Stand-up comedy in the United States got its start from monologists performing stump-speech monologues from within the minstrel shows of the early 19th century. It also has roots in various traditions of popular entertainment of the late 19th century, including vaudeville, English music hall, burlesque or early variety shows, humorist monologues by personalities such as Mark Twain, and circus clown antics.
With the turn of the century and spread of urban and industrial living, the structure, pacing and timing, and material of American humor began to change.] Comedians of this era often depended on fast-paced joke delivery, slapstick, outrageous or lewd innuendo, and donned an ethnic persona—African, Scottish, German, Jewish—and built a routine based on popular stereotypes.Jokes were generally broad and material was widely shared, or in some cases, stolen. Industrialized American audiences sought entertainment as a way to escape and confront city living.
Bob Hope was the United States’ most famous stand-up comedian during World War II
The founders of modern American stand-up comedy include Moms Mabley, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, George Burns, Fred Allen, Milton Berle and Frank Fay, all of whom came from vaudeville or the Chitlin’ Circuit.
They spoke directly to the audience as themselves, in front of the curtain, known as performing “in one”. Frank Fay gained acclaim as a “master of ceremonies” at New York’s Palace Theater. Vaudevillian Charlie Case (also spelled Charley Case) is often credited with the first form of stand-up comedy, performing humorous monologues without props or costumes. This had not been done before during a vaudeville show.
The 1940s-50s elevated the careers of comedians like Milton Berle and Sid Caesar through radio and television. From the 1930s-50s, the nightclub circuit was owned and operated by the American Mafia.
Nightclubs and resorts became the breeding ground for a new type of stand-up comedian, specifically Lenny Bruce. Acts such as Alan King, Danny Thomas, Martin and Lewis, Don Rickles, Joan Rivers and Jack E. Leonard flourished in these venues.
George Carlin in 1969
In the 1950s and into the 1960s, “new wave” stand-ups such as Mort Sahl and Lord Buckley began developing their acts in small folk clubs like San Francisco’s hungry i (owned by impresario Enrico Banducci and origin of the ubiquitous “brick wall” behind comedians) or New York’s Bitter End.
Lenny Bruce became known as ‘the’ obscene comic when he used language that usually led to his arrest. After Lenny Bruce, arrests for obscene language on stage nearly disappeared until George Carlin was arrested on 21 July 1972 at Milwaukee’s Summerfest after performing the routine “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television Carlin’s act was ruled indecent but not obscene, and the Supreme Court granted the FCC permission to censor in a 5-4 ruling from FCC v. Pacifica Foundation.
Other notable comics from this era include Woody Allen, Shelley Berman, Phyllis Diller, and Bob Newhart. Some Black American comedians such as George Kirby, Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson, Godfrey Cambridge, and Dick Gregory began exploring the criticism of “history and myth” in the 1950s-60s, with Redd Foxx testing the boundaries of “uncensored racial humor”.
In the 1970s, several entertainers became major stars based on stand-up comedy performances. Richard Pryor and George Carlin followed Lenny Bruce’s acerbic style to become icons. Stand-up expanded from clubs, resorts, and coffee houses into major concerts in sports arenas and amphitheaters. Steve Martin and Bill Cosby had levels of success with gentler comic routines. The older style of stand-up comedy (no social satire) was kept alive by Rodney Dangerfield and Buddy Hackett, who enjoyed revived careers late in life.
Don Rickles, whose legendary style of relentless merciless attacks on both fellow performers and audience members alike kept him a fixture on TV and in Vegas from the 1960s all the way to the 2000s, when he appeared in the wildly popular Pixar Toy Story films as Mr Potato Head, who just happened to share Don’s grouchy onstage mannerisms. Television programs such as Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show helped publicize the careers of other stand-up comedians, including Janeane Garofalo, Bill Maher and Jay Leno.
In the 1980s, Eddie Murphy shaped African American comedy when he created the Black Pack: similar to the Rat Pack, it was a group of stand-up comedians, its members included Paul Mooney, who wrote for Richard Pryor and later starred on Chappelle’s Show.
Jerry Seinfeld, performing standup in 2016
From the 1970s to the ’90s, different styles of comedy began to emerge, from the madcap stylings of Robin Williams, to the odd observations of Jerry Seinfeld and Ellen DeGeneres, the ironic musings of Steven Wright, to the mimicry of Whoopi Goldberg, and Eddie Murphy. These comedians would serve to influence the next generation of comedians.
After the height of the 80s stand-up comedy boom, there was a 90s comedy bust.
The Aristocrats is a 2005 film based on the original vaudeville joke The Aristocrats, where comedians tell their version of the dirty joke.
Starting in 1941 and continuing to the present, the United Service Organizations is a nonprofit corporation that employs performers like stand-up comedians for the entertainment of the United States troops and its allies.
During WWII, there were four sub-circuits: the Victory Circuit and Blue Circuit entertained stateside military personnel, the Hospital Circuit performers visited the wounded and the Foxhole Circuit performers went overseas.
Christian comedy circuit (CCA)
The Christian Comedy Association started in the 90s, in an attempt to use comedy as a “spiritual vehicle.”
Comedian Doug Stanhope has criticized Christian comedy. Heckling is almost nonexistent in the church circuit. Christian comedy is clean comedy that claims to help one’s soul.
The Comedy Store was opened in April 1972 by comedians Sammy Shore (1927–2019), and Rudy De Luca. The building was formerly the home of Ciro’s, a popular Hollywood nightclub owned by William Wilkerson, and later a rock and roll venue, where The Byrds were discovered in 1964.
When the venue reopened as The Comedy Store in 1972, it included a 99-seat theatre. As a result of a divorce settlement, Sammy Shore’s ex-wife Mitzi Shore began operating the club in 1973, and she was able to buy the building in 1976. She immediately renovated and expanded the club to include a 450-seat main room.
In 1974, The Comedy Store hosted the wedding reception of newlyweds Liza Minnelli and Jack Haley, Jr.. The Comedy Club signage was covered, for the evening, by signs reading “Ciro’s”, denoting the venue’s prior identity.
The event was attended by many dozens of Hollywood glitterati, including Elizabeth Taylor, Sammy Davis Jr., Cher, Bob Fosse, Johnny Carson, Goldie Hawn, Cesar Romero, Priscilla Presley and other stars, past and present.
The soiree was so grand that Sunset Boulevard was temporarily blocked by police to allow Hollywood royalty to arrive in their limos unmolested by photographers and reporters.
Andrew Dice Clay
Ollie Joe Prater
Thomas F. Wilson
The history of the young comedians coming to Los Angeles in the 1970s and performing at the club is told in the book I’m Dying Up Here by William Knoedelseder.