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Seriously Funny

Between the prehistoric mother-in-law jokes and the easy smirk of today's stand-ups, a radical breed of comedy emerged in the '50s and '60s that eradicated the past and laid the groundwork for laughs to come. These pioneers are portrayed in Gerald Nachman's "Seriously Funny," a book that is at times dull and superficial, but always informative.

This review was corrected on July 14, 2003.

Between the prehistoric mother-in-law jokes of the Catskills and the easy smirk of today’s stand-ups, a new radical breed of comedy emerged in the ’50s and ’60s that simultaneously eradicated the past and laid the groundwork for laughs to come. These pioneers, personified by Mort Sahl, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby and Lenny Bruce are portrayed in Gerald Nachman’s “Seriously Funny,” a book that is at times dull, frustrating and superficial, but always informative.

The great triumph of the book may be in Nachman’s panoramic cast of characters. Along with the aforementioned shoo-ins, he wisely profiles many others, including the all-but-forgotten Phyllis Diller, the buttoned-up Bob Newhart, the hard-hitting Dick Gregory, and radio’s true genius, Jean Shepherd. He anoints Shepherd and Godfrey Cambridge as “the most underrated of all the innovative comic voices of the era.”

For the most part, Nachman fails at conveying the humor of his subjects, rendering many of the profiles rather lifeless, especially for readers unfamiliar with their work. Mort Sahl in particular does not come across as terribly amusing, perhaps the trouble is the dated Nixon jokes or Sahl’s current bitterness but I suspect it is Nachman’s prose, though his influence and style are made quite clear — “the majority is always wrong,” Sahl proclaims.

Nichols and May fare best, as the book compellingly interweaves fascinating biographical information with razor-sharp material and backstage drama. Nichols, for example, had a ready reply to the curious: “We date occasionally. Right now we are seeing Comden and Green.”

While many interviews were conducted exclusively for the book, Nachman often relies too heavily on single third-party sources, particularly Albert Goldman’s “Lenny Bruce!” and Eric Lax’s bio of Woody Allen. Despite its shortcomings, “Seriously Funny” does capture this seminal moment in American comedy and the broader culture in an inclusive, wide-ranging and detailed fashion.

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