The history of stand-up comedians, from Artemus Ward to Richard Pryor

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Sarah Sweeney

USC professor Wayne Federman tracks the evolution of modern-day stand-up comedy in his new book “The History of Stand-Up: From Mark Twain to Dave Chapelle.” Photo by Jim Reese.

A stand-up comedy boom was underway before the pandemic hit. Dave Chapelle did a 16-night residency at Radio City Music Hall, where he brought onstage other superstar comics like Amy Schumer and Chris Rock. Kevin Hart sold out a football stadium in Philly that seats more than 67,000 people. Netflix was putting out a new stand-up special seemingly every week. Even the 1980s-style two-drink minimum comedy clubs were thriving nationwide before the pandemic shut them down.

Whether COVID-19 caused a comedy bust remains to be seen, but stand-up has boomed and busted before. 

A new book traces comedy’s successes and failures, plus its evolution since pre-vaudeville times. It’s called “The History of Stand-Up: From Mark Twain to Dave Chapelle.” Author Wayne Federman is a comedian who teaches stand-up performance and history at USC. 

The beginning of stand-up comedy

Federman traces the beginnings of stand-up comedy to Charles Brown, the newspaper contributor and compositor in Cleveland, Ohio. Under the pseudonym Artemus Ward, he published a series of comedy columns. One day, after visiting a traveling minstrel show, he saw his columns were being performed onstage. Federman says it inspired Brown to start traveling and performing his works. 

“People go berserk. They love it. … He's traveling the country as Artemus Ward, making the equivalent of over $30,000 a night,” Federman says.

He says Brown proved that just standing onstage by oneself was enough to tell jokes. “It's not a variety show. There's no juggling. There's no dancing girls. It's just him.”

Federman says the shows even inspired a certain historic literary figure: Samuel Clemens — better known by his pen name Mark Twain.

The first Black superstar comedian

Widely recognized as the first major Black comedian, Bahamian-born Bert Williams was recognized for his bit as the “Jonah Man.” 

Federman says it was a character without a lick of luck: “If he didn't have bad luck, he would have no luck at all. Like if it was raining soup, he would have a fork.”

Williams was the first Black person to work with white performers at Broadway’s Ziegfeld Follies. And according to Federman, comedian W.C. Fields once described him as “the funniest man that he ever saw onstage and the saddest offstage.”

He says that’s due partly to the discimination he still experienced as a Black man in not only a white-dominated industry, but in the world. 

“He would play the theater or go up, hang out with [U.S. comedian] Eddie Cantor. And they would have to go in the back door of the hotel because they weren't allowed in the lobby of the hotel. So it was just indignity after indignity,” he says.

Federman says minstrel shows in San Francisco was where Williams started performing. 

“The unfortunate beginnings of stand-up comedy can be traced kind of to these minstrel shows.”

Other Black comedians, such as Moms Mabley, also became prominent but were siloed to Black performance venues. Federman notes that the 1960s was when Black comedians finally broke through in the mainstream.

Comedy hits new media

As comedy began to evolve, it debuted on radio and TV. 

Some comedians, like Bob Hope, made it big on the airwaves. And due to their popularity, some employed the help of a writer’s room, like Hope. 

“He did spend a lot of his budget — more than maybe any other radio comedian — on writers and made that part of his persona that he had this group of guys that would send him these gags.” 

As TV became more popular, so did the idea of depicting comedy on it. A giant in the era was Ed Sullivan, whose show ran from 1948 until 1971. Federman says the now historic TV personality wasn’t initially a hit with the corporate world.

“They want to fire this guy right away — the sponsor — and get somebody who can actually present on television. But the show slowly becomes a hit and he becomes ingrained. And they changed the name from ‘Toast of the Town’ to ‘The Ed Sullivan Show.’”

He says the show became a lightning rod for stand-up comedians, and hosted rising talent like George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Joan Rivers. That was made possible through booking agents that searched through presentation houses and Greenwich Village nightclubs to find the up-and-comers.  

Enter: The Comedy club

The first notable comedian who took to a comedy club stage was Robert Klein. He popularized observational comedy, which bases its jokes on everyday occurrences in life. 

“It really inspired a whole host of comedians. Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser, Larry Miller, Jon Stewart all point to him like, ‘Oh, I can do comedy like this. That's like very much part of my life.’ As opposed to, ‘I'm a comedian in a suit. And I'm doing jokes about mother-in-laws or something like that.’ So he's hugely influential for that whole first generation of comedy club comics.” 

During the 1970s, stand-up comedy jumped to movie theaters. Federman says Richard Pryor’s 1979 “Live in Concert” was the first full-length movie featuring only stand-up comedy. 

“There was a critic from The Village Voice, who said it was one of the most thrilling moments of his life watching this one guy onstage. So now, stand-up is elevated to a level that [it] never had been. Even with Bob Hope and all of those guys that went before them, no one had ever seen anything quite like this. And it's still staggering to watch today.”

You don’t need a stage for comedy anymore?

Pre-pandemic, Federman says stand-up comedy was experiencing a renaissance. At the same time, he says the internet also provided a new wave of comedians to connect with audiences directly. And due to the risk of COVID-19, many comedians were forced to find new ways to perform that didn’t look like the stereotypical stage with an audience in front. 

“Netflix and podcasting, Twitter, Instagram. We're in this weird world where for a year, comedians found different ways to perform that weren't directly onstage, which has been the main point of stand-up since Artemus Ward. You had to perform onstage and get the reaction of the crowd. And that's no longer the case.”

Credits

Guest:

  • Wayne Federman - stand-up comedian, USC professor, author of “The History of Stand-Up: From Mark Twain to Dave Chapelle.”