A Brief History of Stand-Up Comedy, Plus a Plea for Originality

Up until the late 70’s, stand-up comedy mainly was performed in night clubs based in resorts and casinos. A fair segment of the comics were typlified by Milton Berle, who proudly admitted that he was a joke thief. Jokes were almost like musical standards, with many of the top comics putting their own spin on them. Berle was loved so much that he became like a member of the family to TV audiences who referred to him as Uncle Miltie. Stand-up comedy at the time was based on one-liners and “joke jokes.” (these are also referred to as street jokes. The jokes you will hear at work or have forwarded to you in an email.)

An evolution began to happen in the 60’s, as comics like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl challenged societal conventions with their material. George Carlin and Robert Klein were influential in evolving stand-up even more during the 70’s. Richard Pryor, who did mix in some “joke jokes” in his routine, when playing the character Mudbone, eventually joined these comics in turning the art form on it’s head. Pryor brought his own personal tragedy into the equation to make for some of the dyamic performances ever presented on a comedy stage.

By the 1980’s, comedy clubs were popping up all over the country, as demand was ahead of supply when it came to top-notch stand-up comics. The comics who did have unique acts, like Leno, Seinfeld, Richard Lewis, Paul Reiser, Roseanne Barr, etc. transitioned into sitcom stars. There was a real feedling frenzy, with Networks offering high dollar development deals to comedians, if they were ready or not. The success of the previous mentioned and other comics like Tim Allen and Drew Carey made the Big 4 believe that stand-up comics were good bets to create success in the medium. (This feeding frenzy is comparable to what was happening in the Seattle Grunge scene, with Music companies throwing money at everything, hoping to catch the next high riser.)

While I wouldn’t say these comics were much better than a lot of the acts today, they did leave a hole in the business, as they were the best of the “observational”, more middle of the road comics. Ray Romano was one of the last of these comics and my guess is that “Everybody Loves Raymond” will be the final sitcom of its type to achieve large success. The quality comics that were left were mainly edgier, in your face acts or stand-ups who embraced more surreal-based material. This is still how it pretty much is today in the business. These are my 2 favorite styles of stand-up comedy, but are hard to transition into a family-style sitcom.

Sorry for those of you that weren’t interested in my short histoty of stand-up comedy, but I feel a little background is needed. Stand-up comedy is an entertainment art-form that I wouldn’t recommend to anyone wanting a stable lifestyle. I would hazard a guess and say that fewer than 200 people in this country make more than $50,000 dollars a year simply performing stand-up. The comedy boom is over and the booking agents are in the power position when it comes to neogotiating, except for a select few major draws. Unlike music, where some emo group can put out some derivative drivel and wind up on the cover of numerous magazines and late-night talk shows, many really creative and intelligent stand-ups are lucky if they can consistently get bar gigs which will pay them enough to stay ahead of their creditors. Unlike other “artists” who can apply for government and private grants to supplement their efforts, stand-up comedy is disrespected by most of the creative community, seen as something not much above professional wrestling or community theater.

I’m not going to claim I don’t have some bitterness over how my profession is perceived, but since I went into the business with few blinders to what I would be facing, I try not to complain about what I do. I like my job most days and I’m happy that each night I can go up in front of a live audience and share my own original thoughts, while making a pretty decent living doing it. (It took me 10 years to get that “decent living” point.) Even the nights when I’m in a less than optimal situation, dealing with bad lighting and sound equipment or having to conduct an assault on some drunken heckler, I know there will be some moment of adrenaline that will rush through me that I couldn’t get at almost any other profession.

So with this bit of background, let me address the idea that using other people’s material should be condoned. In no way should it be accepted. There will be times when parallel construction will happen, but when the blatant stealing happens that was outlined in the previous post, everyone aware of it needs to stand-up and denounce it. The idea of actually giving credit to the person you are ripping it off of, like you are footnoting it in a book, is a ridiculous concept. First off, it would wreck the momentum of the comic, as stand-up is about presenting a show that comes from you. Add to this that performing stand-up comedy was just about your skills as an entertainer, the profession would solely be made up of actors. These are called one-man(or woman) plays.

Let me finish by mentioning that I sadly was nervous about posting my original piece on the subject, as I know some management types in the entertainment field have little interest in who is original and who is a plagiarist. The main focus is don’t get in the way of the financial gravy train. Since most of my Hollywood dreams are pretty much over I figured I should at least use my little soapbox here to enlighten a few more. I really admire Joe Rogan for his stance on this subject, if he is financially set for life or not. I’m just a guy who mainly headlines Triple A comedy clubs. I recieve great marks after most of my performances, but I can draw very few people to see me. There are very few comics who can. My hope is that if enough people become aware of the duplicity that goes on, some of these comedy thieves will stop their theft and actually spend some of their ill-gotten riches on writers who can craft some originality back into their shows.

