By Grethel Muralles
“Why did the chicken cross the road?”
The greatest punchline of all time has seen many answers and numerous variations throughout the years. The reason for this is that comedy has seen a remodeling over the past decades.
In its early rise, comedy was seen through plays in ancient Greece by playwrights such as Pericles, Plato, Aristophanes, and Demosthenes. Comedy in the Elizabethan era was marked by happy endings, usually with a marriage at the end of the play. Shakespeare’s comedies, for instance, were far more light-hearted than his dramas because the characters were happy at the end. In the 19th century, musical comedy became more and more popular as did clowns. In the 19th and 20th century, however, comedy was not always politically correct. Such things as blackface or ethnic/racial stereotypes were common. In the 20th century, comedy came in the form of silent films bringing actors like Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Buster Keaton, and Lillian Gish to the stardom.
From silent films, comedy slowly found a home in sound films like “Bringing Up Baby” in 1938. Through time, comedy in films took an evolution of its own.
Eventually the stand-up comedy we now know developed from comedians like Bob Hope and Bernard Manning, who are known for positive things like entertaining the troops during the wars, but also for their use of racist jokes. At the time, it was what made audiences “laugh.”
The 1950’s style of comedy also paved the way in which television shows illustrated comedy, such as “I Love Lucy.” Lucille Ball drastically changed the way comedy was seen, making the comedy more physically challenging to perform. In other words, Ball demonstrated that women could be equally as funny as physical performers.
During the 1960’s, comedy took a turn and begun addressing societal and political affairs. George Carlin is largely famed for having changed the comedic style that Hope had established. According to Time Magazine, Carlin changed the way he looked and the things he spoke about in order to reach a better audience. He began to discuss drugs, Vietnam, and America’s uptight attitude towards language and sex.
Unfortunately, America just was not ready for that approach to political and social issues. However, he saw a new rise in the 1970’s with the help of another American comedian, Lenny Bruce.
Carlin’s approach eventually led to a lawsuit that was taken to the Supreme Court. With it came the introduction of “family hour” on network television.
In 1986, Ellen Degeneres became the first woman to be invited to perform her standup routine on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” Then in 1997, she came out as lesbian on national television. After coming out, she changed the way comedy was interpreted by addressing issues like sexism and homophobia.
In the 1980’s, also known as the “Stand-Up Boom”, comedians like Whoopi Goldberg, Eddie Murphy, Mario Joyner, and George Lopez began their careers. They became trailblazers, and were some of the first notable people of color to deliver stand-up routines.
More recently, there has been the implementation of cultural and political commentary on subjects such as sexual harassment and President Donald Trump. Iliza Shlesinger and Michelle Wolf are two comedians who attacked the social constructs placed on women and the scandals surrounding sexual harassment
Comedy has come a long way since the ancient Greeks. In fact, there are now talk shows and other television shows that demonstrate new and unique comedic approaches to comedy.
Saturday Night Live (SNL), Comedy Central’s “This Is Not Happening,” and Bo Burnham are examples of how delivery has changed. SNL creates small skits and satirical parodies. Comedy Central focuses on comedians sharing stories through a more traditional stand-up platform.
Bo Burnham, a 27 year old comedian, musician, and screenwriter, among other things, has paved his own way into the comedic scene. With the creation of YouTube in 2005, at-home comedians could upload their material for others to view. Burnham being one of them, was one of the lucky people to have his material quickly catch on. He performs songs and poetry that critique social standards along with other social commentary such as hypocrisy, sexuality, and racism.
The evolution of comedy has not only brought new forms of delivery to stand-up and television, it has also brought to light the unspoken taboos of society.
So why did the comedian cross the stage? To deliver his punchline.