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Stand-up comedy is a style of comedy where a comedian performs for a live audience, usually speaking directly to them. It is usually performed by a single comedian with the aid of a microphone, either hand-held or mounted on a stand. The performer is known as a stand-up comic, stand-up comedian or simply a stand-up.


Stand-up performances are usually short, where the comedian recites a fast-paced succession of humorous stories, short jokes (called "bits"), and one-liners, which comprise what is typically called a monologue, routine or act. Some stand-up comedians use props, music or magic tricks to enhance their acts. Stand-up comedy is often performed in comedy clubs, bars, colleges and theaters, but there is no real restriction on where the craft can be performed. Many smaller venues hold "open mic" events, where anyone can take the stage and perform for the audience, offering a way for amateur performers to hone their craft and possibly break into professionalism. In North America, many comedy clubs feature the now-iconic brick wall as the backdrop for stand-up performances.

Stand-up comedy is difficult to master partly because the feedback of the audience is instant and crucial for the comedian's act. Many stand-up routines are similar to one-man shows, with the main difference being the expectations of the audience, who in most cases expect a steady stream of laughs. This in turn affects the aims of the performer, who is under great pressure to deliver those laughs. If the performer cannot coax laughs out of the audience, the bored crowd may harrass the comedian, a practice known as heckling. One hallmark of a master stand-up comedian is the ability not only to face down and silence a heckler, but to win over and entertain the rest of the crowd with a witty retort. An adept stand-up comedian will nimbly play off the mood and tastes of any particular audience, and adjust his or her routine accordingly. Stand-up is an art form that is openly devoted to getting immediate laughs from an audience above all else, unlike theatrical comedy which creates comedy within the structure of a play with amusing characters and situations. The skills attributed to stand-up are diverse, as the stand-up comic often acts as writer, editor, performer, promoter, producer and technician for the act.

Many stand-up comedians work for years to develop 45 minutes of material, and usually perform their bits repeatedly, slowly perfecting them over time. Actor-comedian Will Ferrell has called stand-up comedy "hard, lonely and vicious." [15219]

Despite the name, stand-up comedians do not always stand up. Some will sit on a stool; Martin Mull has sometimes used an easy chair. The term "sit-down comic" is usually pejorative in nature.

US history

Stand-up comedy has its roots in various traditions of popular entertainment of the late 19th century including vaudeville, English Music Hall, Minstrel shows, humorist monologues (by personalities such as Mark Twain), and circus clown antics. Comedians of this era often donned an ethnic persona (African, Scottish, German, Jewish, etc) and built a routine based on popular stereotypes. Jokes were generally broad and material was widely shared.

The fathers of modern American stand-up comedy, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Fred Allen, Milton Berle, and Frank Fay all came from vaudeville. 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 and is credited with creating the style of 20th century stand-up.

Nightclubs and resorts became the new breeding ground for stand-ups. Acts like Alan King, Danny Thomas, Don Rickles, and Jack E. Leonard flourished in these new arenas.

In the 1950s and into the 1960s, led by Mort Sahl, stand-ups began developing their acts in small folk clubs (like San Francisco's hungry i or New York's Bitter End). These comedians added an element of social satire and expanded both the language and boundaries of stand-up venturing into politics, race relations, and sexual humor. Lenny Bruce became known as a "sick" comic when he used language that sometimes led to his arrest. Other notable comics from this era include Woody Allen, Shelley Berman, and Bob Newhart. Some African-American comedians such as Redd Foxx, George Kirby, Bill Cosby, and Dick Gregory began to cross over to white audiences during this time.

Phyllis Diller ventured out as the first solo female stand-up comic, opening the door for other funny women such as Joan Rivers, Lily Tomlin, Elaine Boosler and Roseanne Barr.

Stand-up in the 1970s saw several entertainers becoming 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. Television programs such as Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show launched the careers of other stand-up comedians.

By the 1980s, the rising popularity of stand-up led to a boom in stand-up comedy venues for locally-based and touring comics, many of which were converted from disco clubs after the backlash in popularity. It seemed that every major and minor city in the United States had at least one "comedy club" that each week featured an MC, middle act, and a headliner. Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, Jerry Seinfeld, Sam Kinison, and Billy Crystal tested their comic skills with live stand-up comedy appearances.

By the 1990s, the glut of stand-up comedy clubs led to an inevitable decline, as the market became somewhat flooded with comedians of varying talent levels. Established stand-up comedians still commanded top ticket prices but less famous acts often struggled to find audiences. This was a difficult time for many comics in the US. The 1990s also saw the rise of alternative comedy in Los Angeles at venues including the Un-Cabaret and the Diamond Club featured performers like Beth Lapides, Bob Odenkirk, Janeane Garofalo, Patton Oswalt, David Cross and Paul F. Tompkins who 'de-constructed' formal comedy and embraced the personal rants and visceral storytelling tradition of Lenny Bruce. One of the most influential comics of this period was Bill Hicks, who earned most of his popularity posthumously, after interest in stand-up comedy rebounded.

As the cable network Comedy Central grew tremendously in popularity into the mid-90s, stand-up comics once again had an opportunity to gain mainstream exposure. Shows like Premium Blend and The A-List focused on young, upcoming comics, while Lounge Lizards and later Comedy Central Presents offered original half-hour specials.

Many observers believe that Chris Rock's stand-up career and popular HBO special Bring the Pain,(1996) was instrumental to stand-up comedy's revival during the late 1990s.

