In this article:
- Stand-up comedy as we know it today got its start on minstrel show stages and came into its own in seedy nightclubs across the United States.
- Its low-brow origins allowed stand-up comedy to blossom as an uncensored space for people who might not have found another platform to talk freely and openly about their experiences.
- With the rise of television in the 50s, a mainstream brand of comedy emerged that was “clean” and unoffensive to white, middle-class Americans. Even so, an uncensored stand-up comedy scene still flourished underground, despite censorship laws.
- All through the art form’s long history, women have been there, pushing the boundaries of what stand-up comedy could be and breaking down the barriers that kept women out of the mainstream comedy scene (where all the money was).
Women aren’t funny. That’s the myth that women in stand-up have had to hear for decades. Before the stand-up form existed, funny women had to endure men writing painfully long treatises on how not funny women were for centuries.
Even so, women have persisted in telling their supposedly humorless jokes all the while. Here’s a brief history of stand-up comedy and some of the defiantly funny women who helped shape it.
The Pragmatic Origins of Early Stand-up
The modern form of stand-up, where a person on a stage monologues at an audience while said audience either laughs or heckles (or both) emerged in the mid-19th century in minstrel shows. In between racist blackface performances, a “monologist” would get on stage and give a funny — well, funny if you were racist — speech for 10 to 15 minutes.
The real purpose of this funny speech was to keep the audience occupied while the stagehands set the stage for the next act.
Being part of a minstrel show, the often racist or sexist monologues were rarely original. Jokes or gags were treated as public domain, so monologists would borrow and steal as they pleased.
That format of having a monologist be funny in between acts spread to other forms of entertainment: circuses, variety shows, burlesques, and concerts. Funny monologists started popping up everywhere — largely because it was an easy and cheap way to keep the audience occupied during set changes.
It would gradually evolve into its own art form over the decades, and by the 1940s, a person could make living on monologuing in nightclubs, burlesques, coffeehouses, and other forums for low-brow entertainment.
Because stand-up emerged in this roundabout kind of way and took shape on burlesque stages and in nightclubs where the manners of polite society were left at the door, it evaded censorship for most of its formative years.
As a result, it quickly became one of the few uncensored mediums for exploring taboo subjects and critiquing modern society. While that was definitely a double-edged sword, as it gave a platform for racist and sexist monologists to spew their bigoted views, it also created a space to challenge those bigoted views and highlight their hypocrisy.
The Parallel Rise of Clean Comedy and Defiantly Unclean Comedy
By the 1950s, as radios and televisions became standard in most homes, things started to change. The technology meant that comics could reach a much larger audience, but it also meant that routines had to be scrubbed of any sexy or edgy jokes. Thus, we saw the birth of a cleaner, less political breed of comics with broad appeal.
In response to the rise of clean comedy, comics like Lenny Bruce would lead a new wave of defiantly obscene and intentionally political routines that challenged the mainstream.
The effort to preserve comedy’s controversial, taboo roots would land many of these new-wave comics in jail for obscenity — but their dedication to putting the sex back in comedy would usher in a stand-up comedy boom.
By the 1970s, stand-up comics, including some of the more obscene and political ones, would become major stars capable of selling out whole arenas and large venues.
With that fame came freedom. Comics no longer had to choose between cleaning up their act to go mainstream or sticking to their controversial routines and limiting themselves to small clubs and coffeehouses.
When stand-up comic acts were popular enough to sell out arenas, it became possible to be both controversial and mainstream. This trend continued, leading to the stand-up comedy boom of the 1980s.
Stand-up Comedy Grapples With the Limits of “Controversy for Controversy’s Sake”
Today, stand-up comedy is in an uncomfortable state of flux. There has been some reckoning with stand-up comedy’s less-than-perfect past — when the goal seemed to be finding out how controversial could you be, no matter who you threw under the bus to make your joke.
Today’s comics are confronting questions about the limits of controversy. Is there any value in controversy for controversy’s sake if you’re demeaning entire demographics to do it? The resounding answer from comedy fans has been no.
What will take the place of this older flavor of controversy? How can comedians be controversial without crossing the wrong boundaries? What even are the “wrong” boundaries?
We’re seeing a lot of different answers to these questions and many of the best stand-up comedy routines to embody this new form of bigotry-free controversy are coming from women.
The Women Who Shaped Stand-up Comedy’s History
The field has always been male-dominated, but women have also always been there. They were cracking jokes on burlesque stages, in nightclubs, and everywhere else that men were. From the earliest days of stand-up comedy through today, here are some of the pioneering women who refused to let the myth that “women aren’t funny” go unchallenged.
Loretta Mary Aiken, more widely known by her stage name, Jackie “Moms” Mabley, was one of the first stand-up comics ever and an all-around legend.
As a Black and openly gay woman born in North Carolina at the turn of the century, her life story is filled with no shortage of tragedy.
To escape the brutality of the Jim Crow South, Aiken ran away at the age of 14 and joined a traveling minstrel show as a singer and entertainer. This experience prepared her for vaudeville and, ultimately, for her own independent career.
