If you’re looking for some great comedy books that aren’t just memoirs, but help explain our current comedy culture, here are some of the best from the past five years.
1. Irony and Outrage: The Polarized Landscape of Rage, Fear, and Laughter in the United States by Dannagal Goldthwaite Young
For almost a decade, journalists and pundits have been asking why we don’t see successful examples of political satire from conservatives or of opinion talk radio from liberals. This book turns that question on its head to argue that opinion talk is the political satire of the right and political satire is the opinion programming of the left. They look and feel like two different animals because their audiences are literally, two different animals.
Why is there a huge success gap between Gutfeld! and The Daily Show? Why are more comedians liberal than conservative? Communications professor Dannagal Goldthwaite Young delves into political psychology and humor psychology with a dose of comedy history to answer these questions in a remarkably balanced way. Luckily, Professor Young is a comedian herself and the book is not just informative, but a fun read as well.
Few television shows revolutionized comedy as profoundly or have had such an enormous and continued impact on our culture as In Living Color. Inspired by Richard Pryor, Carol Burnett, and Eddie Murphy, Keenen Ivory Wayans created a television series unlike any that had come before it. Along the way, he introduced the world to Jamie Foxx, Jim Carrey, David Alan Grier, Rosie Perez, and Jennifer Lopez, not to mention his own brothers Damon, Marlon, and Shawn Wayans.
This book uses the wildly popular sitcom, In Living Color as a jumping off point to examine the Black comedy explosion in the nineties. Peisner discusses the business decisions that led to the Black comedy boom on network television and its bust, as well as the tensions that existed between In Living Color and its largest competitor, the institutional Saturday Night Live. It’s an excellent book for anyone who wants to dive back into the coolest TV show of the nineties.
3. We Had A Little Real Estate Problem: The Unheralded Story of Native Americans & Comedy by Kliph Nesteroff
It was one of the most reliable jokes in Charlie Hill’s stand-up routine: “My people are from Wisconsin. We used to be from New York. We had a little real estate problem.”
Nesteroff is one of THE authorities on the history of American comedy, with his 2015 book The Comedians consistently cited by other writers, and often ending up on lists like these. His latest book discusses the oft-ignored history of Native American Comedians: there has not been Native comedian on a late night show in 15 years. The book fills a much needed gap in our understanding of comedy history and is wonderfully researched.
4. Stealing the Show: How Women are Revolutionizing Television by Joy Press
In recent years, women have radically transformed the television industry both behind and in front of the camera. From Murphy Brown to 30 Rock and beyond, these shows and the extraordinary women behind them have shaken up the entertainment landscape, making it look as if equal opportunities abound. But it took decades of determination in the face of outright exclusion to reach this new era.
Featuring interviews with some of the top female showrunners, this book chronicles the explosion of female voices in TV, especially when it comes to comedy. Each chapter focuses on a different show-runner and their process of making their shows and tracks female showrunners from Lucille Ball to Lena Dunham. It’s the perfect mix of interview and historical research that keeps you interested and learning.
5. The Improv: An Oral History of the Comedy Club that Revolutionized Standup by Budd Friedman, et all
In 1963, 30-year-old Friedman – who had recently quit his job as a Boston advertising executive and returned to his hometown of New York to become a theatrical producer – opened a coffee house for Broadway performers called the Improvisation. His goal? Simply to make a living, and if all went according to plan, to also make enough professional contacts to be able to mount his first Broadway show within a year’s time.
The only memoir on this list, this book is effectively a history text as Budd Friedman recounts his founding of the Improv, the club that created stand-up as we know it today. With interviews with some of the biggest stand up names of all time, AKA Improv regulars, the book shows why modern stand up works the way it does.