The Making of American Stand Up Comedy

The Making of American Stand Up Comedy

Laughter has been around as long as anyone can remember. While we can rely on laughter to continue to be part of everyday life, the things we find funny have gone through some major changes over the years. Stemming from the amphitheaters of ancient Greece where ironic and humorous stories and plays were created to speak about the realities of the time period without censorship. Sounds pretty familiar, right? Well, fast forward a bit to the 1800’s to a time where Americans were considered “as being of a dull and gloomy character” and “certainly not a humorous people”  as said by Charles Dickens (Gee, thanks a lot Chuck).

Early Americans did have humorists but the comedy of the time still relied heavily on lengthy stories and country life. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that the brand of comedy that the stand up comedian we know and love today was created. Historians trace the origins of stand up comedy to a very specific time and place: the Variety and Burlesque shows that flourished in New York City’s vaudeville theatres.

It was here that comedy started to catch up to the fast paced life of the growing cities.

Vaudeville performers refined their materials using basic setups and punchlines we recognize now a days. It is said that the first real stand up comedian was Charley Case, an African-American vaudeville performer. He was the first to break the mold and perform comedic monologues without the use of props or costumes (or pies in the face for that matter).

One notable joke from Charlie was a quick funny story in which Case and his brother Hank are sleeping in a bedroom with their father and they hear a noise downstairs.

“I think there’s a burglar loose in the house,” the father tells Hank.

“You should go down and find him.”

“I haven’t lost any burglars,” replied Hank. “Make Charley go down.”

 

And there you have it, the birth of American stand up comedian and the modern joke set up. We’ve come a long way from being labeled as dull and gloomy and from there created the most popularized form of comedy known around the globe. So it looks like we get the last laugh after all.

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