Growing up in the South, I heard a lot of jokes at the school lunch table or in clusters of elementary-school boys on the playground. The humor of that time, place, and audience was like an old hammer searching for bent nails: crude, cruel, and full of stereotypes and racism passed down from older generations. But the structure—a clearly nonsensical story designed to elicit a physical response—stuck with me as a child raised by writers.

As I got older, I sought out different avenues to laughter and was exposed to stand-up comedy as an adolescent. Much like the chorus of a pop song, it made perfect sense to me. By the early 1990s comedians like Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin, and Robin Williams had made the transition to Hollywood. I’ve since watched the art form evolve, both as a fan and as a person curious about the mystery behind it: How does someone stand alone on a stage and deliver observations about life that provoke such a visceral reaction from audiences? A larger question—why do we laugh?—was not something I’d thought about until the day I was to meet Kliph Nesteroff at the Rainbow, a bar and restaurant on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. “I don’t think it matters” was his response.

A former stand-up comedian, Nesteroff is now a historian of comedy and popular culture. His 2015 book, The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy, traces the story of laughter, media, and commerce from the vaudeville circuits of the early 1900s through the age of Twitter. Last year he published Outrageous: A History of Showbiz and the Culture Wars, in which he addresses “cancel culture” by pointing out how similar dynamics between audiences and entertainers have existed for more than a century.

Born in British Columbia, Canada, Nesteroff began doing stand-up in Toronto in the late 1990s. He became a self-described insult comic and built a reputable act, but ultimately his storyteller’s bent and deep well of cultural references lent themselves more to the writing profession, where he’s found greater success.

In its heyday of the 1970s and ’80s the Rainbow was the site of many notorious acts of varying depravity, but on the Sunday afternoon Nesteroff and I met, the atmosphere was subdued. “This was Rod Serling’s watering hole back in the fifties and sixties,” he pointed out. “I think Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe had their first date here.” Above the booth behind us was a framed gold record for shock comic Andrew Dice Clay’s 1989 album, Dice. Nesteroff ordered black coffee and a BLT—citing Joan Rivers’s mantra that it’s the safest sandwich in any travel situation—then tried to answer my questions, sometimes acerbically but always thoughtfully. What he didn’t do was tell jokes. “That’s the big misconception of most people who don’t do comedy,” he explained. “As soon as somebody finds out that you’re a comic, they say, ‘Oh, tell me a joke.’ But comedians don’t go on stage and say, ‘A doctor and a rabbi walk into a bar. . . .’ ”


Photograph of Kliph Nesteroff.

© Drew Friedman

Cohen: I went to the Comedy Store [a legendary venue in Los Angeles—Ed.] last night, and it felt so good to laugh hard. I haven’t done that in a while. I’ve been thinking about it today: Why do we laugh? What does it do for us?

Nesteroff: Why do you get hungry? Why do you need to sleep? Why does anything feel good or bad? That’s not an answerable question. Obviously everybody enjoys laughing; it gives you an endorphin rush. If you want to get didactic about comedy, what triggers laughter is usually the unexpected—the element of surprise. The straight line to every joke is linear, and you assume you know where it’s going. Then the punch line is the surprise. That’s where the laugh happens. But why? Nobody knows.

Cohen: What does comedy do for a culture?

Nesteroff: What does music do for a culture? You enjoy it, and maybe that’s all. Successful art is primarily about the audience’s enjoyment. You can add lofty goals about illumination, but if a Steven Wright joke doesn’t illuminate anything, that doesn’t mean it ceases to be funny. Comedy is a mild form of hedonism.

Cohen: It’s not a sort of release valve?

Nesteroff: I mean, a joke releases tension. I used to end my act with a joke that intentionally had no laughs for three minutes. I told a very serious story about how I accidentally walked into a sting operation and got arrested and held at gunpoint and police dogs attacked me. It’s a true story. And I dragged it out. The longer the story went on, the more uncomfortable the audience got. They wanted to know Where’s this going? Where’s the payoff? Where’s the laugh? People would laugh in the wrong spots because they were uncomfortable. They were searching for the joke and would snicker when they really shouldn’t have. So when I finally closed with the punch line, the laughter was explosive, and I was able to leave to a big ovation.

