Humor is playful, brutal, and, most importantly, liminal. The structures that create what humans perceive as “humorous” walk the fine line betwixt and between what is socially acceptable and what is not socially acceptable. The thought centering around perceptions of comedy is usually not a statement -“this is in jest” – but rather a question: “Is this in jest?” In a stand-up comedy performance, the stakes to produce reactions of laughter and shock become even more heightened, and the frames that classify that a performance is meant to be humorous allow the comic to blur the line of “in jest” and “in jest?” even further. Once confronted with this liminal performative space, according to performance studies theorist Victor Turner, an audience member has two possible responses: one of schism (explicit rejection) and one of reinforcement (laughter and acceptance). My hypothesis is that mediated stand-up comedy has (at least) four complex and prominent structures that encourage reinforcement:
- Verbal language and rhetoric – Language is at the heart of stand-up comedy – what about it, then, causes an audience to find it humorous? Linguist A. Peter McGraw’s Benign Violation Theory suggests that humor occurs when a situation is perceived both as benign and as a violation simultaneously. In a contemporary context, this can be translated into situations that are intended to shock an audience using both prejudice and subversion of expectations – simultaneously. This includes juxtaposing politically correct remarks with offensive ones, and disguising prejudice with statements that are on the surface benevolent. I am most interested in how language is used to create comedic segments or “bits” that are simultaneously benevolent and prejudicial.
- Gestural behaviors and body language – Stand-up comics employ a number of repeated bodily “ticks” that work in conjunction with verbal language. These gestural behaviors have the ability to denote certain verbal language as being ironic, without the comic explicitly saying so. Gestural behaviors, when used with a certain confidence, can also be used to establish dominance (putting a hand on one’s hip, for example, can denote: “I know what I’m talking about). This gestural display of dominance, of course, can be used to justify prejudicial viewpoints.
- Venue – Physical structures create spaces of privacy, and therefore, spaces of justified reinforcement. The most common and normalized space for stand-up is a theatre, an enclosed, indoor “pleasure dome” in which audience participants are surrounded by darkness. A bright light shines on the comic and the comic only, who stands on a raised stage in front of the audience. In theatrical spaces, particularly enclosed ones, the etiquette is to listen and react not to the other shrouded figures in the audience, but to listen and react to the commander of the space: the comic, who acts as a god of sorts. The comic gives the spectator permission, in this private space to laugh, clap, and react positively, all reactions of reinforcement. To leave or to heckle are reactions of schism, and unsurprisingly, reactions that are considered rude.
- Mediated spectatorship – In mediation of a stand-up performance, another layer is added to the pre-existing physical structures that justify stand-up comedy. Monthly subscriptions to online streaming mediums such as Netflix, HBO, and Amazon Prime allow access to taped recordings of stand-up performances. These taped recordings can be found using a search engine, filtered down through a “Stand-Up and Talk Shows” genre category, or even pop in on a “recommendations” feed shown by the streaming medium. The spectator is, in all these instances, able to view the title of the special, the special’s description (often touching on topics covered or “hooking” the viewer in), and the special’s ratings (scaled from 1 to 5 stars – how do other people perceive the stand-up?) before finally clicking on the stand-up special to watch. Once watching, the spectator is guided by the camera’s gaze, which follows – and sympathizes with – the stand-up comic. The camera cuts to the audience’s reactions (always ones of laughter) to assure the spectator that other spectators find this behavior humorous as well – laughing is normalized. In the case of audience members engaged in schism (not listening/ignoring the comic, heckling), they are only acknowledged in controlled instances, such as when the comic calls them out for such acts of schism, and even in controlled instances such as this, their faces are never shown.
These four layers create structures of private reinforcement in which the voyeur is permitted to view and laugh at these controversial, humorous behaviors. However, though the stand-up routines are viewed privately, these privately viewed behaviors can consciously or subconsciously manifest themselves in the viewer’s public behaviors. The cycle of creating humor and reinforcement, then, transforms from the private to the public sphere, and certain public actions and doings become normalized as being “in jest.” This research intends to break down the specifics of these structures and deconstruct Westernized and mediated perceptions of humor.
“Prejudice,” of course, is a broad term. I am most interested in gendered prejudice and the prevalence and/or absence of feminist ideology in stand-up comedy. The three primary feminist lenses I intend to explore stand-up through are: benevolent sexism (a chivalrous attitude toward women that is actually sexist), white feminism (feminist ideology centered around white, well-off, cisgender women), and postfeminist sensibility (an entanglement of feminist and anti-feminist themes, as explored by feminist theorist Rosalind Gill). In accordance with these lenses, the stand-up comedy “texts” I intend to center my research around are (included but not limited to) Louis C.K’s “Hilarious,” Amy Schumer’s “Mostly Sex Stuff,” and Ali Wong’s “Baby Cobra.” I intend to encode, by close-reading the language, behaviors, and structured mediation, how these comedy specials work within and perpetuate a larger, perhaps prejudiced, narrative about gender in twenty-first century America.