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, stand-up comedian, or simply a stand-up. In stand-up comedy, the comedian usually recites a fast-paced grouping of humorous stories, short jokes called "bits", and one-liners typically called a monologue, routine, or act. Some stand-up comedians use props, music, or magic tricks to enhance their acts. Stand-up comedy is often performed in comedy clubs, bars, nightclubs, neo-burlesques, colleges, and theaters. Outside of live performance, stand-up is often distributed commercially via television, DVD, and the internet.
In stand-up comedy, the feedback of the audience is instant and crucial for the comedian's act. Audiences expect a stand-up comic to provide a steady stream of laughs, and a performer is always under pressure to deliver. Comedic actor Will Ferrell has called stand-up comedy "hard, lonely, and vicious".
While a stand-up comedy show may involve only one comedian, most shows feature a "headline" or a "showcase" format. A headline format typically features an opening act known as a host, compère (UK), or master of ceremonies (MC), who usually warms up the crowd, interacts with the audience members, makes announcements, and introduces the other performers. This is followed by one or two "middle" or "featured" acts, who perform 15- to 20-minute sets, followed by a headliner who performs for longer. The "showcase" format consists of several acts who perform for roughly equal lengths of time, typical in smaller clubs such as the Comedy Cellar, or Jongleurs, 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.
Many smaller venues hold "open mic" events, where anyone can take the stage and perform for the audience, offering a way for amateur performers to hone their craft and possibly break into the profession, or for established professionals to work on their material.
The United Kingdom has a long heritage of stand-up comedy, which began in the music halls of the 18th and 19th centuries. Notable performers who rose through the 20th-century music hall circuit were Morecambe and Wise, Arthur Askey, Ken Dodd, and Max Miller, who was considered to be the quintessential music-hall comedian. The heavy censorship regime of the Lord Chamberlain's Office required all comedians to submit their acts for censorship. 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.
At the end of World War II, many members of the Armed Forces had developed a taste for comedy (stand-up or otherwise) in wartime concert parties and moved into professional entertainment. Eric Sykes, Peter Sellers and the other Goons, and Tommy Cooper all began their careers this way. The rise of the postwar comedians coincided with the rise of television and radio, and the traditional music hall circuit suffered greatly as a result. Whereas a music hall performer could work for years using just one act, television exposure created a constant demand for new material, although this may have also been responsible for the cessation of theatrical censorship in 1968.
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, amongst other things, gave British audiences their first taste of extreme American stand-up comedy from Lenny Bruce. Victoria Wood launched her stand-up career in the early 1980s, which included observational conversation mixed with comedy songs. Wood was to become one of the country's most successful comedians, in 2001 selling out the Royal Albert Hall for 15 nights in a row.
In 1979, the first American-style stand-up comedy club, the Comedy Store, London was opened in London by Peter Rosengard, where many alternative comedy stars of the 1980s, such as Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, Alexei Sayle, Craig Ferguson, Rik Mayall, and Ade Edmondson began their careers. The stand-up comedy circuit rapidly expanded from London across the UK. The present British stand-up comedy circuit arose from the 'alternative' comedy revolution of the 1980s, with political and observational humour being the prominent styles to flourish. In 1983, young drama teacher Maria Kempinska created Jongleurs Comedy Clubs, now the largest stand-up comedy chain in Europe. Stand up comedy is believed to have been performed originally as a one-man show. Lately, this type of show started to involve a group of young comedians, especially in Europe.
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North American stand-up comedy has its roots in various traditions of popular entertainment of the late 19th century, including vaudeville, English music hall, minstrel shows, humorist monologues by personalities such as Mark Twain, and circus clown antics. Comedians of this era often 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.
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. 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, and is credited with creating the style of 20th-century stand-up.
Nightclubs and resorts 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 new arenas.
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 (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 on 21 July 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. Television programs such as Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show helped publicize the careers of other stand-up comedians, including 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 of Steven Wright, to the mimicry of Eddie Murphy. These comedians would serve to influence the next generation of comedians, including Kevin Hart, Chris Rock, Doug Benson, Bill Hicks, Bill Burr, David Cross, Louis C.K., Mitch Hedberg, Jim Norton, Dave Foley, Todd Glass, Joe Rogan, and Sarah Silverman.
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Stand-up comedy is the focus of four major international festivals: the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Edinburgh, Scotland; Just for Laughs in Montreal, Canada; HBO's U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, CO, and the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in Melbourne, Australia. A number of other festivals operate around the world, including The Comedy Festival in Las Vegas, the Vancouver Comedy Festival, the New York Comedy Festival, the Boston Comedy and Film Festival, the New York Underground Film Festival, the Sydney Comedy Festival, and the Cat Laughs Comedy Festival in Kilkenny, Ireland. Radio hosts Opie and Anthony also produce a comedy tour called Opie and Anthony's Traveling Virus Comedy Tour, featuring their own co-host, Jim Norton as well as several other stand-up comedians regularly featured on their radio show. There is also a festival in Hong Kong called the HK International Comedy Festival.
The festival format has proven quite successful at attracting attention to the art of stand-up, and is often used as a scouting and proving ground by industry professionals seeking new comedy talent.
Many of the earliest vaudeville-era stand-ups gained their greater recognition on radio. They often opened their programs with topical monologues, characterized by ad-libs and discussions about anything from the latest films to a missed birthday. Each program tended to be divided into the opening monologue, musical number, followed by a skit or story routine. A "feud" between Fred Allen and Jack Benny was used as comic material for nearly a decade.
HBO presented comedians uncensored for the first time, beginning with Robert Klein in 1975, and was instrumental in reaching larger audiences. George Carlin was a perennial favorite, who appeared in 14 HBO comedy specials.
Continuing that tradition, most modern stand-up comedians use television or motion pictures to reach a level of success and recognition unattainable in the comedy-club circuit alone.
- Comedy festivals
- Improvisational theatre
- List of musical comedians
- List of stand-up comedians
- Manzai – style of stand-up comedy in Japan
- Open mic – live show where audience members may perform at the microphone
- Rakugo – Japanese verbal entertainment
- Situation comedy
- Xiangsheng – Chinese traditional stand-up comedy
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