But I’m talking about joke structure; you’re asking about the purpose of comedy as a whole. When my first book came out, people would ask me in interviews, “Why is comedy important?” I don’t know that it is. There are lots of people, believe it or not, who don’t care about comedy. And they can live to the age of eighty or ninety. So it’s not essential. That’s not really what anybody wants to hear, especially people within comedy who feel that it’s important. But the importance is sort of subjective.

Cohen: What sets the comedian apart from other artists?

Nesteroff: Most people on planet Earth aren’t funny. One thing that does make comedy special is that most people are not blessed with the ability to make people laugh. You can learn some techniques to get by. I’m sure you saw some comedians last night that you didn’t consider funny, but they know how to handle a microphone. They have enough experience to pass. They’re just not going to stand out compared to those who are born with it. That’s sort of what separates the comedian from a musician or another artist: you have to practice to become a musician, but you just discover at a young age that when you speak in a room full of people, more often than not you’re making them laugh. It just flows out of you naturally.

Cohen: It also seems like comics have a level of observation about the mundane, the things about our lives that we take for granted.

Nesteroff: Somebody who’s naturally funny doesn’t think like that. If they’re more observant than the average person, it’s not by intent. It’s just instinctual. And that’s why people try to do comedy: “I think I’m funny. People seem to laugh when I’m talking.” It seems to get this affirmation that, when you try to do stand-up, it is either validated or invalidated, and not necessarily by your onstage experiences—which are usually shot down—but by the people you encounter around you. You start to meet other people that are funny, and they get you immediately. There’s a psychic connection between people that are both funny. They can spot it right away, even if the audience can’t—and vice versa. You’ll often see comedians at the back of the room while somebody will be onstage killing, but the comedians aren’t laughing, because they know the person onstage is just doing gimmicks to generate the laugh, rather than being truly funny. Likewise, somebody who’s really funny can be onstage bombing, and the comedians in the back of the room are laughing, because they know that person. It’s one of the things that creates a bond between comics.

Cohen: When did you start doing stand-up?

Nesteroff: I started in 1998, and I quit in 2006. I was living in Vancouver, and I’d kind of done all you can do there. I’d hit a ceiling where I wasn’t going to make a living. Many who do make a living in comedy scrape by on the road, and the road in Canada is much more difficult than it is in America: the population is smaller and more spread out, and there are less venues. You’re driving long hours between gigs that are at roadhouses connected to liquor stores, and the audience doesn’t know there’s going to be a show. That’s not enjoyable. I was good in the cities, like Vancouver and Toronto, but on the road there’s a certain type of act that succeeds among bikers or rednecks that’s not the same as what you’d do in a hipster bar. So it’s rough. And if you’re just getting fifteen or twenty dollars a gig, you can’t get a US work visa or a green card. Lots of Canadian comics would do shows in Seattle or Los Angeles or New York without working papers, but it was a big risk. I had a couple of friends who were banned for life from performing in the US because they got caught doing that.

So when I hit a wall, I changed tactics. The irony is that, once I quit stand-up, I ended up achieving all the goals that I had set for myself in stand-up: My book was a success. I got invited to appear at all these comedy festivals as an author. A lot of the people who read my book were heroes of mine: Mel Brooks, Steve Martin—people I would have loved to have worked with as a comedian. I ended up getting to know them only after I quit.

Cohen: Do you miss doing stand-up?

Nesteroff: Yeah.

Cohen: What stops you from doing it now?

Nesteroff: I don’t have an act. I’d have to start from scratch, and that’s a lot of work. It’s much easier to be shitty when you’re anonymous. Nobody cares. I’ve built up a reputation now as an author, so to be shitty again would be a big pill to swallow. There was a comic in Vancouver who was the king of improv. He tried to do stand-up, and he bombed. He thought the improv skill would just transfer over, but it doesn’t. Stand-up is a different skill set. And it takes years to get good at it.

Most people on planet Earth aren’t funny. One thing that does make comedy special is that most people are not blessed with the ability to make people laugh.

Cohen: When you started, how long did it take you to feel confident?

