Before a single punchline, sartorial choices can telegraph a vibe (and invoke an icon), whether it's a leather suit or leopard dress.
Amy Schumer may be known for her provocative outfits (which have toned down a tad in the #MeToo climate) underlining her ballsy, feminist message. But she also has paid "homage to Eddie Murphy" with her all-leather ensemble in her most recent Netflix special, says Kliph Nesteroff, curator of the new National Comedy Center in New York.
The comedy historian references the iconic devil-red leather suit Murphy wore for his profane HBO set Delirious in 1983, itself inspired by the black leather jumpsuit Elvis Presley wore for his televised comeback in 1968.
Adds stand-up comic and Hood Adjacent star James Davis, another Murphy fan: "For tapings or when I headline, I like leather because I grew up watching Eddie Murphy — the red leather suit in Delirious, the purple leather suit in Raw — and Martin Lawrence. I soaked up all those looks."
Davis, who for stand-up gigs dresses "like I'm going to the club — my expectation is that the crowd will be breaking down what I'm wearing, and my outfit is the first thing I can do to win their favor," sometimes works with a stylist, such as Raphel Young, who has dressed Kendrick Lamar and Mike Epps.
Comedy's first hippie, '70s icon George Carlin, broke with traditional stand-up suited style. "We're still under the influence of that era, of being completely casual onstage," says Nesteroff.
Stand-ups today project their brand of comedy, like Arrested Development actress Maria Bamford, whose work is gloriously shameless about mental health. The comic favors heeled red clogs and purple socks with merch from other comedians, such as Jackie Kashian's "Meat Shield" union-made tees.
"I have [also] purchased entire outfits at CVS," adds Bamford. Ali Wong says she chose the snake-print dress that she wore for her Netflix special Baby Cobra "out of sheer economics and lack of thought," and afterward, "So many Asian women said to me, 'Thank you for giving us an easy [Halloween] costume.'" Wong jokes about her garb on her latest Netflix special, Hard Knock Wife: "All the leopard-print dresses are gonna be sold out."
John Mulaney's penchant for a suit and tie plays to his Midwestern vibe but also recalls the Rat Pack. "Mulaney will tell you that he loved Dean Martin — that look informed how he has come to show business," says Nesteroff.
Mulaney's stylist Michael Fisher says his look is "retro-inspired. The first impression of John is that he's clean-cut; his humor is anything but."
While some comics consistently don a suit and tie, others dress up only if the venue warrants it. For late-night TV, even countercultural Lenny Bruce wore a classic suit and tie.
"There was a dress code on The Tonight Show," says Nesteroff. "If you didn't observe it, like Robert Klein once, it was like a restaurant where they'd supply jackets."
For The Late Show With Stephen Colbert in May, Ahmed Bharoocha says he donned a suit "to fit into that late-night world." Adds Iliza Shlesinger, whose fourth Netflix special, Elder Millennial, streams this summer: "TV joke-telling is still something you turn it up a notch for."
This story first appeared in the June 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.