Despite the claim of many a Borscht Belt comic that he is a practitioner of "the world's second-oldest professsion," stand-up comedy is a young and distinctly American literary form. It was not until the last decades of the nineteenth century when, enabled by unprecedented prosperity and the right to free expression, that monologists began appearing in American vaudeville halls. Yet even though it has since become an entertainment industry mainstay, stand-up comedy has received precious little scholarly attention.
The Legacy of the Wisecrack: Stand-up Comedy as the Great American Literary Form looks at the theory of stand-up comedy, its literary dimensions, and its distinctly American qualities as it provides a detailed history of the forces that shaped it. The study concludes with a look at the works of specific comedians such as Steven Wright, whose three decades of performances comprise a single picaresque tale, and Richard Pryor, whose 1982 masterpiece Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip serves as modern America's answer to Dante Aligheri's epic poem, Inferno. The result is one of the first serious treatments of stand-up comedy as a literary form.