Over time humans have sought out entertainment in various forms. From telling stories around the fire to brick-walled comedy clubs, there have always been elements that make us laugh. Throughout human history, comedy, or at least laughter, has pretty much been a constant.
Whether it was family-friendly fun on the Ed Sullivan show, Richard Pryor on late night, or Lenny Bruce ruling the stand-up comedy scene in New York (or being arrested for obscenity in San Francisco), we all have a history with this art form that brings humor into our lives.
Laughter builds bonds between us and makes us feel good, and there’s actually science to back this up. When we laugh we reduce the levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine, and increase the levels of hormones (like endorphins) that benefit our bodies and improve our mood. In other words, the side effects of side-splitting guffaws are good for us. Who needs sit-ups when you can put on one of the comedy albums of the iconic comic Steve Martin and get a good ab workout?
Seeing as how stand-up comedians, and comedians in general, have provided such a service, it’s only appropriate to acknowledge some of the legends. They’ve made us laugh and maybe improved our health as a bonus. Even before we enjoyed the comical observations in a Jerry Seinfeld stand-up set, or the hilarious sketches by Carol Burnett, or the quotable quips of comedian Bob Newhart, there were performers from back in the day that made standing on stage and telling jokes “a thing.”
It’s hard to imagine a time when the comedy scene didn’t include the Comedy Cellar in New York, the Punch Line in San Francisco, or The Improve in L.A. However, these clubs would not be a part of our comedy lexicon if earlier iterations of stand-up comedy hadn’t paved the road in a big way.
Stand-up comedy is one of those things that the United States can actually claim as its own. Sure, humor has been around since the beginning of time, but the first comedy stand-up act is generally considered an American creation.
Let’s take a look at how stand-up comedy became what it is today, and see how the American art form evolved over many years. We may not be able to employ an exact science to determine who the first stand-up comedian was, but we can look at some of the great comedians from the early years, and understand what set them apart.
What made certain comedians popular with the audiences of the time? We’ll cover questions like that and also offer our best estimation of who can be considered the first of many stand-up comedians, so keep on reading.
See Related: How to Become a Standup Comedian
A Quick History of Humor
Stand-up comedy didn’t just magically appear in the United States ex nihilo, or out of thin air. Humor, as well as the appreciation an audience has for comedy, has been a long time in the making. From New York to New Delhi, from comedian George Carlin to the Analects of Confucius (which happen to make a funny self-deprecating comparison of the Chinese philosopher’s wanderings to those of a homeless dog), comedy comes from all corners of the world and has come a long way, indeed.
When man first made his mark on that cave wall, it represented an urge to connect and communicate. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was also the first time that man made a joke about flatulence or some other typical comedy trope or one liner. In fact, there is some evidence of this kind of joke on a Sumerian cuneiform tablet dating around 3000 B.C.
We should give early man a break, though. There was only so much material to joke about, and it was a time before stand-up comedy existed, so “killing” and “club” had very different meanings. Please excuse my pre-historic humor.
Moving along in time, the Greek philosopher Democritus, known as the “laughing philosopher,” is often associated with humor, comedy, and laughter. Much like the clean and dirty stand-up comics that would come later, he had a tendency to make fun of “the stupidity of his fellow citizens.” A lot of Greek comedy was anything but clean, but Aristotle still viewed comedy as a positive influence in society, since to make audiences laugh would bring joy, and for him, happiness was an ideal.
Ever the organizer, he even divided comedy into three categories: farce, romantic comedy, and satire. However, his teacher, Plato, viewed comedy as a destruction to the self and thought it impeded rationality and self-control. Debbie Downer much, Plato?
In India, and more specifically in ancient Sanskrit drama, humor was defined as one of the nine nava rasas, or emotional responses that can be inspired in an audience by the display of emotions that actors give in a performance.
In 19th century Japan, the Meiji oligarchs actually used the performing arts, and comedy in particular, as a way to shape a new social structure within society. They were in a period of change, becoming increasingly industrial, and wanted Japanese society to be able to compete with Europe and America. So, this use of comedy and comedians may have been more about reframing social roles to suit their own advantage as opposed to solely entertaining audiences.
As Barak Kushner observed in his essay on the subject: “The situation developed as a strange foreshadowing of a comment American comedian Steve Martin uttered centuries later, that “hey, sometimes comedy is not funny.”
There have also been those who have sought to understand the role of comedians, and the effect of comedy on an audience or society at large. Some evolutionary theorists figure that being funny is an adaptive behavior, and may make people more likely to bond and may be part of the reason we schedule comedy date nights.
It’s probably no surprise that the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud considered a laugh a release of excessive tension stemming from unconscious sexual or aggressive impulses. Man, did that guy have a one-track mind and recycle his material or what?
Comedians, audiences, and the times in which we live have shaped the style and content of the stand-up comedy performance. And as we can see in every culture around the globe, comedy is one of those constants, just like love, family, and food (and death and taxes – as Benjamin Franklin, and later Mark Twain would say).
The First American Comedians Get Live Audiences Laughing
Sorry, but we’re still not talking about Joan Rivers or Rodney Dangerfield quite yet. Back up several decades to when show business was all about vaudeville and the term “comedian” would soon become more common in the American lexicon. Long before Comedy Central or Netflix, and even before films and television, American audiences would get their fill of funny from a live stage performance with comic actors, and what we’d soon consider stand-up comics or comedians.
