Pictures: NBC, HBO Max, Showtime, Amazon, Netflix.
What is it about stand-up comedy that fascinates us so much? It seems we just can’t get enough of the idea that something so casual and improvisational – someone standing in front of a room, cracking jokes for a few minutes – could be the product of years of hard work. and existential angst. A number of films have been made over the years that delve into the personality of comedians and what they are off stage, but increasingly television has also become fertile ground for exploring the world of stand-up comedy. up.
If there was an epicenter of stand-up comedy, it would be The Comedy Store, which has played a pivotal role in the careers of most of the great comedians of the past half-century. LA’s famed comedy club has been the subject of several TV series over the past few years (both scripted and unscripted), and this week sees the latest – Amazon’s three-episode docuseries Phat Tuesdayswhich focuses on the Tuesday Night club showcase founded by Guy Torry for black artists after the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
Of course, the docuseries format is just one such animal. Stand-up comedy has played a part in different kinds of shows over the years, each trying to reach the hearts of the men and women who make us laugh by showing the world of stand-up comedy in a different light. :
Stand-up comedy is my job, but that’s not what’s important
In the 1990s there was a wave of sitcoms featuring successful stand-up comedians, and although the vast majority of them chose stand-up in a different job, their characters were closely related to their stand-up characters. Drew Carey worked a desk job on The Drew Carey Show. Ellen Degeneres worked in a bookstore on Ellen. Tim Allen was a home improvement expert on… well, Home improvement. Sometimes the characters had to play stand-up comedians by trade, but that was never the point of the show. Famous, Uncle Joey (Dave Coulier) on Full house was a stand-up comedian, albeit a nerdy who resorted to puppet comedy later in his career. But you couldn’t really call Full house a show about a comedian. It was a show about a family terrorized by their neighbor Kimmy Gibler.
At The Bernie Mac ShowBernie’s character was a stand-up comedian, but the show was much more focused on him raising his sister’s children than his acting career.
Stand-up comedy is my job, and it’s reasonably important
Of course, you can’t talk about the boom of ’90s stand-up comedians in sitcoms without talking about Seinfeld, a show that was theoretically not about anything, which allowed it to be more about Jerry’s acting career than if it was about anything. As long as Seinfeld focused on observational comedy about life in the big city, Jerry’s exploits as a stand-up have often been the subject of episodes. He’s handled hecklers, other comedians, out-of-town bookings, appearances on The show tonightand countless asides from his friends about how his act was becoming stale.
Closest to any other recurring sitcom Seinfeld relationship to Jerry’s stand-up career was the short-lived FOX sitcom Mulaney, where John Mulaney played a fictionalized version of himself. The show – which even reproduced early Seinfeld‘s stand-up interstitials – was pretty much bitten by a snake from the start and (unlike Seinfeld) never had time to come into its own.
Stand-up comedy is my job, and it’s incredibly important
At hacks, the HBO Max series that kicked off its first season last year, the stand-up comedy career of legendary Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) isn’t just at the heart of the show, it’s the engine of the series’ most important relationship, between the comic and his young new writer. Deborah’s career arc is under siege throughout the first season, as we see her trying to hold onto her Vegas residency with both hands. But there’s also a ton of stuff with Deborah and Ava (Hannah Einbinder) wrestling with how to shape Deborah’s act herself and what form her comedy should take. This is a show about a stand-up comedian that really takes you into this world, much more than Seinfeld never done.
Stand-up comedy is a reflection of my complicated psyche
Unlike the 90s, 21st century TV shows about comedians are getting even closer to the lives of the stars. This means that they are comedians on television as they are in real life. They’re also darker and more psychologically complex than their more sitcom counterparts. The character of Pete Holmes on crackle did not cross exactly Requiem for a Dream, but the show portrays a fictionalized version of Holmes as he struggled to make a career in comedy. At Feel good, comedian Mae Martin digs into her own complicated past with addiction, playing a fictionalized version of herself as a stand-up living in England. In both shows, the characters use comedy to navigate their way through their lives, which increasingly seems to be the common view of stand-up comedy as portrayed in movies and television.
This particular niche of the comedian show genre owes a lot to FX Louiswhich became a cause celebre among critics and comedians alike before star Louis CK’s sexual misconduct scandal cast a pall over the show’s legacy.
History of stand-up comedy (1950s)
As romantic as it is, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel constantly explores the history and evolution of stand-up comedy, particularly centered on the Greenwich Village comedy scene of the 1950s. There was never a Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), but the comedians who made their debut in the 1960s paved the way for those that followed them. The show incorporates some real-life comedians, most notably Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby), though most of the other comedians we see are composites of one sort or another.
History of stand-up comedy (1970s)
show time I die here played Ari Graynor as an aspiring comedian who finds work at an LA comedy club based on The Comedy Store. Melissa Leo played Goldie, the club owner, inspired by Mitzi Shore, who owned and operated The Comedy Store and auditioned a who’s who of the greatest comedians of the 70s, 80s and 90s. The series ran for two seasons and was more dramatic than comedic, but it reflected an ongoing fascination with the ecosystem of the comedy world, particularly as it relates to the place of women and minorities in the mix.
History of stand-up comedy (documentaries)
In addition to broadcasting I die hereShowtime also produced a docuseries on the Comedy Store, titled The comedy storeThe five-part series featured a who’s who of comic books (largely of white men) who debuted at the club. from Amazon Phat Tuesdays is ready to pick up where The comedy store stopped, with another cast of star comedians explaining how Guy Torry’s Tuesday Night Comedy Party at The Store changed the ganme for black comics.
Phat Tuesdays premieres on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, February 4.
Joe Reid is an editor at Primetimer and co-host of the That Had Oscar Buzz Podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The AV Club and more.