The source of the term one-man show originated primarily in referring to a comedian, who would stand on stage and entertain an audience, employing humor for the most part, cracking jokes, telling humorous stories, and most often standing upright onstage for an audience, either for an hour of pure stand-up comedy at a time, or in shorter sets for breaks. With the advent of feminism, words and phrases such as one-woman show and comedienne have entered the modern-day lexicon.
While a one-person show may be the musings of a comedian on a theme, the form can accommodate a wider scope. In the preface of the book Extreme Exposure, editor Jo Bonney uses the term "solo performance" to encompass those performers who do not necessarily have a comedic history. She suggests that "at the most basic level, despite their limitless backgrounds and performance styles, all solo performers are storytellers." This assumption is based on her assertion that a number of solo shows have a storyline or a plot.
Bonney also suggests that a distinctive trait of solo performance resides in its frequent lack of a fourth wall separating the performer from the audience, stating that a "solo show expects and demands the active involvement of the people in the audience". While this is often the case, as in the shows of performers coming directly from the stand-up comedy tradition, it is not a requirement: some solo shows, such as Krapp's Last Tape by Samuel Beckett, are performed without the performer addressing the audience directly.
When creating a show, a solo performer is not limited to writing and staging the piece by themselves. They can use directors, writers, designers, and composers. An example of how Eric Bogosian builds a character can be found in the published version of his show Wake Up And Smell the Coffee, by Theatre Communications Group, New York.
We could probably assume that individuals have told stories in front of other members of their tribe or society for thousands of years. They would have orally passed down many of today's myths and legends in this manner. So it is a style of performance that has been with us for generations developing through theatrical people such as Greek Monologists, the strolling Minstrels of Medieval England and the French Troubadors.
By the 1960s, the term performance art became popular and involved any number of performance acts or happenings, as they were known. Many performers, like Laurie Anderson, developed through these happenings and are still performing today.
Since solo shows have long been the domain of comic performers, it should be no surprise that many American comedy stars, past and present, have come to prominence through this genre. Performers include Lily Tomlin, Andy Kaufman, Lord Buckley, Eric Bogosian, Whoopi Goldberg, Jade Esteban Estrada, Eddie Izzard, John Leguizamo, Anna Deavere Smith, Bill Hicks, Hugh Morgan "Brother Blue" Hill and Lenny Bruce.
Several performers have presented solo shows in tribute to famous personalities. The blueprint for this type of show may have been drafted by Hal Holbrook, who has performed as Mark Twain in his solo show, Mark Twain Tonight, more than 2,000 times since 1954. Examples since that time include Julie Harris in the Emily Dickinson biography, The Belle of Amherst; Tovah Feldshuh as Golda Meir in Golda's Balcony; Alan Safier as George Burns in Say Goodnight Gracie by Rupert Holmes; Ed Metzger in his solo show, performing since 1978, Albert Einstein, The Practical Boheian; and Ed Metzger in another one-person show Hemingway, On The Edge.
In what was possibly the only instance in which an actor adapted an entire novel for the stage, Patrick Stewart played all 43 parts in his version of "A Christmas Carol", which played three times on Broadway and at the Old Vic in London.
One-person shows may be personal, autbiographical creations. This ranges from the intensely confessional but comedic work of Spaulding Gray, the semi-autobiographical A Bronx Tale by Chaz Palminteri, or Holly Hughes' solo piece World without End, in which she attempts to make sense of her relationship with her mother who had died.
Still other shows may rally around a central theme, such as pop culture in Pat Hazel's The Wonderbread Years, relationships in Robert Dubac's The Male Intellect, the history of the New York City transit system in Mike Daisey's Invincible Summer, or fighting the system in Patrick Combs' Man 1, Bank 0.
Sometimes, solo shows are simply traditional plays written by playwrights for a cast of one. Examples: Shirley Valentine by Willy Russell, I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright, and The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead by Robert Hewett.
There is also room in this genre for the inclusion of other art forms. Poetry pervades the work of Dael Orlandersmith, sleight-of-hand mastery informs Ricky Jay's self-titled Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants, magical and psychic performance skills are part of Neil Tobin's Supernatural Chicago.
There have also been many British comedians who have moved away from performing pure stand-up comedy in recent years. The shows that appear annually at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe can involve stories of pathos and the use of technological equipment such as projectors. Examples include Howard Read, who has performed with the animated character Little Howard which was projected with the aid of computers and Dave Gorman, who has performed several shows described as "documentary comedy".