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Comedians

History

Throughout history, people have enjoyed humorous interpretations of the events that make up their daily lives. Comedy began as a type of drama that presented events in a comic way and thereby sought to amuse its audience. These dramas were not always funny, yet they were usually lighthearted and had happy endings (as opposed to tragedies, which had sad endings).

The Greeks and Romans had playwrights such as Aristophanes and Plautus, who successfully used humor as a type of mirror on the social and political customs of the time. They wrote plays that highlighted some of the particularities of the rich and powerful as well as common people. An early type of comedian was the fool or jester attached to a royal court, whose function was to entertain by singing, dancing, telling jokes, riddles, and humorous stories, and even by impersonating the king and other members of the aristocracy. In later years, English playwright William Shakespeare and French playwright Moliere used wit and humor to point out some of the shortcomings of society.

In the 19th century, as cities became more and more crowded, comedy became an especially important diversion for people. During this time, minstrel, burlesque, and vaudeville shows became very popular. These shows usually featured a combination of song, comedy, and other acts, such as magic or acrobatics. Many of the popular comedians of the 20th century began their careers in burlesque and vaudeville, and hundreds of theaters opened in the United States catering to this form of entertainment. A distinctive part of vaudeville was the great variety of acts presented during a single show. Comedians especially had to work hard to catch the audience's attention and make themselves memorable among the other performers. Vaudeville provided a training ground for many of the most popular comedians of the 20th century, including stars such as Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Milton Berle, Mae West, Bob Hope, the Marx Brothers, George Burns and Gracie Allen, W.C. Fields, and Will Rogers.

Vaudeville soon faced competition from the film industry. People flocked to motion pictures as a new form of entertainment, and many of the vaudeville theaters closed or converted to showing films. For comedians, the new form of entertainment proved ideal for their craft. During the early years of cinema, slapstick films starring the Keystone Cops, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, and many others became immensely popular. Radio also provided a venue for many comedians, and people would gather around a living room radio to hear the performances of stars such as Milton Berle, Edgar Bergen, Jack Benny, and Jimmy Durante. When sound was added to the films in the late 1920s and early 1930s, comedians were able to adapt their stand-up and radio routines to film, and many numbered among the most popular stars in the United States and throughout the world.

Later, television provided another venue for comedians. Milton Berle was one of the very first television stars. The Ed Sullivan Show became an important place for comedians to launch their acts to a national audience. Many comedians developed their own television shows, and many more comedians found work writing jokes and scripts for this comedic medium.

Stand-up comedy, that is, live performances before an audience, continues to be one of the most important ways for a comedian to develop an act and perfect timing, delivery, and other skills. Stand-up comedians do more than simply make people laugh; they attempt to make people think. Current events continue to provide a rich source for material, and the stand-up comedian has become a social critic who uses humor as the medium for the message. For example, in the early 1960s, Lenny Bruce caused a great deal of controversy in the United States by using his nightclub routines to question the role of organized religion in society and to argue against censorship. During the 1960s, comedians, such as members of The Second City theater group based in Chicago, began to adapt improvisational acting techniques, creating a new form of comedic theater. Many of these comedy actors, including John Belushi and Shelley Long, went on to stardom.

Stand-up comedy continues to provide an important training ground for comedians. Most of the biggest comedy stars, such as Will Ferrell, Steve Martin, Sarah Silverman, Jerry Seinfeld, Roseanne, Eddie Murphy, Ellen Degeneres, Chris Rock, Dane Cook, Dave Chappelle, Daniel Tosh, and many others, had their starts as stand-up comedians. During the 1980s, hundreds of new comedy clubs opened across the country, providing more venues for comedians to hone their craft than ever before.

In addition to doing live stand-up routines, comedians are also using television, radio, films, and the Internet to reach fans. For example, FunnyorDie.com is a comedy video Web site founded by comedian Will Ferrell and other comedians that offers user-generated content and original, exclusive content from well-known comedians and rising stars. The popular comedian Louis C.K. sells downloads of his comedy shows directly to consumers at his Web site—spurning corporate sponsorship in order to better connect with his fans.

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