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A Brief History of a Decidedly American Art

TheeErin / Flickr / Creative Commons

Like jazz, stand-up comedy is an American invention.

From its roots in the comedy-routine duos of vaudeville and the fast-talking MCs of burlesque, stand-up has undergone a number of changes. The Borscht-belt Jewish comedians of the Catskills, who developed the early gag-filled monologues, gradually gave way to radio comedians like Jack Benny. Former vaudevillian Bob Hope was the first funnyman to hire a team of writers to keep him in fresh, topical material. He was also the first to adapt his humor to his location, since he frequently traveled to perform for military servicemen.

In the 1950s, Mort Sahl led the charge that took comedy down a different path. Sahl’s act consisted of him sitting on a stool and looking through a newspaper while he commented on current events and political figures. It was a regular occurrence for him ask the audience, “Are there any groups here I haven’t offended?”

Lenny Bruce was the culmination of this generation's new engagement with social and political issues, and it was his iconoclastic approach that influenced comics like Richard Pryor and George Carlin to reinvent themselves as firebrands for the common man. By the 1980s, stand-up comedy had reached a pinnacle of popularity. Every stand-up comedian who was anyone had a television sitcom, and a set on Johnny Carson could make or break a career.

These days, stand-up offers a mélange of styles, with something for everyone. The Loony Bin comedy club recently moved to Old Town in Wichita, and hosts a variety of comedians Thursday through Saturday. For listings, visit their website.

Sanda Moore Coleman received an MFA in creative writing from Wichita State University in 1991. Since then, she has been the arts and community editor for The Martha's Vineyard Times, a teaching fellow at Harvard University, and an assistant editor at Image. In 2011, she received the Maureen Egan Writers Exchange prize for fiction from Poets & Writers magazine. She has spent more than 30 years performing, reviewing, and writing for theatre.