Stand-up Comedy


Stand-up comedy is a comic style in which a comedian performs in front of a live audience, usually speaking directly to them. The performer is commonly known as a comic, stand-up comic, comedian, comedienne, stand-up comedian, or simply a stand-up.

Comedians give the illusion that they are dialoguing, but in actuality, they are monologuing a grouping of humorous stories, jokes and one-liners, typically called a ‘shtick,’ ‘routine,’ ‘act,’ or ‘set.’ Some stand-up comedians use props, music, or magic tricks to enhance their acts. Stand-up comedy is stated to be the ‘freest form of comedy writing’ that is regarded as a fictionalized ‘extension of’ the person performing.

Some of the main types of humor in stand-up comedy include observational comedy, blue comedy, dark comedy, clean comedy, and cringe comedy. Alternative stand-up comedy deviates from the traditional, mainstream comedy by breaking either joke structure, performing in an untraditional scene, or breaking an audience’s expectations; this includes the use of shaggy dog stories (an extremely long-winded anecdote characterized by extensive narration of typically irrelevant incidents and terminated by an anticlimax.) and anti-jokes (jokes that are intentionally not funny).

Stand-up comedy is often performed in corporate events, comedy clubs, bars and pubs, nightclubs, neo-burlesques, colleges, and theaters (audiences will give applause breaks more often in theaters). Outside live performance, stand-up is often distributed commercially via television and the internet. It can take an amateur comedian about 10 years to perfect the technique needed to be a professional comedian; this is a constant process of learning through failure. A comedian’s ideas and jokes will fail nine times out of ten; this may require a comedian to write hundreds of jokes to achieve enough successful ones to fill a set.

As the name implies, ‘stand-up’ comedians usually perform their material while standing, though this is not mandatory. Similar acts performed while seated can be referred to as ‘sit-down comedy.’ ‘Comedians are more likely to exhibit psychotic[-like] traits than the average person; most comedians display ‘magical thinking’ and are ‘introvertedly anhedonic’ (unmotivated loners).

In stand-up comedy, the feedback of the audience is instant and crucial for the comedian’s act, even from the moment they enter the venue. Audiences expect a stand-up comedian to provide a constant stream of laughs, calculated at four to six laughs per minute, and a performer is always under pressure to deliver, especially the first two minutes.

A stand-up comedy show is rarely one comedian. It is usually a multi-person, showcase format, often with a traditional opener, feature performer, and headliner. A traditional format typically features an opening act known as a host, compère (UK), master of ceremonies (MC/emcee), or simply ‘opener’ who, for 10–12 minutes, warms up the crowd, interacts with audience members, makes announcements, and then introduces the other performers; this is followed by a ‘middle’ or ‘feature’ act that lasts 15–20 minutes but is expected to have ’30 minutes of solid material’; the feature act is followed by the headliner, who performs for ‘an hour.’

The second definition of an opener is applied when the opening act of a traveling comedian may perform a 25-minute set (the opener doubles as a feature). The ‘showcase’ format consists of several acts who perform for roughly equal lengths of time, typical in smaller clubs such as the Comedy Cellar in New York City’s Greenwich Village, or at large events where the billing of several names allows for a larger venue than the individual comedians could draw. A showcase format may still feature an MC.

A ‘warm-up act’ (or ‘crowd warmer’) performs at comedy clubs, before the filming of a television comedy in front of a studio audience, or the beginning of music concerts to prepare the crowd for the show or main act.

Many smaller venues hold ‘open mic’ events, where anyone can take the stage and perform for the audience. This offers an opportunity for amateur performers to hone their craft and perhaps to break into the profession, or for established professionals to work on their material. Industry scouts will sometimes go to watch open mics. Breaking into the business requires ’10 minute[s]’ of ‘A’ material. Roadhouses (remote clubs) start booking people for ’20 minutes of ‘A’ material.’ ‘A’ material means getting a big laugh at least ‘75% of the time.’

‘Bringer shows’ are open mics that require amateur performers to bring a specified number of paying guests to receive stage time. Some view this as exploitation, while others disagree. The guests usually have to pay a cover charge and there is often a minimum number of drinks that must be ordered. These shows usually have a ‘showcase’ format. Different comedy clubs have different requirements for their bringer shows. Gotham Comedy Club in New York City, for example, usually has ten-person bringers, while Broadway Comedy Club in New York City usually has six-person bringers. In the ’90s, the New York Comedy Club had pre-shows that were bringer shows; they also had audition scams with an ‘accelerated pre-show program.’ A guest set is an unpaid, five-to-ten-minute time slot (during the emcee’s time slot of a professional show) that is essentially an audition to get booked for paid gigs.

