Comedy Historian Kliph Nesteroff Talks VICELAND Series 'Funny How?'
The author of 'The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy' also discusses Canadian comedy and the secret history of 'Hockey Night In Canada'
Published Jul 10, 2017After the publication of his remarkable 2015 book, The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy, Kliph Nesteroff established himself as one of the foremost experts in comedy trends as they relate to the culture at large.
Capitalizing on his connections, knowledge, and pedagogical and storytelling abilities, VICELAND brought Nesteroff in to helm a new five-part documentary series called Funny How?, which examines aspects of comedy like bombing on stage, breaking into the biz, taking comedy classes, and niche comedy scenes propelled by LGBTQ communities and, perhaps most surprisingly, Christian comics. The series runs on VICELAND from July 10 to 14 at 11:30 p.m.
If Funny How? finds Nesteroff focusing on underrepresented or marginalized voices in comedy by shining a light on the many obstacles to success that all comedic artists face, it's likely because, even as a white Canadian man, he can relate to the (Canadian) struggle firsthand.
Now based in Hollywood, Nesteroff is originally from South Slocan, a rural community located nine hours northeast of Vancouver, BC. While mostly cut off from pop culture sources as a teenager, he credits Mad Magazine for providing him with skewed access to film and television, or at least parodies of the same.
He was expelled from high school after roasting various teachers in a speech he gave while running for school president in grade 11. Apparently many faculty members had been dispatched to this outpost in the woods for various ugly transgressions at their previous institutions and, for some reason, a 17-year-old Nesteroff thought he'd highlight these things at an assembly for everyone at the school.
"Our English teacher had been involved in some sort of sexual harassment scandal," Nesteroff says, over the phone from Hollywood. "Our drama teacher had done pornography in the '80s, our art teacher — it might've been an urban legend — but they said he huffed glue in the back room. And then our social studies teacher was definitely drunk in most classes. Back then they didn't diagnose PTSD, but he would be drunk in class and then reminisce about the war. He was shell-shocked; the whole class would be him talking about dead bodies.
"When I ran for school president, I did this speech that exposed all this salacious dirty laundry," Nesteroff recalls. "I said 'God created our school in seven days. On the first day, let there be a drama teacher who does softcore pornography...' I said all these things and after each line, the whole student body went, 'Ooooooooh!' They got all excited.
"By the end of it, I said 'My opponents have promised you things but they're all lies. A school president has no power. So I can only make you one pledge and one pledge only: if elected, I'll be the coolest fucking president this school has ever seen.' They all stood up, all 400 kids, and then I won in a landslide, 400 votes to zero to zero and then I was immediately — immediately — kicked out of school.
"So, that was sort of my first [unintentional] standup performance and then, ten months later, I moved to Toronto to do a sitcom writing class."
Nesteroff soon found spec script writing sessions for late '90s fare like 3rd Rock from the Sun a bit tiresome and started doing standup professionally in 1998, eventually heading back west to Vancouver. There, he developed a local following and was featured on the covers of local publications who covered and raved about his act. But, when he still struggled to make ends meet, he left standup behind in 2006.
"I'm sure most Canadians realize it's not easy to make a living in showbiz in Canada — no matter how good you are, what you're doing or how long you've been doing it, it's a long slog," he says. "Even if you do get a good gig at the CBC, it comes and goes: you can lose your job at the CBC. Unless you're Ralph Benmergui, you're not gonna be a lifer at the CBC."
Indeed, when Nesteroff switched gears, he began writing for CBC and, later, historical articles about comedy for WFMU's site, which caught the eye of comedian Marc Maron, who invited him onto his popular, WTF with Marc Maron podcast. The appearance generated attention and Nesteroff soon had himself a literary agent and a book deal for what ended up being the meticulously researched and endlessly compelling The Comedians.
"I did have another book deal in Canada at one point that fell through," Nesteroff says. Then, he pauses for a moment.
