History of Stand-Up Comedy

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If you’ve enjoyed comedy in Montreal or have been a regular at Comedyville Club, chances are that you may have wondered about the history of stand-up comedy. While Montreal comedy is definitely entertaining, the art form certainly did not start with us. In reality, comedy in Montreal is a result of the spread of art with many origins that have developed over time. Let’s take a look at the history of stand-up.

If you were to ask an American, they’d likely claim credit for inventing stand-up (big surprise, right?). And while America did play a major role in its development, its origins can actually be traced to the 1300s in Europe.

The Ancient English Comedy Clubs

While formal comedy has existed for likely as long as human society, the first thing resembling stand-up lies in the history of court jesters. In fact, the king’s courts in England served as the first English clubs, with royals and other guests often gathering to witness performances by the court jester.

Court jesters often have a reputation of playing a fool. However, the reality is that these people were quite intelligent and played many roles. They would act a fool and practice crude humour but also typically came with a wide array of talents such as magic tricks, card tricks, and rather witty comedy.

Many jesters gained popularity for their social commentary that would mock the power of the court. In many ways, they said what others couldn’t say, much like Comedyville Comedy Club’s famous late-night comedy show. While generally given comedic freedom, they would sometimes push a bit too far and be expelled from the court.

Vaudeville and the Rise of Stand-up Style

Tracing the history of stand-up comedy is quite interesting because there is not a clear, straightforward path. Instead, there are many stops and starts. The next major starts occurred fairly simultaneously across an ocean, with one originating in France during the late-nineteenth century.

Vaudeville was an incredibly popular type of variety show that quickly spread from Paris across the world. Here, people would watch a series of short acts including acrobatics, dancing, and feats of strength. However, found amidst these shows were short comedy acts designed with rapid setups and punch lines, aimed at keeping the audience laughing in quick secession.

This is notable because the style employed in the vaudeville shows is quite distinct from other comedic orators at the time. While a person being funny to a crowd was not new, this style was. At the time, most comedic performances served more as longer stories that delivered a few laughs here and there and an eventual payoff. However, this new style was different in that it did not require patience from the audience. Success was not measured by the narration but rather by the laughs.

Minstrel Shows & Burlesque: America’s Contribution

While vaudeville was getting its start in France, another form of comedy was developing in the United States. Minstrel shows became popular in the US during the 1840s. These shows were three-act performances that were racist in nature, typically showing actors in blackface. The second act of a minstrel show typically was a comedic monologue.

This tactic found its way into burlesque shows in New York by the late-nineteenth century. While burlesque was known for sultry stripteases, performers would often also utilize humour that leveraged stereotypes and sexually suggestive puns to appeal to the crowd. The famous “Who’s on First” routine was initially a burlesque performance.

The integration of stand-up, short monologue style delivery seen in vaudeville and burlesque eventually branched out on its own. Rather than sandwiched between other performances, stand-up comedy was established as the feature act by the 1940s when comedians such as Jack Benny, George Burns, and Bob Hope left vaudevillian acts to tour on their own. Late-night shows like the Ed Sullivan Show and Tonight Show regularly featured stand-up comics.

Differentiation, a Comedy Boom, and the Birth of the Modern Comedy Club

By the 1970s, stand-up had evolved considerably. In fact, many people point to this decade as the birth of modern stand-up. You could easily see many different types of stand-up as artists differentiated their acts. Of course, there was family-friendly comedy that typically reflected on small-town life and leveraged puns. There were those who would roast the audience and fellow comedians, others developed improv, and still others who were impressionists. However, many became known for social commentary.

Comedians like Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor used their humour for social commentary on racial issues. George Carlin was famously arrested in the United States for performing a bit, “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television”. Stand-up began to boom, with clubs opening in major cities around the globe in the 1970s and 1980s. Stand-up was popular in a myriad of cultures from Europe to Brazil, Mexico to India.

By the 1980s, stand-up comedy could be found virtually everywhere. Top performers even began taking their acts from the club to large concert halls. It was during the 1980s when stand-up was rapidly spreading around the world, that it also began to see strong popularity in Canada.

History of Stand-up Comedy in Canada

After the first Canadian comedy club opened in Toronto, clubs quickly popped up throughout the nation. In only a few years, popular clubs could be found in nearly every major city. The growth in Canadian clubs meant that aspiring comics could earn a living without having to travel abroad to perform. These clubs also became a testing ground for many Canadian comedians such as Norm MacDonald, Howie Mandel, and Jim Carrey, helping to launch them to fame in television and movies.

Meanwhile, the founding of the Just for Laughs comedy festival (Festival Juste Pour Rire) established Montreal as a major scene for Francophone comedy. The festival occurs for two weeks each July and features both French and English-speaking acts, providing strong diversity in comedic styles. Its success has given it the honour of being the largest comedy festival in the world.

While stand-up seemed to lose a bit of popularity in the 1990s, it has since rebounded and continues to flourish today. Simply put, people love to laugh. It is not surprising that major cities continue to have strong stand-up scenes. Stand-up in Montreal continues to be popular today including English clubs like Comedyville.

Looking for a laugh? Check out our upcoming shows! We’d love to have you join us to celebrate this art form that has been in development for centuries.


Post by Eddie Case, exclusively for, All rights reserved.