Nesteroff: Probably three years. I was horrible for the first year. I didn’t have the commitment to do an open mic for five people in an Irish pub every night of the week, especially when I was living in a big city for the first time and had other options. It’s also harder to get stage time when you first start, because you suck. But my act started to come together when I moved from Toronto to Vancouver. Toronto is where television is made in Canada, and most comics there do the same five-minute set every night with the hopes of getting on TV. It’s not that way in Vancouver. The comedians were way more creative and took more risks. That inspired me. After one year in Vancouver it really clicked: I became an insult comic. I got press and built up a following, but it didn’t turn into a lot of money.

Cohen: From the perspective of someone that’s never done it, not being good at something for that long, but still doing it, would be very hard.

Nesteroff: That first year I would have anxiety as soon as I woke up in the morning. I’d practice my routine all day, and then go out and perform, and it would suck. Still, it preoccupied my mind the entire day: this inconsequential gig at some shitty pub. But what motivated me was that I met other comics and bonded with them right away. We were bombing together, and then watching each other slowly grow, and a couple of years later we were all destroying. The older comedians would anoint or befriend us, whereas initially they’d wanted nothing to do with us. New kids looked up to us as established comics. It’s very gratifying when you finally go onstage and have this sudden rush of confidence. Out of nowhere you just feel comfortable, whether it happens after your hundredth gig, your five hundredth gig, or your thousandth gig. I got to the point where I wanted the bigger crowd, because the bigger the crowd, the better I did. If it was two thousand people, I could destroy. If there were twelve people, it was a struggle, because even if I was doing well, it sounded like I wasn’t.

Cohen: There’s a comic I saw in North Carolina probably six times a few years ago, and he did the same bit at the end of every set. The first five times it was just not funny at all. The sixth time he did it, I was laughing—hard. It was the same joke, but he’d tweaked it to the point where it worked. So I’m wondering, when you talked about doing your own routine all day long—are you doing it out loud? How do you refine something like that?

Nesteroff: You figure it out onstage, not at home. You try a joke out. If it gets a laugh, you keep it. If it doesn’t, you might try it again and again, tweaking each time. If it still doesn’t work, you throw it out. But when you start, nothing works. So it’s a long process. You might do the same routine for years and get two jokes that work. You put those at the start and at the end, because you have to get them laughing first, and you need a big laugh at the finish. Although today comics like Dave Chappelle and Hannah Gadsby do something I’ve never seen before, which is leave the stage without laughter. They say something serious and then walk off. It’s supposed to be very dramatic.

Cohen: What do you make of that?

Nesteroff: I don’t like it at all. Comedy is supposed to make you laugh. Making you think? Who gives a fuck? One hundred percent of the population can be serious, but not everyone can be funny. It feels like a betrayal of your inherent gift to do the exact same thing that anybody else could do. It’s Jerry Lewis syndrome: the comedian who wants to be taken seriously, not just appreciated as a clown.

Cohen: Chappelle’s last few specials have focused so much on what people say about him that it feels like a waste of that level of fame and that audience; it’s just an hour and a half of complaints.

Nesteroff: Well, a lot of comedians talk about their life. The problem is the more famous you become, the less relatable your life is. Amy Schumer did a special a few years ago, and a lot of it was about the paparazzi. And it seemed less funny because most people in the audience can’t relate to the experience of being hounded by the paparazzi. I suspect Chappelle, like Jerry Lewis, is surrounded by an entourage of yes-men who tell him he’s a genius. Once you believe you are a genius, to hear a contrary opinion makes you very defensive. Jerry Lewis and Mort Sahl used to be extremely defensive. If anybody criticized them, they really lashed out in an unfunny way. Chappelle used to be very humble; now it feels like he’s lost a lot of that humility. He’s still got a huge following—Jerry Lewis did, too—but humility in comedy is more relatable. Bullies work best when they’re a character and the audience knows it’s fictional.

Cohen: Can you give an example of someone like that?

Nesteroff: Tony Clifton [comedian Andy Kaufman’s boorish and belligerent persona—Ed.]. If Tony Clifton were an actual person, you would have an aversion to him. But when you know it’s a guy in a wig, it’s a shtick, then it’s funny.

Cohen: You’ve talked in the past about how a lot of comedy in America started out of xenophobia and racist stereotypes.

