You might think that with all the appreciation I show for the history of art and entertainment with this blog that something like stand-up comedy would be far from my radar because one person telling jokes on stage is hardly on the level of say…going behind the scenes of the production of Star Wars or Gone with the Wind. But stand-up comedy is actually an artform I have a lot of respect for! The art of making people laugh is not easy. It requires a lot of focus, intelligence, clear communication and a sharp understanding of timing. And when the best comedians are allowed to let loose in a monologue, they can be responsible for some of the greatest entertainment, and insights, of your life.
Many of my favorite stars are stand-up comedians. I have already covered the careers of some of them in this blog, including Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Jim Carrey, Jon Stewart, Gilbert Gottfried and Robin Williams. Stand-up comedy, as in standing on stage and telling jokes to an audience, has been around for a long time in various forms but it didn’t really become what it is today until the latter half of the 20th century.
Mark Twain, famous author of the tales of Huckleberry Finn, celebrated satirist and namesake of America’s highest honor for a comedian the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, might be the earliest example in America of a famous stand-up comedian, as he had been delivering humorous monologues throughout the 1800s while on various touring shows, the first of which was Our Fellow Savages of the Sandwich Islands in 1866.
But as Twain was a highly esteemed author, his comedy was hardly his most iconic trait. The earliest trace of the origins of modern stand-up comedy would more likely be found in the 1840s during the period when minstrel shows had three-act variety show formats, with many of those shows including monologues in one of their acts throughout the late 1800s.
Further branching from minstrelsy, you can see examples of delivering humorous monologues for an audience in Vaudeville, from theater to the circus to the music hall to burlesque.
Not to mention pleasure gardens (outdoor venues for bandstands, amusement rides, zoos and other kinds of entertainment) were some of the earliest locations of Vaudeville and American humor was being shaped here as well as on stage at the theater.
The early comedians of the late 1800s and early 1900s often relied on crude forms of humor like slapstick, sexual innuendo, ethnic stereotypes and many jokes geared solely towards heterosexual men. And in these days all jokes were in the public domain so a lot of the material was widely shared, stolen and appropriated. It would be a few more decades before the comedy industry would be taken seriously enough for things like stolen jokes to become legal issues and become generally frowned upon.
The popular stand-up comedians of the early 20th century included people like Frank Fay, Jack Benny, Moms Mabley, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, George Burns and Fred Allen. They all spoke directly to the audience as themselves (or a version of themselves) in front of a curtain without the use of props, costumes or gimmicks of any kind. Something which was not common in Vaudeville and only became normalized after the popularity of Vaudeville started to decline in the age of radio.
Radio and television elevated the careers of a lot of comedians like Jack Benny, Abbott and Costello, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar and Jackie Gleason. Many comedians who were yet to be discovered and make their way to Hollywood often performed at nightclubs and resorts.
A lot of the American nightclubs where comedians performed from the 1930s to the 1950s were owned by the mafia, which made being a stand-up comedian kind of a shady profession in those days, but there were also locations like the old summer resorts in the Catskill Mountains of Upstate New York nicknamed the Borscht Belt, where many Jewish families stayed and many comedians regularly performed including Don Rickles, Phyllis Diller, Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Morey Amsterdam, Rodney Dangerfield, Buddy Hackett and Joan Rivers.
The Chitlin’ Circuit, a collection of venues in the Upper Midwest, was a popular venture for African-American performers like the comedians Redd Foxx, Flip Wilson and Jimmie Walker as well as musicians like Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Fats Domino and Sammy Davis Jr.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was a new wave of stand-up comedy that was more adventurous, more experimental and more bold in its discussion of topics like politics, race, sex and drugs. Famous examples of comedians who broke the mold in this period were the social satirist Mort Sahl and improvisation master Jonathan Winters but the comedian who hit it really big was Lenny Bruce, who was known as the obscene comic of his day. Bruce started out as a standard tuxedo comedian in the fifties but he shifted to small time nightclubs after discovering drugs and getting with the beatnik crowd and he pushed the envelope with outrageously dirty material and acts which often got him in trouble with the police, but he paved the way for similarly obscene but smart comedy greats like George Carlin and Richard Pryor who were inspired by Bruce’s honest and personal style.
