Nerd Out, Comedy Nerds
Most people like to laugh. Some people, though, obsess over *what* makes people laugh. What's the formula for funny? How have our society's comedic sensibilities changed over time? What's the story behind the creative minds that crack us up? If you're a comedy fan, historian, or maybe even a comedian yourself, consider checking out these titles about comedy and the people who make it.
Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life by Steve Martin
This quick read (coming in at just over 200 pages) is an excellent choice for comedy fans, 60's and 70's pop culture fiends, and people who like true life stories but generally find memoirs self-indulgent. There's little self-indulgence here. Martin's personal history provides a small window into a piece of the 20th-century American comedy landscape -- without resorting to unnecessary name-dropping or ego-stroking. He is equal parts straight man and goofball here, and his writing flows easily. (In addition to comedian, magician, and musician, Martin is also a novelist -- check out Shopgirl and An Object of Beauty if you're curious.)
The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6' 4", African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama's Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian by W. Kamau Bell
Director, TV host, producer, comedian, writer, and sociopolitical commentator Bell makes intersectional political consciousness funny while still holding space for a range of other emotions, including anger and empathy. You might know him from his CNN show United Shades of America, in which he "explores communities across America to understand the unique challenges they face," and if so, you know how insightful, thoughtful, progressive, and straight-up hilarious he is. Whether you're new to Bell or not, his offbeat & approachable sense-of-humor and perspective on topics like race, class, gender, fatherhood, politics, law enforcement and today's comedy scene are worth exploring.
Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today's Top Comedy Writers by Mike Sacks
Though you may find some laughs in this collection of interviews, essays and lists, this is definitely more a book *about* comedy than an example of it. If you are interested in the writers and techniques behind some of your favorite sitcoms, late night shows, magazines, websites, books and movies, or even looking for a bit of advice for your own writing, this is a solid choice. Featured writers include Paul F. Tomkins, Diablo Cody, Roz Chast, James L. Brooks, Mel Brooks, Amy Poehler, Mike Schur (my personal favorite interview in this collection!), Patton Oswalt and more. If this collection leaves you wanting more, you might also want to check out Sacks' earlier book of conversations with comedy writers, And Here's the Kicker.
Everything's Trash, But It's Okay by Phoebe Robinson
A follow up to her debut You Can't Touch My Hair, Everything's Trash... is another dose of personal stories and cultural commentary in Phoebe Robinson's singular voice (which can be read on the page just as it is heard in her spoken work on 2 Dope Queens; hashtags and slang abound). The publisher actually probably says it best, calling it a "hilarious... and timely essay collection on gender, race, dating, and a world that seems to always be a self-starting Dumpster fire."
Stay Sexy & Don't Get Murdered: The Definitive How-To Guide by Karen Kilgariff & Georgia Hardstark
Get a glimpse into the lives and thoughts of two of the most successful podcasters today. The voices behind My Favorite Murder, a true crime comedy podcast (you read that right), as well as the creators of Exactly Right Media, a podcast network, Kilgariff & Hardstark are killing it (no pun intended!) in a media platform that is increasingly important in the comedy industry. Whether you're a Murderino or not, their personal anecdotes and bits of advice are funny and full of heart. I personally could read the "Karen's Step-by-Step Guide on How to Be a Latchkey Kid" again and again.
Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art by Sam Wasson
There's a whole wide world of improv outside of the short-form TV show "Whose Line is it Anyway?" and it has -- quietly and behind the scenes -- shaped the topography of contemporary comedy. Some of your favorite comedians, actors, directors and writers have sharpened their crafts, in part, by improvising, not to mention all those less-famous folks who have chosen improv as their main creative outlet. Both a chronicle and a love letter, this intricate history takes us back to the McCarthy era, when improv was bubbling up as an art form in America, detailing its off-the-beaten-path and, frankly, political roots in experimental theater all the way through its influence on all those famous SNL-alums you know and love, and beyond.
Lose Well by Chris Gethard
You might know Chris Gethard from Mike Birbiglia's movie Don't Think Twice, his now-canceled experimental, almost-off-the-rails late night talk show, The Chris Gethard Show, or his podcast Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People. A UCB Theater staple for many years, Gethard's alternative comedy sensibility often walks the line between absurd and emotionally honest. That grounded emotional insight is what shines through in this memoir, recounting stories of personal failure with humor and a refreshing perspective that views failure as an opportunity, not a setback. At once a humor piece, self-help book, and an example of compelling storytelling, Lose Well is a chance to get into the head of one of the simultaneously most seasoned and freshest voices in comedy.
The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish
This book should come with a warning not to read it alone in public if you're easily embarrassed, because it is laugh-out-loud funny. In this gripping memoir, Haddish recounts her incredible life story, including an often violent and challenging childhood and a young adulthood full of struggle and difficult decisions. Throughout the telling, her intelligence, resilience, work ethic and sense of humor shine through -- just some of the things that have gotten her to where she is today. Just as her real-life persona is open, honest, quirky and hilarious, so is Haddish's writing.
Theft By Finding: Diaries 1977-2002 by David Sedaris
What does the journey to becoming a famous humorist look like? For David Sedaris, 20 years of faithfully scribbling away in his notebooks at various houses of pancakes, recording every interesting encounter, moment and character he witnessed, all in relative obscurity before he met Ira Glass. Peek into Sedaris' writer's mind and life story in this extremely well-edited collection of journal entries that represent his life from age 21-46, from working as an apple picker to performing "Santaland Diaries" on This American Life, and beyond. If you're a fan of Sedaris' work, it is very cool to read the entries detailing some big moments in his life that he later polished into stories, or that he didn't necessarily even realize were so important at the time, including the day he met his longtime boyfriend, Hugh. If you're not already a fan of Sedaris, it just might interest you in exploring his work further.
I'll Have What She's Having: How Nora Ephron's Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy by Erin Carlson
Get a behind-the-scenes look at the making of three of Nora Ephron's most loved films: Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally, and You've Got Mail. You'll get stories about the actors & crew and what it was like on the sets, Ephron's directorial style & creative process and stories about Ephron herself, whose own life provided a great deal of fodder for her screenplays. Whether you're a film buff, a comedy nerd, a hopeless romantic, or some combination of the three, Ephron is a titan worth learning about. And while you're at it, check out some of her written work as well.