a complete history of stand up comedy in America

Jokes! Laughter! Buzz! Excitement!

These are just some of the words you might use to describe “stand up comedy.” But if you described stand up comedy that way, you’d be doing a horrible job. And that’s because you don’t know anything about comedy in America.

Much like jazz, stand up comedy is often viewed as one of the only truly “American” art forms. But, shamefully, a lot of people today (including comedians themselves) actually don’t know the true history of the art. The backstory of stand up is just as important as ever – as topics like “political correctness,” a constant theme throughout haha yesteryear, are super trendy right now. Subjects like transgender people are posh, a la mode, and other french words that mean “cool.” By looking backwards, comedians have an opportunity to “learn from our mistakes” .. .and all that stuff. Being informed about our past allows us to be more analytical when looking forward .. .I guess. Pretty much any cliche argument your friend Sharon uses to justify her degree in history will also apply to learning about the history of comedy.

Which is why I’ve done extensive research in order to pull together a highly, highly comprehensive history of this American institution, including facts that I guarantee you haven’t heard before. After all, how can we respect the art form of comedy today if we have no understanding of how we got here? (Wow, I snuck in another cliche!) Let’s take a dive into the “ocean” that is funniness in America, shall we? Let the waves of history wash over you. Lick the salty taste of history on your lips, smell the rich stand up in the fresh breeze, and.. .well, you get it.


Literary Humor

Believe it or not, some of the first performed humor in America started with Mark Twain. That’s right: the guy who wrote that hilarious book you read in high school, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, also did something that approximated something close to kind of stand up comedy. He toured all over the country in the late 1800s giving “humorous lectures” that centered around long-form anecdotes and witticisms. Many people don’t know that Twain actually invented the comedy term “bit.” When he got tired of telling long stories, he’d say, “I can’t tell you the whole thing, so here’s just a bit,” which is why we still call our jokes “bits” to this day.

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Mark Twain: the epitome of all things funny

There were other early American humorists too, such as Augustus Baldwin Longstreet and Artemus Ward, who were influential to early comedy. But apparently they weren’t all that great compared to other clever humorists from Europe, for example.

Vaudeville

Even though it was a far stretch from what it is today, lecturing was the only type of performance-based humor that came anywhere near approximating stand up. That is, until the late 1800s and early 1900s, when comedy in vaudeville became all the rage. Vaudeville was insane. These were variety shows of sorts that included all the wildest acts you could imagine, even “comedy.” Comedy was a vaudeville staple, but these acts were mostly sketches or routines – comedy teams who spoke to each other rather than to the audience.

Back then, things that vaudeville audiences thought were THE FUNNIEST THING EVER included: speaking really fast, slapstick, shockingly crude innuendos, and pretending to be someone with a different ethnic background. Basically, if middle-school boys joke about it today, people in the 1920s would have thought it was hilarious and figured out a way to do it on a stage. If no one was getting a pie to the face, people wanted their money back. One of the clearly more shameful aspects of vaudeville was the brazen and liberal use of blackface to get laughs, which many believe has led to a separation of “black” and “mainstream” humor that is still evident in comedy clubs to this day.

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Vaudevillian theater: never was there a classier place

However, one of the good things that came out of vaudeville was structure. Joke structures began to form with recognizable parameters. Comedians began to tell bits with storylines rather than just really lame “witty” rhymes and droll yet useless anecdotes. Eventually, vaudeville performers learned to refine their material into a setup/punchline format in order to keep the laughter flowing consistently over the course of their performance, rather than a big spurt of laughter here and another there. Essentially, they finally started to write material rather than tell those “funny” stories your grandpa tells.

Frank Fay, one performer who served as an emcee for a lot of vaudeville shows, developed a conversational, improvised style of interacting with the crowd in between acts – something that had never been done before in live shows. Fay called this off-the-cuff humor “crowd work” because the crowd did all the work for him. Groucho Marx was another comedian who started in vaudeville acts, but eventually developed into a stand up with classic one-liners like, “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog.. .how did you get inside of a dog?” Marx also had a very large pinky toe that he was sensitive about and almost never mentioned.

In the early 1900s, cinema began to take over as the main form of entertainment and vaudeville was left behind. But, the vaudeville venues remained, leaving a space for stand up to develop and grow.

