Steve Martin got big laughs back in the '70s with his catch phrase, "Comedy is not pretty." But according to Gerald Nachman, during the '50s and early '60s, comedy was more than pretty. It was beautiful.
That golden age of stand-up, ruled by the likes of Woody Allen, Sid Caesar, Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, Shelly Berman and Joan Rivers, is the subject of Nachman's new book, "Seriously Funny."
The book offers in-depth profiles of some 25 comic geniuses from that bygone era, many of whom were — surprise, surprise! — Jewish.
Of course, the link between Jews and comedy has been pondered as often as the meaning of life itself, but Nachman has a pet theory as to why so many great comics have been Jewish.
"They're funnier," he says.
Beyond that, Nachman adds, "it has to do with 'outsiderness,' being the observer. There's a critical nature Jews have, and you have to have that to be a comedian. But I don't know where funniness comes from."
In researching the book, the former San Francisco Chronicle entertainment writer conducted more than 125 interviews, including many with the profiled comedians themselves. The results not only illuminate the comedians' careers and their humor, but also the era that spawned them.
As he writes in his introduction, "The 1950s, far from fast asleep, helped light the way for many of the cultural eruptions that followed."
For the Oakland-born Nachman, no place better exemplified the seething spirit of the times than San Francisco, with famed club the hungry i serving as the comedy epicenter.
"This city was always a cauldron of experimentation," he says. "The gay rights movement started here, the rock revolution was centered here. As far back as the Barbary Coast, this was known as a rough and tumble place, and out of that came the culture."
Nachman was an eyewitness to it all. As an undergraduate at San Jose State University, he saw pioneers such as Berman, Allen, Jonathan Winters and Mort Saul work the crowd at the hungry i.
"At the time, you don't think of them as geniuses at work," says Nachman. "You don't know it's a golden era when you're in it. I just thought these were really funny guys."
While non-Jewish comics like Dick Gregory, Bill Cosby, Steve Allen and the Smothers Brothers found equal favor with Nachman, the author concedes there was something special about the Jewish comics, who in many ways set the tone for much of American humor to follow.
Allen Sherman (of "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah" fame) parlayed a strictly Jewish sensibility into national celebrity. "His work is laced with Jewish humor," says the author, "even Yiddishims. Mel Brooks' humor is totally Jewish."
In fact, as Nachman retells it, Brooks and Carl Reiner resisted recording their classic routine "The 2000-Year-Old Man" because they feared it was "too Jewish." Steve Allen, born Catholic, pushed them into it, and George Burns warned them, "If you don't do it, I'm gonna steal it."
Though raised Jewish, Saul resisted any overt identification as a Jewish comedian. Nevertheless, says Nachman, after a long period of Catskill-trained jokesters like Henny Youngman, Saul set the standard of brooding, intense, topical and important comedy that others still emulate.
"Saul was beyond anyone then and, in a way, since," Nachman notes of his comic idol. "He was always incredibly deft and clever, but he got stuck in his obsession with the Warren Report, and that did him in. A comedian has to be an observer, and once you lose that, it hurts credibility."
Saul declined to be interviewed for Nachman's book.
"Seriously Funny" is filled with fascinating tales of fascinating people (e.g., Sid Caesar was mute and introverted as a boy; Woody Allen, unlike his on-screen persona, was always successful with women and in sports; Brooks got the idea for "The Producers" from a Bruce bit). All a reflection of Nachman's impeccable research.
Does the admittedly biased comedy fan see any comics today that approach the level of his heroes?
"I like Bill Maher and Jon Stewart," he says. "They're saying something. But these days it's so easy to get out and say four-letter words. Comics don't have to work as hard, but I think they need to come up with something that matters."
Even if he is hard to impress, Nachman thinks the time may be ripe for yet another revolution in American comedy. But nothing will ever replace for him the great comedians of old.
"It was a magical time," he says. "I don't think I made too much of it. It was a golden era, and we may not see anything like it again. Whatever was in the air, it didn't last."