Nesteroff: Not exactly. The reason certain people flocked to the stage is because they were discriminated against elsewhere. Jewish Americans, Italian Americans, Irish Americans, and the formerly enslaved African Americans were all subjected to employment restrictions. The higher-class professions discriminated against these groups, but show business and vaudeville were considered low-class vocations in certain sectors of society. Puritan and Protestant cultures discriminated against show business. Playing cards was forbidden; dancing was forbidden; patronizing performances was forbidden. As a result the stage was wide open to people that were discriminated against in other fields. That’s where the roots of American comedy were established. When people talk about the predominance of Black people or Jewish people in comedy, some say, “They came from pain and created comedy out of it,” but it’s much more tangible than that. They were welcomed on the stage.

Comedy is supposed to make you laugh. Making you think? Who gives a fuck? One hundred percent of the population can be serious, but not everyone can be funny.

Cohen: Has comedy always come from marginalized communities?

Nesteroff: Comedy in America went through a couple of early phases. There was this wave of immigration in the late nineteenth century, and malapropisms—doing mangled English in a sort of mockery of immigrants—was a popular way to ridicule what was going on. Once those immigrants gave birth to an American-born generation, the old-fashioned stereotypes were rejected. But whenever there was another wave of immigration, those new people were mocked from the stage. So there was a cycle. In the 1890s and early 1900s Irish American groups and Italian American groups and Native American groups organized against stereotypes on the stage and in silent movies. Later, in the postwar period, when Black people objected to stereotypes in television and film, a lot of editorial writers defended those stereotypes, saying, “How come the Italians and the Irish don’t complain?”—not realizing they had done so decades earlier.

A single stereotyped character is not particularly harmful if you’ve got ninety-nine realistic portrayals of the same ethnicity or race. But if you have only stereotypes, people get pissed off and start to object. When people first protested against blackface, they were accused of being humorless—of, ironically, needing to “lighten up.” Same thing happened with the gay-rights and women’s-rights movements of the late sixties and early seventies. They were characterized as humorless, too aggressive. Today it’s the transgender community: “Get a sense of humor,” people tell them. But every protest movement before them heard the same thing.

Cohen: How did the development of sketch comedy and sitcoms affect stand-up?

Nesteroff: Sitcoms started in radio, and sketch comedy existed in the days of vaudeville and Broadway revues, which were a combination of sketch comedy and musical acts. The Ziegfeld Follies revues brought vaudeville comics like Bert Williams, Eddie Cantor, and W.C. Fields into a new venue. Vaudeville was considered low-class; Broadway was bourgeois. But they were still doing sketch comedy. Early radio sitcoms mostly starred people who had done stand-up: Jack Benny, George Burns. Like today, a sitcom was a way for a comedian to become known nationally and reach an audience of millions. The way that affected stand-up was to make some comics very famous and very wealthy.

Cohen: It seems comics have far more platforms at their disposal than ever, with the internet and social media and YouTube.

Nesteroff: Maybe, but making it still has a lot to do with luck. You can start a podcast, but will anybody hear it? You can put your act on YouTube, but will people find it? Most podcasts and YouTube channels never find an audience. And the business is not completely DIY now. Comedians are still pitching shows to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Paramount+ the same way they used to pitch shows to ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox.

Cohen: A friend who’s a comic told me he feels like the comedy shows and some of the comedy specials that he’s seen post-pandemic are markedly different than they were pre-pandemic. In the gap people couldn’t develop their act onstage. Do you see the same thing?

Nesteroff: I think there’s too much pressure on comics to keep producing as much as possible. Look at George Carlin, who was performing three hundred nights a year in the seventies and eighties and made a comedy special only every four or five years. It can take a long time to have an hour that’s worthy of recording. The pressure to crank it out doesn’t do anybody any favors. There’s a Comedy Store comedian who had five minutes that were really strong. So Netflix gave him a stand-up special to cash in on his notoriety. But he only had five minutes, so the special is tragically weak. And he never really had another shot. People think he’s not funny because he did a special before he was ready. Still, it’s hard to turn that opportunity down when it’s offered.

There are just too many people doing stand-up today. And just because more people do stand-up doesn’t mean there are suddenly more funny people on planet Earth. It’s always the same infinitesimal percentage that are funny. So if there are more shows, but the percentage of quality comics remains the same, you get a ballooning number of low-quality shows. Too much mediocrity turns people off of comedy.

