Probing Question: What are the roots of stand-up comedy?

Bethany Parker
September 12, 2008
George Carlin with mic
Wikipedia Commons

George Carlin once said, "I think it's the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately."

Until his death in June, the groundbreaking stand-up comic did just that. In 1972, Carlin's "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" routine provoked a public debate about freedom of expression that eventually resulted in a 1978 Supreme Court obscenity case and helped define the limits of acceptable free speech in television and radio broadcasts.

Says Jerry Zolten, before Carlin could cross that line, many comedians had to come before, breaking boundaries and redefining stand-up.

"Today's generation expects comedians to push the envelope and get people to think, but it hasn't always been that way," says Zolten, associate professor of Communication Arts & Sciences and American Studies at Penn State Altoona.

American stand-up comedy has its beginnings in the minstrel shows of the early 1800s and as stand-up evolved, the medium came to reflect America's social history, Zolten explains. Minstrelsy ridiculed and caricatured African Americans, reflecting the racism of the time. White performers blackened their faces with burnt cork, exaggerating the eyes, noses and mouths of the African Americans they parodied.

Minstrel shows were largely musical theatre, but they did include stock comic characters, says Zolten. Positioned at center stage, the interlocutor would set up jokes and the end-men would deliver the punch lines. Another typical character in the minstrel show was Jim Crow—a caricature of a black slave, the stereotypical "happy darky" originating from the song "Jump Jim Crow," written by a white performer, Thomas Dartmouth (T.D.) "Daddy" Rice. Later segregation laws became known by the same name.

"Minstrel shows were rife with simplistic jokes of the 'Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side' kind," says Zolten, adding that "minstrelsy was also a source for much of the stereotype that still lingers today about African Americans, a group more maligned in the name of entertainment than any other."

The minstrel show remained popular well past the Civil War and the abolishment of slavery, though by the late 19th Century it had begun to fade as the era of vaudeville kicked in, he explains. Unlike minstrelsy, vaudeville featured variety acts that traveled circuits of small-town vaudeville theatres. Audience members would pay a nickel to see singers, dancers, acrobats, magicians and comedians, he adds. In the days before microphones, comedy was less subtle, and the more physical comedy known as "slapstick" was particularly popular. (The genre got its name from a stick-like prop that produced a loud "whack" noise without actually causing pain.)

"In a huge theatre, nuanced spoken-word comedy didn't work so well because the audience couldn't really hear," Zolten explains. "So comics relied more on exaggerated movement, speech, and physical, pratfall comedy to entertain. A stand-up comedian of today couldn't have gotten across back then because he or she would have had to put so much into projecting that timing and subtlety would be lost."

In the days of vaudeville, Zolten notes, comedians had to watch what they said. Some vaudeville theatres even posted signs backstage of prohibited words (including "golly" and "darn"). During a time of intense immigration, vaudeville comedians also popularized humor based on ethnic stereotypes.

"In addition to the restrictions on language, comedians completely avoided controversy. It was more about making fun of people and their differences," Zolten explains, "which ironically wasn't considered controversial back then. The gist of much of the comedy was 'Gee, aren't we glad we're not like them.'"

Will Rogers, one of the first political stand-ups, was an exception during the vaudeville era. "Rogers would come out in cowboy clothes, doing rope tricks with a lariat as he offered astute and cutting political commentary," Zolten says. "He'd joke acerbically about the politicians and policies of the day and get away with it. That's one of the beautiful things about comedy; it gives license to say things you couldn't get away with otherwise."

With the invention of the microphone, records, and radio, many vaudevillians transitioned into broadcast comedy during the pre-World War II years. According to Zolten, voice amplification and transmission allowed for a new fast-paced style that depended on words and timing. Legends like Jack Benny, Bob Hope and George Burns and Gracie Allen all started in vaudeville but then moved to radio.

During wartime, he adds, the shared experience of radio comedy enhanced a feeling of Americans pulling together.

"Earlier stand-up comedy that made fun of different ethnicities is divisive," Zolten says. "During the World Wars, comedians gradually began poking fun at what we as a society could all laugh at together." He points to the example of the routine "Who's on First?" performed by the famous comedic duo Abbott and Costello. The bit consisted of fast-paced wordplay about baseball-player names and the game that was a national obsession held in common by many Americans.

In the 1950s, variety shows like "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "The Tonight Show" would continue to transform comedy, broadcasting comics into America's living rooms. Zolten cites a 1959 airing of "The Steve Allen Show" that featured a cutting-edge comic named Lenny Bruce who, before George Carlin, tested the limits of social norms.

"Lenny Bruce, in the fifties, was one of the first to really push the envelope, addressing head-on our prejudices and skewed views of things. Many people think of him as a guy who just spouted obscenities, but he was much more than that," says Zolten. "Bruce was a catalyst for what would come in the '60s, a warrior on the frontline of the free speech movement; a comedian who used humor to provoke thought and hopefully change minds."

Carlin himself acknowledged that his comedy went from straight-laced to provocative after catching one of Bruce's shows. Bruce's influence is most evident in Carlin's now famous "Seven Words" routine, Zolten adds.

Carlin in turn would influence a whole generation of contemporary comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock, who cite Carlin as an inspiration and "whose shoulders in turn the next generation of comedians will stand on."

Jerry Zolten, Ph.D., is associate professor of speech communications and American studies at Penn State Altoona; He teaches a popular undergraduate course on the history of stand-up comedy.

Last Updated September 12, 2008