What began as a derogatory stereotype of African Americans has evolved as a tool for fighting against social injustice and hurtful social norms. In the 1840s, minstrel shows regularly satirized African American culture.
When Vaudeville shows traveled the country, there was a need to close the curtain after one skit was performed so that the next skit could be set up. Comedians were hired to stand in front of the closed curtain and deliver a comedy routine.
The early versions of stand-up comedy were based on “down-home” humor such as that used by Mark Twain. As America became more urbanized, stand-up comedy themes began to change. Some of the comedians who performed in burlesque houses had jokes with sexual references.
As stand-up comedy moved from burlesque theatres to mainstream venues, the type of comedy changed. Comedians tended to have themes their jokes revolved around. For example, Jack Benny often did self-satires of his stinginess.
In the 1960s, stand-up comedy took on an edgier flavor. Jokes became satire of political figures, social norms, race relations, and bigotry. Comedians began to test the limits of free speech. The Supreme Court even became involved in ruling that George Carlin’s routine Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television was indecent.
As time has elapsed, stand-up comedy has become a part of our society. News media will often comment on the opening monologues of late-night TV shows. Politicians are regularly skewered for positions they have taken.
Like much of our society, stand-up comedy has become diverse. Since much of stand-up comedy is making fun of societal norms, those who are more conservative in their points of view, view stand-up comedy with disdain. Those who are more progressive view stand-up comedy as a force for societal change.
The reality of stand-up comedy is that it has changed society. But over time attitudes have been shaped by the satire of stand-up comics. Politicians are keenly aware of what is likely to be viewed as fodder for comedians. Comic phrases become everyday language. No matter one’s personal views of a comedic routine, there is little to dispute that is a far better way to bring about societal change than violence.
Beginnings like stand-up comedy often morph as time passes. In this case, that change has been a positive one.
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“I used to think that the worst thing in life was to end up alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people who make you feel alone” – Robin Williams