Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America
by Richard Zoglin
(Bloomsbury, $25)

Lenny Bruce wasn’t the kind of comedian that middle-class kids like Richard Zoglin listened to on their home stereos. Bruce was a creature of the clubs—legendarily foulmouthed and difficult. But soon after Bruce died at 40, in 1966, of a morphine overdose, a new generation carried his mantle into households everywhere. Mainstream star George Carlin grew out his hair and started telling Vietnam jokes. Richard Pryor looked out at one of his Vegas audiences in 1967, delivered one line—“What the f--- am I doing here?”—and walked offstage. Safe comedy was over. Profanity and uncomfortable truths were in. Carlin and Pryor were the catalysts, Zoglin says, but a wave of like-minded performers was coming. Together, he says, these rebels changed the way Americans viewed “everything from presidential politics” to the humdrum events of everyday life.

Zoglin’s “entertaining but somewhat overreaching” account of stand-up’s transformation “breezily tracks the biggest names” that emerged in the decade after Bruce’s death, said Erik Himmelsbach in the Los Angeles Times. Steve Martin, David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld, and plenty of other big stars granted interviews to Zoglin, and the Time veteran uses them to create “an intimate glimpse through the keyhole” of an oddball subculture that gradually infiltrated the American mainstream. Other books have touched on this subject, but “Zoglin has a handle on it that no one else has had,” said Jeff Simon in The Buffalo News. The stand-up bits that he reproduces will have you “howling frequently with laughter.” If you’re willing to give his thesis a chance, you just might come away convinced that Bruce’s heirs are responsible for the skeptical, ironic tilt of today’s American culture.

Zoglin doesn’t whitewash the scene’s dark side, said J. Max Robins in The Wall Street Journal. “We hear about the sexcapades, booze, and mountains of cocaine that fueled some careers and destroyed others.” Thirty years into stand-up’s “running fascination with mundanity,” said Saul Austerlitz in The Boston Globe, Zoglin is fighting an uphill battle in trying to convince readers that either the young Albert Brooks or Robert Klein was once a leader of a “dangerous” movement. At its best, though, Comedy at the Edge is “a potent reminder of just how magnificent” their revolutionary period was.