A few years ago I discovered a website called “Classic Television Showbiz” and unhesitatingly placed it on my blogroll.
In addition to YouTube clips of old TV shows, "Classic Television Showbiz" features interviews with people whom I remembered watching while I was growing up, including Jack Carter, Peter Marshall, Rose Marie and Pat Carroll. Not to mention other show business figures I’d never heard of but who, it turned out, were well worth interviewing.
Such interviews can be painful to read or watch if the interviewer hasn’t done his or her homework.
But Kliph Nesteroff, who runs the site and conducts the interviews, knows his stuff – to put it mildly. You could almost say that Kliph knows more about old show business than any whippersnapper (he’s in his thirties!) has a right to know. He’s almost preternaturally knowledgeable – a few centuries ago, I fear he would have been burned as a witch.
Last year Kliph announced that he had written a book for Grove Press. I figured it would be a collection of these interviews but decided I’d buy it anyway – I’d read enough of his stuff for free that I felt I at least owed him the price of a hardcover book.
The book, titled “The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy,” came out this fall, and it’s even better than I expected. Kliph has taken information from these interviews and combined it with other stuff he has dug up, and the result is a smoothly written, fascinating history of comedians in this country.
A couple of fascinating anecdotes from the book:
Former “Tonight” show host Jack Paar, attempting an ill-advised comeback in the 1970s, way past his controversial glory days, tells a young comedian that he carries a gun -- as if he were still famous enough to be on any weirdo’s hit parade.
During a production meeting for the at least equally ill-advised “Make Room for Granddaddy,” Danny Thomas keeps expectorating tobacco juice into a spittoon. When the director, sitting next to Danny, asks him to move the spittoon away from him, the comedian pulls out – you guessed it – a gun. (Then again, as I remember the show, the only way to watch “Make Room for Granddaddy” was at gunpoint.)
“The Comedians” is not just an amusing book that helps you pass the time – it’s (and I know it’s an overused word) a classic that will be the go-to reference on the subject for many years to come.
If you’re interested in this subject, you’ll be cheating yourself if you don’t buy it.
And that’s no joke.