Born in the smoky halls of turn-of-the-century vaudeville and thrust into mainstream American culture by the advent of radio and television, stand-up comedy is the entertainment industry's most accurate social thermometer. From Milton Berle to Roseanne Barr, comics have used the power of laughter to challenge Americans to face the controversial issues of the day, whether sex, government or religion. A good routine can turn the most tragic headlines into a gut-wrenching guffaw. Sometimes comics go too far for a laugh; sometimes they're the only ones brave enough to point out hypocrisy and social injustice.
The profession developed long before the discovery of electricity. Court jesters performed the first stand-up routines in medieval times. Elements of stand-up also pervaded William Shakespeare's work in the form of a fool providing the audience with a dose of comic relief. If the nineteenth-century American humorist did his work on paper, like Mark Twain, the twentieth century ushered in the age of performance. Vaudeville, a pre-cursor to the television variety show, provided a stage for the first generation of stand-up comedians such as Bob Hope, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.
In Oscar Hammerstein's Victoria theatre, opened in Times Square in 1899, or the Palace Theatre, opened on Broadway and 47th Street in 1913, you could find singing women (Sophie Tucker, Nora Bayes, Elsie Janis), monologists (Milton Berle, Julius Tannen), the earliest comedy teams (Burns and Allen) and an assortment of freak acts. This was nothing like the high profile comedy showcases that would come later in the century, filled with Hollywood agents and television scouts. These variety shows were for the masses, which is why the young Berle, the brilliant monologist, might find himself on the same stage as the Armless Lutz Brothers, who could assemble a car with only their feet.
The foundations of stand-up were laid in the age of vaudeville, with terms like the "one-liner" and "straight man" entering the lexicon. Comics also developed different styles, deciding whether to space out laughs, build elaborate routines or just deliver the punch lines. Legendary society columnist Walter Winchell dubbed Henny Youngman, the "King of the One Liner." Youngman relied on vivid imagery in his jokes. "If a joke is too hard to visualize, then what the hell good is it?" he asked in his autobiography, Take My Life, Please! "I tell easy jokes where people don't have to think."
His clear and concise one-liners continue to amuse. "I'm so old, that when I order a three-minute egg here, they make me pay up front," went one of those jokes, and another, "A guy came up to me and said he'd bet me fifty dollars that I was dead. I was afraid to take the bet."
George Burns and Gracie Allen became the first great comedy team. Performing for the first time in Newark, New Jersey, Burns cast himself as the joke man, with Allen delivering the straight lines. A funny thing happened: Allen got all the laughs. Burns rewrote the show to refine what he called her "illegal logic." With the new formula, the couple continued to get laughs for years. One example of how Burns' highlighted Allen's humorous logic follows:
GRACIE: Where do you keep your money?
GEORGE: In the bank.
GRACIE: What interest do you get?
GEORGE: Four percent.
GRACIE: Ha! I get eight.
GEORGE: You get eight?
GRACIE: I keep it in two banks.
The vaudeville generation made a natural transition to the next stage of stand-up: radio and television. Burns and Allen debuted on radio in 1932 with The Adventures of Gracie show (later renamed Burns and Allen (1932-1950)) and then moved to television with The Burns and Allen Show in 1950 for another eight years. On the small screen, Burns would often talk to the viewing audience, dropping all pretenses that the show they were watching was in fact reality. Called "breaking the fourth wall," this method would be practiced years later by another former stand-up, Garry Shandling, in the 1980s. Berle became known as "Mr. Television" because of his popular variety show, The Texaco Star Theater, which ran from 1948 to 1953. Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, before trying television and the big screen, debuted their famous "Who's On First?" routine on radio in 1938. As the people of vaudeville moved to radio, film, and television, these new media soon eclipsed vaudeville, which disappeared by the 1940s.
Without the vaudeville stage to help hone their acts, stand-up comedians turned to strip clubs and the growing nightclub circuit. The new clubs proved fertile ground for comedians like Bob Newhart, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, and Lenny Bruce. No longer forced to shout over a rowdy audience riled by dancing girls or fish swallowing Swedes, comics could develop stories for their acts in the more controlled atmosphere of these new venues. While one-liners still ruled many acts, younger comics worked to draw the audience into a "bit" which might run for 20 minutes—about the time it took Henny Youngman to blast through a few dozen punch lines.
