What is stand-up? The only answer I can give for 100% is that stand-up comedy is a solo form of performance where the performer stands in front of a live audience and speaks directly to them. After this one and only prerequisite, the variations are almost infinite and a concrete definition becomes hard to make.
From what I observe in Poland right now, the thought seems to be that stand-up must be „without censorship”, i.e. provocative and potentially offensive, talking about taboo subjects. I agree that stand-up is a form that allows the performer to be confrontational and to break boundaries. I also understand why in Poland this is very popular right now. Poland has a conflicted identity right now, with a young, modern, globally minded population pushing against older traditional ideas and systems. There is a lot of inspiration to be drawn from the 1970’s in America when George Carlin and Richard Pryor were pushing boundaries with their comedy, and later Bill Hicks used humor as a vehicle to speak critically of the government, war, and society. From an artistic perspective though, this is not all stand-up is.
I grew up watching stand-up comedy and my favorite comedians were very different from each other. I consider myself disciple of George Carlin. For me he is still the measuring stick all other comedians are measured against. I fell asleep listening to cassette tapes of his concerts every night. He talked about big, provocative issues, and he was equally skilled at the „small stuff”, observations about everyday life. But I also loved The Amazing Johnathan, who was a comedy magician with a macabre sense of humor. I loved Carrot Top’s prop-based comedy. Jim Carrey’s extremely physical style of stand-up comedy, and his characters on sketch comedy show „In Loving Color” inspired me to try and become a human cartoon. He was/is an amazing impersonator, transforming into other people right in front of the audience’s eyes. And then there was Bill Cosby who somehow managed to be a master of „stand-up” comedy while he sat on a chair on stage. His best material was based on his personal life. He also set the standard for himself that he would not swear or be vulgar on stage. Jerry Seinfeld has the same philosophy, but is still considered one of the greats of American stand-up comedy.
These comics are totally different from each other, and there’s so many more variations, like the „anti-stand up” of Andy Kaufman, but they are all stand-up comics.
So maybe we can talk about what makes a GOOD stand-up comic. I’m excited at how fast stand-up is becoming popular in Poland, but it’s also a little scary because as more people try to do stand-up, there will inevitably be more people doing it bad.
Here’s my opinion on what makes a good stand-up comic. There must be a high level of authenticity. On one hand this means being able to tell jokes that are rehearsed but sound like you are inventing them on the spot. This also means being authentic as a person/performer on stage because you are a person talking to other people. Most comedians have a stage persona, but that persona is almost always an inflated, exaggerated version of their real selves. It’s based on truth. The best comedians also base their jokes on some truth, something they care about and can speak passionately about. That’s why I personally don’t like comedians who are vulgar because they think they should be, or try to be provocative just to be provocative. It’s phony and forced.
Good stand-up comedians search for truth, within themselves and within their world, and dedicate themselves to sharing this truth with their audience. Maybe this is why so many comics also battle depression and substance abuse. It’s hard to dig that deep without getting crushed by the brutal truths of life.
Finally, here’s one last thing I think stand-up is: it’s one-third of a comedy trinity, along with Improv and sketch. I have a theory and prediction here in Poland. Kabaret has become less and less popular because it has become formulaic, shallow, and contrived.
Many kabaret artists are now doing improv. Many are doing stand-up. Some are doing all three. They are developing different skills, exploring different styles. I predict that in another 5 years or so, we will see a resurgence of kabaret that will look more like sketch comedy in the U.S. and U.K..