What is Stand-Up Comedy?

First off, don’t answer that. I love to ask rhetorical, open-ended questions and speculate in a Socratic fashion. I despise facile answers by know-it-alls. People who come at me in that way, with a “Well, actually…” are liable to get shut down faster than someone pulling out a pint at an AA meeting.

The present little excursion is prompted by a recent tweet by an acquaintance, who asked yesterday on Twitter, “Who’s on your stand-up-comedy Mount Rushmore?” And he listed the reasonable “Richard Pryor, Bob Newhart, George Carlin, Steve Martin“. Predictably, I found myself going far more old school with my picks: “Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Henny Youngman, Rodney Dangerfield“, and found it very hard to leave out Jack Benny. I clearly love joke comedians, though not really to the exclusion of the other sort. “The other sort” being best represented perhaps by Pryor, whom I also found it difficult to leave out. For many, he is the father of stand-up…I would qualify that, though, as the father of modern stand-up. Thus prompting this little discursive rambling. I get very bent out of shape when most in the media claim that such-and-such is the “first” anything, because with my trusty telescope, which apparently has a much more powerful lens than the scopes of other people, I can apparently see much farther away, and in general when someone is claimed to be “first”, I’ll usually be able to identify someone who did the same thing a century or more earlier. And truth be known, most performing firsts are lost in the sands of time, for they happened around a campfire 20,000 years ago. So when people act like stand-up “started” 30 or 50 years ago it absolutely gets my goat. It quite simply didn’t. Did NOT. There have been shifts in taste, most certainly, but most of the various KINDS of popular solo comedy have been around since before your great-great grandmother.

What are the kinds? I hesitate to label them, because few real artists are “pure” in that sense, but we can make a few rough categories. Jack Benny famously said something like “A comic says funny things; whereas a comedian says things funny“. My response to that is: “whatever”. But basically that projected dichotomy boils down to “joke comedian” (like the guys I named in my Rushmore) vs. storytelling character comedians. Joke comedians are considered by many or most in the modern era to constitute an unacceptably old-fashioned vaudeville approach. Though, I note that Seth Meyers has a weakness for this kind of “bad” joke. He’ll often “go there” and giggle at his own transgression, which isn’t really one. Funny is funny. The contemporary way is a more free-flowing technique that mixes elements of storytelling, comic acting, impressions, and what have you, sometimes including verbal jokes but avoiding “jokey jokes” which could supposedly be told by anybody. (They really can’t, since timing and delivery are a thing, but that’s maybe another discussion). I’m here to tell you, though, the modern approach also predates Pryor by a mile as well, not just by guys who came just before him like Lenny Bruce or Bill Cosby, but by countless vaudeville monologists, storytellers, Protean actors and impressionists, and people who worked the lecture circuits back into the 19th century. Newhart once famously compared Pryor to Mark Twain for a reason. If you’d gone to see Twain or Dickens in a lecture hall, what you’d experience onstage would not be unlike what you see Pryor do in film clips, they just used notes and didn’t use modern profanity (although they certainly used what passed for daring language in their day).

For that matter Janeane Garofolo uses notes , as did the late Spalding Gray. And, pray tell me what’s the line between performance art and stand-up? There are a zillion people in the current landscape who blur those lines as well — who get quite serious about identity issues, painful pasts, politics and the like, while also weaving humor through it. Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette set the internet on fire in 2018 with a predictable argument about whether what she did was stand-up. My answer to such an asinine question is “Your labels and definitions are meaningless, that’s what it was.” And I am someone who has literally written about a thousand comedians. 

The other thing that prompts this little post, is that I have been grappling with this! I’ve been working on my solo show The Pilgrim’s Progress, which mixes many of these elements and others besides. Stay tuned, if you have the stomach.