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Stand-up’s tryst with destiny

By Devika Kher

The history of stand-up comedy has shown that, like all the other fields, the relevance of stand-up will grow along with its demand in society.

It was the decade after the Second World War. There was still anxiety within the western communities just out of a war. The rules that existed before the war no longer applied. It was during this time that the pubs around America started appreciating a new breeze of entertainers. This new stream of talent wasn’t restricted to the rules of entertainment followed before. They, unlike their predecessors, were pushing the envelope as far as they could. It was the turning point in the field now known as, stand-up comedy.

In America, stand-up comedy started as a part of the Vaudeville theatres in the late 18th and early 19th century. Vaudeville theatre was a theatrical performance with a series of different type of acts presented in a sequence. It was like watching a play, a song and a dance performance on just one ticket. Quite a famous genre, vaudeville theatre art was distinguished for having liquor free and mixed-gender crowd. It was this form of art that increased the number and the size of theatres across cities.Amongst the various routines presented, one of the genres sprouting was a set of burlesque shows. These shows used a new art form in which the artists presented a set of fast one liner jokes. At the time, the jokes were mostly ‘clean’ and kept a safe distance from politically incorrect topics.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom saw the rise of stand-up comedy within the music hall performances.  One of the famous names of the time was Max Miller, who use to chip in jokes in between a song and dance set. However, the taste for such shows developed post World War II as the Armed forces started appreciating the art form they discovered while attending wartime concert parties.

The space for stand-up comedy developed further after the war in both the countries. While America saw a rise of rebellious stand-up comedy, the workmen clubs in the UK provided space for comics who used racial and sexual stereotypes to entertain the audience. A series of comics like, the famous Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl were the products of this era, where comics like Bruce were being imprisoned on the ground of obscenity. The negative sentiment within the society after the World War became a fodder for these artists and the outcome was the stand-up comedy as we know of it today.

The modern stand-up comedy was no more bound by fear of censorship, and the comics slowly started delving into the topics which were once a taboo. The night clubs in the cities became the new breeding grounds for this genre of artist. A casual dress-code was brought into the act, and, various new forms of stand-up comedy were also initiated. Along with a rising number of followers, the post War period also saw the advent of communication technology. As the communication gap was filled by radios, televisions etc., the reach of these comics became global. Consequently, rebellious American stand-up comedians started influencing their British counterparts and stand-up comedy started spreading across boundaries.

As the reach of this profession continues to grow within new countries and cultures, it is important to remember where all of this came from. Not because it makes for an inspiring story, but to understand the nuances that are involved behind making it a culture within society. For instance, support for comedy as an art form is majorly dependent on the temperament of society. Making comedy a rebellious art form would not have been possible had the dominant temperament not been of insecurity and anxiety.

Another important observation to take away is the relation between political correctness and comedy content. As mentioned, comedy in its nascent stage was heavily censored: so much so that the content had to be passed through a censor board which would then mark the unacceptable content in blue. Later the comedy which focused on these unacceptable topics came to be known as “blue comedy”. After the war, the friction increased much more as various artists were sent to prison for obscenity. The fight between the two ends continued for a long time with famous comics like George Carlin and Richard Pryor facing the brunt.

Hence, it should not be seen as unusual for comics starting the genre within a community to start getting into trouble with the authorities. Stand-up content has had to fight through moral consciousness in all societies before the mindset evolved in its favour. One of the things which helped the most in this was the rising fame and demand for stand-up comedy, which made it an economically viable occupation. For some of the stand-up comedians it also brought fame and stardom which solidified the base for the upcoming talents and brought a legitimacy that the occupation needed. In other words, the budding comics from the countries with a comparatively new stand-up scene should look at early troubles as a rite of passage before they make it to a more accepting environment.

The history of stand-up comedy has shown that, like all the other fields, the relevance of stand-up will grow along with its demand in society. However, unlike most other services, stand-up does not only depend upon the choices and preferences of the people, but also their culture, norms and beliefs. The good news here is that even if it takes a long time, stand-up comedy as a profession will evolve as the society evolves.

Devika Kher is a Research Associate at the Takshashila Institution.

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2 Responses to Stand-up’s tryst with destiny

  1. Ken Dobson February 19, 2015 at 4:13 pm #

    Interesting, informative and delightful reading. As much as I enjoy stand up comedy, I had no idea of the history and insights that you provided in this piece. Thank You! Ken

  2. Jijin February 20, 2015 at 8:18 am #

    There’s an interesting read about the direction (a small portion of) British stand up took after the initial wave of working men clubs era at http://www.amazon.in/How-Escaped-My-Certain-Fate-ebook/dp/B0042JSPTI . Luckily enough, the whole read(the first chapter of the book) is present in the free review.

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