Location: New York, New York, United States

Saturday, December 11, 2004

The First Stand Up

History of Comedy Atricle from Two Drink Minimum. (
© 2003, Jim Mendrinos


“The First Stand-Up”

By Jim Mendrinos

In order to understand what you do, you have to know the history of the art form. Stand-up comedy has a particularly rich history, especially considering how young an art form it is. How young? Both the Oxford English Dictionary and Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary started recognizing the term “Stand-up comic” in 1966. So as a separate, recognized entity, we’re less than 40 years old.

Of course what we do has been around longer than that. That’s just the first time we gave it a name. Up until then anybody who got a laugh in any medium was called a comic. In 1966, the sub-species of stand-up comic came into being.

Let’s jump back to the roots of stand-up. Stand-up is a decidedly American invention, with its roots going back into the mid 1800s. Up until that time comedy was the exclusive domain of theater. The unintentional grand father of stand-up comedy was Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice, the man who is credited with inventing the minstrel shows.

The minstrel shows were probably one of the most grotesque forms of entertainment in existence. It was built on negative racial stereotypes, and the mockery of a race of people who were already subjugated. It started well before the Civil War, and continued way too far into the 20th century. Too many comics performed in blackface, and the long-term effect of minstrel shows is still visible in today’s market of “mainstream clubs,” and “black comedy clubs.”

Although a hateful part of the history of the American stage, minstrel shows departed from rigid confines of normal theatrical productions. No longer were performances tied to a plot, but rather a theme, and a loose set of characters. Among them, “The Endmen” who existed for pure comic folly, and while the majority of the minstrel show revolved around musical comedy, during the second segment of most minstrel shows – “the olio” – one or both of the endmen got to deliver a “stump speech.” This was a satiric monologue that poked fun at contemporary life and political figures. It is also the first time that something akin to stand-up comedy was presented in front of a live audience.

From here the path to stand up comedy is easy to trace. Minstrel shows showed that low maintenance variety shows could be accepted as mainstream entertainment. This brought about vaudeville, and the musical comedy theater craze of the early 20th century. Vaudeville houses also refined the style of comedy, with emcees speaking rather than singing their comedy. Verbal comedy became so popular that at the height of WWI, President Woodrow Wilson requested, and was given, a solo comedy performance by comedienne May Irwin, so that he could have a good laugh, and keep his mind off the war. Was she successful? She was given the unofficial title of “Secretary of Laughter,” so I guess she was.

Vaudeville showed that comedy could work on large stages, but burlesque proved that it worked even better in an intimate setting. While most people mistakenly think of burlesque as cheesy bands and strippers, the truth is that burlesque was to the lower middle class what vaudeville was to the upper middle class; entertainment of the highest order. It was only in the waning days of burlesque that it turned into a glorified strip show.

While vaudeville usually featured 9 variety acts centered on a headliner, burlesque borrowed heavily from the structure of the minstrel shows. In fact, both minstrel shows and burlesque used a three-act structure, and the second and third acts were identical, the “olio,” followed by a one-act parody (or “burlesque”) of a popular play. The comics in burlesque did both sketch, and monologues, and with the smaller sized houses, the intimate, interactive style that became stand-up was born.

Radio, film, and especially television had an impact on comedy, and the popularity of these mediums indirectly shaped our art form. As these mass entertainment forms grew, demand for vaudeville and burlesque style shows declined, and the larger houses closed. There was still a thriving market for live music, and nightclubs popped up to fill this void. Comics, still hungry for live audiences, were forced to perform “between sets” at these clubs. This limited space, both in time and the physical size of the stage, meant that the comic had to forgo the vaudeville style of all around entertainer, and focus on what made him special, the comedy.

By the late 50’s there was a generation of comedic performers who “grew up” under these conditions. This first generation of “stand-ups” included; Lenny Bruce, Lord Buckley, Dick Gregory, Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby, and the first person to bring a new sensibility to the comedy stage, Mort Sahl. These stand-ups, and others too numerous to mention, took the lessons they learned from the class of Danny Thomas, Myron Cohen, and Bob Hope, modernized the craft, and passed it down to Richard Pryor, Freddie Prinze and Robert Klein.

They in turn passed it down to us.

Vaudeville and burlesque houses split into smaller venues that featured specialized entertainment. They became music clubs, off-off Broadway theaters, and even strip clubs. Comics used to be jugglers, or singers, or dancers in addition to being funny. Now stand-up is a specialty all its own. The market and art form has continued to shrink in scope, but not in size. The comedy club is the most recent shrinking of the entertainment focus.

All these elements came together at just the right time in history to give birth to the art form called stand-up comedy. Had radio not have become popular, or if TV didn’t dazzle the American audience, perhaps live variety entertainment would have survived, and “stand-up” would be a small piece of what became your act. Thankfully, things did come together perfectly. Just in time too. I can honestly say that I’m happy to have been spared the experience of seeing George Carlin perform the old, soft shoe.

So who was the first stand-up? Another incredible artist whose name has eluded history, just like the first painter, or the first poet; however he is an artist whose legacy lives every time a stand-up steps on stage.


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