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Most young comedians struggle to make it and the majority of them fail. Many of them work part-time or full-time in regular jobs and start cracking jokes on the side, appearing in bars or comedy clubs that will have them. If you go back to the younger years of Larry The Cable Guy, also known as Daniel Lawrence Whitney, you will find his material was mostly just awful. It seemed like he couldn’t find his place in the comedy world. That is, until he went south—and met Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, and Ron White—all of whom have some part in his great success. All of them technically have found their ways and struggled themselves, but it seemed together, with the formation of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, they compliment each other greatly. Four comedians who can work well together, perform improv together, and feed off of each other’s humility, are bound to be successful. Today, Larry the Cable Guy is one of the richest and most successful comedians in the world and has acquired a huge fan base. There is no doubt that his comedy is hilarious and that he has mastered the arts of a Southern gentleman—pun intended.
Stand-up comedy is a long tradition and is recorded as far back as Ancient Greece. For as long as humans have desired to be entertained, comedy has existed. Laughter is unique among humans and can be contagious and addictive. The stories of Homer and many Greek plays depicted comedy, such as when Odysseus is speaking with the giant Cyclops. The Cyclops asks for Odysseus’ name, and Odysseus says, “Outis (nobody) is my name.” Later, when Odysseus is fighting with the Cyclops and the other Cyclops’ run to his aid, they ask who he is fighting with. The Cyclops says “Outis” which causes all the other Cyclops’ to leave because they believe the Cyclops is telling them nobody is there.
Shakespeare also harnessed the power of comedy, but in a tragic way, from plays such as Romeo and Juliet, to the Taming of the Shrew, and the Midsummer Night’s Dream, and many more. Shakespeare was always able to depict comedy in such a dark way that what seemed tragic in the moment, was often very comedic in reflection later. Where there was a funeral, there must always be weddings with Shakespeare. The dark comedy of Romeo and Juliet, although not depicted at all as a comedy, the fact that these are two teenagers make their whole world about each other that nothing else matters, and what seems like a big deal—as love is to teenagers—the irony of the situation ends up killing them both.
Finding a niche for any comedian is extremely hard. Being able to deliver that niche in a presentable fashion may prove even harder. Having to come up with an hour or two of material and continuously coming up with new material without copyrighting others means you have to take a look around life and write your own observations without getting much inspiration from others, yet other comedians who have mastered it serve as great inspiration. A comedian must have an act for being funny, for making others laugh, and for performing in front of large audiences without stuttering, cracking, or having to think about the joke. The joke must come naturally through the mouth of the speaker. A comedian may have their fans, but there are plenty of hecklers, plenty of people looking to bad mouth, bash, and do whatever they can to break down the comedian. A good comedian will use the heckler’s own words against him and turn them into comedy. A good comedian will be able to stick to their own script and show, while implementing some of the heckler into his or her show.
A comedian speaks the truth, says what most of us are thinking, but none of us ever talk about in public. A comedian knows his audience, knows what they want to hear, and knows his niche well. The wrong audience could be chaotic. It could also be that the audience just lacks any sense of humor, in which case, that is comedic as well. A comedian knows the type of vibe his audience gives off when first entering the room. His or her niche covers a wide-range of topics, but they perform in front of an audience in a memorable way that is signature to the comedian. A comedian knows that any type of topic spoken about will offend someone, but the show must go on. Comedians care about their audience but must detach themselves from most opinions, unless they are constructive feedback, criticism, and praise. A comedian may recycle some topics, but cannot always use the same material over and over. And finally, not all material a comedian has is going to be talked about—a comedian knows when to end the show.
Dean Martin, Don Rickles, Johnny Carson, Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, Eddie Izzard, Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, Bob Hope, Rodney Dangerfield, Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder, Robin Williams, Johnny Carson, Bill Connolly, Paul Lynde, Billy Crystal, Garry Shandling, John Candy, Bill Murray, Sam Kinison, Bobcat Goldthwait, Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, and George Carlin are some of the great legends that have defined the modern comedian. These comedians were the first to start cursing and talking about controversial subjects such as religion, marijuana, drugs, sex, human body parts and functions, relationships, divorce, children, homosexuality, abortion, government corruption, etc. Women comedians also played a huge part in defining the modern comedy era, breaking out of the traditional roles that women should be passive and submissive, but rather assertive, aggressive, and talking about previously taboo topics of sex, being sexual, sexual harassment, marriage, family life, women’s issues, menstruation and pregnancy, lesbianism, the glass ceiling, and many more controversial subjects, with names such as Jackie “Moms” Mabley, Jean Carroll, Pearl Williams, Belle Barth, Totie Fields, Betty White, Beatrice Arthur, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, Mary Tyler Moore, Madeline Kahn, Jane Fonda, Jean Stapleton, Doris Roberts, Barbara Streisand, Bette Midler, Lily Tomlin, Goldie Hawn, Jane Curtin, Tracy Ullman, Dolly Parton, Whoopi Goldberg, and many more women leading the way for and being an inspiration for all women comedians and actresses today.
Matthew Gates is a freelance web designer and currently runs Confessions of the Professions.