15 thoughts on “A Brief History of Stand-Up Comedy, Plus a Plea for Originality

  1. 1.  Another interesting post.

    I think that there is room for both types of comedians—the ‘originalist’ and the ‘performer’. The performer, however, needs to nurture his/her sources with rivers of cash like Celine Dion does with her songwriters (although in the comedy world it might be ‘streams or creeks of cash’).

    Like music, there seemingly would be audiences for both forms of comedy, but clearly there is a way to go here…

  2. 2.  Unless you are a TV star, there is no way you could afford to hire writers to craft a show for you.

    Stand-up is a business where you are expected to rise on your own writing and performing talents. It’s not the same as the music world where you can hire studio musicians and music row writers to make a person with the right look a marketable product. Comedy audiences see through that shit, as the audiences aren’t made up of 16 year-old girls.

    Dustin Diamond (AKA Screech) has been touring the country doing stand-up for the past few years, but is starting to run out of places to play. Saved by the Bell fans were caught up in seeing him once, but after realizing he’s not a good stand-up are not going to be taken a second time.

    If you reach some kind of superstar level than you can contemplate hiring someone to help you craft another hour of material. Stealing other people’s stuff to get to the superstar level should not be condoned.

  3. 3.  I actually found that history very interesting, as I was only vaguely aware of most of it. But you need to explain to me the difference between the jokes that Milton Berle “stole” and the jokes that the Mencia’s of the world steal? The style? Or is it that audiences? I’m asking because, while I find your economic arguments compelling, I’m not sure I can support them if I believed that a 21st Century Milton Berle was morally justified. If the fans want to see it, and everyone knows what’s going on, what’s the problem? But I await your attempt to persuade me of the moral distinction.

  4. 4.  Ali. I did zip through that a little too fast. I don’t think what Berle did was cool at all, but the comedy world then was more like the pop singers of that day, all doing the same standards.

    This use of stolen material and joke jokes started to fall out of vogue in the late 70’s, with the advent of comics doing original material. Kind of like what happened in the mid 60’s in the music world, when the Beatles demonstrated how you could succeed writing all of your own material. (3 or 4 albums into their career.)

  5. 5.  The parallels between this and the steroid issue are interesting. It seem like, just like steroids in the 80s and 90s, there is at this time far more upside to the unethical behavior than risk, since the number of examples thus far where the behavior has backfired is zero.

    It seems obvious to me that this sort of stealing will keep going on until there is some sort of disincentive in place. Someone needs to be that negative example everyone can point to. Maybe, thanks to Rogan, it’s Mencia. But the behavior will continue until that example exists. This thing ends when somebody’s career gets ruined by the Scarlet Letter (T for thief), somebody gets their
    pants sued off, or heaven forbid, somebody hurts someone.

    Let’s hope that existing copyright law works, so somebody doesn’t feel he has to take the law into his own hands.

    That’s probably where the parallels end…there is no copyright law that protects baseball players. That AAA first baseman can’t really go sue Mark McGwire for the millions McGwire made while stealing his job from him with unethical behavior. The Scarlet Letter thing is probably why Mark McGwire doesn’t get into the Hall of Fame. Because there is really no other tool to punish him with, so the writers feel like they have to use it.

  6. 6.  “That AAA first baseman can’t really go sue Mark McGwire for the millions McGwire made while stealing his job from him with unethical behavior.”

    How much of McGwire’s career success do you attribute to steroids? If it’s even half, he’s still about seven miles better than, say, Doug Mientkiewvicz who has stolen more AB’s from AAA players than McGwire did in 10 careers.

    I don’t condone, like, sympathize, wink at or otherwise approve of steroid use, but let’s be realistic here: the drugs didn’t make McGwire the hitter he was, he did. If Steroids were the miracle that they are portrayed to be we’d be singing the praises of Alex Sanchez or Mikey Morse or Guillermo Mota. Guess what? Those guys suck.

    Ken, really, does McGwire need to be punished?? If he does, sportsf***ingwriters should be the last group of people to mete out justice right behind comics who rip of other comics.

