Google the term ‘stand-up comedy clubs’ and you’ll be presented with images of comedians in front of red curtains and brick walls. But why? Why are these backdrops so ubiquitous with the comedy industry? Quite simply, it’s the combination of utility and humble beginnings.
Stand-up comedy originates from the stages of Vaudeville. Borrowed from the French and modified in the US and UK, Vaudeville shows of the 1920s featured burlesque, song and dance, and of course comedy – although not in the form we watch on YouTube today. Aside from making the audience laugh, the comedian also had an important admin function. Between set changes, the large heavy and often red main curtain would fall to allow the stage to be re-set for the next act. To keep the entertainment engaged, a stand-up comedian would walk on from the wings and crack a few jokes. The red curtain was therefore a utilitarian tool to hide the chaos occurring behind.
As a side note, the first stand-up comedian was probably American Charlie Case. Case began performing the first monologues without props or costumes, around the turn of the 20th century. It’s unfortunate that, his legacy is marred by his performances in black-face.
In Australia, a number of stand-up comedy clubs continue this tradition of a red curtain, including the Comedy Lounge in Perth, The Sit Down Comedy Club in Brisbane, and the Rhino Room in Adelaide. The Comedy Republic in Melbourne features a curtain, although rather than red, they’ve gone with olive green.
In the 1950s and 60s a new breed of stand-up comedian appeared. And one of the most popular venues was San Fransisco’s ‘Hungry i’. Credited for giving voice to a number of stand-up comedy legends, including Lenny Bruce, Bob Newhart, Barbara Streisand, and the now disgraced Bill Cosby. In case you were wondering, the lower case ‘i’ stood for ‘intellectual’.
Over on the east coast in New York, The Improv comedy club in New York was discovering Jay Leno, Bette Midler, Richard Pryor and Andy Kaufman. Both ‘Hungry i’ and ‘The Improv’ had humble origins with limited budgets, and plain red brick walls just happened to feature in both. And when the New York based ‘The Improv’ expended to Hollywood, they decided to mirror that brick wall look. Now this iconic brick wall, real or otherwise, is a stalwart of comedy rooms around the world the world, from the Tokyo Comedy Bar to Melbourne’s Basement Comedy Club, and beyond.
While the short lived South Melbourne comedy club, The Rubber Chicken, featured a faux brick wall on their musical stage, their upstairs Punchlines Comedy Club backdrop was of an old lady’s living room. This included a fireplace, mantle and comical reproductions of classic paintings with rubber chickens. The Scream, Whistler’s Mother, and even Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’ all had rubber chickens replacing key characters.
Dry Bar Comedy in Utah, USA has also elected to move away from tradition. With a focus on stage and screen, Dry Bar Comedy changes the backdrops per show to keep each season fresh. To date, their backdrops have included bookshelves, picket fences, forests, and even a circus tent.
Today, both the red curtain (occasionally another colour) and the brick wall feature in many stand-up comedy clubs around the world and in Australia.