Picks and Pans Review: Comedians

updated 01/20/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/20/1992 01:00AM

by Arthur Grace

Some things are inherently funny, like nostrils. Some are not, like Belgium. Here are three new books celebrating the comedy boom. Sometimes they remind you of nostrils—sometimes of Belgium.

The Rolling Stone Book of Comedy is big and colorful, a welcome testament to funny people. Bonnie Schiffman's photographs owe their brightly lighted buffoonery to Annie Leibovitz, but they have a wit and imagination all their own: her sly portrait of Danny DeVito with an ace up his sleeve, Howie Mandel clowning to please his stole-draped mother, the Smothers Brothers in a pillow fight. Bill Zehme annotates these poses with often clever prose. Summing up George Burns and Bob Hope: "Together they are older than many rock formations."

The roster of comic minds here is refreshingly diverse—from Don Rickles and Jerry Seinfeld to Garrison Keillor and the off-kilter cartoonist Roz Chast—a nice reminder that comedy is big enough to include funny musings as well as pratfalls. Here's a blurb they can use for the paperback edition: "This book comes at you with both nostrils." (Bullfinch, $35)

Comedy Explosion, devoted to relatively new comics—Rita Rudner, Emo Phillips, Jerry Seinfeld—is more bust than boom. Every page sounds like a serenade from the publicist's trumpet, the bluntest instrument known to man. The black-and-white photos could pass for stock. And the sample jokes (Carol Leifer explaining her "mixed marriage"—she's human; he's a Klingon) have been heard on talk shows and comedy channels. This must be Belgium. (Thunder's Mouth Press, $14.95)

Comedians is comedy vérité, a black-and-white documentary portrait of comics at work. Photographer Arthur Grace spent 15 months on the road with 17 comics in venues as diverse as Vegas and college gyms.

In moody backstage portraits of people like Robin Williams, Alan King, Lily Tomlin and Steven Wright, Grace offers a skull-and-funny-bones picture of comics with all of their insecurities and anxieties on display. The author-photographer underscores each photo essay with one in words. His Q&A elicits some telling answers, like one from Steve Martin on how to handle an audience: "I think every comedian knows that you're only one inch away from disaster all the time."

The same could be said of comedy books. This one gets a stand-up ovation. (Eastman Kodak/Thomasson-Grant, $39.95)

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