As the joke goes, the early-1990s stand-up comedy boom was so big, TV execs handed out development deals to comics at the L.A. airport like natives bestowing leis on tourists entering Hawaii. Fueled by a glut of talent and the absurd success of The Cosby Show, comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres and Roseanne Barr all found themselves with hit sitcoms. On ABC alone there was Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper, Home Improvement, Grace Under Fire and Anything But Love. After years on the grueling stand-up circuit, more comedians turned into superstars—and multi-millionaires—in the 1990s than ever before.
Then, just like that, the joke was over. Reality TV exploded, and comedy dried up. By 2004 Comedy Central had canceled The Daily Show’s nightly lead-out, Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn, an underrated series that showcased stand-ups. Dave Chappelle walked away from his TV series in 2006, the same year Fox canceled The Bernie Mac Show. What little remained of comedy was left to Dane Cook and Carlos Mencia.
Today, signs point to a coming comedy boom the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades. Call it the Louis C.K. paradigm: The self-loathing superstar is so good, he forces other comedians to be better. “I always think the quality and freshness of the talent drive the booms and busts,” explains Noam Dworman, owner of New York City’s Comedy Cellar (yes, from the opening credits of Louie). “It would be like trying to pretend the quality of the Beatles’ music was irrelevant to the interest in rock music in the 1960s.”
Consider Kevin Hart. The innately likable pint-size comedy rock star doesn’t do HBO specials—he goes directly to the big screen. His latest, Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain, pulled in $32 million, making it the fourth-highest-grossing stand-up theatrical release of all time, right behind Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip.
Then there’s Comedy Central’s one-two punch of Anthony Jeselnik (The Jeselnik Offensive) and Amy Schumer (Inside Amy Schumer). Jeselnik, a former Late Night With Jimmy Fallon writer, has the calculated tone of a serial killer, which the comedian would likely consider high praise. Schumer, Jeselnik’s former girlfriend, is undeniably the funniest female comic on the planet, with an innocent smile and a mouth like a south Jersey longshoreman’s. Her series was renewed for a second season right after its premiere. So was the FX series Legit, featuring Australian megacomic Jim Jefferies.
The real fuel to this laugh renaissance seems to be good vibes. The aforementioned stars have been diligently paying it forward. Artie Lange, Ricky Gervais and Todd Barry have all appeared on Louie. Jeselnik has featured the incredible Jim Norton, Dave Attell and Eric André, and Amy Schumer has booked Robert Kelly, Jim Florentine and Michael Ian Black.
How long do we have to wait before someone creates The Bill Burr Show or resurrects Tough Crowd? Laugh now—Good Luck Chuck 2 could be just around the corner.