The History of Comedy:
Clean Comedians from 1920 to 2020
There have been hundreds of hilarious clean (and not-so-clean) comedians in American history. In this article you will meet some of the great performers of the last 100 years—with a special focus on the clean comedians from each decade.
In recent years, the word “comedian” has become synonymous with stand-up comedy. That was not always the case in the history of humor. This article approaches the world of comedy in a larger sense. You’ll read about comedy variety artists, sketch comedians, comic-actors, and more. Anyone who has mastered the art of making people laugh (on purpose!) is a comedian. These are some of the great ones. And they all have something in common, for the most part they were/are clean comedians.
Let’s begin our journey into this world of joke-tellers, funny characters, amusing actors, and much more.
1920s — The Vaudeville Stars
In the 1920s some of the biggest stars in the nation were clean comedians like Will Rogers. Before movies became popular, live entertainment was king. Vaudeville was the big scene. People flocked to theaters large and small to see live performances by comedians, singers, dancers, magicians, and variety artists. Comic jugglers like the cantankerous W.C. Fields left audiences howling. Showmen like escape artist extraordinaire Harry Houdini became world-famous.
Variety was the spice of life in the roaring 20s. And in Vaudeville, variety acts were the name of the game. Will “I never met a man I didn’t like” Rogers performed dazzling rope tricks while spouting funny one-liners. (Here’s a zinger from this likable wise guy: “Be thankful we’re not getting all the government we’re paying for.”)
Rogers amused the American public with his warmth and topical wit. Though he poked good clean fun at just about everybody, audiences knew that he was a kind-hearted humorist.
Though Rogers became a much bigger star, it was Frank Fay who was likely America’s first “stand up” comedian. Though forgotten today, during the Vaudeville era he became a wildly popular master of ceremonies at the Palace in New York. In the 1920s he delighted audiences with his ability to host a show and adlib jokes right on the spot in between the other acts. Fay became one of the highest paid performers in Vaudeville. He earned over $17,000 per week, a small fortune at the time. According to his performer peers, Fay was also known as a bitter and self-centered human being. Fellow vaudevillian comedian Fred Allen once quipped about Frank Fay: “The last time I saw him he was walking down Lover’s Lane, holding his own hand.”
Comedy abounded with racial stereotypes at this time (A young Bob Hope performed in black face in his early days). But sexual language and obscenity was frowned upon. While many comedians swore up a storm off stage, they were what would later be called “fun for the whole family” onstage. Clean comedians were the norm. In fact, the concept of “blue” material goes back to this period. When a comedian used raunchy or sexually explicit material, he would get a warning notice from the theater in a blue envelope. The message was clear: cut the raunchy material or you’ll be cut from the show.
While there were many “off color” entertainers, the general public appreciated the clean comedians. In fact, local papers promoted “Clean Bills” which referred to shows where good clean fun was guaranteed. These shows were packed with big variety without the vulgarity.
1930s — Motion Pictures
Laurel & Hardy were arguably the greatest comedy duo of all-time. Unlike the master clown Charlie Chaplin, they were able to succeed in both silent and “talkie” movies. In the 1930s, Vaudeville began to wane as more and more theatergoers were excited about seeing motion pictures. In 1935 Laurel & Hardy won an Academy Award for their hysterical short film The Music Box, where the boys unsuccessfully attempt to hoist a grand piano up an enormous set of stairs.
Stan Laurel was the comic-genius behind the duo’s legacy of laughter. Laurel wrote nearly all of the team’s gags and directed many of their films. Hardy was a tremendous comic-actor and quite a good singer to boot. Laurel & Hardy’s delightful, iconic dance was captured in Way Out West, one of their two masterpiece full length feature films. Their other full-length classic was Sons of the Desert which also became the name of their popular fan club that still meets in local chapters around the world.
The Great Depression was afflicting Americans in the 1930s. Laurel & Hardy and other clean comedians knew it was laughter the people were after. Laurel later said about their work, “We never dealt with suggestive material…there was no conscious attempt at being either sarcastic or offensive.” Other great comedians from this time include: Buster “Stone Face” Keaton, Charlie Chase, The Little Rascals, and possibly the funniest act of them all: The Marx Brothers.
Like Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers relied on character and exaggeration as the basis for their comedy antics. Harpo was the silent one. Chico the zany piano player. And Groucho Marx was the witty master of the one-liner (“I would never belong to a club that would have me as a member.” “Those are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.”) Many of the comedy films from this era, including The Marx Brothers Duck Soup hold up today and are still funny four generations after they were made!
1940s — Radio Stars
Radio ruled the media in the 1940s. Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Bob Hope and other clean comedians cracked up the entire country. Benny, who would later become a big star on television, made his mark on the radio airwaves in the 40s. Millions of Americans would tune in each week to hear his side-splitting shtick as the king of all cheapskates. One of the longest laughs ever recorded by a comedian happened on March 28, 1948 on Jack Benny’s radio program. Benny was held up by an armed robber on his show.
Mugger: Your money or your life.
