Origins of Stand-Up Comedy

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Our Montreal comedy shows feature excellent performers that have finely tuned their craft of making audiences laugh. You can see some of the best comedy in Canada at Comedyville. However, you may be wondering what initially caused people to gather together for one person to make us laugh. To explore this, let’s take a look at the origins of stand-up comedy shows.

Initial Origins: Minstrel Shows

Stand-up comedy as a style ultimately is quite simple. There is a comic, an audience, and nothing else. However, it is also quite different from how it has traditionally occurred. Prior to the evolution of stand-up comedy, it was typically delivered via the written word or through some sort of theatrical performance. Stand-up shows were simple and raw.

In tracing the origins of stand-up comedy, you tend to go back to one specific aspect of history – minstrel shows. This is a bit of an unfortunate origin of a genre as minstrel shows were incredibly racist. Performed throughout the United States, these types of shows began in the 1830s.

Types of Shows

Minstrel shows were essentially variety-type shows. They mainly featured musical acts but would also include other entertainment such as dancing, skits, and – as we will explain in a moment – something that resembled stand-up comedy. However, minstrel shows are perhaps most known for the fact that they were performed by white people wearing blackface.

Thus, it will not surprise you to learn that these minstrel shows were incredibly racist in nature. These performers in blackface would act as black people and use stereotypes to generate laughs, typically portraying black people as dumb or superstitious. Popular characters included slaves and plantation setups. These types of shows became incredibly popular in the United States and flourished for half a century before ultimately going away in the early 1900s.

How can the origins of stand-up comedy be seen in minstrel shows? Some shows would include comic routines that involved a short setup followed by a punchline. However, this can be differentiated from modern stand-up shows by the structure. Instead of one person being on stage and performing, there would be two people. One person would serve to setup the joke while the second would apply the punch line.

The Vaudeville Era 

If you know anything about the history of stand-up shows, you know that vaudeville was a major catalyst in driving the genre forward. In fact, when exploring the origins of stand-up comedy, you could easily argue that stand-up was fully developed during this era. Vaudeville shows were also variety shows. Vaudeville first became popular in the 1880s and dominated the United States scene until the 1920s.

Vaudeville Theatre - Grand Theatre - Buffalo, New York

Grand Theatre in Buffalo, NY (1900s)
Source: American Studies at the University of Virginia.
(Category: Theaters in the US)

The center location for Vaudeville was New York City. The Palace Theater was the center of this movement; however, other theaters quickly sprung up. There were many places to see vaudeville performed in New York City. After a decade or so, theaters could be found in many communities throughout the United States and even spread to some areas of Canada.

These variety shows included virtually any form of entertainment that could be thought of. Acts were incredibly short in nature, typically comprising five minutes or less. You would see musicians, singers, dancers, magicians, feats of strength, ventriloquism, jugglers, acrobats, and all sorts of other performers.

A New Dynamic

As vaudeville grew, comedy adapted itself to this new dynamic. At the time, most comedians in the United States told long stories with a humorous payoff, a style that is perhaps best associated with author Mark Twain. This style of humor obviously didn’t fit with vaudeville’s fast-paced style. Thus, performers in vaudeville typically got laughs from the audience in one of two ways.

Some performers would use a slapstick style of comedy with physical comedy such as pie in the face gags, falling, and other aspects. Others used their words to engender laughs. With a limited time, comedians began to develop the quick setup and punch line style of performance that became the foundation for stand-up comedy. In fact, you could even argue that many of the vaudeville performers were stand-up comics themselves.

This delivery was initially created due to the short time in front of the audience. However, it also served an important purpose as vaudeville evolved. By the 1910s, vaudeville had evolved into primarily featuring burlesque dancers with a few other acts in between. Thus, the major draw was female nudity. This meant other performers had to be incredibly talented in order to entertain the audience as they waited for the next person to strip. As such, comedians worked rapid-fire delivery with cliché topics such as bad wives, infidelity, and being poor.

Vaudeville ultimately saw its end in the 1920s. There were two major reasons for this. First, the shift to burlesque resulted in legislation against the shows in many locations. Secondly, the development of films brought audiences away from vaudeville and to theaters.

The First Famous Stand-up Comedian

While there were many people locally known for their vaudeville performances, the first person that could be called a famous stand-up comic is likely Will Rogers. He began his career performing on vaudeville. His success led to a movie contract, the first of over 70 films. He also penned syndicated newspaper columns, getting his name in front of people throughout the world.

As a result of this fame, Will Rogers was able to tour around the world. He ultimately completed three world tours where he performed stand-up comedy for audiences. He often included social commentary as part of his act, which came to him naturally as it was often the basis of his newspaper columns. Sadly, his life was cut short when he died in an airplane crash in Alaska in 1935.

A Modern Look at an Old Art

It may surprise people that the origins of stand-up comedy occurred as early as the 1830’s with the art form taking its modern shape by the early twentieth century. While stand-up comedy did not reach its modern level of popularity until the 1970s, it was a standard feature in society from the end of vaudeville, with comics being popular acts on televised shows like The Ed Sullivan Show.

Today, you can see top comics in Montreal shows at Comedyville. We welcome anyone to join us for our upcoming English comedy shows. We know you’ll leave happy after a night of laughter.


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