A History of the Comedian Memoir in Nine Books

The comedian memoir has become one of the most crowded genres in publishing. Writing one these days is a nearly mandatory part of a succ...


The comedian memoir has become one of the most crowded genres in publishing. Writing one these days is a nearly mandatory part of a successful comic’s career. Among the yearly glut are usually a few best sellers and some gems. Many are funny, some are fascinating, even more are ghostwritten. This kind of book has deep roots, and long before stand-ups spilled stories on podcasts, these memoirs were where comedy nerds discovered the backstage history of an often ephemeral art form. To understand comedy in nine books, start with this list by some of the funniest people of the last century.

If you think the title is gloomy, consider its final line: “All the comedian has to show for his years of work and aggravation is the echo of forgotten laughter.” As he predicted, Fred Allen, a giant of 20th century comedy, has faded from memory, but he left behind this splendidly cranky portrait of the golden age of radio comedy in the 1930s. He argues television ruined comedy, and what’s remarkable is he almost convinces you. He celebrates radio greats and describes his hit show, reprinting scripts including from his famous feud with Jack Benny, the roast battles of their day. Allen didn’t just pioneer insult comedy and topical humor. He trailblazed trashing network executives. Assigning blame for radio’s decline, he wrote: “It was once rumored that fledging executives walked around their office backwards so they wouldn’t have to face an issue.”

Taking readers on a glamorous trip from Vaudeville to Broadway to Hollywood, Harpo Marx wittily exposes the chasm between public persona and private personality. In his act, he was all silent appetite and id. But on the page, he’s a refined romantic, an intellectual who never finished the second grade. In this gold standard of the comedian memoir, Marx describes his early days with an eye for embarrassment (wetting himself in his debut) and a delight in the absurd (sharing a bill with the animal act, The Musical Cow Milkers). But the book really takes off when his career does, since once his brothers become a hit, the memoir turns into a sparkling account of his time at the Algonquin Round Table. One standout is his description of his good friend, the flamboyant, cape-wearing Alexander Woolcott, one of the finest portraits of a critic.

The comic Mort Sahl once described his peer Lenny Bruce as a “very nice guy who liked women, jazz and drugs and they made him into a metaphor.” To be fair, this book helped. Written in the tumultuous last years of his life, Bruce set the template for the anti-hero comic, cheerily mapping the birth of a rebel, raging against hypocrisy and moralism, mocking the comedy of the previous generation before becoming a free speech martyr, sent to trial for obscenity. It’s a masterclass in myth-making. Bruce’s staccato delivery translates beautifully, whether describing his marriage with a stripper or getting his first laugh. Yet he also shows flashes of vulnerability, more so than on his classic albums. “I know (and it disturbs me greatly) that soon I will be out of touch,” he wrote, adding: “There’s nothing sadder than an old hipster.” He avoided that fate, dying the following year.

There’s more raw terror in this book than a thousand suicide notes. The ferociously funny comic Joan Rivers wrote many books, but none distilled her warrior mentality as much as this account of her tortured childhood and early career. In her view, comedy is a byproduct of suffering and struggle, requiring desperation, an unappeasable need to succeed and an unimaginable tolerance for humiliation and rejection. Sounds fun, huh? For the reader, it actually is. She tells many quick, ruthless jokes, doles out practical advice (when you are losing the audience, talk quieter, not louder) and dishes out gossip as well as sharp criticism of legends like Dick Gregory and Jack Paar. Never once does Rivers become bitter. She’s a happy warrior. Pain being the source of comedy is a cliché, but no book illustrates it better than this one.

When Richard Pryor was five years old, he accidentally stepped in dog poop. His mom laughed. So he did it again, this time on purpose. “That was my first joke,” he wrote. From these humble beginnings grew the career of the greatest stand-up comic who ever grabbed a microphone. The outlines of his now famous story, raised in a brothel in Peoria, becoming wildly famous for revolutionary personal comedy, setting himself on fire, has been chronicled many times, but never in more raw, blunt detail than here, which makes this essential reading for comedy fans. There’s fascinating portraits of Redd Foxx, Eddie Murphy (Pryor writes that he thought his comedy was too mean) and the Village scene in the 1960s where at a show, Woody Allen tells him “Stick around, watch me and you’ll learn something.”

This witticism-packed book is not a memoir. Nor is it written by a comedian. So what is it doing on this list? Nora Ephron defies easy categorization. She tried everything, working as a reporter, screenwriter, essayist, director and novelist, among other jobs, but her massively influential prose has made her a titan of modern comedy. Her reflections on aging, parenting and New York are classic comic set pieces, and whether she’s describing her body (“Our faces are lies and our necks are the truth”) or offering up counsel (“Never marry a man you wouldn’t want to be divorced from”), her writing is always, on some level, memoir. “Everything is copy,” as her mother memorably advises. But whereas most autobiographies take a chapter to tell an origin story, Ephron gets it done in two sentences: “I wrote a magazine article about having small breasts. I am now a writer.”

Most comedian memoirs are baggy, rambling affairs, but this elegant chronicle of the beginning and end of a meteoric stand-up career is the rare one with the precision of a joke. A ton of wisdom is packed into this slim book. Martin breaks down the mechanics of the art with a rigorous analytic mind, then describes how he subverted them, choosing to make comedy without punch lines, to create tension but never release it, to bomb with a smile. It’s also the rare memoir to describe the death of an act, murdered by fame. One valuable takeaway here is that being an original artist is not merely or even primarily about talent. It requires purpose, effort, vigilance. Martin truly commits to it. “I didn’t worry if a bit got no response,” he wrote, “as long as I believed it had enough strangeness to linger.”

More than any other book, with the possible exception of Howard Stern’s “Private Parts,” this blockbuster created the modern comedy memoir boom. Vastly entertaining, Fey put together a quick-moving narrative that had a little bit of everything: Vivid family history, myriad parodies of self-help and women’s magazine jargon, a sprinkling of “Saturday Night Live” gossip, showbiz tips (“When hiring, mix Harvard nerds with Chicago improvisers and stir”), spiky social commentary and an accessible introduction to the art of improvisation. Many have tried to imitate this book, but what makes Tina Fey so singular is his sharply self-mocking, wry voice and bountiful punch lines. What holds this book together is the sneaky density of jokes, one after another, some better than others, but very few duds. Above all, it a ruthless feat of comedy.

Johnny Carson never wrote a memoir. Jay Leno probably shouldn’t have tried. Jack Paar wrote several. But the only talk show host who wrote a truly great memoir is Trevor Noah. It’s far more ambitious than a traditional show business book. Telling of his own coming of age in South Africa side by side with an analysis of the history, structures and logic of apartheid, Noah elevates the genre. His historical digressions are brief but potent, sticking with you, while his portrait of his family and peers is deeply felt in a way that takes you by surprise. While his prose isn’t jokey, it has a dry wit. For instance, when Noah was a teenager, he hung out with a kid named Hitler, which allows him to write this sentence: “Hitler was a great friend of mine, and good Lord could that guy dance.”

Jason Zinoman is the comedy critic for The Times and the author of “Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night.”

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Newsrust: A History of the Comedian Memoir in Nine Books
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