Cohen: So why are more people doing it?

Nesteroff: It’s not as mysterious as it used to be. Comedians are talking shop on podcasts. They teach stand-up in acting courses now. People will say they’re a comedian in their Instagram profile, but they’ve never done stand-up.

Stand-up is more popular now than it was even in the eighties, when it was super popular. People say oversaturation killed off the eighties stand-up boom. It created a stereotype: a comedian is someone who rolls up their sleeves and says, “What’s the deal with airline food?” or does an impression of Jack Nicholson.

Cohen: What led to that oversaturation?

Nesteroff: Cable television shattered the three-network monopoly on TV. Then the success of stand-up on cable led the networks to create their own shows to compete. Also video stores had a stand-up section, so you could rent an Eddie Murphy special.

Cohen: Do you think it’s bad for the state of the craft right now to have people onstage who haven’t done the work to come up with a set?

Nesteroff: It’s not ideal. It’s especially bad for comics that are funny, because they’re competing for stage time with people that have nothing to offer. It becomes less enjoyable to hang out at the show when you’re surrounded by unfunny interlopers, especially if they’re new and want to court you or get help from you. I don’t know if that’s good or bad for comedy as a whole. It’s just how it is.

Cohen: The 1970s saw the development of “confessional” comedy. Are there earlier examples of that?

Nesteroff: All stand-up is sort of contrived. Even “confessional” is a combination of exaggeration and fabrication. When you saw a comedian like Alan King complaining about his life on The Ed Sullivan Show in the 1960s, you never really thought about whether it was true or not.

Then in the seventies you had Richard Pryor talking about how he beat up his wife and was molested as a child. There’s a bootleg special of him performing at the Improv in New York around 1971, and he’s talking about some really dark things. People walk out of the show. It sort of feels like the kind of stand-up you might see today: a raw, “this happened to me” approach.

But different styles of comedy always exist concurrently. There were still old-school dudes around in the seventies, people that did impressions, ventriloquist acts. We still have those styles of comedy today. But one style that is more common today is the provocateur: the person who tries to provoke the audience and get a reaction out of them that isn’t necessarily laughter. Andy Kaufman did it in the seventies, and it was very unusual then. Now you can go to any comedy club and see a comic berating the audience for not laughing, even though the intent was to get a negative reaction. If you can’t get a laugh, just say things that are intentionally outrageous, racist, or sexist, and the audience goes, “Ooooohhhhh!” There’s an entire show at the Comedy Store stacked with comics who do that.

Cohen: How is that different from 1980s comics like Andrew Dice Clay or Sam Kinison, who were intentionally volatile and crude?

Nesteroff: I don’t know that it comes from Dice or Kinison, necessarily; it’s more like it comes from resentment. There’s this cliché that you can’t say certain things anymore. I don’t think it’s true. There are plenty of people that intentionally do or say the thing that will supposedly get them in trouble. If you aren’t getting a laugh, you can always devise something that will get some sort of reaction. Or, you see this occasionally, a person who is just oblivious. They don’t even realize that they’re bombing; they get offstage, and they’re happy. I used to see that sometimes, and it just alarmed me. How could a person not notice that? Whereas if I was doing my act and I did one joke that got nothing, I would just focus on the fact that it didn’t get a laugh and talk about that; I could not ignore it.

Cohen: You mentioned that a lot of old-school comedy was not based on personal experience. What do you make of the Hasan Minhaj controversy? [Minhaj has admitted to exaggerating onstage to convey “emotional truths” about instances of Islamophobia he has suffered.—Ed.] Should his audiences have known that comics sometimes make stuff up?

Nesteroff: I think what distinguished Minhaj is that he was making things up that made him seem heroic in the face of adversity. That’s different than somebody like Steven Wright, who obviously didn’t find a convenience store that was open twenty-four hours—but not in a row. We know that’s a joke. But if it turned out Hannah Gadsby was not raped, their comedy would feel very self-serving in a way that minimizes other people who did go through such an experience.

The controversy doesn’t mean anything to me personally. I don’t get angry about other people getting angry. All of these controversies that seem so intense and important are quickly forgotten and replaced.