In stand-up comedy, a ‘canned’ joke is made of a ‘premise…point of view’ and ‘twist’ ending. A joke contains the least amount of information necessary to be conveyed, understood, and laughed at; the setup contains the information needed by the audience in order to understand the punchline. Most of stand-up comedy’s jokes are the juxtaposition of two incongruous things. According to the founding editor of satirical newspaper ‘The Onion,’ there are eleven types of jokes (irony, character, reference, shock, parody, hyperbole, wordplay, analogy, madcap, meta-humor, and misplaced focus).

Stand-up comedians will normally deliver their jokes in the form of a typical joke structure, using comedic timing to deliver the setup and then the punch line. Stand-ups will normally frame their stories as having happened ‘recently.’ The comedian’s delivery of a joke—the pause, inflection, ‘ener[gy],’ and look—is ‘everything.’ Comedians often include ‘taglines’ (dependent punchlines that follow another punchline) and ‘toppers’ (independent afterthoughts that follow a punchline).

A ‘jokoid’ is a placeholder joke, which will eventually be superseded by a funnier joke. ‘Stock jokes’ are similar to jokoids (as placeholders) and are ‘hack jokes’ (obvious, overused, stale jokes) that are for ‘specific situations.’ A paraprosdokian (a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence causes the reader or listener to reframe the first part) is a popular method that is used by comedians, creating a surprising punchline that causes the listener to reinterpret the setup. Stand-ups will often use the rule of three (a writing principle that suggests that a trio of events or characters is more humorous, satisfying, or effective than other numbers). Comedians will normally include stylistic and comedic devices, such as tropes (figurative language), idioms (common phrases which means something different from their literal meaning), stop consonants (also known as plosives, consonants in which the vocal tract is blocked so that all airflow ceases), and wordplay (puns, rhymes, double entendres, etc.).

A traditional set is made of jokes (setup and punchline), bits (a joke or ‘3 or 4 jokes’), and chunks (multiple bits linked by a topic that may last ’10-15 minutes’). Long bits must have the biggest laugh at their endings. Once a setup is established for a bit, the proceeding ‘jokes’ should get shorter and shorter. A ‘segue’ is the link between jokes. A ‘callback’ is a reference to a previous joke. ‘Bombing’ refers to when a comedian has failed to get an intended laugh. A stand-up comedian uses a persona or character to deliver their jokes. The quality of a comedian’s material is more important than their persona, unless they are well known. Other sources say that personality trumps material. A good comedian will create a tension that the audience releases with laughter. This is known as a ‘relief/release’ laugh. A comedian’s stand-up persona/voice consists of the type of material they perform, the format of the material, the aggregate set, the comedian’s rapport with the audience, and the comedian’s ‘own identity.’

When a set is consistently bombing, most comedians will perform ‘crowd work’ by communicating with audience members to save face; much of crowd work is prewritten with added improvisation. Some comedians will use small talk that directs audience members to answer ‘a question’ that the comedian ‘[has] a topper’ for. Other comedians will become more intimate with their questions until they get multiple big laughs, before moving on. The result of crowd work is often an inside joke.

A ‘tight five’ is a five-minute stand-up routine that is well-rehearsed and consists of a stand-up comedian’s best material that reliably gets laughs. It is often used for auditions or delivered when audience response is minimal. A tight five is the stepping stone to getting a paid spot.

Comics memorize their jokes through the use of on-stage practice/blocking. Some comedians employ a mnemonic device called the ‘method of loci’ (‘memory palace technique,’ which uses visualizations about one’s environment to quickly and efficiently recall information). Some write their jokes over and over, while others have a set list in front of them; for professionals, this may be on cue cards or a stage monitor.

In stand-up, a heckler is a person who interrupts a comedian’s set. Comedians will often have a repertoire of comebacks for hecklers. Comedians will sometimes get into physical altercations with hecklers. The term ‘punching down’ is sometimes used to describe jokes that are made at the expense of disenfranchised groups or their members. It carries with it the assumption that comedy should be directed at the powerful rather than the afflicted.

