Stand-up comedy

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Richard Pryor hits the money line

(NB This article refers to the history of stand-up comedy in the United States of America)

A stand-up comedian or stand-up comic is someone that performs in comedy clubs, usually reciting a fast paced succession of amusing stories, short jokes and one-liners, typically called a monologue. Some stand-up comedians use props, music, or magic tricks in their acts.

Stand-up comedy is perhaps the easiest field of entertainment for new talent to enter, because many smaller venues hold "open mic" events where the inexperienced can perform comedy before a live audience. However, perhaps more than any other performer, the stand-up comedian is at the mercy of the audience, which is an integral element of the act. A truly adept stand-up comedian must nimbly play off the mood and tastes of any particular audience, and adjust his or her routine accordingly. The test of a master stand-up comedian is the ability to not only face down a "heckler," but win over and entertain the rest of the crowd with a retort.

Many stand-up comedians achieve their own television programs or star in major motion pictures. Examples of this include Jerry Seinfeld, Bob Newhart, and Bill Cosby.

American stand-up comedy has its roots in various traditions of entertainment popular in the late 19th century, ranging from vaudeville and humorist monologues (with Mark Twain a notable master), to Yiddish theatre and circus clown routines. Most early comedians were merely viewed as "joke tellers," who warmed up the audience as an opening act, or kept the crowds entertained during intermissions. Being a comedian was often considered a stepping stone to a proper career in show business. Jokes were generally broad and (oft when not broadcast) mildly risqué, and often dwelt on stock comic themes ("mother-in-law jokes," ethnic humor). "Blue humor," or comedy that was considered indecent, was popular in many nightclubs, but working "blue" greatly limited a comedian's chance for legitimate success.

Beginning in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, a new generation of American comedians began to explore political topics, race relations, and sexual humor. Stand-up comedy shifted from quick jokes and one liners to monologues, often with dark humor and cutting satire. Lenny Bruce became particularly influential in pushing the boundaries of what was considered acceptable entertainment, although amongst comedians such "boundary pushing" dates back at least to vaudeville in a traditional joke called The Aristocrats that comedians would tell usually only amongst themselves. African American comedians such as Redd Foxx, long relegated to segregated venues, also began to cross over to white audiences at this time.

Stand-up comedy exploded during the 1970s, with several entertainers becoming major stars based on stand up comedy performances. Stand-up expanded from nightclubs and theaters to major concerts in sports arenas. Richard Pryor and George Carlin followed Lenny Bruce's acerbic style to become counterculture icons. Steve Martin and Bill Cosby had similar levels of success with gentler comic routines. The older style of stand-up comedy was kept alive by Rodney Dangerfield and Buddy Hackett, who enjoyed revived careers. Television programs such as Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show launched the careers of other stand-up comedy stars.

The great popularity of stand-up comedy led to a boom in stand-up comedy venues for both locally based and touring comics in many cities. Many stand up stars landed major television deals, and established television and film stars such as Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, and Billy Crystal tested their comic chops with live stand up comedy appearances. The advent of HBO (which could present comedians uncensored) and other cable channels such as Comedy Central added to the stand-up comedy boom.

By the 1990s, the glut of stand-up comedy led to its decline, as the market became somewhat flooded with comedians considered by some to be mediocre. However, established stand-up comedians still command top ticket prices, and talented new comedians still have many small venues to establish themselves in.

In the 2000s, comedy had a large resurgance, largely in part to to rise of comedians such as Dane Cook,Stephen Lynch, and Mitch Hedberg.

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