Who Was the First Stand-Up Comic?

Will Rogers

American icon Rogers got his start as a lasso expert in a Wild West show, a performance that ironically did not require him to speak. But what he did learn, Federman says, is how to hold an audience.

He developed an act where he explained rope tricks in an aw-shucks southwestern drawl, discovering that his self-deprecating humor was a bigger hit than the cowboy act. Soon, he dropped the rope and began telling stories that made him one of the most popular men in America.

Will Rogers Memorial Museum

Cracking wise on the government never goes out of style.

Rogers can’t claim to be the first guy to stand up and tell jokes to make us laugh, but he certainly took this burgeoning profession to new heights.

Dude played Broadway, poked good-natured fun at President Woodrow Wilson (to his face), did the lecture circuit, broadcast a weekly radio show, and appeared in more than 50 feature films. When he tragically died in a plane crash in 1935, all federal buildings lowered their flags to half-mast.

Charley Case

Public domain

Just a man and his jokes, no props required.

As for other candidates? Slate offers up Charley Case, a Black vaudeville performer from the late 1800s. What made Case unusual? Some say he was the first to perform his comic monologues without the help of music, props, or costumes. Like most stand-ups now, Case was just a guy trying to make us laugh.

It’s hard to find much information about Case today, but some of his jokes survived. Case was famous for telling funny stories about his father, like this story shared by Ebony:

Charley, his brother Hank, and their father are sleeping in a bedroom when they hear a noise downstairs. “I think there’s a burglar loose in the house,” the father whispers to Hank. “You should go down and find him.” “I haven’t lost any burglars,” Hank replied. “Make Charley go down.”

What we do know about Case tells us he would fit right in with many of today’s comics — he was quiet, even a little neurotic, often twiddling a piece of cloth or string while telling jokes on stage. As Slate saysCase may have given birth to the idea of ​​the depressed, tortured comedian.

Frank Fay

Finally, we come to Frank Fay. Even though most people today haven’t heard of him, many consider him to be a pioneer of the stand-up style that most audiences know today.

Public domain

“Abusive” and “dreadful” are some of the nicer words used to describe Frank Fay.

He was also, reportedly, a bit of a jerk. That’s us being nice. Other words used to describe Fay: Alcoholic. Abusive. Fascist. Wife-beater. Anti-semite. Actor Robert Wagner called Fay “one of the most dreadful men in the history of show business.”

But hey, he was funny!

In addition to being known for his comedy skills, he often served as master of ceremonies for different events at New York’s Palace Theater. Today’s comedy clubs opening acts often act as emcees for the evening — Fay was likely the guy who invented that “comic host” role.

Who’s on First?

Ultimately, there’s no way of knowing who was the first stand-up. To Federman, it doesn’t really matter. What he finds interesting is how little has changed.

It’s still one fool standing in front of a group of people, trying desperately to make them laugh. It’s still the grind of the tour, going from one venue to the next, mustering the energy to put on another gratifying show. Still mining the circumstances of one’s own life and the world for funny observations. And still other comics shamelessly stealing your material.

Is there a lot to learn from those early comics? Not necessarily, says Federman. Comedy is contextual — more than nearly any other art form, it’s a reaction to the contemporary world in which the comics live. When the legendary comic Mort Sahl recently passed away, Federman heard muffled complaints that Sahl’s political humor didn’t really hold up. “Of course,” says Federman. “That’s because you don’t know Adlai Stevenson.”

But today’s funny people likely would still relate to those early comics as they’re all connected by the knowledge of what it’s like to perform live, on stage, all alone. “That terrifying-to-thrilling experience,” Federman says, is what drove them all.

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Top image: Library of Congress

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