Stand-up comedy: a comedian stands in front of a live audience and performs jokes, bits, monologues, and humorous anecdotes directly to them. This performance, simple at its most basic definition, involves a complex triangulation of power, pleasure, and prejudice as the comic desperately attempts to elicit laughter from a group of listeners. The listeners, subconsciously as a collective, decide whether to give the comic that gratification. These experiences intertwine together to create the darkest creation of pleasure imaginable – comedy. Indeed, comedy is one of the most dangerous and brutal art forms that human beings have the capacity to create. How is this triangulation of power, pleasure, and prejudice formulated?
At its most successful level, stand-up comedy occurs in a theatre. In a traditional theatrical performance – a staging of a drama, for instance – the framing of the theatrical space – “this is not real; this is a play” – is what keeps the audience in their seats (Bateson). This framing is created by a series of metacommunications that are relayed by the theatrical space: the audience member buys a ticket, enters the “black box” of the theatre, sits in his/her seat which is separated from the stage (sometimes by a proscenium arch, sometimes by a raised stage, or sometimes by neither, but either way the “stage” is placed in front of the audience members for their consumption), perhaps reads the program, waits for the lights to go down, and watches the action happen. The action on the stage is spectacle, and the audience members act as voyeurs paying for theatrical pleasure.
Stand-up comedy, on the other hand, is an auteristic medium (Misejewski; 2014). What the stand-up comic presents is assumed to reflect the interests, beliefs, and life of the comic; however, since humor is playful and ironic, it pushes the boundaries of what is considered as “real” and “not-real”. There is an edge and a pleasure in this uncertainty for the audience member in this not knowing; it is up to them to decide what is “real” and what it “not real.” The comic trusts them to be intelligent enough to distinguish between the two – this is an entrustment of power.
The audience has the power to laugh or not laugh. The audience has the power to distinguish between “real” and “not-real.” The comic is bathed in a warm, bright light while the audience is bathed in darkness. The multiple audience bodies are positioned as voyeurs in the darkened theatre; depending on how dark the theatre actually is, it may shroud each audience member’s face, opening up a space for voyeurism in which the viewer sees but is, to an extent, unseen by others, able to freely engage in the pleasure of looking without judgment from others. The audience has the power of observing a body in a space for voyeuristic pleasure. The comedian’s body “stands up” to be seen, surveyed, and scrutinized. How, then, does the comedian assert his/her power back at the audience?
The theaters in the specials I have explored are large and rather formal – this is atypical of most comedy spaces (some of which include laundromats and salons, spaces without the compliance-ensuring glitz and glamour). As the comic becomes more successful, he/she gains greater access to spaces that ensure compliance with their material. Consider: an audience member enters a theatre. When entering the theatre, consumers form into a line to gain access to the theatrical space. Money is exchanged for a good and a service: the audience pays money for a ticket (good) and a service (the show that is “played out” for them, as guaranteed by the ticket). They are ordered by ushers in special uniforms to sit in their specified seats and follow the rules. The lights go down on the audience and up on the stage, inducing a pleasurable voyeurism in which the audience is encouraged to observe the interactions of lighted bodies in a space. The stage, and with it, the play, claims a certain objectivity in its presentation of what is in the light and what is not in the light: what the play presents is truth in the world of the comedy space. The audience has agreed to buy a ticket and enter into this world of comedy – by paying money for a ticket, they have agreed to laugh. Laughter signals agreement, and unanimous agreement in a contained space signals objectivity.
Since stand-up comedy is an authorial medium, though, and assumed to be an auteristic medium, then the stories that are told in this space – the stories and experiences that the comic presents – represent the comic’s subjective human experience. If no one refutes these subjective human experiences, however, then this subjectivity may come to be misinterpreted by the audience as objectivity. For example, if Louis C.K. asserts, as he does in Chewed Up (2008), “Boys fuck things up. Girls are fucked up,” with the confidence and assurance of a man who knows that he is right, and has an audience laughing with him, signaling agreement with his statements, then this subjective statement, which represents a singular subjective human experience, may come to be interpreted as the universal, objective human experience. Subjectivity is masked as objectivity.