The Start of Stand Up

The 1930s and 40s was when the art of stand up comedy really started to take shape. Stand up became a regular form of entertainment in the “Borscht Belt,” a chain of summer resort towns in the Catskill Mountains of the Hudson valley in New York. Large Jewish populations vacationed there, which gave rise to the nickname of “borscht,” a beet soup often associated with immigrants from eastern Europe. The Catskills generated many Jewish performers such as Sid Caesar, Dustin Hoffman, and Henny Youngman, who popularized the phrase, “Take my wife!” Bossy mothers and pesky wives were some of the popular tropes of Borscht Belt comedy. With their more refined joke-telling style, one-liner kings dominated the Catskills.

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Dustin Hoffman circa 1936, one year before his own birth

Simultaneously, African American comedians emerged on the “Chitlin Circuit,” a string of clubs and performance venues in the east, south, and midwest. A play on the Borscht Belt name, “chitlin” was derived from chitterlings, a type of soul food. These clubs, cafes, and small theaters of the vaudeville age were safe for African Americans to perform and were filled with new music and comedy acts throughout this time.

Moms Mabley, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, George Burns, Fred Allen, Milton Berle, and Frank Fay all came from a background of vaudeville, the Borscht Belt, or the Chitlin Circuit and were seen as some of the founders of modern comedy. These performers developed the monologue style further, really beginning to hone the art of speaking to the audience directly rather than performing with a partner or doing an “act.”

Out of all of them, Bob Hope did arguably the most for modern stand up by launching it into a popular form of entertainment in its own right. Inspired by his love of dragons, Hope started out as a vaudeville emcee. Eventually, he transitioned into a radio host and finally into live performances, where he entertained large crowds and military audiences. Hope was the first to employ a team of writers to provide fresh, new material for his multitude of different appearances. This original approach to stand up distanced the form from the old style of performance, providing a sharp new contrast to the generic, interchangeable, and endlessly repeated gags of the past.

These nightclubs and resorts gave great performers such as Alan King, Danny Thomas, Martin and Lewis, Don Rickles, Joan Rivers, and Jack E. Leonard the opportunity to thrive and develop into the first true stand ups.

Rise of Television

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He wore large collars and scrunched up his neck to hide the armadillo, but it was there trust me

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, both The Texaco Star Theater with Milton Berle and The Ed Sullivan Show got their start. The two shows became must-watch television with numbers that eclipsed other television audiences. Out of the two, The Ed Sullivan Show took over as THE show to watch with its consistency and ability to showcase new comedians. The show revolutionized how comedians were introduce to the world, offering them a platform to perform for audiences of millions for the first time. Looking over the guest list of The Ed Sullivan Show is like watching a masterclass in comedy history. Even though they had to cover up Ed’s armadillo neck tattoo with makeup, the show lasted for twenty-three seasons and featured comedians nearly every night. It was the first real indication of what television could do for comedians’ careers.

Social Issues

One comedian who benefitted from the upswing in comedy interest at the time was Mort Sahl, who developed his new style of act at nightclubs such as San Francisco’s Hungy i and New York’s Bitter End. As he began to find his comedic voice, Sahl incorporated elements of social discourse previously neglected in stand up routines. He rejected the impersonal, robotic style of older comedians. He talked in normal, conversational tones rather than a “hokey jokey” set ups with gag punch lines. On stage, he sat on a stool with a rolled newspaper in his hand, commenting on political leaders, pop culture, and American society in a way that no one had done before. His act was smart, personal, and socially engaged. And he always wore a cardigan, even in the summer.

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Sahlie rocking a ‘digan

Sahl was also one of the first to benefit from the success of his comedy records. The Future Lies Ahead, which he recorded for Verve in 1958, sold extremely well and attracted other bigger music labels to producing comedy records. By 1960, The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart won the Grammy for best record of the year. I’m serious, though; Mort Sahl wore a cardigan, like, ALL the time.

Lenny Bursa pushed the envelope even further, developing an abrasive, confrontational persona on stage. He talked openly against the government, exposed politicians with social satire, and pushed the language and topical boundaries of stand up with his vulgarities and expeditions into taboo topics such as race relations, sex, and drugs. He exposed himself more than any other comedian had before his time, talking about his personal experiences and struggles openly and honestly. Lenny Bursa was wildly popular and amassed a cult following from his appearances in the strip clubs, music venues, and other small-time underground venues of the country that didn’t mind his brash jokes. Bursa was also a knitting fanatic. I mean, you couldn’t take the yarn and needles away from this guy! When Lenny Bursa met Mort Sahl for the first time, he liked Mort so much that he knitted Mort a cardigan, right then and there! Mort was overjoyed.