"I don't even know if I should say it out loud because somebody else will take the idea. I had a failsafe idea to make money in Canada. Anyone I talked to said 'That'll be the bestselling Canadian book of all time,' and I said 'I know.' And my agent agreed and Penguin Books agreed, and then we got threatened with a lawsuit and it spooked Penguin.
"I'll just tell you the idea," Nesteroff says, like a guy who's ready to go for a brisk jog after sitting on a secret for far too long.
Inspired by the book Live From New York, a classic, behind-the-scenes, uncensored oral history of Saturday Night Live, Nesteroff proposed a similar treatment about CBC's venerable Hockey Night in Canada broadcast. He dug deep and interviewed almost everyone involved, including an executive at McLaren Advertising (the firm that designed the show's iconic stick and puck logo) and eventual HNIC creative director (1965-1970), Morley Kells.
"He goes, 'Well, I don't wanna be redundant. I'm sure you've heard all the stories about all the hookers and drugs in the office!' and I go, 'Oh yeah, yeah, I have heard that but please, I'd like you to tell me more,'" Nesteroff says, stifling a laugh. "Of course I hadn't heard about that at all.
"I wrote the whole arc of the history — at least a sample, almost 200 pages. I interviewed like 125 people, everyone you can imagine. Penguin Books was on it but then they got overly ambitious: they said 'Let's contact the CBC and go into collusion with them. We can buy commercials during the Stanley Cup Finals, we'll have Ron Maclean interview you between periods.'
"So, we had this meeting, in 2009 maybe, and we went to the top floor of the CBC and it was me, the guy from Penguin Books, the head of CBC Marketing, the head of CBC Sports, and the head of CBC," Nesteroff explains. "The guy from Penguin goes, 'Okay Kliph, you just pitch the idea to them and if they ask you any questions you can't handle, you just look at me and I'll pick up the ball,' and I said, 'Great.'
"I'm pitching to this guy named Joel Darling, the head of CBC Sports. I made it real maudlin, in a way that might appeal to the CBC. I said, 'Hockey Night in Canada united the country in a way that confederation never could.' At one point, Darling looks at me and goes, 'The history of Hockey Night in Canada? Who cares?!' And I go 'What?' and he says, 'Who cares?!' So I'm looking at the Penguin guy and he's just panicking, shrugging, like, 'I dunno.'"
By Nesteroff's reckoning, the CBC execs had clearly caught wind of the salacious nature of some of the material.
"As we're walking out of there," Nesteroff recounts, "the CBC woman from marketing was trying to salvage it because she knew it would make a huge amount of money for HNIC, the CBC, Penguin, and for me. The idea is so perfect. Everybody would buy that book in Canada. But it fell apart and they threatened us. They said 'If you go ahead, we'll stop you, we own the rights and the name and we'll do our own book.'"
Nesteroff tells this story with fresh frustration, not for the opportunity he lost, but for the opportunity everyone involved with the project missed in offering the public something real and genuinely fascinating about one of Canada's longest-running and most galvanizing institutions.
"It was so heartbreaking because I was trying to do something for Canada," he explains. "I'm Canadian. I thought, 'What could I do for Canada that would be cool?' Because Americans think Canada is cool but Canadians don't think Canada is cool. We look at Canadian show business as square, corny, and embarrassing. We all watch American TV in Canada. I thought that an oral history of HNIC would've been really cool and also, it's a book only for Canadians. That show did unite the country."
For Nesteroff, it was the kind of quintessentially Canadian experience that drove him to succeed on his own terms.
"If you remain in Canada, as a comedian, you will always be part of the underground in terms of magnitude. I know people that book comedians on The Tonight Show and The Late Show and, occasionally, they'll be gracious enough to ask me if there's anyone they should see and I always say, 'You gotta go to Canada.'
"I'll send them clips of comedians that are well-known in Canada, they'll say 'How come I've never heard of this person?'" Nesteroff says. "It's like you're invisible as long as you're in Canada."
Funny How? airs on VICELAND from July 10 to 14 at 11:30 PM
Listen to this entire interview with Kliph Nesteroff on the Kreative Kontrol podcast here or below: