Shortly after running this post we received the following message from Kliph Nesteroff:
A retraction was submitted this morning regarding the hologram. Kelly Carlin has not endorsed the hologram idea. I took a leap of logic. Kelly has been working closely to integrate her father into the museum, and the builders of the museum have been working closely with Hologram USA, however the hologram plans (of which Redd Foxx is one), does not involve Carlin. The comedy center recently put on a tribute to Carlin’s legacy at the Paley Center and announced the enormous donation of Carlin’s archives to the center. George Carlin is a key point for the Comedy Center, but not part of the Hologram USA project as I mistakenly stated.
It’s no secret that we at Dangerous Minds have long been admirers of George Carlin. I know that Richard Metzger is a big fan, and as for me, let’s just say that watching Carlin at Carnegie on HBO (without my parents’ knowledge, of course) at the age of about 13 was a life-changing event.
On top of that, one of the coolest things DM did in 2015 was run an exclusive excerpt of Kliph Nesteroff’s fantastic book The Comedians, which is chock full of information about Carlin’s career. We love the guy.
The history of the use of so-called “holograms” in the news and entertainment business has seen mixed success, to put it mildly. On Election Night in 2008 CNN broadcast an interaction between Wolf Blitzer and a holographic image of correspondent Jessica Yellin, who was reporting from Chicago, in an inadvertent nod to Princess Leia in a similar scene in the first Star Wars movie. In 2008 a hologram of Tupac Shakur sang “Hail Mary” and “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted” at Coachella.
In neither case was the projected image actually a hologram—it’s similar to the artistic license that allows the makers of a certain kind of self-balancing scooter to call it a “hoverboard.”
So ordinarily we’d want to make fun of news that an entity known the National Comedy Center, scheduled to open in Jamestown, New York, in 2017, announced that a “hologram” of George Carlin will “perform stand-up sets” at the museum. But the fact of it being Carlin admittedly has me interested. Recently Carlin’s family donated a massive trove of the comedian’s archives to the museum, which will make these “holographic” renditions of his comedy act possible.
Almost as newsworthy is the information that the aforementioned Kliph Nesteroff is the chief curator of the National Comedy Center. There is nobody else in the world better qualified for such a position, and we congratulate Nesteroff on the good news.
Nesteroff commented recently that the Carlin family was a major sponsor of the museum and told the Hollywood Reporter that the comedian would serve as the center’s main attraction:
The main gimmick to bring people to Jamestown—which you may imagine is not an easy thing to convince people to do—is the George Carlin hologram. So they’re building this fake comedy club in one corner and George will be onstage, performing like old times ... He’s the credibility here. People have tried to do comedy museums before and failed. When you hear “comedy museum” and you’re a comedian, your first thought isn’t, “Oh, that’s cool,” it’s “Oh, that sounds terrible.” But in the comedy community, there are very few who would say that weren’t influenced by George Carlin. It helps.
The comedian’s daughter, Kelly Carlin, has donated eight trunks full of script drafts, eight-track tapes, performance videos, and photographs. One fascinating artifact promises to be the report from Carlin’s arrest on charges of obscenity from a 1972 show in Milwaukee.
I first learned about Nesteroff in 2008 after reading a lengthy and engrossing account of Carlin’s early years (1956-1970) on a blog hosted by the WFMU radio station. Nesteroff demonstrated his talent for excavating fascinating information that sheds light on some obscure corners of the comedy world, and he hasn’t let up since. This new position at the library represents some kind of closing of the circle for the energetic researcher, who has conducted countless interviews with many nearly-forgotten comedians whose heyday was several decades ago.
It’s a winner, folks. Simply put, Kliph has carved out an area of research and made it almost entirely his own—I refer to the development of the world of professional stand-up comedy in the decades before Richard Pryor, George Carlin, or even Lenny Bruce. (Not to worry, he also covers everything up to Louis CK too.) Kliph has made it his business to acquaint himself personally with many of the surviving old-school stand ups from the 1950s and also with the bounties of Variety’s archives.
Marijuana and LSD were huge influences on comedy at the end of the 1960s. It was not uncommon for talk show guests to show up high. George Carlin said he took “a perverse delight in knowing that I never did a television show without being stoned.” Paul Krassner dropped acid before a Tonight Show appearance with guest host Orson Bean. Krassner was immersed in his trip when he walked through the curtain. “I kept staring at Ed McMahon because his face was melting into his chest. Orson asked me, ‘Have you taken LSD?’ He meant in a general sense, but I had this thought, ‘Oh, no, he can tell!’”
