Topper; Classic American Humor Fiction

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Named the Belly Room, it became so much more than expected, as visionary comic talents like Whoopi Goldberg and Sandra Bernhard used the space to experiment with different forms of stand-up. While both shared a theatrical sensibility, Bernhard pioneered a sort of stand-up-as-cabaret-act style, which interspersed wry, personal stories with equally sardonic, self-penned dance and pop hits.

Thirty years ago, comedian and actor Robert Townsend, fed up with the types of acting jobs available to African-Americans, decided to do something about it. In a story that became the stuff of indie-film lore, Townsend maxed-out multiple credit cards to make his own feature film. He wrote, directed, and starred in the loose connection of satirical sketches that hung together around a narrative about a struggling actor.

Larson clearly helped pave the way for smart nerds who have since made serious strides in the comedy world, including comics like Patton Oswalt and shows such as MST3K. It works perfectly, encapsulating her irreverence for Hollywood, medicine, and her own addictions.

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While Richard Pryor had joked about his drug abuse previously, to treat addiction frankly and with much wit was something entirely new. The most influential magazine of its era left a mark on every other: complicated tiny typography, kitschy clip art, little floating heads as illustrations, charts and graphs analyzing everything it covered, and big memorable stories told with an ironic sensibility and unironic rigor. But clearly its single device with the longest legs was the compound hyphenated pejorative epithet, an update of the old Time house style.

Then he went into self-imposed exile in Boulder, Colorado, and his legend really began. There, Meyer created Army Man , a lo-fi zine full of heady, zippy little jokes and stories from writers he admired including Bob Odenkirk, Roz Chast, and Jack Handey, who contributed his first Deep Thoughts there. The entire run exhibits a sort of unperturbed, jovial tone and some of the best gags — like the one above — remain in light even while toying with existential darkness. What if instead of just having host segments around the commercial breaks as the movie is being shown, the host made comments through the whole thing, like you and your dorky friends making fun of a schlocky movie at home?

The concept was simultaneously innovative and familiar. The real difference, however, was the jokes they were making, like the very knowing Star Wars reference , above, from the very first episode.


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Never before had there been so many Frank Zappa, Star Trek , Doctor Who, and countless other nerd references crammed into one show. Its positioning, though — that was different.

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His rise directly correlated with the reopening of the debate over political correctness, with his act standing in as its antithesis. If you broaden that pool to include reality-TV hosts, we just elected one of these guys president.


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  • These comedians argue that the comedy club is a safe space to explore these dark thoughts without acting upon them in the real world. Their critics point to fans pumping their fists as proof that they do more harm than good. Up to that point, if you were LGBT, you were either the butt of the joke — the dunderheaded Blue Oyster Bar gags from the Police Academy films using gay panic as a punch line are particularly odious — or closeted in the the Paul Lynde mold. Buddy Cole joked about being gay, and how perfectly normal and great it was. The genius of Buddy is that he was a gay character that talked about everything.

    Buddy questions the entire premise of racial animus, and wraps up his bit with a plea for understanding delivered with his trademark wry sarcasm. I just think the world would be a lot better place if the scientists could keep their slide rules in their pants. Almost immediately, the sketch became a part of the zeitgeist, introducing a constant stream of catchphrases.

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    For years after the comedy club was invented, black stand-ups were mostly relegated to ghettoized black nights at mainstream clubs until they were deemed able to cross over. His flamethrower delivery of improvisational crowd work became the stuff of legend, inspiring a new generation of comedians including Bernie Mac and Cedric the Entertainer. The entertainment industry heard the buzz and would drive down into the heart of the Crenshaw district to witness Harris in his element. With his star on the rise, Harris died of a heart attack later that year at the age of The bit, thoroughly composed and incredibly specific as it is, was able to be directly translated into a feature-length animated film two years later.

    For instance, the joke in the last scene of the video is a reference to the classic Sunset Boulevard. RuPaul is channeling his best Gloria Swanson, all clenched smiles and jealous eyebrows. His supermodel persona looks older at this point, but is still greedy for fame and obsessed with her looks. But the real joke, of course, is the idea that any of it was real to begin with. The Tic Tac joke and the reaction to it reflects the improved status of female comedians in the black stand-up scene.

    Though there have always been some, from Moms Mabley to Whoopi Goldberg, they were treated as exceptions — not unlike women in the white stand-up community. Jokes like this also raised the bar on the creativity and specificity of crowd-work insults that club comedians of all races are still trying to keep pace with. Every comedian who has written a book of essays, from Tina Fey to Sarah Silverman to Patton Oswalt, owes him a debt of gratitude.

