Comedy at the Edge by Richard Zoglin is a fantastic, comprehensive, and concise history of stand-up comedy during the late 1960 through the 1970s, from the death of Lenny Bruce to the ascendance of stand-up into the mainstream of American popular culture. It's well researched and compellingly presented.
I've always had a soft spot for stand-up comics. I love watching them on TV and seeing them in person. The conversational aspect of this style of performance lends an intimacy that you don't get from any other form of popular entertainment. Stand-up comedy is a type of theatre—it's really the only form of theatre that has attained truly mass appeal in our culture.
Despite my love of stand-up, I had never considered the history of it or thought too deeply about the differences between modern stand-up and the older styles that defined comedy in the middle of the 20th century. Consequently, Comedy at the Edge is revelatory.
Beginning the late 1960s, in the aftermath of Lenny Bruce, stand-up comedy underwent an evolution that broke with past humorous traditions and established new styles of comedy that still dominate stand-up today. Moreover, Zoglin argues that this evolution was not merely a product of the rebellious culture of the '60s and '70s, but one of its most powerful driving forces.
The evidence he presents in Comedy at the Edge is enough to convince me. Comedy has always been an essential tool for people to critique and analyze ourselves and our culture. Comedy can speak truth to power in a unique way that's easy for everyone to hear. In tumultuous times, comedians help us understand what's going on and warn us when we start down the wrong path.
What made the comedy revolution of the '60s and '70s so unique is that it brought stand-up to a level of mass popularity that it had never seen before and that continues to this day. It saw an explosion of creativity and inventiveness that has yet to be equaled. The comedians who came to prominence in this era—George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Richard Lewis, Albert Brooks, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Andy Kaufman, et al—forged the blueprints that stand-up comics still follow. They elevated stand-up comedy from mere entertainment to a fully expressive and nuanced art form.
I admit that I'm biased—I grew up on the comedians Zoglin profiles in this book. They will always rank as my favorites. I'm an easy sell for anyone who wants to call them geniuses.
The book is structured with each chapter profiling one comedian (or sometimes two) who best exemplifies a specific aspect of the stand-up comedy culture of this time period. It's packed with quotations, interviews, analysis, and commentary from many comedians, club owners, and critics who were there and lived it all first-hand. Zoglin ably captures the vitality and excitement of it.
There are times, though, when the conciseness of the book feels a little too concise. Twelve chapters (plus a short prologue), examining just over a dozen comedians, packed into a meager 225 pages doesn't leave room for much depth. The broad strokes are vivid enough to paint a compelling picture, and all the important thesis statements are made and supported—but I'm also frequently aware of how much is getting left out.
Perhaps, though, that may be one of Comedy at the Edge's greatest accomplishments—it leaves me eager to learn more. There are plenty of biographies that have been written about the comedians in this book, and I want to go read all of them now.