The Roots of Stand Up Comedy

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joan5“Can we talk?” For decades, Joan Rivers invited audiences to pull up a chair and listen with that innocent question. What she said next were often biting, always honest, observations about the most taboo topics. Although Rivers often skewered Hollywood’s stars, she was the most frequent target of her material. Hear Rivers’ talk about her approach to what she considered the hypocrisy of celebrity.

If Rivers wanted to talk about it, she did—sex, marriage, bodies, aging, Hollywood stars, and pop culture. Rivers wanted to talk about it all. While her comfort zone was broad, part of her appeal was that she said what many Americans thought but didn’t say. Her audiences’ laughter was part “No! She didn’t!” and part “That’s so true!” part discomfort and part therapy.joan1

Joan Rivers died on Thursday, September 4th, after complications during what was described as a “routine” out-patient medical procedure. Rivers’ public persona was bold and loud and her vision of her final goodbye was equally vibrant. Last week, comedians and entertainers touted Rivers’ caustic humor. Obituaries memorialized her dogged quest to succeed, abiding work ethic, continual reinvention, and comedic contributions.

During her life, Rivers did not appreciate being called a pioneer. She responded that she was “still wearing her astronaut suit”—she was still pushing the boundaries, still contributing. However, in retrospect, Joan Rivers was a pioneer. She introduced new comic material for all stand-up comedians, broke the glass ceiling for women comediennes, opened new avenues to television shows, and pulled back the curtain on cultural myths about beauty, celebrity, and age.

joan2The History of Stand Up

Stand-up comedy did not begin as a man on stage telling jokes. Its roots extend to minstrel shows of the 1800s. Over time, minstrel shows faded and vaudeville shows replaced them. Investigate these roots of stand-up comedy.

Vaudeville entertainers such as Bob Hope helped develop the stand-up comedy genre. Over the years, individual comedians have put their mark on stand-up by pushing the limits or introducing a new style. And so, while the format of a man and a microphone has not changed, stand-up comedy has evolved. Richard Zoglin of Time Magazine introduces viewers to stand-ups’ more innovative comedians.Bob Hope 1940, 1942, 1943, 1944, 1946, 1953, 1955, 1958, 1959, 1960,1961,1962, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1975, 1978

When Joan Rivers began doing stand-up in the 1960s, there were very few other women stand-up comediennes. However, there were women comediennes on television—Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore, Marla Gibbs, Betty White. Eventually, Rivers joined them, taking her stand-up routine to television. Watch two excerpts from PBS’ Pioneers of Television to discover what it took for Rivers to break into television (5:40 to 8:00), and how her brand of humor changed television (23:53 to 26:34).

The Science of Laughter

We may enjoy a good joke but does laughter serve any other purpose? Do any other animals laugh? Research into human—and animal laughter—is relatively new. Researchers theorize that laughter does serve a social and biological purpose, and that our non-human ancestors also laugh. Watch an excerpt (35:00 to 40:00) from NOVA to discover more about these surprising findings.

joan3If laughter makes us feel good and fosters bonding, what is happening inside our brains when we laugh? It turns out laughter, like exercise and love, has a physiological piece; laughing at jokes triggers activity in three areas of the brain. The Society for Neuroscience Brain Briefings summarizes what scientists have discovered about laughter. Researchers hope further studies will help determine how humor may be processed differently by people with conditions such as depression, and that those insights will offer more effective treatments. What is clear is that laughter does not hurt. Instead, Joan Rivers was right: laughter helps us cope when life becomes tense or tough. Laughter keeps you healthy. HowStuffWorks explains the physical and emotional benefits of laughter.

Scientists may be honing in on the benefits and neuroscience of laughter, but what they still cannot fully explain is what makes a joke funny. Philosophers have taken a stab at defining why we find some jokes funny while others fall flat. Read the primary theories that explain what we find funny.

Ultimately, Chris Rock is right—funny is more fun when you don’t think about it too much. So tease your funny bone, wherever it may reside, and treat yourself to some jokes. Pick your favorite and ask a friend, “Can we talk?” and tell one in honor of Joan Rivers.


Newspaper Activities

Comedians' jokes often are inspired by the world around them, warts and all. Read the local newspaper this week with a partner. Do not ignore the Business, Lifestyle, and Sports sections. As a team, write a series of jokes inspired by current events. Think of yourself as writing the bits for Saturday Night Live's news desk. If it helps, use the three philosophical theories about why something is funny as a framework. Try to write one joke in each style.

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