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Don’t applaud. Either Laugh or Don’t.

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Robin Williams. Jerry Seinfeld. Chris Rock. Amy Schumer. They all shared this stage.

This is the story of a place called the Comedy Cellar, a tiny basement club in New York City which helped launch the careers of some of the biggest comedians of our time. It also ended up on the frontline of the global culture war following the rise and fall of its most famous star, Louis CK.

It’s where performers hone their acts by experimenting, taking risks, and being able to get it wrong. And that’s largely due to the club’s owners, the Dworman family. They made a space where freedom of expression was total. The only threat to it was a lack of laughs.

But how did Manny Dworman, an Israeli taxi driver, create a bastion for so many influential comedians? What makes a club thrive, or a joke work? Where should the moral limits of laughter lie? And why do the fork-count and the comedians’ table matter so very much?

Andrew Hankinson tells the story using the words of the owners, comedians, and increasingly vocal customers using interviews, complaints, emails, text messages, letters, and petitions, raising questions about language, identity, taste, racism, power, and more in this many-sided conversation about the perils, pride, and politics of modern comedy.

400 pages, Paperback

First published August 27, 2020

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Andrew Hankinson

2 books15 followers

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 11 of 12 reviews
Profile Image for Scribe Publications.
561 reviews91 followers
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July 28, 2021
The smartest (and funniest) book yet on the culture/free speech wars. Andrew Hankinson does it again with another incredible work of nonfiction.
Will Storr, author of Selfie: how the West became self-obsessed

Andrew Hankinson is a brilliant writer, and this is a fascinating book. And I say that as someone with zero interest in stand-up comedy.
Melissa Harrison, author of The Stubborn Light of Things

A valuable historical document but also a timely and important investigation into morality, masculinity, censorship and freedom of speech in the modern age. It has all the makings of a future cult classic. There’s no book like it.
Benjamin Myers, author of Male Tears

Cleverly structured ... So smartly done and so unbelievably timely too ... One of the best books I've read this year.
Stuart Heritage, author of Bedtime Stories for Worried Liberals

Fantastic … The structure is superb.
Adelle Stripe, author of Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile

A demonstration in form and fact of what a less polarised, more humane, discussion about comedy, politics, taste and people looks and feels like, and it's so very necessary.
Mark Blacklock, author of Hinton

A proper creative nonfiction writer who tells true stories with art, in the fine tradition of The New Journalism. A terrific, vital, painful subject.
Richard T Kelly, author of The Knives

The best book I've yet read about freedom of expression.
Andy Miller, author of The Year of Reading Dangerously

An extraordinary insight into the workings of stand-up — the people, the practicalities, the politics, the lines that are crossed … original and affecting.
Dan Davies, author of In Plain Sight

Done with such skill that you imbibe stuff by osmosis … Unsettling and understated, this report from the frontline of live comedy is more memorable and thought-provoking than any number of polemics on free speech and offence. Andrew Hankinson is a master of showing, not telling.
Helen Lewis, author of Difficult Women

Credit to Hankinson for tackling these broad, important ideas — what speech is acceptable, what’s forbidden — and trying to understand them through the prism of a specific environment.
NJ McGarrigle , The Irish Times

Thought-provoking … the author takes the history of the nearly-forty-year-old club as a microcosm of the comedy industry; Hankinson see its values, its unspoken rules and attitude to acceptable speech, onstage and off, as a useful reflection of American culture as a whole.
Madeleine Brettingham , TLS

A fascinating tour through the history of a comedy club in a constant state of flux caused by the political and technological upheavals outside its walls.
The Telegraph

This oral history is dominated by discussion of freedom of speech and what should be acceptable within the confines of a comedy club … it captures the intensely combative, competitive, hierarchical and often petty atmosphere of an iconic comedy venue.
Alastair Mabbott, The Herald

Plenty of readers will be offended by certain jokes or comments — that’s the nature of the business — but Hankinson ably captures the importance of the Comedy Cellar. A well-crafted tale of comedy stars and thorny social issues that shows just how hard it is to make people laugh.
Kirkus Reviews

