Biographies of Comedians

Even better - autobiographies…

I’m halfway reading John Barbour’s “Your Mother’s Not a Virgin!: The Bumpy Life and Times of the Canadian Dropout who changed the Face of American TV!” and it’s really good.

Of course, Mort Sahl’s “Heartland”…

I have and think I liked Lenny Bruce’s (even though I’m not a fan of his) autobiography, “How To Be Dirty And Influence People”

I love comparing them in my head, to see what they include and what they omit from this new style of comedy that boomed in the 1950/60s… If you have any recommendations from that time, whether you liked them or not, I’d be interested.

Too bad Bill Hicks or George Carlin never wrote one.

IIRC, “Overweight Sensation,” about Allen Sherman, is not bad. Big surprise: evidently he was not a very happy guy.

steve martin’s “born standing up” is fabulous.


They’re not biographies of specific comedians, but The Comedians by Kliph Nesteroff and I’m Dying Up Here by William Knoedelseder are well worth reading for anyone interested in comedy and comedians.

Like many, I was an avid fan of Steve Martin, so I expected to love this memoir. I found this to be not a bad book but a strangely incomplete one. Simply put, he has withheld all his emotion. He factually reports what his youth and early career was like, but he never describes what he was feeling at the time.

Likewise, though there’s obviously a highly intelligent and analytical mind behind his comedy, it feels like he’s simplified his writing for the reader and self-censored anything that smacks of intellectualism.

Maybe that kind of remoteness is just an inescapable part of his personality, but these seemed like conspicuous omissions.

Concerning the OP’s request for recommendations of books on Fifties/Sixties comedians, I wonder if John Cleese would qualify. His autobiography is highly entertaining and well worth reading (though the humor is more wry than Python-style absurdist).

It’s been a while since I mentioned my humor collection. I think it was eight bookcases the first time I alluded to it and now it’s around fifteen plus closet storage. Essentially I have every important book by or about every major comic figure of the 20th century and some newer.

So autobiographies are my meat. The ones here I remember as better than average. But even limiting the list to 20, I tried to show the range of the field.

Fred Allen, Treadmill to Oblivion
Milton Berle, An Autobiography
Mel Blanc, That’s Not All Folks!
Russell Brand, My Booky Wook
Carol Burnett, One More Time
George Burns, Gracie: A Love Story
Sid Caesar, Where Have I Been?
Dick Cavett, Cavett
Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography
Tommy Chong, Cheech & Chong: The Unauthorized Autobiography
Rodney Dangerfield, It’s Not Easy Being Me
Tina Fey, Bossypants
Craig Ferguson, American on Purpose
Stan Freberg, It Only Hurts When I Laugh
Groucho Marx, Groucho and Me
Harpo Marx, Harpo Speaks
Trevor Noah, Born a Crime
Joan Rivers, Enter Laughing
Chris Rock, Rock This
Sarah Silverman, The Bedwetter

And @ MortSahlFan, you should read Gerald Machman’s Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, in which he gives pride of place to Sahl over Bruce.

If you want to know if some specific person ever wrote an autobio, ask and I’ll check my shelves. As you note, lots of comedians never got around to one, though.

I agree- John Cleese’s autobiography is superb. Very funny. Highly recommended.

As are Michael Palin’s diaries.

On the other hand, Eric Idle’s was a disappointment, made more so by his relentless (and I think gratuitous) name-dropping of all the famous people he’s encountered. Made him sound oddly insecure to me.

Nice list. I’m going to try and get some of them… I have Nachman’s book, and this other huge book…

I also have this huge book,
Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America

Doug Stanhope - This Is Not Fame (I have the physical copy of this book, but once I found out he narrated it for Amazon, I listened)
I have Dick Cavett’s biography, too, who’s show had a ton of comedians.

Bob Newhart seems like he’d be a good candidate for a biography (or autobiography). I wonder if he’s ever considered it.

And I’d forgotten about Stan Freberg’s autobio; I read it ages ago.

He does.

“I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This: And Other Things That Strike Me as Funny”

There are several with that title. Funny Business is by Maslon and Kantor. Another interesting one is Make 'Em Laugh: Life Studies of Comedy Writers by William F. Fry, Jr. and Melanie Allen, which is an academic set of interviews with the writers who put the words into the comedians’ mouths. Those are rare.

Newhart’s book is great. He describes a conversation with a network executive who got the brilliant idea that they could sell more ads if Newhart would quit doing his trademark controlled stammer.

Newhart declined, explaining, “That stammer bought me a house in Beverly Hills”.

No mention of Graham Chapman’s “A Liar’s Autobiography”? Definitely worth a read - or if you prefer, a watch of the film. Not hilariously kneeslapping but certainly interesting.

Stephen Fry – Moab is my Washpot

Entertaining and interesting more than funny.

Doug Stanhope - This Is Not Fame

(I’d recommend listening to him dictate this)

George Carlin did write one, published posthumously. I thought it was quite good.

Last Words

I like getting them on audiobook, read by the author. Sometimes with audiobooks, especially when read by comedians, they’ll go off-script and you’ll get some bonus improvised content. Though sometimes it’s also weird, because it can sound like a comedy routine in an empty room.

I enjoyed Artie Lange’s book. One of them, at least (there may be more than one, if so it’s the first one). He only read part of it himself, owing to the drug problems that are described in the book.

Greg Fitzsimmons: Dear Mrs Fitzsimmons
Structured like a collection of letters, newspaper clippings, and incident reports about his own life. Audiobook is read by himself and a bunch of other comedians playing the parts of school officials, police, friends, and colleagues.

You have to put an asterisk on Last Words, because it was really written by Tony Hendra. He and Carlin collaborated for years, talking and recording their conversations. Henra was always intended to ghostwrite the book in Carlin’s voice but had to finish it alone after Carlin died.

Speaking of whom, Hendra wrote his own memoir which I found interesting, though it’s not really about comedy:

His Going Too Far is a good 60s/70s follow-up to Gerald Nachman’s Seriously Funny that I mentioned in post #5.

Please note that I typoed Nachman as Machman in the original post. Apologies to him.