The field seems surprisingly resilient to being disrupted by new technologies, the way that, say, star disk jockeys playing other people's music have taken away a lot of the music industry revenue that used to go to the bands' themselves when they toured.
Can you imagine people paying to see a Joke Jockey who just plays the best jokes from the best comedy albums of all time, serving up the precise joke that this particular audience will laugh hardest at at this particular moment, weaving all the famous comics' bits into an unexpected tapestry that's more than the sum of the parts?
Well, I can't either, but James Brown probably scoffed at the notion that DJs would largely replace live bands.
And 35 years ago, a lot of funny radio morning men across the country laughed at the idea that in the near future everybody would listen to Howard Stern out of New York instead of to local talents like them. How could they patch in the traffic updates?
That stand-up is still standing may stem in part from a professional culture that emphasizes paying-your-dues and doing things the time-honored way.
There's an interesting contradiction between the increasingly fundamentalist Code of the Stand-Up Comic -- an absolute ban on joke-stealing that sort of extends to using jokes that you've paid for -- and the rest of popular culture's growing enthusiasm for, uh, "reappropriations," mash-ups, parodies, re-editings, and general meta-ness.
My impression is that stand-up comics have evolved a set of norms and values that serve to keep the business semi-artisanal, that prevents the stand-up job from fully going down the superstar route of so many others. (Stand-ups are by no means averse to cashing in big with television sit-coms or sketch shows, but that's considered a different medium and a reasonable reward, which includes that you don't have to live out of a suitcase anymore.)
It's interesting to compare the contrasting opinions held about two giant figures in 20th Century stand-up comedy: Johnny Carson and Bob Hope.
Speaking (as always) broadly, professional stand-ups love Carson and hate Hope.
Why? Carson's Tonight Show was the main chokepoint for success in stand-up, so the people Carson liked tended to become the stars of the business, the ones who get interviewed about the history of their craft. It's a mutual admiration society. (Presumably, there are ex-stand-ups teaching English in Tulsa or selling real estate in Raleigh who weren't liked by Carson and who, if you asked them, would not offer a high opinion of Carson's taste, but nobody asks them.)
Bob Hope, on the other hand, you'll be informed, didn't write his own jokes. He employed -- I'm sure you'll find this a shocking revelation -- joke writers.
Carson, of course, also employed joke writers to help him come up with his nightly monologues. But that's okay because they weren't very good monologues. The funniest things about them were Johnny's spontaneous, unscripted reactions when his writers' jokes bombed. (And I know that Johnny's comebacks were spontaneous and unscripted because, uh, because everybody knows they were!)
In contrast, Hope didn't do all that much for other comedians (including for his brother, who billed himself as Bob Hope's Brother Jim -- "Sure I helped him out,” said Hope. “I helped him out of showbusiness.”) Moreover, he garnered a massive fraction of the public's stand-up dollars for himself by the popularity of his radio, television, movie and tour appearances. Mark Steyn wrote in 2003:
He was the first comedian to run himself as a business, and he succeeded brilliantly. Time magazine reported in 1967 that he was worth half a billion dollars. Asked about the figure, Hope said, “Anyone can do it. All you have to do is save a million dollars a year for 500 years.”
That semi-billionaire-in-1967 figure sounds exaggerated by an order of magnitude, but growing up in the Southeast San Fernando Valley in 1967, the English-born Hope was the local squire, the most prominent landowner.
When you’re that big – when you’re as mass as mass media can get – you don’t have hardcore followers, you’re not a cult or a genius like Buster Keaton or Monty Python.
... As a boy in Cleveland, he’d dress as Chaplin and waddle down Euclid Street. But, as soon as he could, he dispensed with the pathos of the little tramp, the sentimentality of the ethnic comics, and embraced instead the dapper assurance of a newer American archetype: the wiseguy, the kind of rat-a-tat quipster you could find in the sports columns and the gossip pages of the Jazz Age but not in its comedy routines, in their way as convention-bound as grand opera.
Much of what we now take for granted as the modern comedy monologue – the delivery, the structure, the subjects – comes from the template developed by Hope.
Like Bing Crosby among singers, Hope was perhaps the first comedian to appreciate the revolutionary impact of the microphone.
If Hope started out as the first modern comic, he quickly became the first post-modern one.
The celebrated "post-modern" elements in Woody Allen's films come straight from Bob Hope's films, as Allen has often pointed out.
Other comedians had writers, but they didn’t talk about them. Radio gobbled up your material so you needed fellows on hand to provide more. But Hope not only used writers, he made his dependence on them part of the act.
... In vaudeville, a performer would have a comic persona – he’d be a yokel, say, and he’d tell jokes about rustics and city folk – but Hope’s comic persona was the persona of a comic: he played a guy who told jokes for a living, and the conceit (in every sense) worked; by advertising the fact that he had a team who did all the tedious chores like providing the gags, he underlined his extraordinary preeminence.
I find quite funny the fact that by about 1950 Hope had already managed to embody much that would become characteristic of American culture by 2000, such as metaness, knowing irony, post-modernism, and winner-take-all superstaritis.
But, you can also see why other stand-ups would resent Hope's dominance. So, we now have a culture in which stand-up comedy is supposed to be artisanal rather than industrial. Each stand-up is supposed to write his own jokes (until, of course, he gets a television show).
In 1976, President Gerald Ford's head speechwriter was a famous professional joke writer named Bob Orben, who had written for Dick Gregory and who published a newsletter of gags used by so many 1950s stand-ups that Lenny Bruce advertised that he advertised "no Orben" jokes to distinguish himself from the herd.
But that seems like a very different era. Now, there's quite a bit of culture-molding that goes on about the purity of stand-up comedy. For example, post-Seinfeld, Jerry Seinfeld periodically issues documentaries or interviews about how he's laboriously perfecting a tiny new batch of handmade jokes. For example, from 2012:
Seinfeld will nurse a single joke for years, amending, abridging and reworking it incrementally, to get the thing just so. “It’s similar to calligraphy or samurai,” he says. “I want to make cricket cages. You know those Japanese cricket cages? Tiny, with the doors? That’s it for me: solitude and precision, refining a tiny thing for the sake of it.”
Here's a question that I've been looking around on the Internet for an answer to for a few days. But, not only can't I find an answer, the question doesn't seem to occur to anyone: Back before they started making their sitcom together, did Larry David write jokes for Jerry Seinfeld's stand-up act? If not, why not?
In the 1980s, Seinfeld had a flourishing stand-up career that must have put stress on the quantity of jokes he could come up with himself. Seinfeld was a handsome, likable, skilled stage presence, while David was a brilliant writer but an antagonizing live performer. Moreover, it's not as if David and Seinfeld were on wholly different personality and comedic wavelengths. I don't think it would have taken the genius of Adam Smith to have noticed the opportunity here for some division of labor in the stand-up business.
I don't think it's at all sinister that the best performers and best writers will gravitate toward each other. But I also don't think the current artisanal ideology of stand-up is a bad thing either.