Phyllis Diller encapsulated the older generation’s ignorance of counterculture elements when a reporter asked her if she would remarry. She responded, “What kind of LSD have you been smoking?” Such cluelessness was common as Hollywood’s gatekeepers struggled to relate to the new hippie demographic. Television shows like Dragnet and My Three Sons portrayed counterculture protestors as morons. Carl Reiner’s son Rob was cast in several sitcoms play-ing such roles. “I did three Gomer Pyles, played a hippie in a couple of them. Did a Beverly Hillbillies, played a hippie in that. I was like the resident Hollywood hippie at the time. I had long hair and they needed somebody. In one of the Gomer Pyle episodes I actually sang ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ with Gomer.”
Veteran filmmaker Otto Preminger gave LSD the Hollywood treatment in 1968 with a motion picture called Skidoo. Preminger contacted Rob Reiner to help write dialogue for the hippie characters in his film. “Preminger was a very interesting, liberal guy and he took acid early on,” says Carl Gottlieb. “He wanted to meet The Committee. So we all trooped down to his offices with Rob Reiner.” Reiner said, “I went in and turned out some pages for hippies so that they would say ‘groovy’ in the right place.”
Groucho Marx was cast in Skidoo as an LSD dealer named God. It was surprising he agreed to it, as he was contemptuous of the new social mores (“That Midnight Cowboy. It’s about a stud and a pimp. I hated that movie”). Marx may have hated the counterculture, but he was hip to many of its elements. He subscribed to Paul Krassner’s paper The Realist, which featured articles about the drug culture. Krassner says, “Groucho was concerned about the script of Skidoo because it pretty much advocated LSD, which he had never tried but he was curious. Moreover, he felt a certain responsibility to his young audience not to steer them wrong, so could I possibly get him some pure stuff and would I care to accompany him on a trip.”
Groucho Marx high on LSD? Some who knew Groucho question the story. “It’s a fucking lie,” says producer George Schlatter. “Groucho never took acid. He didn’t need acid. Everyone else needed acid!” Carl Gottlieb agrees. “I doubt that story, because my contact with Groucho was around the same time. He was pretty infirm. The acid that was around in those days was the Owsley acid—Windowpane. It was brain-breaking.”
“Well, that was the reason Groucho asked me,” Krassner responds. “I have a letter from Lionel Olay, a popular magazine writer. He had interviewed Groucho and Groucho told him he was very curious about LSD. He read The Realist and about my taking trips. Bill Targ, my editor at Putnam, was a friend of Groucho. The writer of the movie Skidoo, Bill Cannon, introduced me to him. Groucho and I had lunch. He asked me if I could get him some LSD. Groucho was not going to go around boasting about this. It was just to prepare for the movie Skidoo. I accompanied him on his trip. We used the home of an actress in Beverly Hills. Phil Ochs drove me there. It was Owsley acid. Three hundred micrograms.”
Skidoo entered production with a cast that seemed plucked from Hollywood Squares. It included Frankie Avalon, Carol Channing, Frank Gorshin, Peter Lawford, Cesar Romero, Mickey Rooney, Arnold Stang and Jackie Gleason. It had a soundtrack by Harry Nilsson and an unforgettable scene in which Gleason, high on psychedelics, is haunted by the disembodied head of Groucho Marx.
Robert Evans, the head of Paramount, was not happy with it. “It was a zero on every level,” said Evans after the screening. “The guy [Preminger] cost us a fuckin’ fortune. His new entry belongs in the sewer, not on the screen. He’s such a prick; he gets his nuts off seeing us sink.”
Cheech and Chong’s best-selling ‘Big Bambu’ album came with a gigantic rolling paper. For obvious reasons, these rolling papers are rare today…
Several comedians considered their psychedelic trips important, life-changing experiences. “Pot fueled Cheech & Chong during our heyday,” said Tommy Chong. “Pot and to some extent acid. It had changed our world and it put me on a path to artistic and financial success. The spiritual effects and the revelations never leave. The secrets that LSD revealed to me changed my life forever.”
George Carlin felt the same. “I know exactly when I first did acid—it was in October 1969 while I was playing a major, now long-defunct jazz club in Chicago called Mister Kelly’s. Next to my [note-book] record of that booking, which was otherwise uneventful, is written in a trembling hand the word ‘acid.’ Actually in the course of a two-week gig I did acid multiple times, maybe five, maybe ten. Fuck the drug war. Dropping acid was a profound turning point for me, a seminal experience. I make no apologies for it. More people should do acid.”
