cover image Outrageous: A History of Showbiz and the Culture Wars

Outrageous: A History of Showbiz and the Culture Wars

Kliph Nesteroff. Abrams, $30 (320p) ISBN 978-1-41-976098-3

Despite the prevailing notion that “you can’t joke about anything anymore,” contemporary TV, film, music, and theater boasts more “freedom of expression than ever,” contends Nesteroff (The Comedians) in this extensive if somewhat one-note effort to “provide context for showbiz controversies” from the 1800s onward. Nesteroff visits the vaudeville age of the late 1800s and early 1900s, which saw the ban of “comedy concerning alcohol” in 1922 during Prohibition, and where “sexuality, immorality, and vulgarity” scandalized audiences and critics (the Moline Dispatch in Illinois lamented “the vulgar comedian,” who “turns loose brothel jokes” on suffering audiences, while in Detroit, bare knees were banned from the stage). After television was popularized in the 1940s, complaints “poured in” about such small-screen scandals as Lucille Ball appearing on I Love Lucy while pregnant in 1952. Later uproars were incited by everything from “gay subject matter” in movies to the “evils of modern music.” Nesteroff’s main takeaway is that audiences are no more sensitive today than in the past—only now their vitriol is splashed across social media rather than contained in letters to the editor curated by newspaper staff. While the point is well taken, the argument never progresses much beyond its origins; readers are bombarded with endless historical examples that, while often fascinating, generally fail to elicit more far-reaching analysis. Still, readers seeking evidence to rebut criticism of today’s “snowflakes” will have plenty to choose from here. (Nov.)