Origin of Modern Stand-up Comedy

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If you’ve gone to comedy shows in Montreal, you’ve likely had your share of laughs at some of the city’s finest comedians and visiting acts. Whether you prefer stand up shows in English or French, there is simply something impressive about a person’s ability to entertain a crowd with their wit. While stand-up in Montreal is roughly four decades old, stand-up as a comedic style is much older. Let’s take a look at the origins of modern stand-up comedy and find out where was stand-up comedy first performed.

Origins of Stand-Up Comedy

Historians of stand-up comedy (yes, that is a profession) can trace its roots back to a number of places. Some would argue that you can see the beginnings of oratorial comedy as early as ancient Greece and Rome with Aristophanes and Plautus. Others deftly point to the tradition of court jesters in royal courts.

To be fair, stand-up is difficult to pinpoint as an origin as comedy in general has seen many evolutions over time. In many cases, elements of stand-up originated in different cultures, often at similar timelines. There is also a bit of an ebb and flow of comedy as stand-up many times seemed to be on its way to developing only to fall out of favour, replaced by comedic plays or other acts. However, most scholars note that modern stand-up can be traced to a specific place.

New York City

Most historians would note that New York City represents the origin of modern stand-up comedy. It can be found in the burlesque shows that became popular during the early 1900s. In many ways, the nature of New York City at the time may have contributed to the need for the development of stand-up delivery.

New York at the time was known as a great melting pot. It was the central place of immigration in the United States where people from a myriad of cultures and countries entered and often settled. Thus, the audience for early burlesque shows was fairly diverse in many ways. You would have a mixture of native-born and immigrant working-class men.

Performers needed to make them laugh. Long stories with a big payoff wouldn’t play well with this crowd. Comedians needed to get laughs quickly, which ultimately led to the development of energetic, fast-paced routines. In many ways, this new type of humour matched the business of the city. This was not the small-town folklore show of rural America. It was over the top, intense, raunchy, and explosive.


Stand-up was not completely new; rather, it was an evolution. It borrowed heavily from French variety shows known as vaudeville. Specifically, it borrowed some of the physical comedy and slapstick, interspersing this with short jokes that appealed to a working-class audience. The diverse origins of the crowd meant that material needed to be widely applicable to people from many backgrounds. Common tropes included money issues, gold-digging women, and – of course – sex.

The rapid-fire setup and punch line delivery structure that developed here can now be seen throughout the world. It’s even in English stand-up clubs in Montreal. There was another reason for the rapid-fire delivery as well.

The comedy performed during these burlesque shows was often somewhat of an amuse-bouche interspersed between strip teases. For most audience members, they were not there for the show; it was simply a pleasant addition. They were there for the women. Thus, the show needed to be good, and it needed to be quick. It was perhaps this necessity that most contributed to the evolution of longer monologues and stories to short setups and punchlines.

From New York to the World

While stand-up evolved in New York’s burlesque shows during the early twentieth century, it quickly spread out on its own, becoming more mainstream by the 1940s and 1950s. By the 1980s, there were stand-up clubs in virtually every major world city including Montreal.

With today’s extensive diversity in comedy styles, it is surprising to realize that the origin of stand-up was as a sideshow to a turn-of-the-century striptease. However, if there is one thing that remains constant in stand-up, it is that we should perhaps not take ourselves too seriously. At Comedyville, we pride ourselves on continuing the tradition of Montreal stand up. Feel free to check out our shows. We all need to make time to get away from the world and laugh now and then.


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

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