You want to speak truth to power, you want to make a political statement, you want to be confessional—none of that is more or less valid than doing ventriloquism or doing an impression of Christopher Walken.

Cohen: Do comedians have a responsibility to tell the truth, depending on what they’re saying?

Nesteroff: No. It’s like watching a scripted biopic and saying, “Oh, that’s not the way it happened.” No, of course not. It’s a movie. We know Oppenheimer’s life wasn’t three hours long. You suspend your disbelief for art. The lyrics to a song don’t have to be based on real life for you to connect with the emotion that’s being presented. The person who’s singing about having their heart broken maybe never had their heart broken, but you can still connect with it. We give allowances to art that we don’t give to something that has real influence. When a politician lies, it has greater impact, because the assumption is that it’s true.

Now, if you blur the two, and somebody thinks that the art is true, then I guess it could have an adverse effect. But by default art involves artifice. I don’t know why we don’t understand that. Even children understand the difference between SpongeBob SquarePants and a real sponge. What Minhaj says is not particularly harmful, except to any specific person he’s talking about. It’s not something that I personally care about. It’s tangential, soon to be forgotten.

Cohen: I’m not asking you the question because it’s affected my life. What is interesting to me is the amount of attention that it’s gotten and the questions around it—

Nesteroff: The media will flock to the controversy of the moment. They’ll all assign somebody to the story so they can have their own version of it. I see that a lot. I tend to get asked about the same comedians all the time. And there are hundreds of other comedians worth talking about who never get brought up.

Cohen: Who are the comedians you get asked about all the time?

Nesteroff: Before his scandal, it was always Louis C.K. When Hannah Gadsby’s first special came out in 2017, I had ten interview requests in one week asking me to talk about it. I hadn’t even seen it. It had been out for like a week. I kind of resented the pressure that I had to watch it now because there were all these think pieces being written about it. And the questions I was asked were so over the top: “Has Hannah Gadsby changed comedy forever?” Jesus Christ, it’s a little bit premature to determine that anybody has the power to change an art form forever. It was a good special, but to give it that much magnitude was completely out of proportion. Same thing with Dave Chappelle. I get all these requests to talk about him. It’s unfortunate, because it kind of drowns out all the other people that are doing good things in comedy. It’s as if there are only five comedians on planet Earth.

Cohen: Chappelle has his special The Bird Revelation, which was shot right in the middle of the #MeToo explosion. I believe it was shot the day that accusations had come out about journalist Charlie Rose. He says in the special that, given the cultural climate, comedians have a responsibility to “talk recklessly.” What do you think about that?

Nesteroff: A comedian’s only responsibility is to make the audience laugh. If you’re not making the audience laugh, then you’re failing at your job. You want to speak truth to power, you want to make a political statement, you want to be confessional—none of that is more or less valid than doing ventriloquism or doing an impression of Christopher Walken. They’re all equal, so long as they make people laugh. If it’s more important to you to do something that doesn’t make the audience laugh, fine, but it’s not comedy. It’s something else. I don’t think Dave Chappelle’s philosophy is as profound as some people think it is, or as he sometimes seems to think it is. People will put down a comedian like Carrot Top, but obviously what he does works: he has a permanent residency in Las Vegas, he’s packing the seats, the people leave pleased, he hasn’t done anything to outrage anybody, he’s not a bigot. But he gets the most hate. I don’t think it’s more important to talk politics or to be provocative. If it stops getting a laugh, then, in my opinion, it’s actually less important as stand-up, because it stops being comedy and veers into drama.

Cohen: Some of the “Mudbone” material in Richard Pryor’s sets is not funny at all. It’s very sad and hard to listen to. But it was surrounded by material that was funny.

Nesteroff: Richard Pryor was a great actor. He was doing a character when he did Mudbone. Lily Tomlin did the same thing at that time—portrayed characters that were very human. It’s no accident that Richard Pryor became a movie star and George Carlin didn’t: George Carlin never did those types of characters onstage. He just did himself. Pryor would do confessional material about himself, then slip into character as Mudbone or the drunk who sees God. In a way, that’s what a lot of comedy was once upon a time. Female comedians in the 1940s and ’50s primarily did monologues as different characters. Most comedians have multiple tools in their toolbox. Eddie Murphy can do a killer James Brown or Bill Cosby impression. Gilbert Gottfried and Norm Macdonald could also do impressions, but nobody ever called them impressionists. Some comedians have great material, but they can abandon it and talk to the audience and get big laughs. Some comedians are only good at talking to the audience. I don’t know if Dave Chappelle got bored of just doing regular stand-up, and that’s why he wants to be Mr. Philosophy, but it’s sort of disappointing to me as a fan, because it’s just so much weaker than his comedy.