At the forefront of the movement stood Lenny Bruce, the comic philosopher. One of the first truly controversial stand-ups, he used vivid, sometimes obscene, language and sexually charged subject matter. Unlike comics who used profanity and went "blue" for cheap laughs, Bruce's monologues spoke to the simmering social war, the contrast between the emerging hipster cool and the prosperous, conservative, postwar America. At the time, Communists—both in Asia and in Hollywood—were under attack, and Pat Boone, the five-cent hamburger, and nondescript but affordable subdivisions were embraced. Into this cultural milieu came Bruce—a barely concealed heroin addict—with his thirst for controversial talk about race, censorship, and sex. "Show me the average sex maniac, the one who takes your eight-year-old, schtupps her in the parking lot, and then kills her, and I'll show you a guy who's had a good religious upbringing," went one of his routines. "You see, he saw his father or mother always telling his sister to cover up her body when she was only six years old, and so he figured, one day I'm going to find out what it is she's covering, and if it's as dirty as my father says I'll kill it."
Woody Allen benefited from the nightclub scene as much as Bruce. Though he went on to become one of stand-up's greatest success stories, Allen would never have made it in the vaudeville era. His quiet, intentional half-stutter delivery would have been drowned out after the first few rows of a burlesque hall. In a nightclub world, he was a headliner, known for his satiric stories and willingness to always poke fun at himself, using his noodly, bookish physique to his advantage. On stage, Allen carved out a niche as the loveable schlemiel, an intellectual comic who referenced philosophers, shrinks, and college. He would tell long stories, presented as autobiographical. But somewhere before the punch line, an absurd twist would let the audience into the tall tale; their comedic confessor was in fact a master yarn spinner.
Not interested in radio, and frustrated by the constraints of television, many among Allen's generation tapped into the growing comedy album industry. The 1960s and 1970s were a golden age for the comedy record, starting with Bob Newhart's million-selling 1960 release, The Button-Down Mind Of. For racier comics, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Eddie Murphy in particular, comedy records would prove invaluable, enabling them to use hot material that would either not be allowed on television or have to be softened for the viewing audience.
Sparked by the general loosening of social rules brought on by the sexual revolution and youth-oriented civil rights and antiwar movements, stand-up comedy continued to push boundaries in the 1970s. Stuffy network executives were often tested or outright mocked, as in George Carlin's famous "Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television." Female comics also began to get more stage time, in particular Lily Tomlin, Gilda Radner and Joan Rivers. It wasn't until the 1980s, when Roseanne Barr (later Arnold) developed a successful sitcom out of her stage act, that female comics made a true mark in the male-dominated industry. Saturday Night Live, a sketch comedy show based largely on stand-up principles, was created in 1975. In addition to a cast that included Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Jane Curtin, Chevy Chase, and Bill Murray, SNL guest hosts like Carlin, Pryor, and Steve Martin gained exposure.
The 1970s generation included two of the more important comedians in Richard Pryor and Andy Kaufman. Pryor grew up in a poor, black neighborhood; Kaufman was white and from Long Island. But they shared a thirst for original and unpredictable behavior, both on and off stage, leaving audiences and critics wondering where the act ended and reality began.
Kaufman didn't just tell jokes; he wrestled with women on stage, slipped into a bad toupee to play the lounge lizard, Tony Clifton, and according to legend, read The Great Gatsby in its entirety to an audience in Iowa. (On another occasion, after being asked to stop reading, Kaufman agreed and put on a record instead—of him reading The Great Gatsby.) He had the talent to succeed with more conventional fare; his "Foreign Man" character was adapted as Latka Gravas for the popular television series, Taxi ; his Elvis impersonation was so hilarious the pop band, R.E.M., centered its 1992 Kaufman tribute, "Man on the Moon" around it. But Kaufman preferred to push his act into performance art territory. On Late Night with David Letterman, he and professional wrestler Jerry Lawler appeared to get into a genuine argument, ending with Lawler slapping the comedian off his chair. The Clifton routine could run for a half-hour, with Kaufman—as Clifton—growing angry at the suggestion that he was simply doing an impression. "Listen, folks, what I'm doing up here—that's how I make my living," Clifton would yell. "I don't have to take this kind of crap!" For several years, he became so consumed by professional wrestling that his friend, comedian Robin Williams, noticed during lunch that Kaufman was wearing trunks under his clothing. When Kaufman died of cancer in 1984, many wondered whether it was the ultimate put-on.