In the sixties, when people like Howard Hughes bought nightclubs in Vegas away from the mafia and stand-up comedy started to become a highly profitable industry (as evidenced by the popularity of comedy records by stars like Redd Foxx and Bob Newhart), the first clubs made especially for stand-up comedy started gaining popularity and this led to the outgrowth of the comedy club circuit and what eventually became a comedy boom in the 1970s and 1980s.
Thanks to this boom where comedians started becoming the equivalent of rock stars, stand-up comedy was taking place not only in clubs but in arenas. Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show gave exposure to many comics and sometimes elevated their careers further. Suddenly comedians started experimenting with the form of stand-up comedy with anti-comedy (Steve Martin, Andy Kaufman) or reshaping stand-up comedy to fit their own personalities (Robin Williams, Steven Wright).
Popular comedy clubs like The Comedy Store, The Improv, the Laugh Factory, Catch a Rising Star, the Comedy Cellar and The Ice House became breeding grounds for young stand-up comedians who wanted to hone their skills. People who worked in television would often go to these clubs to scout for talent. Some of the comedians who started out performing at these clubs as unknowns before getting discovered include Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Cosby, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Chris Rock, Bill Maher, Ellen DeGeneres, Eddie Murphy, Roseanne Barr, Billy Crystal, Jim Carrey, Tim Allen, Dave Chappelle, Jon Stewart, Larry David, Richard Lewis, Drew Carey, Ray Romano, Jeff Foxworthy, Garry Shandling, Sarah Silverman, Gilbert Gottfried, Louie C.K., Marc Maron, Paul Reiser and Louie Anderson.
Although the stand-up comedy boom fizzled out in the 1990s, it lived on in television. Television had previously helped give rise to the boom thanks to syndicated airings of stand-up comedy on programs like Norm Crosby’s Comedy Shop and Make Me Laugh, and HBO made a name for itself by capitalizing on the stand-up comedy craze with a series of comedy specials starring such comedians as Robert Klein, George Carlin and Chris Rock among others and showcased stand-up comedy regularly on the TV series Def Comedy Jam, a show that would likely not exist if Eddie Murphy hadn’t inspired so many young black people to try their hand at stand-up comedy following the enormous success of his HBO special Delirious and his concert feature Raw. In addition, Showtime at the Apollo often showcased comedians in syndication following Saturday Night Live in the ’90s, the cable television network Comedy Central was created early that decade as a direct result of the boom, and today you can watch stand-up comedy whenever you want on Netflix and YouTube.
I love watching stand-up comedy on DVD and on the internet and I especially love watching older stand-up specials that I was too young to enjoy back when they were released. Oftentimes I would discover stand-up comedians by discovering their acting work in a movie or a sitcom first like with Robin Williams and Jerry Seinfeld, but my love for people like Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Chris Rock and Bill Burr is based solely on their stand-up performances.
As for why I love stand-up comedy so much?
Stand-up comedy is one of the best art forms because it is one of the most personal and purely human ways of expressing yourself and I think the best comedians are the ones who not only tell jokes well but expand our views of the world and give us new insights into humanity. Listening to Chris Rock has caused me to look at the relationships between black people and white people in new ways. George Carlin has changed my attitude about the government and the media. Hannah Gadsby practically vented her frustration at how unfair the world is to women and made me feel more guilty about being a man than I ever felt. Proof that when comedy comes from a place that’s real, it can help us reflect on ourselves and look at the world differently.
No offense to TED Talks but these monologues wouldn’t be as effective if it was just a lecture. Humor makes us more receptive to new ideas and makes us more willing to listen. That’s why people love The Daily Show more than The Nightly News. And it’s why many of my favorite people in the world are comedians. Plus we could all use a little laughter in this crazy world!