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American comedians are known for their brash humor, wild performances, and general silliness. With the great tradition of Vaudeville serving as a background for modern stand-up comedy, it’s no wonder that many American comedians are considered among the best in the world. There seems to be no limits on subject matter or appropriateness for modern American comedians, leading to occasional controversy when the public or the press deems a comic having gone too far.
One cannot spend any time paying attention to the American comedy scene without quickly hearing the name Robin Williams. The kooky Californian is a force of nature on stage, diving from impressions to rants to re-enactments so quickly the audience may be left breathless. Many other comedians stand somewhat in awe of Williams, often calling him the quickest thinker in the building. His large scale performances, including Robin Williams: Live at the Met in 1986, and Robin Williams: Live on Broadway in 2002, continue to be extremely popular and are considered by many to be among the greatest stand-up comedy shows of all time.
Robin Williams is also an accomplished actor, a trait shared by many American comedians. He attended the Julliard School in the 1970s and in 1998 won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his dramatic role in Good Will Hunting. Williams has been a long supporter of charities, including the unusual foreign aid group Comic Relief. Alongside fellow comics Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal, he has produced several comedy specials to benefit the groups’ efforts.
One of the most successful comics of the late 20th century expresses a style completely different than the frenetic Williams; Jerry Seinfeld’s stand-up shows are wry monologues, filled with personal anecdotes. His comedy was spun into one of the most successful television shows of the 1990s, Seinfeld. The show about a group of New York friends was a massive success, earning Seinfeld over $267 million US Dollars (USD) in 1998 and making him the highest paid entertainer in show business.
Chris Rock came out of the venerated tradition of Saturday Night Live a sketch comedy show that has become an American legend. The comedian, also a successful actor, is known for his fearless treatment of serious subjects. Rock is unafraid to comment on socially and politically sensitive issues, and to comment without caring about his reception. He has starred in several television specials, including the landmark Chris Rock: Bring the Pain in 1994.
American comedians occasionally make their mark by taking a specific subject and making it funnier than anyone else can. Kathy Griffin, the loud-mouthed redhead from Los Angeles, is a constant stream of commentary on the lives of the rich and famous. Known for her deadly take on the pretension of celebrity culture, Griffin got her training with the Groundlings, a world famous comedy troupe home to many of Los Angeles’ most famous comedians. Griffin will nearly always provide a shock and a laugh, as she romps her way through the canon of Hollywood’s A-List.
Unlike their international counterparts, American comedians are not widely known for their elegant wordplay or quirky ideas. As a group, they tend to be loud, irreverent and infinitely varied in style. It is no wonder, with such a diverse group of scene-grabbers seeming to fill the United States to bursting, that Robin Williams could not help but refer to Canada as “a loft apartment over a really great party.”
America is a relatively low-context culture, and as such, the comedy allows for a lot of flexibility. This may be confusing to people coming from a high-context culture, expecting that there is some explanation for some of the random humor in America, when there is not, and the joke is either nonsensical or left to audience interpretation.
Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor are two of my favorite American comedian. These men liked to focus on similar topics: death, growing up in the hood, Italians, mafiosi, racism, and other somewhat dark and raw concepts echoing the plight of most African Americans. The flexibility and quickness of these men is brilliant, and often leaves the crowds either laughing their heads off or left in the dust.
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