Author Kliph Nesteroff’s book The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy (Grove Press) was published Nov. 3 and already has been heralded by Steve Martin, Leonard Maltin and Marc Maron, who describes Nesteroff as “the preeminent historian of modern comedy.” (Nesteroff dedicates the book to Maron, who invited the author onto his WTF podcast in 2012.)
“I tell the history of comedy, and stand-up in particular, using examples that others haven't written about,” Nesteroff says via text. “Historians often make the mistake of including every last bit of minutiae, but by delving into the specifics of Bob Hope's contract negotiations — for example — you lose your reader in a sea of dullness. Whether it's Albert Brooks' father literally dying onstage or the Mafia controlling Don Rickles’ career, I made it a point to include stories that would be compelling to someone with no interest in comedy … let alone its history.”
Nesteroff, a 35-year-old Canadian transplant and former stand-up who now lives in L.A., devotes numerous sections of The Comedians’ 13 chapters to L.A.’s pioneering contributions to the craft. Here are five comedy hot spots from Los Angeles' past that Nesteroff credits with shaping its present:
During the late 1940s, supper club and organized-crime hangout Ciro’s helped the likes of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin become touring sensations. In the 1970s, Mitzi Shore's Comedy Store took over the space, showcasing newbies including Jay Leno, David Letterman and Andy Kaufman; in the Original Room, thick, square rafters remain from the venue’s previous incarnation. The building is believed to be haunted, particularly the basement, site of numerous mob murders and illegal abortions.
Billy Gray's Band Box
Until last year, a Canter’s Deli chopped-liver dish went by this name, an ode to the pioneering but long-forgotten proto-comedy club at Beverly and Fairfax. The Band Box was known throughout the 1950s as the room to see such comedians as Buddy Hackett, Shecky Greene and Dick Van Dyke. In an era where comics often split a showbill with singers, bands and dance acts, the Band Box broke new ground by having comedians performing back-to-back sets.
The Ash Grove
The Los Angeles folk scene has been overshadowed by its Greenwich Village counterpart, but in the 1960s budding new stand-up comedians including Steve Martin, Cheech Marin, Albert Brooks and Rowan & Martin performed amateur L.A. “hoot nights” at the Ash Grove alongside poetry readings from Charles Bukowski and lectures from Jane Fonda. The Melrose Avenue club became such an important West Coast folk epicenter that in 1974 New York club owner Budd Friedman purchased it and turned it into the Hollywood Improv.
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During the late 1950s and early '60s, the upstairs Interlude room at 8568 Sunset Blvd.’s Crescendo frequently booked Woody Allen, Dick Gregory, Mort Sahl, Bob Newhart and Jonathan Winters. (The Playboy Club arrived next door in 1964.) DJ, producer and promoter Gene Norman ran the hybrid jazz/comedy venue as well as live-album label Gene Norman Presents (Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong), later known as GNP-Crescendo.
This tiny venue along La Cienega’s Restaurant Row opened in 1957 with Lenny Bruce as the star attraction. After one show Bruce was fired for swearing onstage; an unknown named Don Rickles served as emergency replacement and became the talk of the town his first week in Los Angeles. With 1967 successor the Redd Foxx Club, aka Redd’s Place, the eponymous comedian made history as the first black club owner on the Beverly Hills border, while his raw performance style influenced a young regular named Richard Pryor.