Laughing In the King’s Face, Part I: Origins of Stand-Up and American Culture

Comedy used to look like this.

And somehow, it became this.

Wow. What happened, right?

Many people – specifically those of the elder generations – put forward the belief that we as a society have lost our innocence, and that the stand-up comedians around today are products of this moral atrophy. Gone are the days of white men in black suits, standing in front of an audience of well-dressed people, while a Big Band waits off stage with the burlesque dancers. Gone are the days of simple puns and knock-knock jokes. It’s society, the elders say: Bob Hope didn’t need to use dirty language! Milton Berle didn’t talk about sex or politics!

I would argue that modern Stand-Up Comedy, like all other art forms, is not a cause of perceived societal decay, but a symptom. It’s a  crack in the glass house of hypocrisy, it’s a blemish on plastic skin. It’s a venue for free speech in a world where a mixture of political correctness, societal rules, and the ruling class repress truth. In the end, the role of the comedian – and, in a grander sense, the role of the artist – is to encourage the audience member to see things in a different way. This is what separates good entertainment from brain-numbing escapism.

But more on all that later.

Play Me Off, Johnny

Vaudeville: 1880s – 1930s

VAUDEVILLE – Derived from the French expression “void de ville” or, “Voice of the City.”

Early stage comedy was a variety show event, meant to amuse the growing middle class. The old Roman expression “Give them bread and circuses” could be used to describe a common Vaudeville show: mindless and entertaining acts, men dressed as women, women dressed as men, pies in the face, dancing monkeys, song and dance numbers. Unlike earlier variety shows, Vaudeville sought to distance itself from the working class, seeking a more educated, sophisticated audience. The growth of Vaudeville was set in the Progressive Era of the United States, in which education and self-betterment was a hot commodity for the middle class.

(NOTE: Stand-up comedy can trace some of its origins to Vaudeville, but it is also said that men like Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde, who went on multi-city speaking tours, are the true fathers of the art form.)

As the old saying goes, the Talky Pictures Killed Vaudeville. The growing interest in cinema, coupled with the lower price of movie theater tickets, took Vaudeville out of the running for popular entertainment. Many Vaudeville stars went on to successful television, film, and entertainment careers, including George Burns, Milton Berle, and Red Skelton.


The country was changing as well. In the span of thirty-one years, the United States saw two World Wars, the Great Depression, wide-spread illness, and the first use of weapons of mass destruction. The US lost its innocence. Before, we were a bunch of cute and cuddly, slightly-backwards group of upstarts, with a strange penchant for fighting wars: growing giants unaware of our own strength. We lost our prosperity in the Depression, and our sense of security during Pearl Harbor.

Entertainment, the television, the radio, comedians and clowns, provided us a much-needed escape from the harsh realities we were facing as a country. We wanted to laugh and forget.

As always, great turmoil provides the ruling class with justification for atrocious acts, against the people they serve and the enemy alike. We emerged into the 50s with a new war – Korea – and Red Fever, the mad witch hunt for corrupting, anti-capitalist ideologies. Black people were still oppressed, gay people were still shoved in closets, women were treated like children, and “communists” were tried and thrown in prison. But hey, if you were white and middle class in the fifties, things were on the up and up.

Amusing, (although politically incorrect by today’s standards,) antics of the late Jonathan Winters. It is said Robin Williams owes a great deal to Winters.  

During this time period, Jonathan Winters, Johnny Carson, and other “tame” comedians blew onto the scene. Jokes were simple and innocent, comedians wore suits and ties and rarely talked about issues of the day. It was hard to be a black comedian, and almost harder to be a woman comedian, and if you were a black woman, good luck.

These smiling faces on the black and white TV were like chipping white paint on a house with a picket fence. Beneath the surface, the mold and rot was beginning to build. Black people were seeking the rights that were promised to them in the 1860s, women were sick of changing diapers and ironing ties, and people of different religious beliefs and ideologies were getting sick of being ignored.

Times, they were-a changing. Art imitates life, life influences art. The rabble grows restless, and soon, dissenting voices arise from the din…

Stay tuned for Laughing in the King’s Face, Part II: Lenny Bruce and the New Guard of Comedy

Note: The subject of the history of comedy is surprisingly dense, as is its relationship with the development of society. These blog posts are intended to give a brief overview rather than a microscopic look. If you, the reader, wish to add anything, please comment below.

Further Reading

From Traveling Show to Vaudeville: Theatrical Spectacle in America by Robert M. Lewis (2007)

Voice of the City: Vaudeville and Popular Culture in New York by Robert W. Synder (2000)

The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville by Anthony Slide (2012)

Comedy at the Edge by Richard Zoglin

Stand-up Comedy in Theory, or, Abjection in America by John Limon

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  1. nickcalabrese

    I love this series of articles. I agree that the way comedians present themselves today is a symptom of the overall situation. But it’s also a metaphor. Comedians are able to show you that you don’t need to dress up to perform – honesty is best in comedy. Comedians talking about their own truths translates very well for audiences. These bits and experiences are easy for people to relate to and it enables them to discover new things about themselves. It’s a relief that comedy is so honest now.

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