Required Reading: Great Books by Stand-Up Comedians

Congratulations are in order for Patton Oswalt: in addition to being one of our favorite working stand-up comedians, he is now officially a New York Times bestselling author. His book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland is a surprisingly sophisticated piece of work. This comes as a surprise not due to its particular author — Oswalt’s magazine pieces and routines are peppered with enough obscure literary references to indicate a guy who’s read a book or two — but because of the rather lowly reputation of the stand-up book in general.

It goes back to Bill Cosby. In 1986, with The Cosby Show at the height of its considerable success, the good doctor of comedy made a deal with Doubleday to write a book. The resulting volume, Fatherhood, was a slim text that consisted primarily of material very familiar to fans of his 1983 concert film Bill Cosby: Himself. The book was basically a transcription of his act. Didn’t matter; it was a huge bestseller, and the quickie stand-up book was born. No need to actually “write” a “book” — just adapt your stand-up material into book form! Type it up, maybe grab a thesaurus to change some of the slang to bigger words, and viola! Instant bestseller.

Other comics (and their publishers) took note. In the years that followed, we saw Jerry Seinfeld’s SeinLanguage, Paul Resier’s Couplehood, Chris Rock’s Rock This!, Ray Romano’s Everything and a Kite, Ellen DeGeneres’s My Point… and I Do Have One, Larry the Cable Guy’s Git-R-Done, Denis Leary’s No Cure for Cancer, and George Carlin’s Brain Droppings, Napalm and Silly Putty, and When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? And those books are fine, for what they are. But every once in a while, a comedian takes the opportunity to write a real book, to use the form as its own specific kind of writing, and produces something unique and memorable. Here’s a quick jaunt through some of our favorites:

How to Talk Dirty and Influence People by Lenny Bruce

It seems appropriate that the artist most often pinpointed as the father of modern stand-up comedy would also write the first great stand-up book. Bruce’s notorious legal battles had led to him being effectively blacklisted from American nightclubs by the mid-1960s, so his buddy Hugh Hefner suggested Bruce turn his energies towards writing this piece, which Hefner then serialized in Playboy magazine and released in book form (via Playboy Press) in 1972, several years after Bruce died of a drug overdose. The book — which was titled as a parody of Dale Carnegie’s ubiquitous How to Make Friends and Influence People — offered up Bruce’s thoughts on his career, his obscenity battles, and the world around him. On nudity: “The first great breakthrough — or, rather, breakdown — of society’s nudity/lewdity guilt-by-association was the now-famous Marilyn Monroe calendar. Marilyn’s respectability when she died was based principally upon her economic status, which is, in the final analysis, the only type our society really respects.” Fast-paced, thoughtful, and (no surprise) edgy, Bruce’s book remains a riveting read.