A Stand-Up Performance

An American Art Form in Comedy


“Laughter is the shortest distance between two people,” said Victor Borge; it seems that performers have been trying to make people laugh since ancient history.

Comedy, from the Greek word komodia, was performed in Greece in the 5th century BCE through humorous plays and hilarious poetry recitations; comedy was also served up in satiric and biting monologues given by people with the intention to influence the direction of politics, voting, and leaders. Thus, our earliest examples of what came to be known as stand-up comedy also provide a glimpse into the minds of comedians who used humor as political and social commentary. Not so unlike us, huh?

There is, without a doubt, a deep, and apparently ancient, connection between comedy and critique, a medium that has been used by Greek philosophers, court jesters, and modern stand-up entertainers alike to call attention to current events, difficult issues, and any other number of subjects that are otherwise off-limits. And for some reasons, comics have traditionally been given a great deal of freedom to joke and poke fun of these things, as if shining a humorous light on our errors and foibles removes subjects from negative criticism and puts them into a collective experience of what it means to be human, faults and all.

In modern times, stand-up finds its roots in the music halls in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries; however, it was in the United States that it really transitioned into its current incarnation, which has led many to declare that stand-up is a uniquely American invention. The 19th century saw certain known wits like Mark Twain delivering humorous monologues. Meanwhile, slapstick performers and clowns performed on the stages of music halls, vaudevilles, burlesques, variety, and minstrel shows.

Comedians of these live shows often used cliché props and raunchy or ridiculous dialogues and donned ethnic personas in order to parody stereotypes for laughs. Nevertheless, they were developing and refining the craft that would later become stand-up, finding the patterns and rhythms of the genre. In the later 19th century, more and more jokes followed a format of set up/punch line instead of just relying on pie-in-the face antics and ribald ditties. There was sustained satisfaction in this technique as the punch lines rallied regular laughs, not just periodic roars of schadenfreude delight. In the 1880s and ’90s, Charlie Case, a blackface performer who is now credited as the first vaudevillian comedian to “stand up” as himself in front of his audience, gave funny monologues without props or costumes. A new kind of entertainment was born.

With the turn of the 20th century, more and more, comedians were delivering monologues while standing in front of the stage curtain, directly addressing audiences, instead of playing characters or delivering lines in a skit. With the dawn of movies, radio, and then television, live shows diminished in popularity, and comedians turned to new outlets. Our most famous stand-up comedians from the early period—like Jack Benny, Bob Hope, George Burns, and Milton Berle—all transitioned from vaudeville to stand-up and then to radio, television, and movies. Jackie “Moms” Mabley (1894–1975), a rare, famous woman in the biz, and African-American to boot, started her career in a traveling vaudeville show called the Chitlin’ Circuit, but went on to feature regularly in television variety shows like The Ed Sullivan Show.

Also crucial to the development of stand-up was the acts that could be seen in the so-called “Borscht Belt,” the numerous Jewish summer resorts of the Catskills in the 1930s and ’40s where comedians often performed. Sid Caesar and Henny Youngman got their starts there, using material that ribbed nagging wives and mothers-in-law (as in, “Take my wife … Please!”).

Catching on to the change in comedy as well as stand-up’s potential, The Ed Sullivan Show, which had stand-up guests broadcasted almost every night during its 23 seasons, lending even more popularity and visibility to the genre, eventually making stand-up one of the most important and influential entertainments of our era. Variety shows, comedy hours, and other TV programs that featured stand-ups of became popular, continuing this trajectory.

In the 1950s and ’60s arose another, the very recognizable venue for stand-up that took its cue from the Catskills resorts: the comedy nightclub. A new iteration of live entertainment, nightclubs differed in important ways. These shows, dedicated solely to stand-up, were generally more intimate in setting, even as the audiences gradually swelled.

The direction of subject matter changed as well. Mort Sahl is considered the first comedian to set up his act in an entirely new way. While sitting on a stool with a rolled up newspaper in his hand, he spoke conversationally and scathingly about contemporary events. Following this lead, sharp and witty social and political critique became the focus of many comedians’ acts, often including issues of race relations and sex. Lenny Bruce is probably the most famous pioneer in this realm of comedy that riffed upon issues to the point of collective audience discomfort. This was also commonly the reaction to comedian Dick Gregory’s pointed critiques on racism.

Another route explored by stand-up comedians was the path of complete and relatable candor. In her early years, Joan Rivers, for example, was known for being very frank and no-holds-barred in her material, which was inspired by her feelings about being a mother and a not-very-attractive wife; later, it was her shocking bluntness that elicited both laughs and gasps.

Around this time, comedy began generally to change stylistically with the times, moving past the one-liners and punch lines toward the more stream-of-conscious monologues. Some artists started using little props again to set up humorous situations, like Bob Newhart’s one-sided phone conversations. This kind of approach later morphed into some of the more performance-based comedy acts, as, for example, Andy Kaufman’s strange and environmentally immersive comedy. Bad language pushed boundaries, and comics like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin were known for flouting the rules of polite society and censorship. Without them, though, the 1970s and ’80s would have never produced such comics as Richard Pryor, Rodney Dangerfield, Robin Williams, and Eddie Murphy, who spoke candidly about their personal lives, risqué subjects, and frequently used foul language.

The 1990s style of comedy is without a doubt an era shaped by comics like Jerry Seinfeld, who brought the everyday and mundane to the level of comedic genius. For the last two decades, most of the popular comedians have dealt with the hilarious and sometimes unfortunate circumstances of being human: dealing with marriage, divorce, children, aging, and the conveniences and inconveniences of modern life.

Yet we still rely upon stand-up comedians to guide our collective unconscious into the conscious, to give voice to our unease, to say what we are all thinking but are too afraid to say to one another. We look to our late night hosts’ opening monologues to follow the political and cultural zeitgeist and to those comedic commentators who bravely satirize topics that are often taboo. Indeed, we would hardly be the same America without our stand-up comedians—often pioneers of the next revolution, holding up mirrors to show us our own faults, that to be human is very often to be wrong, or gross, or ridiculous … and isn’t that hilarious?

Katherine Adams lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.

MAIN: Bob Newhart (Hulton Archive/Getty Image) ABOVE: Eddie Murphy ( Jacques M. Chenet/Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)
Joan Rivers (CBS Photo Archive)

For the last two decades, most of the popular comedians have dealt with the hilarious and sometimes unfortunate circumstances of being human…