There’s probably always been comedy, for as long as there’ve been people.
Some guy sitting in the cave, telling jokes about the sabre-tooth tiger that got away. Some Cro-Magnon girl putting some prehistoric ancestor of a banana peel in the path of some less popular Cro-Magnon boy. A homo erectus staring at a good-looking bird and walking straight into a tree. Funny stuff like that.
But stand-up, at least as we know it — one person on stage, telling jokes — is relatively new and purely American.
Wayne Federman is a stand-up comedian. He’s also an actor, a writer, a historian, a podcaster, and most recently a teacher; he’s an adjunct professor at USC.
He’ll talk about his recent book, “The History of Stand-Up: From Mark Twain to Dave Chappelle,” online for the JCC U at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. (See below.)
As he’ll tell the audience — but in far more detail — stand-up began in 1858, with Artemus Ward, the writer-turned-comedian who toured with his comedy act.
It was part of the lyceum movement, a generally very earnest mid-19th-century movement that among other things provided venues and audiences for speakers. Artemus Ward — he wasn’t the American Revolutionary War general who carried that name and died in 1788, but instead a writer who was born Charles Farrar Browne in 1834 and took General Ward’s name for reasons that are not clear today but seem vaguely funny — started his comedy act “because he’d had some success as a comedy writer, and he thought that maybe he could just retool his writing for the stage,” Mr. Federman said. “He published a compilation of funny letters that he’s written to the newspapers.” The book was a hit. “Abraham Lincoln was a huge fan of that book.”
So when he started his stand-up act, “It worked better than even he anticipated,” Mr. Federman said. “He was funny, and he had no agenda.
“And here’s the thing. He did a show out in Nevada, and a young writer named Samuel Clemens saw him. He thought that Artemus Ward was the funniest guy he had ever seen.” So when Mr. Clemens — by then established as Mark Twain — signed up for his speaking tour, he was influenced by Mr. Ward. He didn’t do stand-up, but he did tell jokes.
But Artemus Ward, “very much on-brand for people in the 1800s, died of tuberculosis at 32,” Mr. Federman said. (That part’s not at all funny.)
Ward did not begin stand-up entirely de novo, of course. “I don’t really go back before 1858, but there were a number of streams that flowed into it,” Mr. Federman said. “I don’t really go into it, but long before stand-up there were minstrel shows — even before that there were court jesters — and there were things that Jews would do in Europe, back at least to the 1700s. They’d hire a badchen, a sort of proto-tummler, for weddings and other celebrations. But the stand-up — a single person, alone on stage, telling jokes — was new.
And it was American. “Like basketball,” Mr. Federman said. “Like blue jeans. Like jazz. Like the blues.”
Once he outlines stand-up’s history, Mr. Federman said, his program can go in the direction the audience prefers; he loves developing a relationship with an audience, even if it’s online. There are so many directions to go in; “vaudeville, nightclubs, the Borscht Belt. Miami, Vegas, comedy clubs. Podcasts.”
The history of stand-up is part social history, and even more part business history, he said. “The development and adaptation of new technology is a big part of stand-up comedy.” The prototypical standup performer needs a microphone and lighting; Artemus Ward had neither. “The microphone has changed everything,” Mr. Federman said. “Now you can control the crowd. You can handle hecklers much better. As I say in my book, you can be loud while speaking softly. It was a big change.”
Next, there were records; specifically, LPs. “In the 1950s, long-playing records also changed everything. You had Bob Newhart and Shelley Berman and Mort Sahl. Now you could hear a comedian doing their act in a club without actually having to go there. And then were was television. Suddenly you are on Ed Sullivan. And then there was late-night comedy. Carson in particular — if you were on Carson, it was like a Mafia thing. You were a made man.
“Or a made woman — but not so much.”
There is a long history of Jews in stand-up. “A lot of the Eastern European Jews who came here in the 1880s and their kids found an open invitation into show business, whereas for the ones who came before it was a little trickier,” Mr. Federman said. “And there was a tradition in Judaism not only of education, but also of arguing, of being verbal. So that was a nice fit.