If you're interested in comedy or free speech or power you MUST read Andrew Hankinson's new book about the Comedy Cellar which is one of those great bits of writing that makes everyone's position feel interesting.
Sarah Ditum

For all those interested in comedy, free speech and how they do those things in New York, Andrew Hankinson’s Don’t applaud. Either laugh or don’t is really excellent, and has made me immediately want to read his other book.
Dara Ó Briain

This book is fucking fantastic … Honestly one that was nearly impossible to stop reading.
Doug Stanhope, comedian

A deeply thoughtful and perceptive new book … [A] truly brilliant voice.
Jason Hazeley, writer on Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe and Paddington

Cannot stop thinking about it. It's the story of an NYC comedy club but it's also about the culture war, even as it rages all around us. What a fantastic book.
Andy Miller, co-host of Backlisted

It's incredible.
Bonnie McFarlane, comedian, writer, and co-host of My Wife Hates Me

Insightful, and brings back amazing memories of the greatest club in comedy history.
Colin Quinn, comedian, actor, and writer

Fascinating.
Al Murray

Compelling … the sacrifice of authorial vanity gives this book warmth, honesty, and a resistance to easy conclusions.
Sarah Ditum, UnHerd

A fascinating read.
Georgina Godwin, Monocle

It is brilliant.
Padraig Reidy, Little Atoms

What can comedy tell us about the ways the world is changing? This history of storied New York stand-up club The Comedy Cellar offers an in-depth look at the space that helped many a famous comedian break out. But, as befits a venue frequently associated with Louis CK, it also explores the comedy scene’s part in larger cultural controversies, and the Comedy Cellar’s penchant for stoking them.
Tobias Carroll, Inside Hook

When someone comes to write the definitive account of Laughter in the Age of Trump — the cruel guffaws, the neutered snickers, the strange inversions whereby the left went into a collective cringe while the authoritarian right waved the flaming brand of free speech — Andrew Hankinson’s superb oral history of a single New York club, the Comedy Cellar, in Greenwich Village, will be heavily featured … Hankinson probes the owners, the comedians, the staff, and the audience.
The Atlantic, ‘Summer Reading Guide 2021’
63 reviews1 follower
February 28, 2021
I really enjoyed parts of this book but overall I felt disappointed by the interview format in that many of the questions or discussions weren’t really about very much or fully developed. I also found the verbatim reproduction of some exchanges irritating in that there were many half finished sentences or thoughts which I could not see the point of along with the back to front format of starting at the end chapter and finishing with chapter one . Having said all of that at the centre of this book is a very important debate, at least it is important to me. In an age where Freedom of Speech seems to me to be under threat like never before this book gives the owners of the Comedy Cellar in New York a platform to defend giving comics a stage irrespective of what they may have done in the past (Louis CK) or whatever they regard as fair game for humour provided of course thar they are funny and what they are doing or saying onstage is within the law. This is such an emotional and highly charged subject such that on the one hand you can understand why some people think it wrong to make jokes about certain things but on the other hand as one comic in the book says “ Political correctness is just the death of comedy” on the grounds I suppose that if you are laughing then you are laughing at someone or something . I thought the book made a very good case whilst at the same time presenting an alternative view and was very thought provoking in that respect. As the title says “ ....either laugh or don’t”
Profile Image for Dick.
135 reviews1 follower
November 13, 2020
Andrew Hankinson is an author who gets you thinking. I read his debut book "You Could Do Something Amazing with Your Life (You are Raoul Moat) on the strength of its title. I found it a great read at the time but it has stayed with me and I still think about its subjects and themes despite finishing it 4 years ago. I have a feeling that this, his second book will be the same.

It is a look at freedom of speech and comedy and is centred around the Comedy Cellar in New York and especially the comedians table at that club. It is thoughtful without being preachy and explores various views on the subject (including offended customers) to shine a light on the problem. In addition it works as a biography of the Cellar's remarkable manager Noam and his father Manny who started the business.

