Working Glossary: Stand-Up Comedy Research

Abject – Hopeless, wretched, monstrous, outcast.

Benevolent sexism – Also known as “ambivalent sexism.” Social psychologists Susan Fiske and Peter Glick define benevolent sexism as “a subjectively favorable, chivalrous ideology that offers protection and affection to women who embrace conventional roles” (Fiske et. al, 109). It puts women on a pedestal as the weaker, but essential, sex, as a way meant to be seen as cherishing rather than restricting her. Benevolent sexism co-exists with hostile sexism, as defined below, and exists cross-culturally. Benevolent sexism benefits the traditional social structure; the more women see men as protectors and supporters, the more subservient and less independent women are willing to be, and women will more likely occupy the domestic sphere. Benevolent sexism is characterized by an emphasis on the following:

  • Protective paternalism (e.g. “ladies first”)
  • Sexual difference (e.g. “women are naturally purer than men”)
  • Heterosexual intimacy (e.g. “every man needs a loving woman to support him”)

Bisociation – The simultaneous mental association of two seemingly unrelated topics or objects. The most common example is a pun.

Bit – A brief comic joke or running gag, sometimes used in repetition. It is often a short snippet of a larger performance.

Comic minimization – Also referred to as meiosis. A humorous rhetorical strategy in which one reduces the apparent significance of a topic in order to emphasize its true gravity and relevance (Goehring et. al, 60). 

Dark play – Play that emphasizes risk, deception, and thrill. Often, the spectator of the play act does not know that they are engaged in dark play; it is performed specifically for deceiving.

Frame – A structure that surrounds a system, concept, or text.

Hostile sexism – Social psychologists Susan Fiske and Peter Glick define hostile sexism as “antipathy toward women who are viewed as usurping men’s power…through sexuality or feminist ideology” (Fiske et. al, 109). Hostile and benevolent sexism are positively correlated cross-culturally. It is characterized by the following:

  • Expressed anxiety and anger over power relations (e.g. “women try to gain power by controlling men”)
  • Direct condescension regarding sexual difference (e.g. “women are easily offended”)
  • Emphasis and suspicion over women’s sexuality (e.g. “women purposely use their sexuality to tease men and refuse their advances”)

Liminal – Existing in-between.

Male gaze – A term coined by film theorist Laura Mulvey. The male gaze is the way in which a text (literature, film, TV, etc.) portrays women from a masculine perspective, representing them as an object presented solely for men’s pleasure.

Mediated – Existing on a media platform. The critical object of my research is mediated stand-up comedy, existing in the form of pre-made comedy specials that are available on the Internet, mostly via streaming platforms such as Netflix, HBO, Hulu, etc.

Meta-communication –  Human communication, specifically verbal communication, operates at different levels of abstraction. Meta-communication is a set of abstractions which operates implicitly between two speakers or actors – for example, the implicit signal that “this is play.”

Persona – A role taken on and cultivated by an actor or comic, produced with the intended effect of sincerity.

Ironic persona – A performance of a role by an actor or comic that has surface-level sincerity, but is actually (and intended to be regarded as) insincere, often to a ridiculous extent. Comics using an ironic persona often use comic minimization in their bits.

Perspective by incongruity – A term coined by literary theorist Kenneth Burke. It is the practice of applying a word that is inappropriate for a specific situation in order to highlight hidden or new perspectives. According to Burke, this creates a “double vision” of perspectives (Burke 90). Very closely related to comic minimization.

Play – A series of actions engaged by an individual or group of individuals, intended to be for non-serious enjoyment. Play exists within a “playing” frame, which is created by a series of meta-communications. It is placed in interesting tension between this “real” and “not real,” sometimes posing a question of threat: “is this play?”

Explaining play, meta-communications, and frames: Gregory Bateson points to two young monkeys he observed “playing” at a zoo, or exchanging interactions which were not combat, but that were the actions of combat. In order for this to occur, Bateson realizes, the monkeys must exchange signals (meta-communications) that carry the message “this is play.” While the actions are “real,” they are framed within a context of play, making them paradoxically “not real.” This particular frame implicitly states: “This is play,” or, in Bateson’s words, “These actions, in which we now engage, do not denote what would be denoted by those actions which these actions denote.” The actions are real and are being played out, but the meaning that these actions would communicate, within this particular frame, is not “real.” Play, however, is placed in interesting tension between this “real” and “not real,” sometimes posing a question of threat: “is this play?” This, Bateson proposes, may be why even in recognizing that play is play, humans experience feelings such as terror; a clenched fist is not a punch, but it refers to a possible future of a punch. 

Postfeminist sensibility – A term coined by British feminist Rosalind Gill to represent the entanglement of feminist and anti-feminist themes in media culture. Postfeminism is a sensibility, not an ideology, in which media culture is its critical object. It is represented by the following:

  • The notion that femininity is a bodily property
  • Shift from objectification to subjectification of women
  • Emphasis upon self-surveillance, monitoring, and discipline
  • Focus upon individualism
  • Makeover paradigm
  • Resurgence in ideas of sexual difference
  • Sexualization of culture
  • Emphasis upon consumerism
  • Irony and knowingness (Gill).

Running gag – A repeated joke throughout a performance, that the audience comes to recognize. Often, the gag becomes funnier the more it is repeated or alluded to.

Scopophilia – Deriving (sometimes sexual) pleasure from looking.

 Spectatorship – The act of watching. The study of spectatorship is the study of people watching. In my research, I am seeking to understand the layers of spectatorship in mediated stand-up comedy, including the live audience of the comic’s stand-up, and the audience that is able to watch the stand-up once it is turned into a special and put on a streaming platform.

Stand-up comedy – A comedian stands in front of a live audience and performs jokes, bits, monologues, and humorous anecdotes directly to them.

Temporality – Existing in or having some relation to time.

White feminism – Feminist ideology centered around white, well-off, abled, cisgender women. White feminists fail to recognize, acknowledge, and respond to the problems faced by women of color and/or women with less privileges. The term is often used in opposition to black feminism and intersectionality.

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