Throughout the 20s and 30s, she would appear on stage in androgynous clothing, talking openly about being gay, and just generally being a badass comic. Unfortunately, most of these early recordings are difficult to find.
What did survive were her later recordings from the 60s and onward when she started to appeal to a broader (re: whiter) audience.
Around this time, she adopted the haggard, toothless old woman persona in order to appear less threatening while she spoke about racism, sexuality, and other topics that would ordinarily make a white audience shift in their seats.
She continued to gain in popularity and perform on television, on stage, and in films until the day she died at the ripe age of 81 of heart failure. Her career spanned 67 years.
After getting her start on the burlesque stage, Fanny Brice forged a successful career as a comic and actress in the early 20th century.
Throughout the 20s and 30s, she recorded multiple comedy albums, performed on stages across the country, and cultivated a strong radio presence with her bratty toddler character named Snooks.
The Baby Snooks Show became one of America’s favorite radio shows and Fanny Brice was one of the early stars of comedy — something that was rare to see at a time when comedians were still mostly limited to the nightclub circuit.
Born Sophie Feldman, Totie Fields built her comedy career on being fearlessly sexual and a champion of body positivity before body positivity was a thing.
The plus-size comedian spoke about her weight in her acts with openness and pride. She even wrote a satirical diet book called I Think I’ll Start On Monday in which she details her “secret 100-year diet plan.”
Though her life was cut short due to complications from surgery, Totie Fields managed to leave behind quite a legacy in her 48 years (many of which were spent in comedy).
While the previous three comedians got their start young, usually dropping out of school to go into show business, Phyllis Diller came to comedy later.
She was a housewife and mother of five by the time she started working on a radio show in Oakland, California.
Her first comedy routine was as Phyllis Dillis, the Homely Friendmaker where she would offer ridiculous advice to other homemakers.
At the age of 37, she made her first appearance as a stand-up comedian in the basement of The Purple Onion in San Francisco.
It was a hit and what started as a two-week booking ended up lasting 89 weeks. Despite her late start, she became one of the first solo comedians to become a household name.
She would continue performing until 2002. In those decades, she became famous for her eccentric persona, iconic outfits, and self-deprecating humor. She and Joan Rivers (below) were two of the biggest sources of inspiration for the fictional Sophie Lennon character in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
Joan Rivers rose to fame in the 50s and 60s with a stand-up routine that was equal parts self-deprecating and unflinchingly political.
She got her start in the nightclubs of New York City, where comics could be more controversial than they could on television and radio.
By the 1970s, she made regular appearances on late-night television and variety shows and she would cultivate a wildly successful stand-up career during the 1980s comedy boom.
Throughout all of this, she stuck to her controversial, boundary-pushing breed of comedy.
Tomlin started doing stand-up right after college in her hometown of Detroit. Eventually, she moved to New York City where she continued booking nightclub spots until she started landing television appearances.
Over the decades, she became famous for her ability to craft a wide range of characters, complete with perfectly executed dialects on television and on stage.
Her characters were so beloved that she was able to make a one-woman show in which she played all the characters a major success — even though nobody knew what to call this not-quite-a-play, not-quite-stand-up performance she was doing.
Now 81, Tomlin can still be found on television in the Netflix series Grace and Frankie and others.
Wanda Sykes entered comedy in 1987 at the peak of the stand-up comedy boom — after growing dissatisfied with her job at the National Security Agency.
She would continue working at the NSA while spending her nights perfecting her stand-up routine at nightclubs around town in Washington, D.C.
In 1997, she landed her breakout role when she joined The Chris Rock Show as a writer.
Her brand of comedy is observational and honest with the kind of jokes that are less punchline-y and more like layers of wit that get funnier as you unravel them.
At the age of 57, she’s still performing stand-up and working on television shows.
Silverman got her comedy start in 1992 when America’s love of stand-up comedy was beginning to go cold.
After landing a coveted spot on the writer’s staff of Saturday Night Live, she was fired after one season and none of the sketches she wrote aired.
Getting fired was a blow to her self-esteem, but she persevered and ended up building a successful stand-up career at a time when stand-up was in decline — not an easy feat by any measure, and even harder for a woman in a male-dominated field.
Silverman’s comedy has all the crassness and edginess of a modern-day Lenny Bruce but offered up with a deceptively sweet smile and deadpan delivery. She mostly tackles social taboos but isn’t afraid to get political.
Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby is one of the newest arrivals to the global comedy stage. She first started comedy in 2006, after a series of odd jobs ranging from projectionist to vegetable picker.
What elevated her career to the international stage, though, was a groundbreaking special called Nanette in which she declared that she was quitting comedy.
The special is part comedy, part raw confession. And while she fully meant it when she said she was quitting, the success of the special ended up inspiring a follow-up in 2019 called Douglas.
Gadsby’s comedy draws its power from its undiluted honesty and her counter-intuitive courage to not be funny for long stretches of time. By unpacking trauma and dark realities, the tension she builds makes the moments of laughter all the more gratifying.