By the 2000s, comedy had enjoyed a resurgence, not only because of Rock's popularity, but because of newer media outlets such as the internet, television channels like Comedy Central and various comedy schools, troupes, and improv groups nurturing new talent through workshops and classes. In the new century stand-up continues to flourish with new stars such as Artie Lange, Jim Norton, Dante , Louis C.K., Mike Birbiglia, Sarah Silverman, Jim Gaffigan and Mitch Hedberg. Adding to this was the 2000 comedy documentary The Original Kings of Comedy starring Steve Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer, D.L. Hughley, and Bernie Mac.

In 2005, Bill Dana, a graduate of Emerson College in Boston Massachusetts and stand-up comedian, approached his Alma Mater about establishing an archive of comedy to help preserve the lush history of the ground-breaking comics of the last century. Hundreds of interviews were conducted and a vast database of comedic information is now on record at Emerson College.

United Kingdom history

The United Kingdom has a long heritage of stand-up comedians.

British stand-up comedy began in the music halls of the 18th and 19th centuries. Notable performers who rose through the music hall circuit were Morecambe and Wise, Arthur Askey and Max Miller, who was considered to be the quintessential music-hall comedian. The heavy censorship regime of the Lord Chamberlain's Office required all comedians to submit their acts for censorship. The act would be returned with unacceptable sections underlined in blue pencil (possibly giving rise to the term "blue" for a comedian whose act is considered bawdy or smutty). The comedian was then obliged not to deviate from the act in its edited form.

At the end of World War II, many members of the Armed Forces who had developed a taste for comedy (stand-up or otherwise) in wartime concert parties, and moved into professional entertainment. Eric Sykes, Peter Sellers and the other Goons, and Tommy Cooper all began their careers this way. The rise of the postwar comedians coincided with the rise of television and radio, and the traditional music hall circuit suffered greatly as a result. Whereas a music hall performer could work for years using just one act, television exposure created a constant demand for new material, although this may have also been responsible for the cessation of theatrical censorship in 1968.

By the 1970s, music hall entertainment was virtually dead. Alternative circuits had evolved, such as Working Mens' Clubs. Some of the more successful comedians on the Working Men's Club circuit - including Bernard Manning, Bobby Thompson, Frank Carson and Stan Boardman - eventually made their way to television via such shows as The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club. The "alternative" comedy scene also began to evolve. Some of the earliest successes came from folk clubs, where performers such as Billy Connolly, Mike Harding and Jasper Carrott started as relatively straight musical acts whose between-song banter developed into complete comedy routines. The 1960s had also seen the satire boom, including the creation of the club, The Establishmentmarker, which, amongst other things, gave British audiences their first taste of extreme American stand-up comedy from Lenny Bruce.

In 1979, the first American-style stand-up comedy club, the Comedy Store, Londonmarker was opened in London by Peter Rosengard, where many alternative comedy stars of the 1980s, such as Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, Alexei Sayle, Lee Evans, Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson began their careers. The stand-up comedy circuit rapidly expanded from London across the UK. The present British stand-up comedy circuit arose from the 'alternative' comedy revolution of the 1980s, with political and observational humour being the prominent styles to flourish. In 1983 young drama teacher Maria Kempinska created Jongleurs Comedy Clubs, now the largest Stand Up Comedy chain in Europe.

Stand-up comedy around the world

Hong Kong

Stand-up comedy in Chinamarker is an emerging art form. Hong Kongmarker is the only city in China to offer a fulltime comedy club, The TakeOut Comedy Club Hong Kong, which features both local comics as well as leading international comedians such as Tom Cotter. The Punchline Comedy Club also hosts international comedians once per month.


Singaporemarker has a growing stand-up comedy scene with three active venues. TakeOut Comedy hosts a weekly open mic to help develop local comics. Each of Howl at the Moon and The Comedy Club Asia at DXO offers shows one weekend per month primarily featuring leading international comics such as Paul Ogata. Kumar, a drag queen who has performed in Singapore for more than 17 years, is Singapore's leading stand-up comedian.

Comedy festivals

Stand-up comedy is the focus of four major international festivals: the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Edinburghmarker, Scotland; Just for Laughs in Montrealmarker, Canada; HBO's U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, COmarker, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in Melbournemarker, Australia, and a number of other festivals, most prominently The Comedy Festival in Las Vegasmarker, the Vancouver Comedy Festival, the Boston Comedy and Film Festival, the New York Underground Film Festival and the Cat Laughs Comedy Festival in Kilkennymarker, Irelandmarker. Radio hosts Opie and Anthony also produce a comedy tour called Opie and Anthony's Traveling Virus Comedy Tour, featuring their own co-host, Jim Norton as well as several other stand-up comedians regularly featured on their radio show. There is also a festival in Hong Kong called the HK International Comedy Festival. The festival format has proven quite successful at attracting attention to the art of stand-up, and is often used as a scouting and proving ground by industry professionals seeking new comedic talent.

Other media

Many of the earliest vaudeville-era stand-ups gained their greater recognition on radio. They often opened their programs with topical monologues, characterized by ad-libs and discussions about anything from the latest films to a missed birthday. Each program tended to be divided into the opening monologue, musical number, followed by a skit or story routine. Their guests were varied and included other comedians, including Burns and Allen. A "feud" between Fred Allen and Jack Benny was used as comic material for nearly a decade.

HBO (which, for the first time, presented comedians uncensored), beginning with Robert Klein in 1975, was instrumental in reaching larger audiences.

Continuing that tradition, most modern stand-up comedians use television or motion pictures to reach a level of success and recognition unattainable in the comedy club circuit alone.

Since the mid-2000s, online video-sharing sites such as YouTube have also provided a venue for stand-up comedy, and many comedians' performances can be viewed online.

See also



  • Stebbins, Robert A. (1990) The Laugh-Makers: Stand-Up Comedy as Art, Business, and Life-Style. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press.

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