Pryor was equally unpredictable. The most important black comics who preceded him, Bill Cosby and Flip Wilson, tended to be non-confrontational and television-ready. And Dick Gregory's biting routines were political instead of personal and less effective in the post-activist climate of the 1970s. Pryor was unique in that he based his act on common black experience in America. He grew up poor, in a world of pimps, wife beaters, and poolroom hustlers. Even as he became one of Hollywood's most bankable comic stars, Pryor remained erratic, cursing, yelling, and storming off the stage when he didn't feel right. On The Tonight Show, Pryor suggested to the studio audience: "If you want to do anything—if you're black and still here in America—get a gun and go to South Africa and kill some white people." He also bared his soul. In 1980, after setting himself on fire while free-basing cocaine, Pryor worked it into his routine. Pryor's red-hot stage show paved the way for the generation of black comics that would include Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, and Chris Rock. His sexually-oriented material also led to the one-dimensional, smut routine of Andrew Dice Clay.
The success of the late 1970s and early 1980s comics led to a boom in the stand-up business. Clubs opened, comedy specials were produced for cable television, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd's Blues Brothers toured the country playing rhythm and blues, Sam Kinison's manic re-recording of "Wild Thing" climbed the Billboard charts. But the inevitable crash which came in the 1990s, when headliners moved onto television or films, and left behind a glut of second and third-rate comedians. Nearly 5,000 were listed by Comedy USA, the bible of stand-up comedy, in the mid-1990s. There were fewer stages, as well: The 450 clubs registered in 1991 had dwindled to 350 by the middle of the decade.
The scene was unforgiving, as described by The New York Times ' Neil Strauss in 1999: "The bottom rung of the comedy ladder can be uglier, crueler and more demeaning than in any other line of entertainment—be it actor, model, musician, writer or clown. Sexism and racism run rampant, club-owners ask struggling comedians to scrape gum off the bottom of tables to get a booking, competition between comics is fierce, and newcomers have to pay to perform." In a way, stand-up comedy had returned to the days of vaudeville, when Burns and Allen were competing against acrobats or dancing dwarfs. And the sheer volume of comics led to an important development: the rise of the alternative stand-up scene. At places like the Luna Lounge in New York City, the Velveeta Room in Austin, Texas, and the Subterranean Cabaret in Chicago, comics didn't dare trot out stand-up's war horses—jokes about mother-in-laws, terrible airplane flights or the single life. With an audience packed mainly with other comics, the performers retired well-worn bits for fresher, more experimental material. That could be, as Strauss notes, a struggling comic delivering her monologue with her pants at her ankles or a male comic acting out how a cat feels.
If the late 1990s marked the decline of the comedy club, stand-up grew even more pervasive. Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect, which featured four different roundtable guests each night, was hailed as one of the freshest talk shows. Books by Dennis Miller, Paul Reiser, and Martin—among others—climbed The New York Times bestseller list. And even the veritable CBS news, launching the 60 Minutes II newsmagazine, chose a Boston stand-up, Jimmy Tingle, to offer a commentary at the end of each program. Jerry Seinfeld, after deciding to retire his groundbreaking television sitcom, took his stand-up routine back on the road.
Not much had changed on the front lines. In comedy clubs all across America, managers continued to strain to make money on unknowns. Drink minimums kept crowds unruly and joke-hungry. Entertainers exposed themselves, under the glare of the klieg light, defended by only a microphone and every rage, fear, and insecurity that might be cashed in for a laugh. It had been this way since Milton Berle's day, and there was never a shortage of young comics vying for that chance to deliver the perfect punch line. Because, as Steve Allen wrote in his book, Funny People : "Without laughter, life on our planet would be intolerable."
Allen, Steve. Funny People. New York, Stein and Day, 1981.
Bruce, Lenny, with introduction by Eric Bogosian. How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1992.
Gottfried, Martin. George Burns and The Hundred-Year Dash. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1996.
Leno, Jay, with Bill Zehme. Leading With My Chin. New York, Harper Collins, 1996.
Pryor, Richard, with Todd Gold. Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences. New York, Random House, 1995.
Slide, Anthony. The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1994.
Youngman, Henny, with Neal Karlen. Take My Life, Please! New York, William Morrow, 1991.