stand UP

Given our predilection for story-telling and for entertainment, it is remarkable that stand-up comedy, as a genre, has only been around for half a century. Evolving out vaudeville, where comics sang, danced and clowned, a new wave of comics, frequently with political bite to their routines, sought to strip back the theatrics of vaudeville. Stand-up comedy is a distillation of the variety show, focusing on the spoken word, and on telling stories: tall tales and true.

Lenny Bruce is widely recognised as the father of stand-up. He was certainly the most notorious, arrested frequently for obscenity, and once for impersonating a priest. Bruce came to Australia in 1962, opened his first gig with “What a fucking wonderful audience” and was arrested and banned from performing.

Bruce’s recalcitrance inspired the new wave of stand-up comics, led by Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Bill Cosby, and Mort Sahl. The increasing popularity of the genre allowed these stars to parlay their stand-up gigs into both live and studio album releases, in turn attracting the interest of film producers, who cast the likes of Pryor, Allen, and Cosby in leading roles in film.

The term “stand-up comic” was formally recognised by both the Oxford and Webster’s dictionaries in 1966, and the conventions of stand-up are little changed in the ensuing 43 years. It’s an industry that sits at the centre of the world’s biggest festival, the Edinburgh Fringe, and that continues to develop superstars in the field of entertainment: Steve Martin, David Letterman, Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, Jerry Seinfeld, Ricky Gervais, Billy Connolly, Chris Rock, Jon Stewart.

Who are the best stand-up comedians?

I have seen a live performance/listened to an album of these comedians:

Bill Cosby, Chris Rock, Brendan Burns, Michael McIntyre, Tim Minchin, Richard Pryor, Bob Newhart, Jerry Seinfeld, Margaret Cho, Joel Ozborn, Arj Barker, Adam Hills, Wil Anderson, Dave Hughes, Carl Barron, George Carlin, Woody Allen, Dane Cook, Denis Leary, David Spade, Mitch Hedberg, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Rich Hall, Jimeoin, Danny Bhoy, Daniel Townes, Daniel Kitson, Stephen K Amos, Bill Hicks, Dylan Moran, Mort Sahl, Steven Wright, Andrew Maxwell and Jason Byrne.

I’ve restricted myself to only listing artists who I’ve seen/listened to a complete performance of, so if your favourite comic isn’t on the list, point me in the right direction!

My top 5:

1. Richard Pryor: Live in Concert

Here’s a link to an excerpt: Richard Pryor: Live in Concert

2. Chris Rock: Bigger and Blacker

I knew little about Rock as a stand-up performer prior to this show. If you like this excerpt, the whole show is available at youtube.

3. George Carlin: Jammin’ in New York

Carlin passed away last year. He was most famous for a while for his bit Seven Dirty Words, which is more controversial and pioneering than it is funny. But this album is a biting and riotous riff on American culture. Again, the entire show is on youtube:

4. Jerry Seinfeld: I’m Telling You For The Last Time:

Okay, that’s 4. I wanted to include a recent or current show in the list, since all the above are at least 5 years old. They’re classics which will stand the test of time. For the No. 5 slot I have three current shows in mind, but I can’t split them. So I’m putting No. 5 on rotation, shared by three currently touring shows, each of which I loved:

Stephen K Amos: Find The Funny

Danny Bhoy

Tim Minchin: Ready For This

If some of the clips in this post make you want to get out and see a show, you’ll love these three gigs.

Finally, since no-one’s reading, it’d be on the down down down low if I wrote that Flight of the Conchords were planning an Australia + New Zealand tour this October … shhhhh.

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