    Also, Sedaris, with his performance of his work, set the stage for the NPR-ification of comedy, where comedians, like Mike Birbiglia and Tig Notaro, found big breaks on This American Life, and others, like Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams, even have their own public-radio shows.

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    The upstart Fox network was at the forefront of that explosion of creativity, with the aforementioned In Living Color, Roc , Living Single , and the show that made Martin Lawrence a superstar. It was a breakthrough moment for the reach of contemporary black comedy, as Martin was embraced by audiences who might otherwise have had no concept of the hip-hop played by the eponymous lead character.

    Lawrence would go on to a period of big-screen success in movies like Bad Boys and Blue Streak , but it was short-lived. But the Martin series remains a gold standard, not just in his filmography, but in the annals of black comedy. David Letterman introduced the idea of the late-night show in quotes, where the format was treated with an ironic distance. In a very Simpsons -y, Harvard-y way, he specialized in creating a very high-brow setup for a very stupid bit, and there is no better example of that than the Masturbating Bear, who would usually come on to explain the economy or how an impeachment works, only to start vigorously masturbating.

    After a few false starts like the much-unappreciated Big Brawl in , Chan became a household name in America with the Rush Hour series, resulting in The Legend of Drunken Master getting successful U. Jackie Chan combined slapstick and martial arts like no one else before him, ramping up the level of action that could be expected in a comedy and comedy in an action film, setting the table for both movies like Deadpool and Central Intelligence. The two father figures of the holiday season argue about the commercialization of Christmas, fight Mortal Kombat style, and inadvertently kill Kenny.

    No one had ever seen the likes of him before. This was not a bit. It was Izzard throwing down the gauntlet regarding his own identity and, in the process, doing in comedy what David Bowie had done in rock and roll. Izzard quickly became an international phenomenon, performing his comedy in multiple languages across every continent. Each offered a combination of characters, storytelling, and song. Then in he had his breakthrough creatively that is, as he had already established himself in Hollywood at this point , with Freak , a one-man show about his childhood.

    Combining elements of the character-based one-person show and monologists like Spalding Gray, John Leguizamo landed on something entirely new. Like in this joke, he would tell Bill Cosby-esque stories about say a family picnic, but then inhabit the relatives he was discussing, resulting in an unusually rich stand-up experience.

    Along with Julia Sweeney, he kicked off the one-person show boom of the late 90s and early 00s, where it seemed every stand-up was giving their acts narrative arcs. As time went on, it became less a trend, and instead a different way for some stand-ups to approach their form. Griffin is a storyteller who revels in pop culture and personal experiences, and the above excerpt, from Hot Cup of Talk , exemplifies the conversational style that would carry her career for decades. She treats her audience as equals and as one-half of a conversation, paving the way for such contemporary comics as John Early, Beth Stelling, and Phoebe Robinson.

    Thankfully, the stalwart writers at satirical newspaper The Onion were around to kick-start the process. It was also the first issue the editorial staff distributed after pulling up roots in Wisconsin and moving to New York City. Wet Hot American Summer is arguably the defining alternative-comedy movie of the aughts, becoming the touchstone for the silliest tastes of a generation.

    Comedy, especially after Steve Martin, has always been trying to find smart ways to be dumb, and co-writers David Wain and Michael Showalter found new heights in Wet Hot. In this scene, not-yet-A-list Paul Rudd mispronounces the word journal as gurnal.

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    And not only that, he thinks knowing the proper way of pronouncing journal means Lindsay is smart. In , Ricky Gervais invented one of the most entertaining and ill-fitting lead protagonists in TV history.

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    David Brent, the general manager of a paper merchant office, struggles with socially acceptable behavior. Even though the show is ensemble-driven, the other characters play as the straight man in the dynamic.

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    Their assorted personalities create a realistic, grounded setting for Brent to make uncomfortable. A classic Office moment, Gervais as Brent conjures sincerity at the start of a statement to only follow up with a painfully awkward, profoundly selfish thought. He is the cringe master, and through this, a new sort of comedy took over globally. Obviously David Brent paved the way for the American version of The Office , but you can see glimmers of the British Office in almost all grounded, awkward, genuine comedy of the last 15 years.

    Risky stunts and watching friends hurt each other have been a major part of comedy ever since the silent-film era. In one of the earliest stunts that could truly have resulted in someone dying, Steve-O tries to walk a tightrope naked, save a jockstrap filled with raw chicken.

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