A vaudeville show would consist of a variety of art forms, from comedy to Annie Oakley shooting her gun. Audiences would enjoy an act by a juggler, joke-teller, and dancer in a show with one fast-paced performance after another.
Will Rogers was a popular humorist and stage actor who won over audiences during this time with one-liner after one liner, doing material that was a mix of social observation and political wit. Here’s just one funny one-liner from him: “Everything is funny, as long as it’s happening to somebody else.” While Will Rogers’ persona is one that became more iconic and lasting (due in part to his being a great man all around), there were other comedians that helped move the art form forward.
In the late 19th century, Charley Case started doing his comic performance, which was more like the stand-up shows we would see today, since his funny monologues were done without props or an elaborate costume. This was new for the time, and one reason why some consider him to be one of the first stand-up comedians.
Though not a costume, per se, Case was a blackface comedian, which was a common practice in those years. Racial stereotypes were strong and out in the open in the United States at the time. Case may actually have been mixed race and trying to “pass,” using blackface as one way to get on stage to do his comedy and song parodies.
This would not have been entirely unusual for an African American at the time to adopt this practice in order to perform their act in front of audiences. Unfortunately, a lot of his personal history is not known. Still, his comedy style was unique at the time and influenced other would-be comedians.
There was also the African American comedy duo of Williams and Walker that paved the way for other comedians. George Walker and Bert Williams were the first Black singing, dancing, comedy pair in white vaudeville.
Though they had to suffer several indignities and assaults, they persevered and brought their show to the stage for audiences in the United States and Europe as well. Williams went on to become the first major Black comic actor in motion pictures and headlined at The Palace Theatre in New York.
Frank Fay was a stage actor and comedian that came up through the vaudeville tradition. Fay would be the one that many folks in the comedy world consider to be the first comedian as far as the stand-up style of comedy that audiences are familiar with today. Unlike Will Rogers who has schools named after him and is quoted quite often, Fay fell into relative obscurity.
It seems to be a fairly unanimous assessment that he was an unpleasant person, to say the least, and an alcoholic, abusive fascist to state some of the more unsavory characteristics he purportedly possessed. Robert Wagner, the actor, wrote that Fay was “one of the most dreadful men in the history of show business.”
Though he put off a lot of people with that very problematic persona, his contemporary comedians acknowledged that his comedy skills and ability to entertain a live audience enabled him to make quite the living for a while. He often did shows at the Palace Theatre in New York City, and was frequently the master of ceremonies for various events. Some have said he was the first to make that comic host role an art form in and of itself.
Though many comedians graced a vaudeville stage, certain figures would shape what it was to become a stand-up comedian. The one liner, the jokes sans props, and being able to make an audience laugh with witticisms would set the stage (so to speak) for future comedians and stand-up comics specifically.
The Comedy Tradition Continues and Stand-up Comedy Changes with Time
As motion pictures made their way into the world, live comedy shows were no longer the only place an audience could see their favorite comedians. A comedian could now do one show – one film– that would reach multiple audiences.
In the silent era, comedians who could showcase their physical comedy chops or highlight that physical part of their act would get accolades from audiences all over. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were both comic geniuses who excelled during this time.
Comedy duos like Laurel & Hardy started in the silent film era and continued their comedy careers into the “talkies,” as movies in sync with sound were initially called. The Marx Brothers were comedians whose comic lines and jokes are still quoted by people today. Great material can often have a timeless quality. What’s funny is funny, isn’t that funny?
Even though comedy films continued to be popular, live radio became a staple in American life, and a great way for comedians to share new material and create new shows. Comedian and all-around entertainer Jack Benny put in his time with vaudeville and became one of the most popular comedians of his time.
He could make an audience laugh with his comic timing and consistently funny jokes. Another popular performer and stellar stand-up comedian, Bob Hope, also became an audience favorite. His long comedy career continued into the next phase as he adapted to the next new medium. Television.
Bob Hope suddenly became the bona fide virtual emcee to the new American television set style family living room. There was a popular 1980s song that said, video killed the radio star, and though TV was not the death of radio, it did change how the American audience consumed most of its comedy. Jack Benny made the jump and brought his comedy to the TV-viewing audience. There was also the comedy queen, Lucille Ball.
And though she didn’t do stand up comedy or consider herself a stand-up comic, she lived to deliver her comic performance in front of a live TV audience. I Love Lucy ran for six years and was one of the first and best situation comedy (sit com) shows of all time. You can still see the influence this comedy show had years later, with several subsequent programs imitating the successful formula.
Stand-up comedy now had a TV audience as well. Comedians like Bob Newhart, Joan Rivers, George Carlin, and others would take their stand-up set to the stage of a late night show like The Steve Allen Show or The Tonight Show. Both of these shows provided stand-up comedy with a new platform and enabled comedians to share their material on a national stage.
Here’s a blast from the past on one such show where comedian Richard Pryor does a stand-up comedy set with some surprisingly tame and clean material.
Comedy continues to change over time as it holds up a metaphorical mirror to society and the audience observing, as does almost every art form. Stand-up comedy is a great example of how one person can tell some funny jokes and alter the course of history. It’s kind of funny when you think about it.
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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 speaker for hire.