Even before he got into any controversy regarding transgender people, there was a trailer for his Netflix special Sticks & Stones where the voiceover was something to the effect of He’s gonna say all the things you’re not allowed to say. Well, nobody said he wasn’t allowed to say it. But that’s the way it was marketed, like he’s the truth teller. He does a thing sometimes where, after he tells a joke, he’ll laugh and slap himself with the mic and take two steps back. It looks spontaneous, but if you were to see him work out that material, he does it at the exact same spot every single time. It’s not a Hasan Minhaj–type situation, but for me, it sort of rings false. And it’s ripe for parody. Typically when a celebrity gets that big, they become a target for comedy or satire. But I don’t see other comedians make fun of him. Which is surprising to me. I think comedians these days are so ambitious. They want to go on tour with Dave Chappelle or be on Joe Rogan’s podcast. So instead of poking fun, they try to curry favor with them and maybe be welcomed into that fold and perhaps get a career boost.

Cohen: You mentioned some cyclical trends in the twentieth century and how there’s an overabundance of mediocrity just like in the 1980s. Have there been other cycles in comedy?

Nesteroff: Whenever one trend in any art form succeeds, everybody tries to cash in on it. You see this throughout history. In the 1920s comedy was silent-movie slapstick—car chases and Keystone Cops and pies in the face. Then came an oversaturation of slapstick comedies, and audiences grew tired of them. Charlie Chaplin himself said the days of slapstick were over, and he started making movies that had that dreaded—at the time—quality “pathos.” The comedy was about heart—he’s courting a girl and gives her a flower—as opposed to just visual chaos. The oversaturation of a style always leads to a contempt for that style. In movies the 3D craze came and went, as did the IMAX trend. We’ve been in a very long superhero cycle that hasn’t died off, but eventually it will, and we’ll be in another cycle.

Cohen: Are those cycles and waves directed by larger forces in culture?

Nesteroff: I think the germination is always sparked by original thought, and then the copycats and conformists come in. When I was doing stand-up, most comedians sounded like Mitch Hedberg or Norm Macdonald. They did the same cadence, the same rhythms. Those who were truly funny eventually shed those influences, built up their confidence, and came into their own. The rest just continued doing the knockoff. And that’s usually what leads to the oversaturation or the bottoming out of a trend. There’s always too much substandard material in any genre, whether it’s blaxploitation movies in the early seventies, or teen sex comedies in the eighties, or a proliferation of stand-ups doing Christopher Walken impressions.

Cohen: Is what comes after a response to oversaturation?

Nesteroff: If so, it’s not intentional. An original performer isn’t somebody who decides, I’m going to do something original. It’s usually just them doing their thing, which turns out to be unique or fresh. Comics who are truly funny don’t really overthink it. I think journalists often overthink things that comedians themselves don’t consider. A few years ago the principle of “punch up, not down” became popular, and I was constantly being asked about it. I’d never met a comedian who’d used that phrase until journalists started to use it. When you’re funny, you operate on instinct. It’s just natural to ridicule the famous person, the pompous person, the arrogant person. You don’t have to think, This is punching up. But there was an obsession in journalism over that phrase. I think people who aren’t funny tend to overthink comedy—what makes us laugh?—analyze it. I’m not talking about you, by the way. I’m just saying in general.

Cohen: My question is more about audiences. If we’re moving on to something else because a trend has bottomed out, what are the forces underneath directing our attention that way—the things happening in our society or in politics?

Nesteroff: We all get tired of seeing the same thing. We want something new and different. I think people got burned out on political comedy during the Trump years, and after that there was a lot of apolitical comedy. So a trend starts off fulfilling a need, but then it overfulfills. You get bored of Trump impressions or Obama impressions. When a new president gets elected and some impersonator cracks the code and nails Joe Biden’s voice for the first time, or Trump’s, it’s exciting. Then within a year 150 people are doing the exact same thing, and it’s just not as exhilarating.