Chris Rush was another comedian who came into being with the counterculture. Psychedelics informed his act. “When I took lysergic acid diethylamide I started rapping comedy: full, polished conceptual chunks. It just flowed through me, and I was a stream-of-consciousness comedian. I started doing it for fun in loft buildings and I started doing some clubs. This guy Mark Meyers from Atlantic Records came to see me. He said, ‘This guy talks like George Carlin.’ Bingo, I had a record deal.” His album First Rush sold half a million copies in the early 1970s, mostly to pot-smoking college kids. “They’d get high with twenty of their friends and put the album on.”
Comedy and the counterculture coupled with the new technology of FM radio. During the early 1960s FM radio was mostly used to simulcast aurally superior versions of AM sister stations. In 1967 the FCC passed an ordinance that ended such simulcasts. It forced FM to devise original programming. In order to fill mass spaces of airtime in a pinch, young disc jockeys turned to playing entire sides of LPs rather than just one song. Soon FM was a place where hippie rawkers and their long jams received maximum exposure. Likewise, comedians who aligned themselves with the counterculture found entire sides of their comedy records being played on FM. College-aged kids tuning in to hear their favorite hippie music were turned on to the comedians being played on the same stations—and those comics saw their ticket sales increase enormously.
Amid the FM scene emerged an audio comedy troupe called the Firesign Theatre. Phil Austin, David Ossman, Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman met at the newly minted Los Angeles FM station KPFK. They worked in various executive positions and eventually left for KRLA and improvised drug-influenced comedy on the show Radio Free Oz. Surf music producer and KRLA employee Gary Usher used his industry connections to secure the boys a deal with Columbia Records. “I’d see The Byrds at Columbia Studios when we were all recording,” said Phil Proctor. “We didn’t realize how much history we were observing or even making. There was very easy access. People were very friendly and the music brought everybody together. Pot brought everybody together. It was a very sociable scene, you know, hot and cold running girls all the time…We were using the Columbia studio where The Byrds recorded, [but] also the radio studio where Fred Allen had been.”
The Firesign Theatre, George Carlin and Cheech & Chong owed their vast success to FM. The radio stations were listened to by thousands of impressionable college students. “FM radio helped expose the records, and that led to our ability to headline shows on college campuses,” said Proctor. “We were asked to go on the road with the Maharishi.”
Comedian Jimmie Walker says FM radio was a platform for comedians who never would have been accepted in traditional circles. “They would never have gotten on Carson or anything like that. Lou Adler from A&M Records came up with these guys from Vancouver—Cheech & Chong. There was a new thing called FM and Lou said, ‘I’m going to make an album with these guys.’ These guys started selling out colleges, and we were stunned. Nobody was doing that. FM changed everything. It changed the face of comedy.”
Jack Margolis, a comedy writer who once wrote for Jay Ward cartoons, composed the seminal counterculture comedy record of the time. A Child’s Garden of Grass was based on his satirical paperback of the same name, the first in-depth comedic look at the effects of marijuana. Released by Elektra, the same label that had Jim Morrison and the Doors, A Child’s Garden of Grass had its advertising turned down by every major magazine, was denied a spot on the shelves of Wallichs Music City in Hollywood and was banned in Washington State. An FCC ruling that forbade “drug lyrics” kept program managers from playing it. Despite the kibosh, it sold four hundred thousand copies. Its only real advertising came from a large billboard on Sunset Boulevard across from the Whisky a Go Go. It is impossible to calculate the number of joints that were rolled on its gatefold surface.
The longhairs dominated radio. Cinema was maturing rapidly. Battles against censorship were being won on both literary and nightclub fronts. But television, beyond its odd spontaneous talk show moment, appeared unaffected by the times. “There was a real revolution happening in other media,” said comedy writer Rosie Shuster. “There were all these Jack Nicholson movies coming out that reflected that sensibility of the sixties. In music there was Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, the Stones and the Beatles. But television was still stuck in some time warp that was more like the fifties.