  7. 7.  3. While not condoning what Berle did, the difference is, that because of the structure of comedy at that time, even after he stole the joke, the originators were still able to make a living using that joke. Now two things have changed as were explained in the post above. Number one, the pie has shrunk and it is much harder for minor comics to make a living and everybody sees the major comics and assumes that the jokes are originally theirs. Number two, there is an emphasis on originality in stand-up comedy now, thus if someone more famous than you has stolen your bit, you can no longer use it as most audiences will assume that the person they saw perform it first (in most cases the more famous comic) is the originator, and thus smaller comics lose out on material so the Carlos Mencia’s of the world are stealing money from their pocket. If you have no problem with some unfunny hack stealing from legitimately clever people, fine, but I don’t care some guy who is denying so many people even the chance at success.

  8. 8.  6 I’m not saying McGwire should be punished, or that he did steal a career from Rob Nelson or whoever. My point was that the comparison between steroids/comedy breaks down at the point of remedy, because there is no possible legal remedy to make things fair. How could you measure who was harmed by McGwire’s PEDs? It would be very difficult and speculative. In the case of comedian A stealing from comedian B, the damages are more clear cut. The comedians could sue–I’d be willing to bet their routines are covered under copyright law. There’s no equivalent of copyright law for baseball careers.

    Maybe comedians should form an ASCAP–a hellish legal group that DEMANDS payment if you ever use something written by one of their members.

  9. 9.  First let me mention that by using baseball as a example, we are getting into a dangerous place where this piece could be considered a legitimate discussion that should appear at Baseball Toaster. Be careful, I have a reputation to keep up here.

    In regards to comedians setting up a union, it ain’t never gonna happen. It has been tried a couple of times, but comedians are self-absorbed, private contractors who will sell-out there mother for a gig. Sad, but just the nature of the beast.

    I do hope that the scenario outlined about a big comic who is a thief loses some of his kingdom by being made an example comes to fruition.

    Sadly, I report that Rogan has been banned from playing the Comedy Store and Mencia will be there this weekend. Just another example of why KARMA is bullshit.

  10. 11.  Wow, and I thought Cook & Mencia were hacks before.

    Anyway, Rogan is insinuating on his blog that the reason that the Comedy Store has taken Mencia’s side is that Rogan & Pauley Shore don’t get along. There’s probably a financial element to it, too, but ain’t life some shit? Not that Rogan needs the money, but come on. Pauley Shore?

    It never occurred to me before today that Joe Rogan was anything other than the guy who made people eat slugs. Well, that, and Adam Corolla’s replacement on “The Man Show”, which was not something that reccomended him in my book, either. I’d be interested to see his stand-up act now, if just to support his sideline of exposing comedic plaigirism.

  11. 12.  8…sorry, I just reflexively jump to support McGwire whenever I hear his name and steroids—funny thing is, I never even liked the guy that mucn. I’m just tired of the hupocrisy surrounding the media’s attacks upon him (NFL anyone?).

    Clearly that wasn’t your line of commentary here, again, sorry.

  12. 13.  To make this even more pathetic, Rogan is now reporting that his agent (also Mencia’s) has dropped him. Can’t let ethics get in the way of the gravy train…

    Great posts, Scott!

  13. 14.  interesting thing….

    a small ny state paper (times herald record, middletown) picked up the story.

    the interesting part? it’s not an ap feed or something, but a bonafide writer for the local paper.

    i hope the story has legs.

  14. 15.  I guess I’m just not totally convinced about the stealing. Rogan and friends make a huge deal out of Ari’s joke about the U.S.-Mexico border fence — but the first minute I read about that f-ing fence, the FIRST thing that came into my head was, holy cripe, who are they going to get to build that thing through the desert — it will be built by illegals!

    It does sound like Cook and Leary are nailed. But, I mean, who hasn’t had an itchy a-hole? If you hear a joke about an itchy a-hole, does that mean you can’t tell one?

    I was a journalist for 15 years and was plagerized several times — once word-for-word on the best thing I’d ever written. When I confronted the editor (of a magazine in England) IN PERSON to point out there was somebody else’s name on my article, he only paused for the merest of beats: “Oh, I’m so sorry. Unfortunately, that writer DIED recently.”

    I also was a screenwriter for a few years. I turned in a thriller set in the future and the grad students they get to read these things accused me, in writing, of plagerizing three movies I had never seen (two of which I’d never even heard of). Later, I saw several of my “inventions” in other films — but I don’t believe they were taken from me. Parallel construction is a lot more common than we think.

    My point? Not sure. I guess I just don’t think this stuff is so cut-and-dried. And life is not fair. That lesson is never a popular one.

Comments are closed.