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History of Stand-up Comedy in the 1970s

The Birth of Modern Stand-up

By

George Carlin Performing On Stage
Ken Howard / Stringer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A New Breed

Hot on the heels of 1960s counterculture and the innovations of Lenny Bruce, a new kind of comic had arrived in the 1970s. Gone were the traditional setup/punchline joke tellers of the past. The new stand-up comic was faster and looser, mixing the confessional with the socio-political. They were younger, edgier. Their material spoke to a new generation of listeners. Comedy had become "cool," and the art form was reborn.

An entire new crop of comedians became not just stars, but icons in the '70s. Comics like George Carlin and Richard Pryor became rock stars with their confrontational style and anti-establishment routines. Robert Klein and a young Jerry Seinfeld ushered in a new style of "observational" comedy - material that sprang from everyday life, accessible to wide audiences that identified with the comics as being just like themselves. And as fast as new styles of comedy were coming into their own, comedians like Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman were busy deconstructing them in their own acts.

The Birth of the Comedy Club

Perhaps nothing in the '70s gave rise to stand-up comedy more than the birth of the comedy club. On both coasts, new clubs were opening that allowed comics to get in front of audiences every night of the week. In New York City, clubs like The Improv, which had been open since 1963, and Catch a Rising Star, which appeared on the scene in 1972, provided nightly showcases for both new and established comedians. Richard Lewis, Billy Crystal, Freddie Prinze, Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Belzer and Larry David all got their starts in either of the two clubs during the decade.

On the West Coast, The Comedy Store (which opened in 1972) in West Hollywood played host to comics like Pryor, Carlin, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Robin Williams and Sam Kinison. It was successful enough that two more locations were opened by 1976. A West Coast branch of The Improv also opened in 1975.

Some comedians - chiefly Pryor and Steve Martin - became so popular (supporting club performances with TV appearances and albums) that they outgrew the clubs. By decade's end, these comics were playing amphitheaters and, in Martin's case, even stadiums.

Comics on Strike

Not only did the proliferation of comedy clubs expose audiences to new comedians, but they also provided new communities for the comics themselves. Stand-up comedians could make connections with each other; they could see other acts every night and "workshop" their own material.

It was for these reasons - and the fact that the new clubs might feature as many as 10 comics in a night - that many comedians weren't being paid by the clubs in the '70s. Clubs were a training ground and could provide exposure, but weren't financially lucrative for comics.

But in 1979, many of the comics who regularly worked at The Comedy Store - tired of working for free while the club made money off them - went on strike. Nearly 150 comedians - including both Leno and Letterman - picketed the club for six weeks, demanding to be paid for performing. The club was able to stay open during the strike because several comics (including Garry Shandling) crossed the picket line.

At the end of six weeks, an agreement was reached were comics would be paid $25 per set for most shows. This "unionization" of comedians played another huge role in legitimizing stand-up comedy in the '70s.

Television

In addition to the clubs, stand-up comics could be seen in living rooms everywhere during the decade thanks to several new showcase opportunities. Comedians popped up on variety shows and talk shows. Saturday Night Live, which premiered in 1975, gave many comics - including Carlin, Pryor and Martin - a 90-minute national showcase. But the biggest spot for a comic in the '70s was on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Carson, a huge supporter of stand-up comedy, would give a spot to a comic almost every night. Those comics that he really enjoyed would even be invited over to the couch for some back-and-forth with the late night king. It was an endorsement - and national exposure - that no club performance could provide.

The Next Phase

By the end of the 1970s, comedy clubs were beginning to spring up everywhere. Stand-up comedy had come into its own; the comics that had gotten famous in the '70s were now the veterans as a flood of new faces came onto the scene. For as popular as the art form had become, no one could have predicted just how big the stand-up boom would be in the 1980s.

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