Stand-up Comedy in the 1980s

Stand-up Explosion

Whoopi Goldberg

Archman8/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

With stand-up having become a popular and legitimate art form in the 1970s, the 1980s became the decade when it exploded. The handful of comedy clubs that opened in the '70s had flourished on both coasts. In the '80s, clubs went national; between 1978 and 1988, over 300 comedy clubs sprung up across the U.S. Stand-up comedy was everywhere.

The ubiquity of stand-up comedy during the decade meant that a large number of comedians became popular in the '80s. While already-established comedians like George Carlin and Robin Williams experienced continued success, newer comics like Whoopi Goldberg, Sam Kinison, Eddie Murphy, Andrew "Dice" Clay, Paul Reiser, Roseanne Barr, Sandra Bernhard, Denis Leary, Steven Wright, Rosie O'Donnell, Bob "Bobcat" Goldthwait, Paula Poundstone and others found large audiences.

Stand-up In Living Rooms

The '80s also became the decade that stand-up exploded on television. Sitcoms featuring comedians, such as The Cosby Show and Roseanne, became massive hits. And though comics had always been given the opportunity to perform on late-night talk shows (like Johnny Carson's Tonight Show) and variety shows, new programs appeared on TV in the '80s devoted solely to stand-up comedy. The A&E cable network debuted An Evening at the Improv. HBO, which came to popularity in the '80s, aired regular comedy specials like the HBO Comedy Hour and the Young Comedians Showcase. Even MTV started showcasing stand-up comics with its show Half-hour Comedy Hour, hosted by comedian Mario Joyner.

Comic Relief

The 1980s also gave birth to Comic Relief, a charity organization originally started in the UK. The American version of Comic Relief was founded in 1986 by Bob Zmuda, a close friend and former co-conspirator of Andy Kaufman. The event, held to raise money for the homeless in America, was aired each year on HBO. It was hosted by comedians Billy Crystal, Robin Williams and Whoopi Goldberg and featured a huge roster of actors and comics doing short routines. The success of Comic Relief further proved the power and popularity that stand-up comedy had acquired in the 1980s.

The Beginning of the End

The unbelievable success of stand-up comedy in the 1980s meant only one thing: sooner or later, the bubble had to burst. Though comedy went out on top at the end of the decade, it was only a matter of time before overexposure led to a collapse — and that's exactly what happened in the early 1990s.