American Humor: From Stand-Up to Satire

American humor can be hard to classify. It often skewers cultural values and norms by highlighting absurdities that would otherwise be overlooked.

But it also covers a wide spectrum. From the Algonquin Round Table of Dorothy Parker, James Thurber and Robert Benchley to modern comedy like Seinfeld, Saturday Night Live, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, this unit will explore how Americans find and express humor.


The United States has a rich history of comedy and satire. Its humor has brought cultural norms, values and practices into sharp relief, sometimes provoking change. From Benjamin Franklin to Fanny Fern and Mark Twain, Lucille Ball to Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor, Thomas Nast to Lynda Barry, Our Gang to Awkward Black Girl, American Humor: From Stand-Up to Satire examines humor as expression that reflects key concerns of people in specific times and places.

This book will appeal to anyone interested in the study of humor and satire, especially those with an interest in American literature, television and media studies or American culture. It explores how animated television programs such as The Simpsons, South Park, Family Guy, King of the Hill, Arrested Development, Futurama and Daria offer a new discourse on a very traditional strain of American humor and satire.

Satire, which makes fun of individuals, groups or governments, has been around in one form or another for over 2,000 years. For example, the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes made fun of the Peloponnesian War, while Ben Franklin used satire in his political writings.

The 19th century saw the rise of a number of popular American humorists, including the famous Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce (who wrote the cynical Devil’s Dictionary) and Samuel Minturn Peck (1854-1938). During this period a new strain of mainstream America humor developed with Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, which mercilessly laid into the formerly sacred Yankee businessman who spent his week making money and Sundays in church.

In the 20th century, African-American comedians came to prominence on the American stage and screen. This was largely due to the success of TV shows such as The Jeffersons and The Cosby Show, and the exposure they received on Saturday Night Live and other popular comedy shows.

In the 21st century, a new generation of American comedians is challenging racial stereotypes and redefining what is funny about Americans. The satirical television program South Park, for instance, frequently addresses such issues as racism, anti-Semitism, militant atheism, sexism and corporate culture. This and other current trends in American humor make this book essential reading for anyone interested in the study of a vibrant and dynamic aspect of American culture.


Satire is a form of humor that makes fun of people, groups or governments. It has been around in one form or another for over 2,000 years. Typically, satire uses irony and ridicule to criticize people or things in a way that is less likely to be taken seriously than direct criticism. In some cases, satire has run into serious opposition and attempts by those in power to censor it or prosecute its practitioners.

In addition to written satire, stand-up comedy has become an important form of American humor. The tradition of vaudeville and minstrel humor paved the way for popular entertainers like Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen to become successful comedians. Later, the advent of television allowed for animated cartoons of a humorous nature to gain wide appeal. The success of the Looney Tunes and Tom and Jerry shows, among others, demonstrated how broad a range of topics could be portrayed with the comic touch.

The success of a comedy show often depends on a comedian’s ability to elicit audience laughter. This can be done in a variety of ways, including telling a simple joke or story with a punchline, or by using a combination of visual and verbal humor techniques. The ability to evoke laughs also depends on the topic of the comedy and how easily it can be related to contemporary events or social attitudes.

There are many comedians who use their art to make social commentary, such as Jon Stewart and Dave Chapelle. However, it is not a common feature of most American comedians. Many of the jokes that fall into this category are risqué and must be handled carefully. This is especially true if they have to do with race or gender.

For example, a white comedian could not easily do a routine in which she criticizes black culture or women’s rights because this would be offensive to most of the audience. In some cases, a comedian may even find herself banned from television or the concert stage for addressing certain issues.


Whether on stage or screen, comedians seek to connect with audiences in a variety of ways. Depending on their material, they may appeal to specific demographics or social groups. In this way, humor often reveals the cultural norms of particular communities and the key concerns people share.

American Humor draws on a wide range of influences, including ethnic, religious, and regional cultures. Its themes may also reflect the political or social concerns of the day. For example, American popular culture is full of references to the Yankee peddler, backwoods hick, and blackface minstrel. These archetypes illustrate the fundamental role comedy plays in shaping a national character.

In addition to its broad appeal, American Humor is characterized by an ambivalent relationship with morality. Its messages often touch on taboo topics, such as racism, sexism, and discrimination. However, it can also make light of these issues. This ambivalence has resulted in a diversity of forms and styles of American comedy.

Stand-up comedy is one of the most prominent forms of American humor. It can take many forms, including insult comedy, slapstick, and topical jokes. It can also be a form of performance art, as in the case of Mort Sahl, who dressed informally and created sharp impromptu monologues from items in his newspaper onstage.

Some stand-up performers are highly acclaimed and influential, such as Billy Crystal, who has won numerous awards for his work and is considered to be one of the greatest comedy actors of all time. Others are less well-known, but equally effective at delivering humor. In the past, racial and ethnic minorities have also made their mark in stand-up comedy. In the early 20th century, Jewish comedians such as Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding were popular on radio and television. More recently, African-American comedians have become more prevalent on TV shows such as The Jeffersons and Saturday Night Live.

Film has also been an important medium for American comedy. It has allowed the use of various special effects, including animated films such as Duck Soup and It Happened One Night. It has also given rise to popular comedic characters, such as Tom and Jerry, Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, Friz Freleng, and Mel Blanc.


American humor has many elements that make it unique and distinct from the humor of other countries. For example, American humor is often lighthearted and humorous in nature and may include a great deal of observational comedy. Observational comedy relies on finding humour in the everyday events that people experience. This can include things like going to the airport, ordering food at a restaurant or even navigating dating. American comedians like Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding made a career out of this type of comedy, and Garrison Keillor is another modern-day example of American observational humor.

In contrast, satire uses the element of humor to offer social commentary and critique on aspects of societal life. It is a critical tool to help challenge power structures and expose contradictions that occur within society. This form of humour also encourages discussion of these issues and can help to raise awareness of important social, cultural and political matters.

Stand-up comedy relies on the use of performance skills and improvisation to develop comedy material. This type of comedy requires an audience to engage and participate, which can increase the sense of humour in a piece. Stand-up comedians can also vary their styles to appeal to different audiences. For example, a comedian can change their tone or pace to suit the audience’s reaction.

The emergence of film allowed for comedic movies to be made, and many of the famous names in American cinema history are associated with this genre. During the silent era, comedians such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Fatty Arbuckle and Oliver Hardy were popular in America. By the beginning of the 20th century, film allowed for animated short films to be produced. This allowed cartoon characters such as Tom and Jerry, Bugs Bunny and the gang from Warner Brothers to become household names.

Satire is a type of literary humour that aims to criticize and mock through incongruous situations. According to Abrams and Harpham, satire can be divided into two types; formal satire and informal satire. In formal satire, the satirist makes direct criticisms in a comic way through a speaker that could be the author or a character in the work. This is known as Juvenalian satire or Horation satire (Abrams and Harpham, 2012). In informal satire, the satirist does not directly criticize or ridicule people, but rather they tell stories about them in an urbane style that is less critical and more amusing.

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