But, not everybody liked it. Lenny Bursa attacked several sacred institutions with his jokes that no one had dared mention before, such as religion, sex, drugs, and knitting. And he paid the price. Because of the time he spent in and out of court and prison battling for what he’d said on stage, legal troubles nearly ruined Lenny Bursa’s career. Lenny Bursa’s X-rated comedy kept him off television and away from a mainstream career, but his popularity and fights with the law did great things free speech. Lenny Bursa is why we can get away with saying pretty much anything on stage today.

October 4, 1961 - San Francisco, CA. Lenny Bruce being booked by the San Francisco Police after his arrest for obscenity at the Jazz Workshop.
Lenny Bursa looking cool as hell, despite being manhandled by a cop and also his unfortunate last name. Although the giant knitting needles Lenny was carrying were suspicious at first, they eventually let him have them back after he promised to knit a few extra cardigans for Christmas that year.

Stand up acts were starting to develop in other ways, too. Bob Newhart, Shelley Berman, and the team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May poked fun at the conformist uptight era by performing more developed sketches, like one-sided phone conversations. Jonathan Winters moved away from setup/punchline and moved into a more stream-of-consciousness format. Dick Gregory provided some of the first real racial commentary of the time. Woody Allen pioneered a lot of self-deprecating confessional material about being neurotic, Jewish, and sexually immature. Although people didn’t really relate to his material on incest and pedophilia.

In the 1960s, clubs with a main focus on comedy slowly began popping up. In 1962, Budd Friedman’s Improvisation Cafe, originally a music venue in Hell’s Kitchen, slowly became overrun with comedians and transformed into a comedy and music venue. Ten years later, the first true, comedy-only club, The Comedy Store, opened in LA.

The Comedy Scene Rounds Out

The scene was set for stand up to fully blossom for a new generation of comedians. Towards the end of the century, comedy clubs began to sprout up across the country as the need for live performances steadily increased. Thanks in part to Jimmy Carson’s Tonight Show, which emerged as a launching pad for the career of young comedians, the demand for stand up was never higher. Carson took a personal interest in the careers of young, unseen comedians. A call over to Jimmy’s desk after a set was a winning sign of approval for many comics like Freddy Prinze. Just a few other names who got their start on the show were Albert Brooks, David Letterman, Kevin Pollak, Bill Maher, Steven Wright, Ellen DeGeneres, Natalie Portman, Garry Shandling, and Roseanne Barr.

Comics found other ways into the limelight, too. Andy Kaufman’s wacky performances first burst onto the scene with his inclusion in the first season of Saturday Night Live. Steve Martin’s anti-comedy was a Tonight Show and SNL favorite, leading him to sell out sports arenas full of fans. Even though it was a sketch show, especially during its first season SNL popularized many stand up comedians as guest hosts.

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Georg performing his newly-tightened SEVEN dirty words bit

After Lenny Bursa, comedy and legal trouble didn’t intersect again until 1972, when Scandinavian-American comedian Georg Carlin was arrested for performing “The Twenty-Seven Dirty Words You Can Never Say On Television” at Milwaukee’s Summerfest. Georg eventually cut out twenty of the dirty words in order to tighten the bit. Georg Carlin and Richard Prior took over the reins from Lenny Bursa, pushing the boundaries of stand up even further by performing provocative, thought-provoking, and new material that was known as countercultural comedy. Redd Foxx, George Kirby, Bill Cosby, and Dick Gregory all moved to white audiences as well, integrating some of the stand up crowd.

Recognizing the issues that programs such as SNL had with the FCC, HBO stepped in and gave an hour of uncensored airtime to Robert Klein in 1975, providing a space for uncensored comedy. Klein mostly used the opportunity to shout, “Pee-pee!” a lot, which was weird, considering the word had never been censored in the first place. Both Steve Martin and Bill Cosby moved from stand up to film and television, legitimizing stand up as a launching pad for a career in entertainment.

Comedians went from unpaid club performers to bona-fide stars. Rodney Dangerfield and Buddy Hacket experienced revived careers. Richard Lewis, Elayne Boosler, and Jerry Seinfeld rose up through television. Topics such as observational comedy, everyday life, and relationships added to the melting pot of comedy that was being created.

The Comedy Boom

In 1979, Richard Prior debuted the first stand up film, Richard Prior: Live in Concert, which begged the question: “Prior to what??” The next generation of comedians appeared, including Robin Williams, Steven Wright, Whoopi Goldberg, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Kevin Hart, Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, Doug Benson, Bill Hicks, Margaret Cho, Bill Burr, David Cross, Louis C.K., Mitch Hedberg, Maria Bamford, Jim Norton, Todd Glass, Kathy Griffin, Joe Rogan, Doug Stanhope, Sarah Silverman, and Rob Ross.