Cohen: You mentioned Mitch Hedberg. My understanding is that he was not a very happy person for someone who made people laugh for a living.

Nesteroff: Well, he was addicted to heroin, and I haven’t met too many heroin addicts who had happy lives. Almost every single heroin addict I’ve ever known had some sort of severe unhappiness or trauma in their past. People often believe that a rough childhood can lead to becoming a comedian, but I never really bought that. The people I knew that had the roughest childhoods would not have been capable of doing stand-up. Comedy is for the semihealthy person—maybe a little bit damaged but not so traumatized that you can’t function. You need to be able to show up on time and take some criticism and not be totally erratic. A lot of people that are traumatized as kids grow up to be violent and lash out at others, and you can’t do that in a comedy club and expect to be invited back. So I push back on that idea that comedians always have rough childhoods. The people with the roughest childhoods often don’t make it out alive.

Cohen: What about the idea of pain contributing to what some comedians do, like Robin Williams—

Nesteroff: It’s such a cliché. You can find depressed and damaged people in every single art form. And if you choose to focus on that, you can come up with a theory about it. People think the irony is profound: this person’s making people happy; meanwhile they’re depressed. But think about the number of musicians who are alcoholics or the number of writers who committed suicide. It just seems more poignant with comedians because it’s the “tears of a clown.” I think the most common form of mental illness you’ll find in comedy is narcissism. That’s why so many comedians lash out when somebody in the press doesn’t like a joke.

Cohen: Going back to one of my first questions about tension in comedy—your answer was about the tension that a bit creates, but my question was more about comedy as a form that allows us to vent about things that are happening in our world.

Nesteroff: Yeah, it can, but not every comedian vents. Some are just doing a broad shtick. There’s a comic named Josh Fadem. I don’t know how often he still does comedy, but the first time I saw him, in 2008, he did a hilarious bit that had nothing to do with venting or reflecting on our times. He would come out and try to take the mic out of the stand and fail. The cord would get all tangled up, and he would get tangled in it. For five minutes, while trying to get the cord off, he would do pratfalls: fall on the stage, dive into the audience. Finally he’d crawl off the stage. And it killed; it destroyed. But there was no obvious mirror to society or release of tension in the body politic. There’s a genre of comedy that does those things, but it’s not true of comedy as a whole.

Comedy for comedy’s sake is fun. If it makes you laugh, then it’s great. I like comedy that’s making a point, too, but I don’t think it’s more important. Well, maybe it’s more self-important.

Cohen: Leslie Jones has a bit in her special Time Machine where she does an impression of herself in her twenties dancing backstage at the Grammys, trying to impress Prince. It goes on for a few minutes; she just doesn’t stop, and it just gets funnier and funnier.

Nesteroff: Comedy for comedy’s sake is fun. If it makes you laugh, then it’s great. I like comedy that’s making a point, too, but I don’t think it’s more important. Well, maybe it’s more self-important. During the first couple of years of Trump’s presidency interviewers were asking me, “How can comedy effect political change? What role does comedy have?” I didn’t know what they were talking about. I don’t think comedy made things better or worse. It didn’t move the needle. It reflected what was going on, and that’s fine. But it didn’t prevent fascism or diminish bigotry or expose corruption. Political comedy in the Trump years probably had the exact same effect as good apolitical comedy: it made you laugh.

I’m afraid people might think I’m being reactionary when I say this, but I’m being realistic. Look at Dick Gregory. He quit comedy to join the Civil Rights Movement full time in the sixties. So it wasn’t comedy that changed anything. It was the Civil Rights Movement that changed society. And he put comedy to the side to help do that because, to him, comedy was innocuous compared to actually marching in the street and sacrificing his time.

If anything, comedy might alleviate people’s stress about the political situation for a moment, which is a valid achievement. Making people laugh is a noble pursuit. Like I said before, everybody can make a serious point; everybody can have a political opinion. But not everybody can make people laugh. To compartmentalize one type of comedy as more important than the other is almost backwards. The part that makes you laugh is more important than the part that makes the point.