”Comedians appearing on The Tonight Show still had to adhere to a traditional dress code. “For a long time the rule on Johnny Carson was tie and jacket,” says Robert Klein. “I came on without one once and Johnny didn’t say anything, but it came down through [Tonight Show producer] Freddy de Cordova: ‘Tie and jacket!’ ”
I’ve been aware of Kliph Nesteroff’s singular erudition for a number of years now. Sometime in 2008 WFMU’s incredible Beware of the Blog (which sadly stopped operating earlier this year) ran a loooong article about the early years of George Carlin—which is to say, focusing on the years before the 1967 release of Carlin’s first solo album Take-Offs and Put-Ons, an era that most readers probably had hardly any notion about. After a while came similar articles dedicated to the early years of Woody Allen and David Letterman, both of which were similarly informative. All of these articles carried the cryptic byline “Listener Kliph Nesteroff,” which seemed random enough and lent the impression that the author was perhaps a housebound retiree, former Navy during the Korean War, something like that.
How happy for us readers—as the news may portend further publications down the road—to learn that Kliph is far from a grouchy old obsessive, but rather a charming young obsessive (well, maybe a little grouchy), who for some reason has acquired a taste for unearthing and preserving invaluable scuttlebutt from the early days of comedy. For years he has run an essential blog called Classic Television Showbiz and an amusing Tumblr called Showbiz Imagery and Chicanery. The former houses his long-form interviews with some of the important figures of midcentury comedy (many on the verge of being forgotten today), including Orson Bean, George Schlatter, Peter Marshall, a category that also includes an incredible eight-part interview with Jack Carter. Showbiz Imagery and Chicanery is every bit as entrancing, consisting mostly of context-free screen shots of puzzling images and text culled from the hours Kliph spends with the inexhaustible (and expensive! do donate!) resource known as the Variety.com archives.
Suffice to say, in a few short years Kliph has put together a knowledge base on the roots of stand-up comedy that dwarfs that of anyone younger than, say, 50. By dint of curiosity and hard work, Kliph put himself into a position where he could see the linkages between the present and the past, could isolate the ways in which the patterns that structure the industry of professional comedy found their origins not necessarily in the ersatz “comedy boom” of the 1980s but in practices that stretch much further back.
It was incumbent upon Kliph, then, to write a book about all of this, and thank goodness, that’s precisely what he’s done. Next week sees the publication of The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy, and I can say with confidence that this book will be an invaluable resource for decades to come, for anyone who wants to know about the full history of comedy, stuff that predates the days when Robin Williams was saying “Nanu Nanu” on national TV. Something very similar happened in baseball a generation or two ago, when a writer named Lawrence Ritter decided to hunt down as many players as he could find from the early days of baseball (around 1900)—those interviews eventually became a book called The Glory of Our Times, which was published in 1966 and had a massive impact on the way the sport’s fans regarded the heroes of prior generations. The highest compliment I can pay Kliph’s new book The Comedians (which is available for pre-order right now) is that I think he may just have written comedy’s analogue to The Glory of Our Times, the book that—if you have not absorbed its contents—all but demands that you hold your tongue on the subject of old-time comedy.
Kliph graciously set aside some time to answer some questions from DM.
You’ve discovered a whole new area of research to mine, at least for people of our generation. Soon it will just be called “Kliphland.” How did you get started investigating the midcentury era of comedians?
Kliph Nesteroff: As a teenager I was your typical hipster scum, collecting vinyl records and raiding local thrift stores. I collected soul music, garage rock, surf music - and comedy records. The comedy LPs were by far the most worthless. I would see the same comedy records in every junk pile: Rusty Warren, Woody Woodbury, The First Family featuring Vaughn Meader.
I was already interested in comedy but had never heard of these people. Why were they in every thrift store but never on TV or in movies? They must have been super popular at one point if their records were everywhere, right? So that made me sort of curious. Then I learned that after Vaughn Meader had the best-selling record of all time (not just comedy, but any LP period) he went crazy, schizophrenic, destitution, eating out of dumpsters, eventually wandering the desert on peyote before turning Christian and reinventing himself as a local country and western performer in Maine. Clearly there was a worthwhile story there.
I was already a writer and started stand-up at the age of 18. So, I guess the subject matter was just a natural combination of interests. The creative freedom Ken Freedman provided at WFMU allowed me to experiment and write on any topic of my choosing.
The kids in the audience at the UCB Theater probably have no idea that they’re enthused about an art form that was more or less invented by the Mob. You write that pretty much all comedians after Prohibition were working by the grace of one or another group of gangsters. That must have been hard!
Kliph Nesteroff: No, I wouldn’t say the Mafia invented the art form. In my book I have an anecdote from a 90-year-old comedian who argues they coined the phrase “stand-up comic,” because the Mob managed boxers they called “stand-up fighters” and called people they could rely on “stand-up guys.” But no, the Mob had nothing to do with inventing it. They simply owned 90% of the venues where comedians performed from the 1930s through the mid-1960s. So, you know, make the wrong wisecrack and you might suffer a broken limb.