I won't relate more of the contents but just say that if you enjoy having preconceptions challenged or being made to think about your positions in a nuanced way then this is a great read.
Profile Image for Adam Bricker.
487 reviews5 followers
April 29, 2021
Can't say enough about how much I enjoyed this book! It's about more than just comedians/comedy clubs/a restaurant...it's about family, friendship, censorship, accepting flaws, pc culture, the struggle to remain relevant, change in NYC, managing expectations and the power of debate.
Profile Image for J Earl.
1,781 reviews68 followers
February 10, 2022
Don't Applaud. Either Laugh or Don't. by Andrew Hankinson is an interesting but disjointed work that is part history and part social commentary.

While I am not in the same camp as Hankinson about anything and everything being fair game just because someone calls it comedy, I am also not overly concerned with topics available. I am one of those who is more concerned with delivery, namely, is the joke or humor making people laugh at the absurd situation or the person or group attached to that situation. To take it to an extreme to illustrate my point, if you fill a room with all open and proud racists then have someone stand up and describe the brutal treatment and deaths of the group they hate, people there will laugh. But calling that comedy does not make that comedy and more than claiming to be pro-life while supporting the death penalty makes one actually pro-life.

Having said that, there are some interesting stories here and the people who are willing to accept that freedom of speech, even in comedy, carries responsibilities and isn't simply an excuse to be hateful make some good nuanced arguments against some of the over-reactions that have taken place.

I would recommend this to readers interested in the debate about where to draw the line in free speech, especially in the entertainment industry. With the understanding that the book is slanted it also stops just barely short of being insanely pro anything-goes. If a reader wants a more balanced and a more informed account, there are a lot of books that aren't written with an eye toward continuing to make a buck of people's inhumanity to other people.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
August 24, 2022
If you are interested in comedy, and/or comedic evolution, Andrew Hankinson's book is a wonderful read in those contexts. The book puts you into the middle of various conversation about comedy and how various comedians and staff of the Comedy Cellar saw their own place, within that place. It is also social commentary with generalized observations on various topics (no Spoilers from me) and it is a easy but thoroughly enjoyable read. Funny in parts, and their lots of parts. A good addition to anyone seeking to peak behind the glitzy curtain of the funny business that is show.
Profile Image for Rick Fifield.
191 reviews
May 10, 2021
Interesting chapter numbering and storytelling. Working backwards Hankinson tells the story of Louis CK, the clubs history, and other issues with the Comedy Cellar. Themes of political correctness and just what a comic can say on stage come into play in this book.
Profile Image for Exapno Mapcase.
247 reviews1 follower
June 1, 2021
A look at the famed Greenwich Village comedy club the Comedy Cellar, Hanson has interviews with all sorts of people from the famed comedians, to the people behind the stage, to those not as famous.

Free review copy.
Profile Image for Joe Crawford.
186 reviews1 follower
January 29, 2022
3.5
An interesting commentary on both the state of comedy and cancel culture. The way the book flows is a bit disjointed though, making it confusing at times, and taking away from my overall enjoyment.
Profile Image for Stephanie.
202 reviews5 followers
December 25, 2020
Reporter Andrew Hankinson takes his reader on a backwards journey through time in his newest novel, Don’t Applaud. Either Laugh or Don’t. The book starts in 2020 and works it way through the history of the famous comedy club, the Comedy Cellar. He interviews dozens of notable comedians and industry legends to find out their thoughts on the status of comedy, free speech, and political correctness. It’s the kind of book that peels back the layers of facade often portrayed by glamorous industries such as comedy. This is a must read for anyone who likes stand-up.
Profile Image for The Atlantic.
326 reviews1,239 followers
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May 9, 2022
"When someone comes to write the definitive account of Laughter in the Age of Trump—the cruel guffaws, the neutered snickers, the strange inversions whereby the left went into a collective cringe while the authoritarian right waved the flaming brand of free speech—Andrew Hankinson’s superb oral history of a single New York club, the Comedy Cellar, in Greenwich Village, will be heavily featured." —James Parker
https://www.theatlantic.com/summer-re...
Displaying 1 - 11 of 12 reviews

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