CoastLine: Who are the OGs of standup comedy? It's complicated.
The history of standup comedy is so difficult to separate according to culture, that it becomes surprisingly transcendent of race, ethnicity, and cultural background. But does that equate to being a model of diversity, equity, and inclusion? That’s a work in progress and one of the questions we explore.
A listener wrote to us recently in response to an episode featuring two professional, local standup comedians.
“I heard [your upcoming show] is about the local comedy scene. I don't want to be misleading and say the scene here is bad but the diversity, equity and inclusion leaves much to be desired… [T]he art of standup comedy in its current form is like jazz in that it is a Black American invention,” yet laments this listener, you don’t see many local Black American comedians in the local clubs’ rotations.
This is the first I’d heard that stand-up might have emerged from the African American community. So I reached out to a historian and scholar, an Americanist, a specialist in culture and history, at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill with the question.
That led to a host of questions about, yes, the history, but also the explosive popularity, the evolution, and the new ethics of standup comedy in 21st century American culture.
Dr. Michelle Robinson, of UNC’s Department of American Studies, teaches a popular class entitled Ethics in Comedy, which has seen guest teachers as recognizable as Comedian Lewis Black and Saturday Night Live co-head writer Brian Tucker. She joined us from theFriday Center on the UNC Campus.
While she agrees there are important roots in the African American community, she says standup comedy today is the result of a multitude of cultural influences. In fact, the medium’s history is so difficult to separate according to culture, that it becomes surprisingly transcendent of race, ethnicity, and cultural background. No one group can really claim the role of the OGs.
But does that equate to being a model of diversity, equity, and inclusion? That’s a work in progress and one of the questions we explore.
Links & Resources:
Uproarious: How Feminists and Other Subversive Comics Speak Truth,By Cynthia Willett and Julie Willett