You’ve spent a lot of time lately hanging out with some of the now-forgotten stand ups of the 1950s, who are now getting pretty old and crotchety too. They’ve been treating you pretty well, but they’ve probably been difficult at times too. Any stories to pass along?
Kliph Nesteroff: I don’t know. Old people get angry sometimes. I guess we would too if we had trouble peeing. Carl Reiner is considered the epitome of clean comedy, a guy who can write divinely funny scripts without cussing. I was at a Dick Van Dyke tribute once. I went to the bathroom and was at the second urinal when someone came in and went to the first urinal right beside me. It was a 90-year-old Carl Reiner. He braced himself with his left hand against the wall and the whole time he was at the urinal grumbling, “Goddamit Fuck! Come on! Go! Go! Just go! Jesus fucking bullshit, come on! Fucking goddamn fuck!”
You’ve unearthed so much valuable information about pioneers who helped forge comedy archetypes we all take for granted now, like Frank Fay and Jerry Lester. It must have been fun to spot and explain connections between, say, Bert Williams and Jim Gaffigan.
Kliph Nesteroff: Well, mapping the connections that haven’t been connected before is a little bit like playing God. Based on the reviews coming in, it sounds like I’ve laid down some kind of masterwork, a sacrosanct history of comedy, and that’s extremely flattering and gratifying - but wasn’t my intention at all. I was just writing whatever I felt was interesting. Comparing Jim Gaffigan’s under-the-breath comments to a similar gimmick the vaudeville comic Bert Williams utilized is just an easy point of reference to help the reader get it. Sort of the way lazy film critics explain new movies: “It’s Revenge of the Nerds meets Schindler’s List!”
It was interesting to read about Carlin’s drug use in such detail. I didn’t realize how central LSD was to his reinvention in the late ‘60s.
Kliph Nesteroff: George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin are considered the three revolutionary figures of comedy from that time. All three were primarily into cocaine in the 1970s, but before that Carlin and Pryor used LSD to positive effect. I think we as a society, y’know, as we hear The Beatles piped through at the local grocery store… we forget just how valuable psychedelics have been to expanding the artist’s inherent ability. Carlin and Pryor would have been fine talents regardless, they were born with that. But it’s because of their 1960s LSD use that their perspectives were forever altered, and why so many today consider them comic geniuses. LSD and other psychedelics can help our latent talents fuse new, uncharted neuro pathways and in turn create an original artistic temperament, unique perspective, prolific output. Groundbreaking revelations come from these experiences and they don’t wear off like a hallucination. Instead you possess new insight that will further your existing artistic ability. I mean, it’s hardly news that LSD is responsible for countless Aphrodites in music, illustration, filmmaking… But maybe the new news, as I argue in my book, is that it had the same important effect on comedy. If such theories are accepted, it’s usually in reference to the 1960s. Let’s not forget that it can still be used with the same revelatory intent today. To quote George Carlin: “More people should do acid.”
Flip Wilson was a huge deal in the 1970s, but he’s practically forgotten now. Can you describe his importance to the comedy counterculture?
Kliph Nesteroff: It’s mostly tangential. He was an early employer for Richard Pryor and George Carlin, using them as writers, and bankrolled Carlin’s best-selling comedy LPs. Flip Wilson’s significance was less on the counterculture than the mainstream. He was the very first African-American with a major network success of his own. You could argue Cosby with I Spy, but Cosby only costarred. Flip Wilson was the star of his own show… an African-American cokehead who had the number one comedy program in America. Think about that. Ten years earlier, Sammy Davis Jr, a guy who loved Sinatra’s racist jokes and endorsed Richard Nixon, could not get a sponsor for his own variety show because he was Black. Just a few years later and Flip Wilson was on the cover of every conceivable magazine. It’s incredible how quickly America changed. And despite the lunatics saying abhorrent things on cable news today, I think we’re experiencing another rapid paradigm shift akin to that era. Never in my lifetime did I expect to see gay marriage, marijuana legalization or a Black president. Nor could I ever imagine that Bernie Sanders would be a household name. Jerry Seinfeld kvetching about political correctness is not too far from Bob Hope complaining about hippie protestors. America is changing, brother. Sure, everything could dissipate like Jerry Rubin turning into a Wall Street powerbroker, but I think we’re only entering the Abbie Hoffman phase of this new era.