Stand-up comedy is in the midst of a boom time, the likes of which hasn’t been seen on these shores since the ‘80s. Along with the continued work that cable giants like HBO and Comedy Central have been doing to highlight comic talent, Netflix continues to fund special after special every week, offering up a platform for well-established stars like Dave Chappelle and Iliza Shlesinger, as well as highlighting talent from around the globe, including Hannah Gadsby and Gad Elmaleh. Throw in the flood of funny podcasts and Twitter accounts that comics are using as self-promotion tools for their live appearances and it’s little wonder that stand-up scenes are popping up in communities around the U.S. and touring acts are quickly selling out theaters.
This rise in esteem has also helped fuel some serious explorations of the comedy world, with the New York Times hiring a dedicated reporter covering the stand-up scene and USC’s School of Dramatic Arts offering up classes for budding comics. In other words, it is the perfect time for folks to start delving into the past and tracking how this art form has evolved over the decades.
The latest effort to that end is The History of Standup, a new podcast from veteran comic Wayne Federman and producer Andrew Steven that, over the course of six episodes, takes listeners from its earliest incarnation on vaudeville stages, when it was called “performing in one,” to the current wave of comedians and gatekeepers competing for increasingly shrinking attention span through streaming services and social networking.
In fact, it was one such attempt by a major company, in this case Comcast by way of NBC Universal, that helped spawn this particular podcast, according to Federman.
“My co-host was doing a podcast for Seeso, the company that lasted between 18 and 20 months,” Federman says. “Besides doing comedy specials, they had a podcast wing and we had a very good conversation about what happened in December 1973 with Freddie Prinze on The Tonight Show, which I always think of as a kind of inflection point for this new wave of comedy that happened in the late ‘70s. He put it together and it was…not exactly NPR level but near that. It was a produced piece with clips of Johnny Carson where he said it was his mission to discover young comics.”
Soon after the podcast came out, Seeso shut its doors, but Steven was so inspired by it that he reached out to his guest with an idea to produce a series that looked at the trajectory of stand-up. It only helped that Federman had recently been hired by USC to teach the second section of their stand-up course.
Another boon to the podcast was that Federman had already spent the better part of his life studying the history of comedy in all its forms, not only as a way to improve his own stage work but also just as a fan.
“When I first got into comedy as a kid, I was fascinated even by old time show business,” Federman remembers. “I became aware of stand-up during the ‘70s with Richard Pryor, Robert Klein and George Carlin but also radio comedians like Jack Benny and Fred Allen. I was just completely fascinated by it.”
To their credit, Federman and Steven wisely narrowed their focus to only cover the world of stand-up. But even then, they know there’s only so much they can cover in each half-hour installment. The first two episodes, for example, span about a two decade stretch, starting with the impact of television, where shows like Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater and The Ed Sullivan Show were major platforms for comics and setting the template for the monologues that kick off nearly every late night talk show. The second installment jumps to the ‘60s to look at stand-up albums, with particular emphasis given over to the enormous success of The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, a record which landed at #1 on the Billboard pop charts and netted its star a Grammy for both Best New Artist and Album of the Year.
The rest of the episodes cover an equally wide swath of ground from the release of stand-up films like Richard Pryor: Live In Concert and Eddie Murphy: Delirious to Chappelle releasing four specials in one year for Netflix. And if Steven has his way, there will be a seventh episode, recorded live, featuring a panel discussion on the future of stand-up.
Federman doesn’t want to end their efforts there. If they get the go-ahead to produce a second series of the podcast, he says he hopes to dive into some other milestones that had an effect on the stand-up scene, such as the creation of Comedy Central and how comedians are some of the first people to make great use of new technologies and platforms for their art.
“I’m sure in two years, if I’m lucky enough to talk to you again,” Federman says, “we’ll be discussing some other weird, boundary-pushing innovation that’s just as fascinating.”
Listen to The History of Standup through Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify and more.
Robert Ham is an arts and culture journalist based in Portland, OR. Read more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.