Claiming one can ‘smell the road on a comic’ is a pejorative phrase for a comedian who has compromised their own originality to get laughs while travelling. Comedian Seth Meyers coined the term ‘clapter’: when an audience cheers or applauds for a joke that they agree with but that is not funny enough to get a laugh. A ‘hack’ is a pejorative term for a comedian with rushed, unoriginal, low-quality, or cliché material. When someone is accused of stealing a joke, the accused’s defense is sometimes cryptomnesia (a forgotten memory that returns without  being recognized as such by the subject) or parallel thinking.

Stand-up comedy in the United Kingdom began in the music halls of the 18th and 19th centuries. Morecambe and Wise, Arthur Askey, Ken Dodd and Max Miller were notable ‘front-cloth comics’ who rose through the 20th century variety theater circuit. Until 1968, the heavy censorship regime of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office required all comedians to submit their acts for review. 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.

The rise of the post-war comedians coincided with the rise of television and radio, and the traditional music hall circuit suffered greatly as a result. By the 1970s, music hall entertainment was virtually dead. Alternative circuits had evolved, such as working men’s 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 Establishment,’ which, among other things, gave British audiences their first taste of extreme American stand-up comedy from Lenny Bruce.

Stand-up comedy in the United States got its start from the stump-speech monologues of minstrel shows in the early 19th century. It also has roots in various traditions of popular entertainment of the late 19th century, including vaudeville, English music hall, burlesque or early variety shows, humorist monologues by personalities such as Mark Twain, and circus clown antics. With the turn of the century and spread of urban and industrial living, the structure, pacing and timing, and material of American humor began to change. Comedians of this era often depended on fast-paced joke delivery, slapstick, outrageous or lewd innuendo, and donned an ethnic persona—African, Scottish, German, Jewish—and built a routine based on popular stereotypes. Jokes were generally broad and material was widely shared, or in some cases, stolen. Industrialized American audiences sought entertainment as a way to escape and confront city living.

The founders of modern American stand-up comedy include Moms Mabley, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, George Burns, Fred Allen, Milton Berle, and Frank Fay, all of whom came from vaudeville or the Chitlin’ Circuit (a collection of predominantly African American performance venues throughout the eastern, southern, and upper midwest regions). 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. Vaudevillian Charlie Case (also spelled Charley Case) is often credited with the first form of stand-up comedy, performing humorous monologues without props or costumes. This had not been done before during a vaudeville show. Nightclubs and resorts slowly became the new breeding ground for stand-ups. Acts such as Alan King, Danny Thomas, Martin and Lewis, Don Rickles, Joan Rivers and Jack E. Leonard flourished in these venues.

In the 1950s and into the 1960s, stand-ups such as Mort Sahl began developing their acts in small folk clubs like San Francisco’s hungry i (owned by impresario Enrico Banducci and origin of the ubiquitous ‘brick wall’ behind comedians) 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 ‘the’ obscene comic when he used language that usually led to his arrest. After Lenny Bruce, arrests for obscene language on stage nearly disappeared until George Carlin was arrested in 1972 at Milwaukee’s Summerfest after performing the routine ‘Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television’ (the case against Carlin was eventually dismissed). Other notable comics from this era include Woody Allen, Shelley Berman, Phyllis Diller, and Bob Newhart. Some Black American comedians such as Redd Foxx, George Kirby, Bill Cosby, and Dick Gregory began to cross over to white audiences during this time.

In the 1970s, several entertainers became 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. Don Rickles, whose legendary style of relentless, merciless attacks on both fellow performers and audience members alike kept him a fixture on TV and in Vegas from the 1960s all the way to the 2000s, when he appeared in the wildly popular Pixar ‘Toy Story’ films as an acerbic Mr Potato Head. Television programs such as ‘Saturday Night Live’ and ‘The Tonight Show’ helped publicize the careers of other stand-up comedians, including Janeane Garofalo, Bill Maher, and Jay Leno.

From the 1970s to the ’90s, different styles of comedy began to emerge, from the madcap stylings of Robin Williams, to the odd observations of Jerry Seinfeld and Ellen DeGeneres, the ironic musings and wordplay of Steven Wright, to the mimicry of Whoopi Goldberg and Eddie Murphy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.