Stand-up comedy has been around for many decades. But in the last 10 years, it has found a newfound audience and has gone mainstream. There are several stand-up specials coming in every month. In this article, we will try to track the history of stand-up comedy and how it became so popular.
Stand-up comedy first appeared in America as a part of the minstrel shows in the 1800s. But, it became popular only in the 1970s. During the Second World War, comedians became very popular on the radio as they entertained entire America in the face of harsh times.
Starting in 1950, the famous “The Tonight Show” became a solid base for the comedians to become more popular. The show is still on the air in America, running its 70th year and is now hosted by Jimmy Fallon.
In the 70s as the counterculture started off due to the Vietnam war, Comedy clubs appeared across America and the idea of stand-up comedy took birth. Open mike nights encouraged budding comics to come up on the stage and try their new material.
Copying from the music line-ups, popular comics toured around the country and gave a chance for the local talent as the opening the act.
In the early days, most comedy acts were observational and tried to mock the current government and its policies. It turned into a form of passive resistance. Some comics like Bob Newhart and Shelley Berman performed one-sided conversations, created a satire skits like talking to your neighbour, speaking with your doctor/psychiatrist, etc.
Other comics like Jonathan Winters did not follow the traditional punch-line method and switched to character-driven jokes.
Since its inception, stand-up comedy has been a tool to vent out the frustration at the system. Dick Gregory and other African American have used the platform successfully to make sarcastic observations of the societal discrimination.
In contrast, comedians like Woody Allen perfected the self-deprecating humour of a sexually insecure New Yorker. Many of today’s powerful Hollywood celebrities started off as stand-up comics.
But the most revered figure in the comic circle is Lenny Bruce who started off his career in small malls and strip clubs. His no holds barred style of attacking even the most sacred cows like the organised religion, the government, and the military earned him the awe of his listeners and wrath of everyone else. His casual attitude towards sex and X rated shows barred him from the television completely. His encounters with the law and an untimely death due to an overdose made him an idol for generations to come.
George Carlin is considered a rightful successor to Bruce as the leader of the counterculture of comedy. He continued to be the voice of comedy against the warmongering, middle-class hypocrisy and big religion. He is also one of the most successful comedians in the world. Carlton’s fame grew with age and he performed shows until his death. His shows like the seven deadly words, you are all diseased became all-time favourites.