Our A to Z of Carnegie Hall series continues with the letter J for japes and jokes. Throughout most of its history, the Hall has been notable as a venue for variety and comedy acts.
The first instance of a comedy performance recorded in our database of events is logged for December 12, 1895—just four and a half years after the Hall opened in May 1891. Although we have no individual names listed for the event yet (our database is an ever growing resource), the event was titled Amateur Comedy Club and took place in the Lyceum, now Weill Recital Hall. Amateur Comedy Club must have proven to be a big hit—it returned to the Lyceum a further 11 times in the following two years. So from the very early days of Carnegie Hall, the doors have been open to comics.
Although—as we've seen—comedy at Carnegie Hall was pioneered by a bunch of self-proclaimed amateurs, in the decades following through the present day, many of the biggest names of professional comedy have performed at the Hall.
The first bona fide comedy superstar to appear here was Will Rogers. Although he first appeared as part of a long list of performers during the intriguingly titled New York Building Superintendents Association Minstrel / Vaudeville Program on March 31, 1923, his headlining debut came three years later in April 1926. He followed that up later that year with his second and final appearance on December 8.
Since then, a who's who of funny people have kept audiences amused either as headliners or as part of ensemble casts. Here are just some of them with their number of appearances in parentheses: Woody Allen (3), Jack Benny (6), Milton Berle (9), Bob & Ray (1), Lenny Bruce (1), Carol Burnett (2), George Carlin (4), Dave Chappelle (1), Bill Cosby (14), Rodney Dangerfield (4), Will Ferrell (2), Ricky Gervais (1), Kathy Griffin (2), Bob Hope (4, over a 50-year stretch), Denis Leary (4), Louis CK (1), Jackie Mason (9), Tracy Morgan (1), Joan Rivers (5), Chris Rock (1), Jerry Seinfeld (4), Sarah Silverman (1), Lily Tomlin (1), Robin Williams (1), and Steven Wright (1). There are more than 400 individual entries for comedians in our database, so this is just a smattering of the names of those who have appeared here.
Program from Robin Williams's 2002 appearance at Carnegie Hall. Courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Archives.
Fittingly, the performer with one of the longest runs at Carnegie Hall is one who combines music with comedy—P.D.Q. Bach, aka Peter Schickele. Beginning in 1966, Schickele—performing as the "only forgotten son" of the Bach family—has brought his combination of Baroque and classical music and slapstick comedy to Carnegie Hall more than 70 times.
Flyer for P.D.Q. Bach's 1980 Carnegie Hall holiday concert series. Courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Archives.
Peter Schickele / P.D.Q Bach performs his own Cantata: Iphigenia in Brooklyn.
Recent weeks have seen the deaths of two major figures in American popular culture—Marvin Hamlisch and Phyllis Diller—both of whom graced the comedic history of Carnegie Hall.
Musical renaissance man Hamlisch appeared at the Hall nearly 30 times, but his debut on May 5, 1972, was as pianist for the great Groucho Marx, who was making his one and only Carnegie Hall appearance.
Like Groucho Marx, Phyllis Diller performed just once at Carnegie Hall. Her debut and simultaneous swansong at the Hall took place a decade before Marx's on May 25, 1962.
Flyer for Phyllis Diller's only Carnegie Hall appearance. Courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Archives.
RelatedA to Z of Carnegie HallThe Rose MuseumThe History of the Hall