Mugger: (After a long, awkward pause) Look bud. I said, your money or your life.
Jack: I’m thinking it over!
Listeners loved him. They felt like they knew him. Along with his stinginess, Jack Benny had another classic running gag: he joked about being 39 for many years. Although he lived to be 80, he seems to be eternally 39 (at least in his own mind). Radio was a very competitive medium during its golden age. But Benny wasn’t worried. He once said, “When another comedian has a lousy show, I’m the first one to admit it.”
1950s — TV Shows
Just as radio had been the dominant vehicle for laughter in the 1940s, in the 50s TV became the medium for merry making. Radio comedian Fred Allen once quipped, “I’ve decided why they call television a medium. It’s because nothing on it is well done.”
Maybe Allen was jealous. Comedy turned out to be the key to the “Golden Age” of Television. And there were many clean comedians leading the charge. It is nearly impossible to focus on just one funny performer from this decade. Andy Griffith parlayed his storytelling comedy act into an all-time classic TV show co-starring the brilliant Don Knott’s as Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show.
Red Skelton, who honed his craft as a great comedian in Vaudeville, movies, and on the radio, also landed his own popular TV show in the 1950s. Americans loved the comic personalities he portrayed on the The Red Skelton Show including Freddie the Freeloader and the unforgettable Clem Kadiddlehopper.
Lucille Ball became a comedian for the ages. How? By playing a highly exaggerated version of herself and her marriage with the underrated performer Desi Arnaz.
Though not an improviser, ad-libber, or stand up, Lucille Ball was truly a comic wizard. Her slapstick comedy as featured on I Love Lucy for six seasons (180 episodes!) was shot on film and has enthralled audiences via re-runs ever since. There are three things that made Lucille Ball one of the top comedians of the 20th century. First, Lucy was a master of physical comedy. Think back to the hysterical candy factory episode with Ethel (Vivian Vance) where she frantically stuffs dozens of chocolates into her hat and mouth. Second, she created an unforgettable character. She desperately wanted to be in show business and never stopped trying to sneak her way into her husband Ricky’s (Desi Arnaz’s) nightclub act.
Finally, “I Love Lucy” became the template for classic situation comedies that would become legendary shows following her example (M.A.S.H., All In The Family, and later Seinfeld).
And talk about tasteful and timeless humor. I Love Lucy never hinted at innuendo, cursing, or obscenity of any kind. The network sponsors didn’t even want the cast to use the word “pregnant.” Lucille Ball had another secret weapon. She knew about the power of connecting with a live audience. In 1953 she said, “I am a real ham. I love an audience. I work better with an audience. I am dead, in fact, without one.” She recorded all her shows with studio audiences.
1960s — Comedy Records
In the 1960s records sales were booming. And it wasn’t just rock and roll or Motown records. Comedy albums were hot. It would be a mistake not to mention Bill Cosby at this point. His comedy albums sold millions of copies in the 60s and 70s and influenced an entire generation of young comedians. Cosby’s family-friendly stories about Noah, ice cream, and growing up became classics. (Sadly, we now know that Mr. Cosby destroyed his legacy and damaged many lives with his criminal behavior).
Although this decade is known for launching the “counter-culture” thanks to artists like Bob Dylan and The Beatles, there were many clean comedians in the 1960s who helped millions of Americans laugh their way through the difficult times of the Vietnam era. While comedians like Lenny Bruce were letting loose, one comedian became a star by buttoning down.
Bob Newhart, who later became the face of two hit sitcoms, made his name as a standup comedian in the 1960s. He released a number of clean and clever records. His live 1960 audio recording, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, was the first comedy album to ever reach #1 on the Billboard album charts. It stayed in that top slot for 14 weeks. With imaginative and hilarious routines like his “Driving Instructor” routine, Newhart was awarded “Album of the Year” at the 1961 Grammy Awards. Newhart billed himself as “The most celebrated new comedian since Attila The Hun.”
Eventually Newhart’s album became one of the best-selling records of all time and has been entered in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry. Although no one could ever accuse Bob Newhart of being “high energy,” his unique deadpan and stammering voice influenced dozens of comedians who would follow his example by simply being themselves. As actor David Hyde Pierce put it, “The only difference between Bob Newhart on stage and Bob Newhart offstage is that there is no stage.”
1970s — Sketch Comedy
The most influential standup comedians of the 1970s were Richard Pryor and George Carlin. By the end of the decade, Steve Martin had reached a rock-star level of fame. The 70s also gave birth to Saturday Night Live which became the hip show for sketch-based and politically relevant comedy.
So…who were the most popular clean comedians in the “Me Decade?” The answers might surprise you. Carol Burnett and her variety show featuring comic legends like Tim Conway, Harvey Korman, and many famous guest stars became a major hit on television via The Carol Burnett Show.
Another name, that sadly has become largely forgotten today, is a comedian who left his audiences in stitches: Flip Wilson.
