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  • The History of Stand-Up: From Mark Twain to Dave Chappelle by Wayne Federman
  • Matthew R. Meier (bio)
The History of Stand-Up: From Mark Twain to Dave Chappelle. By Wayne Federman. Beverly Hills, CA: Independent Artists Media, 2021. 140 pp.

If you’re looking for an approachable, compact history of stand-up comedy, Wayne Federman’s The History of Stand-Up is it. In addition to being an active stand-up comedian, writer, and actor, Federman is an adjunct lecturer at the University of Southern California where he teaches courses in the School of Dramatic Arts. His History of Stand-Up cobbles together material gathered during his career as a stand-up and comedy writer, his History of Stand-Up pod-cast (with Andrew Steven), and several articles written for Vulture. Along the way it introduces readers to the form’s genesis in the lecture circuits of the mid-nineteenth century while addressing a series of major transformations as the form responded to changes in culture and technology including radio, television, and social media.

After a brief introduction, the book unfolds in ten chapters, each addressing what Federman calls an “inflection point” in stand-up’s history. The first chapter considers the lecture circuit of proto-stand-up and the early years of comedy theater and variety shows through four “forefather” figures: Artemis Ward (née Charles Browne), Bert Williams, Mark Twain, and Will Rogers. In chapter 2, Federman outlines the contours of vaudeville and burlesque and shows how these venues provided a space for stand-up monologuists and “doubles” to hone their craft and their acts. Federman’s third chapter addresses the rise of radio as both a technological revolution (microphones became much more common and accessible) and a ready platform for comedy programming (as networks relied on comics like Eddie Cantor and Fred Allen to provide content on a budget). The fourth chapter returns to the stage for the nightclub era of the mid-twentieth century. Here, Federman describes the segregated circuits of clubs and resorts, such as the “borscht belt” of the Catskills and swank hotels for white audiences and the “chitlin’ circuit” for Black comics like Moms Mabley and Nipsey Russell. He also details the [End Page 298] increased reliance on house emcees who used crowd work to keep the audience laughing—and drinking.

Around the midpoint of the book, chapter 5 covers both the rise of television and what Federman calls the “new wave” of stand-up comedians like Mort Sahl and Dick Gregory—and the comedy LPs that this new wave produced. Chapter 6 takes up perhaps the most influential stand-up comedians in American culture, Richard Pryor and George Carlin, as Federman details the form’s move into coffee houses and clubs in the sixties as well as how late-night television, especially The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, became a hub for stand-up performers. In chapter 7, Federman briefly addresses the evolution of stand-up during the seventies as venues like HBO, Saturday Night Live, and films like Pryor’s Live in Concert reimagined what stand-up media might look like for comics from the wild and crazy Steve Martin to the countercultural icon Carlin.

The book really gains momentum in the final three chapters, which constitute more than one-third of the relatively short volume. In chapter 8, Federman takes on the comedy boom of the 1980s, the same time when he was finding his own footing as a club comedian. Weaving together stories about comics like Eddie Murphy and Sam Kinison, this chapter describes the explosive growth of the live stand-up comedy industry through the comedy clubs like Catch a Rising Star and stand-up shows like A&E’s An Evening at the Improv. The ninth chapter takes up alternative comics like Janeane Garofalo, the late-night wars to replace Johnny Carson, Jim Carrey’s meteoric rise from performing at open mics in Toronto comedy clubs to being the highest paid actor in Hollywood, and the astounding number of sitcoms based around stand-up comedians. The final chapter turns to the impact of digital technologies on stand-up. It opens with a story about...