Boswell is not afraid
Boswell is pleasant and gay,
For frolic by nature designed;
He heedlessly rattles away
When company is to his mind.
-- James Boswell
Lenny Bruce is not afraid.
-- R.E.M., "The End of the World As We Know It"
Stand-up comedy has evolved at least twice. (1)
Most readers will be familiar with the American variant, which arose out of various New World storytelling traditions late in the 19th century. Mark Twain, with his traveling comic monologues, is sometimes called the first standup comedian. But in justice, the title probably belongs to some unknown vaudevillian. Whoever started it, by 1900 monologists were delivering strings of carefully prepared jokes in theaters across America. By modern standards the art was crude, but the essentials -- solitude, the expectation of quick laughs, the ever-present challenge of hecklers -- were already there.
What those early vaudevillians never knew was that it had been done already, centuries ago and thousands of miles away.
Japanese "standup" (2) is called _rakugo_, and it first appeared in the troubled times of the 16th century. The stabler and more prosperous Tokugawa period allowed it to prosper, and -- this being Japan -- become rationalized, traditionalized, and codified. By Meiji times it had become as formal as a Noh play, with rakugoka reciting tried-and-true funny stories and only rarely introducing new material or. Today it's a "classical" Japanese art form (though there are signs of a renaissance).
Still, the original rakugo was anarchic in a rather familiar way; early rakugoka were satirists and rather dubious characters, often critical of authority and subject to heckling and even assault.
So we have two completely independent developments. This suggests to me that standup shouldn't be that hard to stumble across, given the right artistic trends and social circumstances. When might we find such?
I nominate Western Europe during the endlessly inventive 18th century. In retrospect, it looks like several of the necessary pieces were lying around: cheap popular theaters, a growing appreciation of humor as an art form, a delight in witty conversation and a political climate that allowed a certain amount of satire. There are a number of 18th century figures who, one suspects, would have been killer standup artists. (3)
Let us tweak the DNA of our mutual friend Mr. Boswell. Boswell already had several of the attributes of the classic standup artist. He had a miserable family background, and so had a strong need to be liked. He was very good at telling jokes and stories. He knew good material when he found it, and could work a crowd. And he spent much of his life short on cash.
Now, OTL Boswell was just a little too... nice. He could be the center of attention for a while, but would inevitably defer to a stronger personality.
So let us postulate an edgier, more egocentric Boswell. He's even funnier, but he's got a much stronger need to be the center of attention. And instead of inventing modern biography -- itself a fairly amazing accomplishment -- he invents standup a century or so early.
This hypothetical Georgian standup differs from both the Japanese and American versions. It begins as a thing of clubs and salons. "Boswell has this story he tells... well, it's really several stories... oh, I can't describe it, but it's the funniest thing. You must come to Monboddo House next week." From there it spreads to coffeehouses, and -- gradually -- downscale to theaters.
It's less commercial than the other two forms, and more purely aesthetic, though of course good standup routines will be rewarded by patronage. I suspect that by the early 1800s the typical standup comedian will be the poor younger son of a family near the lower edge of the upper class.
OTL, predation by hecklers has been one of the engines of standup evolution. Given the small audiences, I suspect that this will be an even bigger factor here; we should see very rapid radiation of forms and techniques, followed by relentless winnowing. The detachment from box office concerns may allow earlier and faster politicization... I suspect the form will prosper wildly in Revolutionary France, but a number of brilliant routines to be brought to a grisly punchline by Madame Guillotine. (It will then be permitted, but sharply restricted, under Napoleon.)
Crossing the Atlantic, the new art will be picked up enthusiastically by the Americans -- who, being American, will vulgarize, commercialize, and eventually professionalize it. Basically the developments of OTL, but sixty or eighty years early. By the Mexican War, some equivalent of "Take my wife... please!" will be in circulation, and by 1860 a handful of men will be making a decent living at it.
Standup does not thrive in Central Europe until late in the century -- conservative regimes, police spies. Surprisingly, though, it finds a niche in Tsarist Russia. There are multiple vectors -- Army officers bring it back from the occupation of France, aristocrats from visits to the West -- and then it cross-fertilizes with the Jewish tradition of comic storytelling (which was an enormous shaping influence on American standup OTL). It takes a couple of generations, but by the 1860s it's widespread if not exactly respectable. Of course, any popular comedian will be sure to have at least one secret policeman in the audience...
...okay, pause here. Apart from some cultural effects, does this have any impact at all?
(And what /would/ be the cultural impacts? Heck what has the impact of standup been OTL?)
(1) There's a case to be made for a third independent development, in early 20th century Romania. It's a bit definitional, though, so I'm not going into it here.
(2) _Rakugo_ is performed kneeling. A modern rakugoka is about as likely to encounter hecklers as an opera soloist or a prima ballerina, which is probably one reason the form has become rather... staid. But this was not the case back in the day. Early rakugoka had to deal with unruly crowds and, occasionally, angry samurai.
(3) Voltaire. You just know he would /kill/.