In many respects stand-up comedy has hardly changed in the last thousand years. A man – and, sorry, it has generally been a man, although this is now changing – attempts to make a group of people laugh with an infectious cocktail of wit, wisdom, and maybe some wordplay and charisma. He might even wear a funny hat.
Money may well change hands at some stage – usually at the start of the evening. It has been noted that there is an interesting similarity between stand-up comedy gigs and prostitution. In both cases the ‘punter’ pays to have an emotional response in the company of someone they may not know personally and may never see again.
Roots and rites
Long before comedy became a part of show business, it was already part of our culture. Modern comedy has its roots in ancient pagan rites that some experts believe even predate Liverpudlian legend Ken Dodd telling his first gag about the Inland Revenue.
It is remarkable how societies all over the world developed their own brand of humour which was both different and at the same time strikingly similar.
Native Americans, for example, believed in a comedic fertility character known as Kokopelli, a hunchbacked figure with a huge erection carrying a bag of seeds. Kokopelli would go around playing pranks on villagers, who would laugh so much that they would not notice him ravishing their women before moving on to another village the following night and doing the same thing.
Send in the clowns
The clown has always had tacit permission to defy or simply ignore convention. In the Middle Ages, jesters were able to speak their mind in the monarch’s court. They were society’s safety valve, a controlled way of expressing discontent. From Pueblo Indians mocking sacred ceremonies to a modern circus clown squirting water at the audience, comedy breaks down barriers.
Stewart Lee would start his 2005 show ’90s Comedian by drawing a chalk circle on the stage to stand in. This, he explained, was what medieval clowns used to do outside churches to protect themselves from being persecuted for heresy.
By the 1800s, a career in comedy was an established way of earning a living. The first great modern clown was Joseph Grimaldi, a performer who always wanted to entertain, but never offend.
In The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi, author Andrew McConnell Stott recalls how one contemporary tried to besmirch Grimaldi’s reputation for reliability by billing him in the line-up of a London show when he knew he was working in Birmingham. The clown got wind of the plot and after a breathless 100-mile, 19-hour journey by stagecoach made it onstage just in time.
Yet the strain of staying at the top took its toll, as it would do to many after him. Grimaldi suffered from depression and died in poverty and pain due to the damage caused to his body by his slapstick acrobatics.
His legacy is the idea of the ‘sad clown’ who makes everyone laugh but goes home alone and cries himself to sleep. One should adopt an air of gravitas when talking of Grimaldi’s fate, as a reminder that making people laugh is a serious business.
Indeed, you might quote the great actor Edmund Kean who, on his deathbed, said: ‘Dying is easy, comedy is hard.’
Music halls and vaudeville
But this is comedy, and the bluffer should not dwell on the more morbid aspects of the profession. In the Victorian era, comedians were superstars, packing out music halls.
You should demonstrate your inside knowledge by referring to Little Tich by his real name, Harry Relph. Tich was only four feet six inches tall and had six fingers on each hand. He was famous for his ‘big-foot’ dance in which he cavorted around in shoes that were two feet long. Tich would balance on them, strut around on them and even hide behind them.
The bluffer must also mention Dan Leno, a man who entertained Queen Victoria in her dotage and was given a diamond tiepin by King Edward and nicknamed the ‘King’s Jester’.
In the twentieth century vaudeville thrived. Cinema helped to make icons of the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy who had cut their teeth onstage. Later, George Formby was a household name, thanks to his gormless grin and suggestive songs such as With My Little Stick Of Blackpool Rock. (Eat your heart out, Miley Cyrus.)
The first recognisably modern British comedian, however, was Max Miller. The Brighton-born entertainer was what was known as a ‘front-of-cloth’ comedian. He would stand in the footlights and fire out fusillades of jokes and stories, while the curtain was down and the set rearranged for the next variety act.
From the 1930s to the 1950s, Miller was a hugely popular household name, dominating live comedy. His outfits certainly made this stand-up stand out. Multicoloured brogues, plus fours, kipper ties, trim silk jackets and tight-fitting trilbies made him look part travelling salesman, part circus clown. Miller was much loved by the public; if he was appearing in London and the show ran late, the guards at Victoria Station would hold the Brighton Express for him.
From the moment he strutted onstage, he was in full flow: ‘Thank you very much, I expected more but I’m satisfied…’ He would get plenty of material out of his outfits, running his hands over his hips and thighs: ‘I’ve got new ones on tonight, all rubber. Do you wear them, lady? You do look funny when you take them off; you look like a golf ball.’
