Stand-up comedy feels like it’s been around forever. But it’s actually a relatively new art form and phenomenon.
The world was familiar with French satire and British cartoons. But American stand-up comedy involved a solo performer speaking directly to audiences.
There is no real narrative structure that stand-up comedy seems to follow. Nor is there a backstory, plot, set, or producer.
Instead, there is just a comedian. They stand alone on the stage at an open mic or show to speak their truth to the world.
But who invented stand-up comedy first and foremost? Can a single comedian even be credited for creating this entire genre of comedy?
Below is the history of how modern standup comedy came to be. Keep reading below to discover which comedians got us to where we are today.
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Comedy lecturers of the 19th century
Many point to Mark Twain as one of the fathers of standup. During the 19th century, he used to tour the country giving comic lectures.
But his act was not anything close to what we know of standup today. Instead, he delivered long comedic stories that lasted about 7-15 minutes each.
These tales often painted the picture of small-town American life. So his act was much more rooted in storytelling than in cracking joke after joke.
Augustus Baldwin Longstreet
Twain took great influence from contemporary humorist Augustus Baldwin Longstreet. Longstreet spent most of his life as a lawyer, minister, and educator.
But his greatest contribution to comedy was his text Georgia Scenes. In it are rowdy, comedic stories detailing what it’s like living in the rural South.
Longstreet never performed, but Twain is credited with having spread Longstreet’s material. Many have hailed Georgia Scenes as the pinnacle of Southwestern humor.
Artemus Ward was one of the first humorists to create a character to play during his comedic lectures. Born Charles Farrar Browne, Ward wrote many comedic texts during his lifetime.
But it was his deadpan expression when performing that brought him fame and acclaim. With puns and gross misspellings, Ward played with language and delivery.
In fact, Twain greatly modeled his own comic lecturing off of Ward’s performances. Raised as a printer’s apprentice, Ward was even responsible for publishing Twain’s first big success, Jumping Frog.
The history of minstrel shows
Twain, Ward, and Longstreet were phenomenons as solo humorists. But minstrel shows set the foundation for vaudeville and modern stand-up comedy today.
Minstrelsy began before the Civil War in the United States and continued into the 20th century. It was an art form built upon derogatory racial stereotypes of African American individuals.
Performers, both white and African American, dressed in blackface. And they delivered short comedy routines with offensive shticks and character stylings.
Before minstrel shows, comedy was reserved for the theater. But minstrelsy did not subscribe to the functions of its theatrical predecessors.
Instead, minstrel shows were tied to a theme and presented a loose set of characters. They introduced musical comedy throughout, then ended with a “stump speech.”
These satirical monologues are closest to what we know as standup comedy today. Performers made fun of contemporary matters and politicians while speaking directly to the audience.
Minstrel shows marked a pinnacle shift in entertainment. They now capture a sordid past of outright racism which has continued to influence comedy clubs today.
But for stand-up comedy, minstrel shows were integral to the art form and its development.
The history of vaudeville
At the turn of the century, New York was the hub of new entertainment. Vaudeville and burlesque became the most popular art forms for their fast-paced appeal.
Audiences were now familiar with the chaos of living in a modern city. So long-winded stories on rural living from the likes of Mark Twain no longer appealed to their sense of humor.
Getting a laugh out of the room now required a different sensibility and style. After all, what was regarded as funny had now shifted with the times.
Vaudevillian humor included several gags and tropes. But the material of vaudeville shows also began to poke fun at political figures, similar to that of minstrel shows.
This shift encouraged comedians to come up with witty one-liners. To keep the audience engaged, they refined their jokes to be structured as a setup and punch line.
Packing each moment with a punch, vaudeville was best suited for large stages. But burlesque brought comedy clubs into more intimate spaces.
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The history of burlesque
Burlesque often conjures up images of dancing girls and racy stripteases. But burlesque also featured fast-paced comedy routines.
Comics in burlesque shows participated in sketches and monologues alike. But the smaller stage and venues made for a more interactive performance than large vaudeville shows.
This is why burlesque is largely credited in the history of standup. It introduced a new style and relationship between audience and performer.
Suddenly, the performer was not just entertaining the audience. They were engaging with them as well.
This shifted material to cover topics that were relevant to the audience. Just as much as comedians have an influence over comedy, so do audiences too.
One such performer who seemed to be at the cusp of this transition in comedy was Charley Case. In fact, if anyone is to be considered the first stand-up comedian, it would be him.
Charley Case was an African American vaudeville performer. He performed in blackface though he himself is thought to have been mulatto or mixed race.
Such practices were not uncommon though. In fact, all minstrel performers were expected to perform in blackface regardless of their skin color.
But Charley Case was unique in his own right when he got up on a New York stage. He simply delivered his comic monologues without costumes or props.