The Flip Wilson Show was a feast of funny. Flip Wilson became the first African American to host a comedy-variety show and it was a huge hit. Wilson introduced audiences to his hilarious “Geraldine” character and many of Geraldine’s lines (“The devil made me buy this dress.” “What you see is what you get.”) went “viral” before we knew what that word even meant. The Flip Wilson Show earned Wilson a Golden Globe and two Emmy Awards.
As another legendary clean comedian, Steve Allen aptly characterized Wilson’s body of work after his death at age 64, “Nobody ever sent him (Flip Wilson) a postcard objecting to any of his humor. There was no vulgarity, there was no sleaze, there were no shock jokes. It was just funny.”
1980s — Late Night and Standup
Without a doubt, Johnny Carson was the king of late-night TV in the 70s and 80s. It took many other great talents to fill his absence (i.e. David Letterman, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, and Craig Ferguson, for starters). Carson showcased many great comedians on The Tonight Show including Rodney Dangerfield.
And in 1982 one brilliant comedian so captivated Johnny, he invited him back to be on his show the very next week. His name? Steven Wright.
To say that Wright is an original voice in comedy is an understatement. With his deadpan delivery he shared some of some of the wildest mind-expanding jokes ever penned by a comedian. (“I put Spot remover on my dog…now he’s gone.” “I used to work at the hydrant factory, you couldn’t park anywhere near the place.”)
His album, I Have a Pony won a Grammy Award for “Best Comedy Album” in 1985. When Steven Wright won an Academy Award for his 1988 short film The Appointments of Dennis Jennings, Wright accepted the Oscar saying, “We’re really glad that we cut out the other sixty minutes.” Steven Wright revitalized the power of the one-liner. “A friend of mine has a trophy wife. Apparently, it wasn’t first place.”
1990s — Raunchy comedy roars but clean comedians offer an alternative
At the beginning of the 90s, most of the comedy scene was quite crass. Shock jock Howard Stern was building a massive audience. Andrew Dice Clay and Sam Kinison were selling out clubs. Stand up was becoming a staple of Cable TV.
To meet a demand outside of the comedy clubs, the entertainment company CleanComedians.com launched around the motto: “It doesn’t have to be filthy to be funny!” Corporations and associations began bringing positive humor into their organizations with curse-free comedians like comic-impressionist Steve Bridges ,who later became “Mr. President” impersonating George W. Bush. In 1996 Random House published Comedy Comes Clean: A Hilarious Collection of Wholesome Jokes, Quotes, and One-liners edited by company founder Adam Christing.
In 1990 NBC struck comedy gold with a new sitcom featuring a standup comedian in the lead role. Seinfeld showcased the observational humor of its lead, Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld became known as “a show about nothing” because it dealt with the funny minor annoyances of daily life. Seinfeld became one of the most successful TV shows ever . . . earning more than $4 billion dollars in syndication.
In 2002 TV Guide named Seinfeld the greatest TV show of all time. Along with Jerry Seinfeld, the entire cast of Seinfeld was tremendous (Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Michael Richards). But the basis of the show goes back to the clever and nearly-always clean comedy of Jerry Seinfeld himself.
Like few other comedians, in the U.S. history of humor, Seinfeld is a student of the joke. “If I’m the best man, why is she marrying him?” “People’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
2000 to 2010 — Laugh again with Jim Gaffigan
As Emmy-Award winning comedy producer Sandy Chanley says, “Funny is funny.” Fans of comedy have been turning to clean comedians like Brian Regan, Jim Gaffigan, Michael Jr. and other comic performers who get big laughs without getting dirty. Today the most shocking thing in comedy is how many of the top performers are “slaying” audiences without relying on offensive or insensitive material.
Jim Gaffigan proves that the family room is funnier than the bathroom. Audiences flip for his signature “Hot Pockets,” cake, and bacon routines. “You wanna know how good bacon is? To improve other food, they wrap it in bacon.”
Gaffigan is a husband and father of five (“You want to know what it’s like having a fourth kid? Imagine your drowning. Then someone hands you a baby.”) His winsome wit has translated well in book form too. He has written two New York Times bestselling books: Dad is Fat and Food: A Love Story. At the 2014 American Comedy Awards, Gaffigan was named “Best Concert Comedian.”
2010 to Today — Variety Makes a Comeback!
This article comes full circle now. Vaudeville style comedy-variety acts that were popular nearly 100 years ago are back in a big way today. With wildly popular shows like America’s Got Talent many standup comedy, magic, juggling, dancing, singing, acrobatics, and ventriloquism acts have taken center stage.
Talent shows like AGT have captured the hearts of American and international audiences. And clean comedians are at the forefront of this entertainment boom. Whether it’s the hysterical “people juggling” routine of The Passing Zone (Jon Wee & Owen Morse), the zany physical comedy of Cary Trivanovich and his positive anti-bullying message for kids, or rising stars like the effervescent young singing ventriloquist, Darci Lynne Farmer who won Season 12 of AGT, one thing is clear. People are excited about clean humor and variety entertainment.
As Chris Allen, a 5th grader in Boise, Idaho shared in his classroom report on “Why I Like Clean Comedy”:
“Good clean fun is here to stay!
Clean Comedians show the way”