Brooks, Steve Martin, Robin Williams -- but the book’s subtitle, “How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America,” is chuckle-worthy. Other than perhaps Pryor’s early routines and Carlin’s incendiary “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” bit, how much, realistically, did comedians affect the American agenda? They may succinctly comment on the political, cultural and human issues, but even the best comics react to what’s around them, rather than incite actual change.

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Nevertheless, Zoglin does provide an entertaining account of the era’s emerging comedy scene, interviewing most of the principals and supporting players to connect the dots from Lenny Bruce to Jerry Seinfeld. The result is an intimate glimpse through the keyhole of a rebel subculture birthed on the smoke-filled stages of New York’s Improv and Catch a Rising Star that found its way into the heart of mainstream America -- on television and film and in suburban stand-up factories.

Other than Bruce, it was Carlin, Zoglin writes, who suffered the most. Like Dylan going electric, Carlin was treated with disdain when he left the comfort of the middle of the road (in 1966, he was a cast member on “The Kraft Summer Music Hall” along with John Davidson -- and Pryor) for a detour to the left. His new material got him tossed from the Frontier Hotel in Vegas. Johnny Carson didn’t want to book him, which, for a comic, was the kiss of death. To an aspiring comedian, a stint on Carson was the brass ring. Carlin tells Zoglin of his visit to “The Tonight Show” set to plead his case:

“I went over to explain to him that it was a rational choice I had made, and that I was moving in a new direction and that people were buying it . . . the trouble was that I was on a coke run when I went over. I was kind of speedy, I had a tie-dyed T-shirt on and I think it further distanced them from me,” Carlin recalls. Instead, Carlin delivered his new material to receptive college audiences and on comedy albums, eventually finding more success than in his first incarnation and spawning a generation of like-minded performers. Pryor’s salacious storytelling took it one step further. His groundbreaking 1974 album “That Nigger’s Crazy” won a Grammy for best comedy recording, forever expanding what could be said and done on stage.

“Comics didn’t need to rely on symbolism or subtlety to get their point across,” Zoglin writes. “They both reflected and helped define the ethos of the counterculture as surely as the troubadours of rock or the protest leaders of the left. They took aim at political corruption and corporate greed, made fun of society’s hypocrisy and consumerist excess, mocked the button down conformity of Eisenhower-era America.”

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Although their influence three decades later is disputable, the book succeeds at pointing out that though the definition of funny may have changed, these outlaw comics weren’t lacking for ambition. In the mid-1970s, Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Paul Reiser and Richard Lewis would wait impatiently around the bar at comedy clubs, eager for their moment on stage, when they’d kill or die. It wasn’t because they were being paid. Exposure -- to producers and agents trolling for new talent -- was everything, and club owners took full advantage.

With the 1975 emergence of “Saturday Night Live” and young comics like Andy Kaufman, Williams and Martin changed the playing field. Comedy albums were selling by the millions, and Martin in particular was attracting live audiences like a rock star, yet comedians were still working clubs for free.

But that wouldn’t last. By the late ‘70s, the Comedy Store on the Sunset Strip was the West Coast equivalent of New York’s Improv. Owner Mitzi Shore developed a reputation as a mother hen for wayward comics, spotlighting young talent such as David Letterman and Garry Shandling. She may have been a mensch, but she was also a tightwad. In March of 1979, they asked to be paid. When she said no, they went on strike. After six weeks, Shore reluctantly agreed to pay performers $25 per set.

But the damage had been done. Store regular Steve Lubetkin was an active strike participant who couldn’t get bookings after the settlement. Two weeks after the strike ended, he jumped to his death from the roof of the 14th floor of the Hyatt next to the Comedy Store. His suicide note read: “My name is Steve Lubetkin. I used to work at the Comedy Store.” “The Comedy Store strike, with its tragic coda, was a turning point for stand-up comedy in the 1970s,” Zoglin writes. It was both the end and the beginning. By the ‘80s, comedy clubs had sprung up in every suburb and reactionary comics like Andrew “Dice” Clay were headlining Madison Square Garden.

Ultimately, though, like the rest of us, comedy has mellowed. The rebel yell is now a whimper and a whine. So it makes sense that Zoglin points to Seinfeld as the symbolic offspring of the stand-up revolution -- an inoffensive, observational comic who’s made a career over an obsession with minutiae. He’s not Richard Pryor, but nor is he Shecky Greene. And that’s not such a bad thing.

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Erik Himmelsbach is a writer and television producer.


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