United States History
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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 Norman Wilkerson, 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 Jack Benny, Bob Hope, George Burns, Fred Allen, Milton Berle and Frank Fay all of whom came from vaudeville. 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 like Alan King, Danny Thomas, Don Rickles, Joan Rivers, and Jack E. Leonard flourished in these new arenas.
In the 1950s and into the 1960s, stand-ups like Mort Sahl began developing their acts in small folk clubs like San Francisco's hungry i 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.
Stand-up in the 1970s saw several entertainers becoming 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 launched the careers of other stand-up comedians, including Bill Maher and Jay Leno.
From the 1970s to the 90s, more nonsensical styles of comedy began to emerge, led by the madcap stylings of Robin Williams, the odd observations of Jerry Seinfeld and Ellen DeGeneres, and the ironic musings of Steven Wright. These comedians would serve to influence the next generation of comedians, including Bill Hicks, Bill Burr, David Cross, Louis C.K., Hannibal Buress, Mitch Hedberg, Dave Foley, Todd Glass, Joe Rogan, and Sarah Silverman.
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