“But I have to say that looking back, it seems to me that these comedians’ main goal was cultural assimilation. Because Benjamin Kubelsky became Jack Benny. Milton Berlinger became Milton Berle. Even Lenny Bruce started as Leonard Schneider.
“They all kind of de-Jewed their names. So many of them did it. Jerry Lewis was Joseph Levitch. They wanted to fit in with the mainstream, with what my grandma used to called goyim society. So it was a great fit.”
And then there were the Catskills, Mr. Federman continued, all those hotels that catered to Jews, including the nascent stand-up comics among them. “It was like a farm system. You had Melvin Kaminsky — Mel Brooks — and David Kaminsky — Danny Kaye.” (The two comics don’t seem to have been related.)
“It seems like there are fewer Jewish comedians than there were when I was a kid,” Mr. Federman said. “But it’s interesting to me that Jerry Seinfeld is Jerry Seinfeld. He didn’t become Jerry Sanders.” On the other hand, he acknowledged, Jon Stewart, who is younger than Jerry Seinfeld, is no longer Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz. Theory can take you only so far.
His is the first history of stand-up, Mr. Federman said; there have been many books about the art, but they tend to focus on a particular comic or period, or to take the encyclopedic approach, with listings. “My goal was to connect what John Mulaney or Dave Chappelle does with what Mark Twain or Will Rogers did.”
His book also looks at women and African Americans and “how they clawed their way” in stand-up. “One of the earliest stand-ups was a woman named Jean Carroll,” he said; by the way, she was Jewish. “She was a big star in the 1940s; she was on Ed Sullivan dozens of times. She was a big comedy headliner, and really influenced both Joan Rivers and Lily Tomlin. They both said, ‘Look at her! Maybe I can do this.’
“She and Moms Mabley were the two most influential women in stand-up,” but because Moms Mabley was Black, it was even harder for her.
Ms. Carroll’s style of humor was not self-deprecating, Mr. Federman said. She was glamorous. She occasionally made fun of herself, but far more often aimed her barbs elsewhere. She’s make fun of her husband — and a huge staple of stand-up humor were comics’ wives, and even more their mothers-in-law.
Why was that? He’s not sure, Mr. Federman said, but he suspects that some of it might have been the effect of early marriages. Some of them were ill-advised, and it was easier for men to make jokes about their mothers-in-law than their wives — and certainly there were many jokes about wives anyway.
Another basic truth about stand-up comedy is that it is ephemeral, Mr. Federman said. “The language and the acceptable jargon — all of it changes.”
It is exquisitely of its time and place. To look at an old stand-up routine is to examine a snapshot; to analyze it is to do social history.
He illustrates with an old Henny Youngman joke. (To be accurate, all Henny Youngman jokes are old.) “He said, ‘I just got back from a pleasure trip. I took my mother-in-law to the airport.’
“The reason that the joke can’t work today, first, is that people don’t do mother-in-law jokes. And also, people don’t use the term ‘pleasure trip.’ It hits your ears and you think, ‘What is this guy talking about?’
“Stand-up has to reflect what’s going on around it. it just has to. That’s why very little of it transcends its generation. There might be a few exceptions — maybe George Carlin — but that would be it. I don’t think that there’s any one passing Lenny Bruce bits around on the internet now.”
On the other hand, physical comedy is less time-bound.
“So I teach this class at USC, and I tell the kids, ‘You probably are not going to be able to connect with a lot of this stuff. Even the stuff from the 1990s, much less from the 1890s. But the jobs of those comedians was to make people laugh at that time, not to make you laugh 100 years later.”
There also is the question of what is acceptable; that changes very quickly. “Mel Brooks says, I think correctly, that he doesn’t think he could make ‘Blazing Saddles’ today. It just couldn’t be done.” Our definitions of unacceptable bigotry and vulgarity change.
Which, when you think about it, is maybe a little bit funny.
Who: Actor, comedian, writer, historian, and teacher Wayne Federman
What: Will discuss “The History of Stand-Up” for the JCC U
When: On Thursday, February 17, at 11 a.m.
Where: Online, for the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly
How much: $12 for JCC members, $15 for nonmembers
To register: Go to www.jccotp.org/programs/lectures-learning or call (201) 408-1496