Stand-up Comedy in the 1990s

Comedy Collapse

Mr. Show with Bob and David
Photo courtesy HBO

At the end of the 1980s, the popularity of stand-up comedy was at an all-time high. Comedy clubs were everywhere, and stand-up comics could be seen up and down the television dial. But, like having a Starbucks on every corner, it got to be overkill. With so many comedy clubs flooding the market, it became difficult for anyone to succeed. The need to fill those clubs with talent every night also meant that the quality of live comedy suffered.

The Bubble Bursts

Comedy had become overexposed; it was increasingly difficult to differentiate the good from the bad (the fact that comedians were everywhere meant that bad comedians were everywhere, too), and, as a result, the whole thing collapsed. Comedy clubs began closing. TV shows focusing on comics were huge by the middle of the decade, with shows starring everyone from Tim Allen to Roseanne Barr to Drew Carey to Ellen Degeneres to Sue Costello. But by the end of the decade, many of those shows went off the air. The once-unstoppable gravy train of comedy had finally come to a screeching halt.​

Saving Graces

Comedy didn't totally go off the radar in the 1990s. The networks may have dumped their stand-up shows, but a new cable channel called Comedy Central offered stand-up and other comedy 24 hours a day. Sketch comedy also enjoyed its greatest success during the decade. TV sketch shows were everywhere, from network shows like Saturday Night Live, In Living Color to cable cult shows like The Kids in the Hall.

Though once-successful comics like Andrew Dice Clay and Carrot Top had become punchlines instead of delivering them, several stand-up comics still found success in the '90s — and, actually, helped carry the art form through its dry spell. Ever the workhorse, George Carlin entered his third decade as a successful stand-up and continued to put out funny and popular albums and HBO specials. The enormous popularity of NBC's Seinfeld made the titular comic a household name. And Chris Rock, who had languished for years on SNL and in some terrible movies, finally broke out with his 1996 special, Bring the Pain, and became one of the biggest and best stand-up comics in the world.

A New Alternative

While the traditional stand-up comedy scene as it was known in the 1980s began to peter out, a new scene began to develop. The "alternative comedy" movement began in the mid-1990s, primarily on the West Coast in clubs like Un-Cabaret and the Diamond Club. Alternative comedy was just that: an alternative to the standard joke-telling club comics that had become so ubiquitous in the '80s. Alternative comics were non-traditional; they could be performance artists or monologists. They eschewed the normal setup/punchline approach in favor of a more free-form style of storytelling. Comedians like Janeane Garofalo, Patton Oswalt, Margaret Cho, David Cross and Sarah Silverman all found popularity as part of the alternative comedy movement.

The End Is the Beginning

Once considered the "alternative," that non-traditional style of comedy made its way from the underground to the mainstream. By the 2000s, stand-up comedy had undergone a transformation and once-alternative comics were now established stars. Though stand-up had threatened to disappear in the '90s, by the end of the decade it had found new footing and became popular and viable again.

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