Gradually he would build to a bawdy climax while discussing his recent hunt for seaside lodgings. ‘I went to Blackpool and I went round looking for rooms…An old lady came to the door…I said could you accommodate me; she says I’m awfully sorry I’m full up. I said surely you could squeeze me in the little back room, couldn’t you? She said I could but I haven’t got time now.’
This ‘saloon bar Priapus’, as he was dubbed by playwright John Osborne, never actually swore. Everything was left to his audience’s imagination. There was something delightfully conspiratorial about his act.
In his most famous rapid-fire riff, he would pull out two joke books – one white book, one blue – and ask the audience which one they wanted: the clean white one or the dirty blue one. They invariably went for the blue book, knowing full well that that was where the rudest innuendos were. ‘I don’t care what I say, do I?’
If Grimaldi created the ‘sad-clown’ legend, Miller added ‘short arms, long pockets’ to the modern comedian’s psychological CV.
Miller had a reputation for being somewhat tight-fisted. Contemporaries joked that he was so mean that late in his career he was said to still have the first shilling he had ever earned. He was a past master at avoiding paying up when he lost a wager and was known to rush out of theatres straight after the curtain had come down without offering the band their traditional tip.
But as TV grew in popularity, Miller’s days at the top were numbered. There was something about his persona that did not translate to the new medium. The camera did not embrace him the way audiences did, or the way it would embrace Morecambe and Wise a decade later. It is hard to say exactly why Miller did not cross over onto the small screen. It was nothing to do with his act having to be tamed for TV, as some have suggested. Like Jimmy Carr or Frank Skinner today, Miller could be just as quick-witted without resorting to his ‘blue book’.
Maybe he was just slightly too old. By the time TV came along as a major force, he was already in his fifties. Music hall was dying and he had nowhere else to go. He was keenly aware that he was the last of a certain breed: ‘When I’m dead and gone, the game’s finished,’ he once said. And as far as music hall went, he was right. In 1958 he suffered a heart attack and, though he continued to perform, he took life more easily before going to the great gig in the sky in 1963.
Stage to screen
Yet Miller paved the way for a generation of comedians who would become stars on TV as well as stage. Make sure you mention the lesser-known Arthur Haynes, who went from stage to screen, finding fame with his tramp character (his sidekick for a while was one of comedy’s longest-serving straight men, Nicholas Parsons).
Tony Hancock also went from live shows to sitcom fame, but everyone knows his tragic tale; Haynes will score you more points.
Light entertainment soon ruled the airwaves: Morecambe and Wise, Bob Monkhouse (who as a Dulwich College schoolboy would hang around by the stage door and try to sell jokes to Miller), Frankie Howerd and Tommy Cooper. And, lest we forget, there was also radio, with Spike Milligan and The Goons.
A generation made the leap from stage to screen. TV did not kill off stand-up; it brought it to a whole new audience. Comedy was a truly international phenomenon, from Lenny Bruce and Milton Berle in the USA to Beyond The Fringe in the UK featuring Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller.
Comedy in the 1960s had a new confidence and irreverence. Old values were replaced. At Peter Cook’s Establishment Club in Soho, jokes were made about royalty and prime minister Harold Macmillan, who was portrayed as a doddery old fool.
Cook, who remains to this day the sine qua non of brilliant satirists, was his own tough act to follow. A dashing, handsome, sharp-witted superstar in the 1960s, he never lost his wit and ability.
However, in the early 1970s he lost his direction, hosting a BBC chat show, Where Do I Sit?, which was so derided it was taken off the air mid-series and replaced by a new chat show hosted by a young journalist called Michael Parkinson.
The advent of modern stand-up
But by the second half of the 1970s, comedy was in need of a revamp. Monty Python’s Flying Circus, once so radical, had gone from being a late-night cult sketch show to a prime-time success, with John Cleese having an even greater hit with Fawlty Towers.And stand-up comedy was anything but cutting-edge.
It was personified by the mother-in-law gags of the frilly-shirted, bow-tied brigade led by the likes of Bernard Manning, Frank Carson and Mike ‘Wallop’ Reid on Granada Television’s quick-fire series The Comedians. The programme was cannily edited, fast with rapid cuts from gag to gag, so that viewers would not realise how wince-inducingly corny the acts really were in anything but the smallest of doses.
At the end of the decade, a change was in the air. A new stand-up revolution was brewing in the back streets of London’s Soho. Without the heavy reliance on observations about racial differences and mother-in-laws, it would be called ‘alternative comedy‘. And we should all be thankful it came around when it did.
For the bigger, even more incomplete history of comedy, purchase The Bluffer’s Guide to Stand-Up Comedy® immediately.