Stand up comedians are granted a social license to say what we think but dare not say out loud. We love comedy because it recreates our experience of life and leaves us with the gift of laughter. Comedy holds up a mirror to the conversations that dominate our society and allows them to be. |
Comedy allows us to poke fun at ourselves and to laugh at the intricate web of social norms that otherwise would remain unchallenged. We feel connected as our human foibles are exaggerated and parodied for us to see in their naked form.
We revel in the stories of human dysfunction in full flight. Maybe it is because it makes us feel better about the unworkability of our own lives? Maybe we just want to be taken to the absurd so we can forget.
There seems to be an even more socially important function for comedy. I recently watched Jon Stewart discuss how the gun lobby’s fear of a possible dystopian future allowed us to ignore America’s dystopian present in reality. After lunging for the dictionary, I was reminded that comedy is best when it is not only funny but also true.
It is no surprise that over the last few decades, news delivered with a comedic twist has become increasingly popular. Think late shows and late, late shows. News satire has become increasingly popular since its renaissance in the UK with shows like That Was the Week that Was in the 1960’s and the now popular Saturday Night Live style that became popular from the US in the 1980’s and still enjoys large audiences today. Now with David Letterman, John Stewart, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon, there seems to be no end to the demand for the style.
But where did it all begin? Though stand up comedy could arguably be traced back to the time of the ancients. The Vaudeville style, where a comedian talks to the audience as himself, was made more widely popular during the Second World War. Comedians like Bob Hope, Jack Benny and George Burns entertained troops. Post war British favorites like Peter Sellers, Eric Sykes and Tommy Cooper all began this way.
After the war, the proliferation of radio and television expanded the audience even further. Many stand up comic celebrities find their way into situation comedy (sitcom) where comedic premises from their routines form the basis for the whole show. Robin Williams, Jackie Gleeson, Bob Newhart and Bill Cosby are just a few stand up comics to transition into the television sitcom world.
Now comedians typically start their journey in the open mic clubs that pop up in every populated center in pubs, clubs, coffee houses and bars. Comedians are usually given 5 minutes to work their material and impress the crowd. From here they may participate in contests or grow their skills to the point where they are offered paid gigs or MC spots. This is the brutal trial-by-fire apprenticeship that would-be comics accept as their road to success.
Whether comedy is just a means of entertainment or an insight into the cultural zeitgeist, it seems like it will never lose its place in society. What we deal with as a society and individuals is reflected in our comedy.
Pop into your local open-mic club soon and you may see the stars of the future honing their craft. Maybe you will even be inspired to get up yourself? Either way, you are guaranteed to be entertained.
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