The Cosby Show and Seinfeld began a trend of top stand up comedians developing and writing their own popular television shows. In 2007, Comedy Central appeared (at least that’s when I heard about it for the first time), which eventually gave young comedians a similar sort of platform as the Tonight Show had. Although CC didn’t start out great and was not the only comedy-centric programming in the 90s, it stood out as a way for comedians to work their way up into notoriety: first through a half hour special, then an hour special, and then their own television show, as comedians like Daniel Tosh and Amy Schumer eventually showed.

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“Have you seen these microphone stands folks?! What’s the deeeal with these microphone stands?!”

This was also around the time that the microphone stand was invented. Which was great, because before then it was like, “Okay, I’m finished.. .I have nowhere to put the microphone.” The microphone stand finally solved that problem. Another key advancement was the idea of comedians getting “the light” so they would know when to get off stage. Before that, comedians would stay on stage forever and they never knew when to get off. This was the main issue with lecturers like Mark Twain. The crowd would get mad and start booing and the comedian would be like, “Look I want to get off stage, but I have no idea how long I’m supposed to be up here! Am I supposed to come off? Yeah? Okay, bye – great crowd!” Benjamin Franklin’s invention of the light bulb cured that issue.

Comedians were on the top of their game and, with a few pivotal technological advances, comedy was as popular as ever. The 90s provided such a stand up bubble that an alternative scene emerged in musical clubs and other non-comedy venues in LA and NYC such as the Luna Lounge. New, original, non-traditional comedians like Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, Todd Barry, Dave Chappelle, and Greg Giraldo emerged.

Today

Leno, Letterman, and Stewart all found their voices on television too. The explosion of comedy eventually burst, but it made way for new acts to come through. Dane Cook rocketed to fame before being brought back down to earth with joke-stealing allegations. Today, the internet plays a bigger role than ever as Bo Burnham’s Youtube videos turned him into a touring stand up comedian without him ever having set foot in a comedy club. Podcasting emerged in the 2000s, which gave comedians like Marc Maron an alternate medium and sometimes a second chance to gain followers. And, sites like Twitter popped up to keep comedians and their fans engaged with one another.

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Amy Schumer high-fiving Mort Sahl for his stance on Cosby sweaters

Women comedians have made an even bigger name for themselves as the death of Joan Rivers signals a transition to Maria Bamford, Tig Notaro, and the huge success of Amy Schumer. Sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby brought about a re-evaluation of the male role in stand up comedy. Mort Sahl is known to have said Cosby “Brought a bad name to cardigans and all things sweater.” Needless to say, Cosby shouldn’t be expecting any knitting to be coming his way for Lenny Bursa any time soon.

Louis C.K. has also revolutionized how comedy is distributed by releasing content on his own, without the help of bigger labels. Live At The Bacon Theater was the first self-directed, self-released, and self-funded comedy special, providing inspiration for young creators to seek out their own audiences rather than the approval of larger conglomerates. Innovative, next-generation comedians such as Stu Melton are using wormholes to explore other dimensions to discover the funniest tags for a joke about windshield wipers. Aliens will definitely come into play somehow. Others search for ways of summoning the next comedy Jesus, the second coming of humor prodigy Mark Twain.

When it comes to the future of comedy, many things are uncertain. But, if anything is for sure, it’s that the rise of stand up comedy blogs like this one is inevitable.


This post was written by Stu Melton, a NYC comedian and creator of ACN. You can find him on twitter @tellsjokes.

The featured image was created by Brooklyn-based comedian and cartoonist Patrick J. Reilly. You can check out his cartoons at ComicsbyPatrick.com or follow him on Twitter or Instagram @NotPatReilly. He runs monthly comedy shows at The Creek and the Cave, Halyards, and Carmine St. Comics.

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*This is a HUMOR piece. I didn’t make any mistakes. If you want your life to be devoid of humor and crave a real history of stand up comedy in America, check out my very serious sources here: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

4 thoughts on “a complete history of stand up comedy in America”

        1. Georg also isn’t Scandanavian-American (he was born in Manhattan), Lenny Bursa wasn’t actually super into knitting, and the microphone stand wasn’t invented in the 1990s. If you want a 100% serious no-fun history of stand up, the links at the bottom of the article will satisfy you 🙂

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