Skip to content

The Legacy of the Wisecrack

    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.



    John Lee Grogan Jr.
    This was quite an exceptional book, perhaps the best I’ve read on what humor and stand-up comedy is and what it can do. It’s a very serious and deep book and is only book I’ve really seen that talks about the spiritual dimensions of humor and the comedian. This author has an incredible background, that of literature and creative writing professor, and also a New Testament scholar. I loved this book because it treated comedy and humor as important topics worthy of serious study. This book forces you to work, but enriches you for your effort, I have to give a listen to Steven Wright soon after reading the chapter on him. There is a recognition and respect and honor paid by the author towards the subject of his study. This book is a scholarly work, but it’s not written in esoteric, dense foggy language, but in understandable terms. This is not only a book about comedy, it’s about the joy and rewards of reading and thinking, the power, beauty and mystery of words to communicative subjective meaning and how comedy fills a special niche in the use of language. This is an important book, not only in terms of comedy, but about life in general. Something tells me this author could probably lay down a pretty smoking sermon himself! Preach on brother! I wish we had more professors out there like this author willing to share his gifts of insight and analysis with his students and the rest of the world instead of the barren wasteland that academia has been for ages.

    Eddie Tafoya’s THE LEGACY OF THE WISECRACK combines history, Freud, postmodernism, and the little-known science of “fartology” to make a thought-provoking study of stand-up comedy. His discussion of comedians of diverse backgrounds casts humor in a cross-cultural perspective while bringing to light important but lesser known comedians such as Charley Case and Moms Mabley.

    The essay on the parallels between Richard Pryor’s show “Live at the Sunset Strip” with Dante’s INFERNO underscores the book’s central argument that stand-up comedy is an underappreciated literary art form.

    A brief discussion of why Jewish humor became America’s dominant humor left me wanting more on this interesting topic.

    Tafoya’s trenchant observations animate the pages from start to finish, making THE LEGACY OF THE WISECRACK absorbing and fun to read. We’re left marveling at how humans have managed to survive tough times by wit alone.

    This book gives a deep look into why stand up comedy should be considered literature. Plus it looks at stand up comedy, what else could be more interesting? Overall, great book.
    Daria TUNCA

    The following review has been posted here on behalf of its author, Izuu Nwankwo (PhD student, Nigeria)

    There are very few scholarly books on stand-up acts and Tafoya’s work remains the most current and insightful. Many books on stand-up comedy tend to be promotional, aimed mostly to serve as developmental guides for upcoming stand-up comedians. In Tafoya’s the use of existing theory and criticism is at once innovative and groundbreaking, in stand-up comedy research. I find this book useful especially in the creative and convincing way it has manipulated the Freudian concepts of the id and the super-ego, in the understanding of how jokes make us laugh. One other thing that makes this work outstanding is the conversational manner in which the book is written. While we read, we are aware at the back of our minds that this is a scholarly work written by a practising stand-up comedian. In my view, this makes for a much more pleasurable reading as we get a grip on how and why stand-up comedy can also be categorised as literature. I have found this book indispensable in my own research due to the overall background information it carries with it. As such I believe it is a catalyst for further research, not only into stand-up, but also into other emergent popular performances and literature.

    Nancy Nicoloff-Tucker
    The Legacy of the Wisecrack is a provocative, engaging tome, on the history, content, context, and power of stand-up comedy in American society. “Stand-up comedy is Literature,” states author Eddie Tafoya, an American Literature professor and professional comic from Northern New Mexico. Tafoya, then proceeds to give an insightful breakdown and definition of both literature and comedy. He succeeds in making the case for stand-up comedy being American Literature. Professor Tafoya challenges the reader to look beyond the mythical and superficial view of America’s history and culture and offers up, instead, a sociologically complex view of America’s past and present culture. A culture that gives birth to a unique American art-form, stand-up comedy. The comedian is the protagonist, who through humor, becomes the voice and conscience of a culturally suppressed, and often oppressed, American people. The scholarship and writing employed for this book makes for a groundbreaking study in an extremely overlooked art form: stand-up comedy.
    R. Eagle

    This timely book explores the role of the stand-up comedian in the 21st-century U.S.A. The author confronts the inhumanity of early American history, including slavery, concluding that the salve and salvation to rampant depersonalization is laughter. It is the stand-up comedian who reaffirms the true American values of individuality and freedom of speech. Thus the comedian plays the parts of social commentator and healer once relegated to the poet.

    Whether we are comics or students of comedy does not really matter. Anyone interested in American culture or a history of entertainment as well as everyone who enjoys original nonfiction is sure to remain engaged. Teachers and general readers will appreciate the intriguing contextual background provided in the first five (of eight) chapters in addition to included charts, a glossary and timeline. The lucid and lively writing is richly layered from a variety of sources, from theology to psychology to pop culture. Many keen cultural analyses, novel insights, and meticulous explications keep us intellectually involved–while hilarious excerpts from a wide range of stand-up routines keep us wearing a grin.

    Nancy L. Smoot

    Erudite author Eddie Tafoya presents an academic but highly entertaining history and study of humor. It takes a serious look at the human condition that is reflected in stand-up comedy: a safe way to expose the inner voice one would not otherwise dare to share in public. The reader’s consciousness will be raised with the author’s explanation of hidden meanings in humor. A truly enjoyable and educational read.

    Nancy Smoot Tramont

    Joe Romby Jr.
    Eddie Tafoya, associate professor of American Literature, has the audacity to compare Richard Pryor’s “Live on the Sunset Strip” to Dante Alighieri’s “The Inferno,” and has the perspicacity to make his assertion resound with conviction.
    A Virgil in his own right, Tafoya takes the curious connoisseur of comedy, and the studious stand up, on an entertaining tour through the centuries in search of the secrets to laughter. From the shaman spellbinding an ancient tribe, to the showman killing a night club crowd, “The Legacy of the Wisecrack” is filled with arcane knowledge and neatly-documented facts which shine a spotlight on the origins, character, and history of this mysterious and singularly American–Great American Literary Form we call Stand-Up Comedy.
    The Legacy of the Wisecrack: Stand-up Comedy as the Great American Literary Form
    I study stand-up comedy academically and I’m blown away by Tafoya’s analysis in The Legacy of the Wisecrack. He is academic without being distancing and provides a comprehensive look at one of America’s most important yet underappreciated art forms.

    From other countries

    Jagan K
    5.0 out of 5 stars A comprehensive assessment of stand-up comedy
    Stand-up comedy as an art form is always puzzling to a lot of people considering the simplicity of it. So when the author begins the book by comparing Pryor’s Live at the sunset strip to Dante’s divine comedy it immediately piques your interest. A very well researched and will written book which not only looks at stand up comedy from a historical perspective but also gives an idea of how sacrosanct the core idea of the medium is throughout generations.