American Humor Lagged Behind Europe Before Jumping Ahead and Trailblazing Stand-Up Comedy

By James Lang

If you jumped into a time machine and went back to the America of the 1800’s, you’d find a young country that had just begun to define itself. Throwing off the shackles of a colonial power and trying a completely revolutionary form of government: democracy.

Charles Dickens

The home of comedy was not the United States. In fact, Europeans of the time would comment on the dull, pioneering spirit of the Americans they met. British writer Charles Dickens would comment on his experience with Americans that “…They certainly are not humorous people, and their temperament always impressed me as being of a dull and gloomy character.”

Dull and gloomy? Hey, you’d be a bit dull and gloomy too if you had to figure out how to tame an entire continent, keep the Europeans from swallowing up former colonies, and prove the world’s doubts about democracy wrong.

But everybody, even the pioneering settlers of America loved a good laugh. The difference was the tone and style of early American comedy. It was less about punchlines, and more about wit and subtle observations within the scope of a lifetime.

One of the things that gave America its head-start in the world was its endless opportunities for those that were willing to work hard and strive to improve themselves and their communities. Freedom sparks innovation, and this was incredibly true in the world of entertainment.

19th Century Travelling Performers

The original comedy circuit involved trips on wagons from town to town, performing and living or dying by the sword of entertainment in a variety of communities with different tastes and perspectives. And you thought performing 3 or 4 five minute sets a night was brutal…

If you’re pursuing a career in comedy and hitting the stage, you can thank the American entertainment industry of the late 1800’s, early 1900’s for trying everything else and finally striking gold with a completely new form of comedy. We call it stand-up. They called it burlesque; a part of the vaudeville community in New York City.

Part of what made vaudeville and more specifically burlesque entertainment so exciting was its variety. It was a fast-paced, high-energy world where almost anything went. Audiences would sit in a theatre for a performance in The Palace Theatre and the stage would become a constantly changing circus. The first act may have been synchronized dancing, followed by a quick theatrical skit and rounded out with burlesque comedy.

Palace Theatre NYC

Burlesque comedy is a pretty broad term. It could apply to any comedic act at the turn of the 20th century where comedians tried to poke fun at current events and major works of mainstream art. As the audiences attending vaudeville performances in NYC changed from sophisticated, main-stream Americans to less-educated immigrants, the style of comedy performed changed to meet new demands.

The complex comedic epochs were beat out by a more bombastic, random collection of short stories and observations. The only context necessary to make this new comedic concept work was the shared experiences of life in the big city. What’s happening right now in the world? Does my audience know about it? How can I poke fun at it in a few minutes or less? That’s stand-up and it sparked a fire of hilarity in NYC.

Joseph Boskin, Professor Emeritus of History at Boston University, writes in his book “The Humor Prism in 20th Century America”:

“Burlesque provided both an escape from and confrontation with modern urban circumstances. Is it any wonder that many of the routines in burlesque were physically explosive, shorn of time constraint, bordering on the vituperative and relying heavily on slapstick?”

Sound familiar? Yep, that’s the roots of today’s stand-up. It’s a form of comedy that is uniquely American and is now being exported around the world on YouTube and international acts by the biggest names in the business.

Part of the excitement in American comedy, and more specifically comedy in NYC is the fact that it’s a free-market where anyone can give it their best shot. Try something new, or draw inspiration from prior trail-blazers. If you’re willing to work hard, give it your all and make people laugh (even if it’s more at you than with you), success is only a matter of perspiration.

Further Reading- The Humor Code: Who Invented Stand-Up?

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