This was something nobody had ever seen before. Most vaudeville routines and acts were delivered by comedy teams or duos.
But Case was one of the few who decided to go solo. Frank Fay was another to employ this quick, off-the-cuff patter while emceeing shows.
Little is known about Case’s personal life. But considering the history of comedy and minstrel shows, it is significant to note that a Black performer is who we ought to credit for the birth of standup.
Radio, television, and film
The world of vaudeville and burlesque comedy slowly transitioned into the new art forms of radio, television, and film. One such performer who followed this transition closely was Bob Hope.
A former vaudeville performer, Bob Hope transitioned to radio in the 1930s. On his program, he was faced with creating new material each week.
So he compiled a team of writers to come up with jokes that commented on local news and gossip. This kind of comedy largely departed from the style of vaudeville.
Rather than dabble in generic jokes, Hope’s act started to offer up social commentary. And more and more comedians started to follow suit.
Even in the theater, comedy started to reflect such techniques. As large vaudeville and burlesque theaters began to decline, small comedy clubs became all the rage.
With such limited space, comedians now produced “between sets.” This tightened up their set and got rid of all vaudevillian antics that required props and costumes.
Instead, comedy was presented in its purest form. No more slapstick gags or garish character stylings. Comedy was now intimate and daring in its social commentary.
The Ed Sullivan Show was one such television variety program that spread this successful new comedy style. And the likes of Bob Hope, Danny Thomas, and Myron Cohen honed the craft in quite a traditional sense.
These stand-up comedians were just starting to get their funny footing. But with more room to discuss politics, standup returned to its roots and ushered in a new wave of comedians waiting to shift the narrative once more.
Comedy was once purely entertainment. But now, the counterculture was coming to claim it as a form of activism and political dissent.
The new wave comedians of the 1950s
Mort Sahl is credited as the groundbreaker of modernized stand-up comedy. The 1950s were a time of convention and traditionalism.
But Sahl sought to break that. During his set, he sat on a stool and spoke in a normal, conversational tone.
Sahl’s stand-ups were never rooted in gags like his predecessors. Instead, he produced a sarcastic commentary on politics and popular culture.
His intellectual political dissent became the highlight of new Eat era comedy clubs. And he proved, once and for all, that comedians could be smart and socially engaged.
Hoping to break the mold even further was Lenny Bruce. Bruce spent his early career performing in strip clubs and small comedy venues.
But over time, his provocative material earned him a cult-like following. He called out America’s penchant for organized religion and moralistic attitudes toward sex and drugs.
He actively paraded his own nudity on stage. Shunned from every kind of television show, Lenny Bruce knew how to stir up the comedy scene.
Bruce was arrested several times for performing allegedly obscene material. But his act inspired future stand-up comics to push the boundaries of comedy even further.
George Carlin took great influence from Bruce as a stand-up comic. He was initially known as a straight-laced comedian as seen on television and game shows.
But nearing the end of the 1960s, Carlin shifted his stage persona. His standup took on the comedic voice of the counterculture.
He criticized war culture, Catholicism, and the middle class. But most notably, he revived Bruce’s infamous “seven words you can never say on television.”
These words had Bruce thrown into jail only a few years earlier. But this routine alone is what made Carlin a star.
A contemporary of Carlin, Richard Pryor enacted a similar transition into the counterculture comedy scene. In the early 1970s, Pryor infused his standup with racially charged improvisation.
He incorporated different characters into his performance. And he further tested the boundaries of comedy club to comedy club.
During this era, stand-up comedy became a powerful voice. Comedians like Pryor voiced their dissent of the Vietnam War and inspired more comedians to be vocal about their political views.
Another comedian unafraid to share his views was Dick Gregory. As a civil rights and vegetarian activist, Gregory was known for his “no-holds-barred” sets.
He openly poked at the bigotry and racism in the United States. And he became the talk of the town at numerous comedy clubs.
Following in the footsteps of his fellow comedians, Gregory also protested the Vietnam War. He was arrested several times for his activism.
Stand-up comedy today
It is difficult to credit a single comedian for all of stand-up comedy. While Charley Case certainly could have been the first, later comedians definitely made their mark on the genre.
Throughout history, comedy has always been about entertainment. But more recently, stand-up comedy managed to turn the funny into the thoughtful, all without losing its edge.
Perhaps the greatest attribute of stand-up comedy is its ability to change. From show to show, a comedian can shift their performance and perspective by watching other comedians.
Over time, this accumulates into a seismic shift within the industry. And this is what makes standup comedy the powerful phenomenon it is today.
No single person can create an entire genre of media. But there are key players that we can all thank for bringing us the standup comedy we have come to know and love today.
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Adam Christing is a professional comedy magician, virtual MC, and the founder of CleanComedians.com. He is a member of the world-famous Magic Castle in Hollywood and a popular virtual comedian, magician, and virtual speakers for hire.