Since the comic is centerstage and bathed in spotlight, the stories they tell, which represent their own subjective experience, become interpreted as the Objective Human Experience. This is supported by both the aesthetics of the comedy space and the language of the performer: comedy is presented as a series of objective observations and aphorisms. The comic, if accepted by the audience, subjects them to his/her version of subjective reality. The audience of the comedy show has the power to judge the material of the comic as acceptable or unacceptable, or as objective or non-objective; however, given the structures of the comedy space that enforce compliance, the audience is more likely to accept the words and material of the comic as objective truth rather than subjective, biased, personal experience.
The comic’s gendered body contributes to the extent to which the audience may consider the comic’s material – or subjective experience – as objective truth. Whose subjective experience are we more likely to accept or believe as objective truth, as stand-up presents it? In her article “Laughter in the Final Instance: Cultural Economies of Humor (Or why women are perceived to be not as funny as men),” feminist and humor scholar Rebecca Krefting argues that audiences tend to laugh more at comics whose identities correspond with the identity of the ideal American citizen:
Citizenship is not simply a legal construct but a social one that necessarily includes acknowledgement, something grudgingly given, if at all, to subordinated populations. Who is acknowledged and accepted and who is not is itself a legend of that nation— its assumptions, attitudes, beliefs, and structures of power. I argue that audiences will affirm the perspectives and identify with (read: invest in and support, laugh or otherwise respond favorably) comics whose categories of identity correspond to ideal citizens, i.e., white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied.. (Krefting 141).
Krefting considers citizenship as a social construct in which white, male, heterosexual, and able-bodied citizens are positioned at the top of the power hierarchy. Those who do not fit this mold are positioned as non-ideal citizens; listening to them does not guarantee a gain of social and cultural capital. Krefting further asserts: “Understanding male perspectives and experiences— which are more recognizable as the standard or norm by which we measure all other experiences— whether or not you are yourself male, bears the promise of incentive” (Krefting 146). Therefore, citizens who are “white, male, heterosexual, and able-bodied” become what Krefting calls the “ideal candidates for humor production” because listening to these candidates and accepting their version of reality provides listeners with social and cultural capital (141). Male subjective experiences, as Krefting argues, are already accepted as objective human experiences because men are positioned at the top of the social hierarchy, and agreeing with those at the top of the social hierarchy provides listeners with a social advantage.
This is echoed in film theory as well – how male is positioned as active protagonist and female is positioned as passive object (those who fall outside the male/female binary are positioned as ridiculous Other). Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” draws on Neo-Freudian theories to distinguish how film trains its viewers to look:
In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. In the traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for string visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness…The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation. This alien presence then has to be integrated into cohesion with the narrative” (Mulvey 836).
Narrative cinema trains its audiences to engage in active scopophilia, identifying with male bodies and scrutinizing female ones. Here, we are referring to film audiences rather than comedy audiences, but if we consider mainstream film’s contributions to the American cultural imaginary, we can assume that film trains its viewers how to look at bodies not only in the film theatre space, but in any theatrical space. A woman’s “alien” body is jarring in the comedy space because it is assumed to stop and “freeze the flow of the action” rather than continue the action. To see a woman’s body continuing the action rather than halting it, acting as active rather than passive, as protagonist rather than object, directly combats the gendered assumptions of power that mainstream American cinema beats into its audiences. To see a woman’s truth and subjective experience, rather than a man’s, presented as objective reality, is not the norm, and (usually male) audiences may find this presentation irritating. Bodies that are registered as “woman” in the comedy space are automatically positioned as abject not just because they are the non-norm, but because the body that is typically positioned as the “butt of the joke” is now positioned as the subject body of identification. This is why it is to crucial for women to infiltrate these comedy spaces; simply the presentation of their bodies in the space implicitly complicates what is “objective” in the comedy arena.
If the comic’s subjective reality is presented as objective, what are the audience’s options? For one, the audience member can laugh and remain in the space, signaling agreement and acceptance of the comic. An audience member, if we recall, can also reject this version of reality in two ways: by (1) not laughing, and (2) leaving the theatre. In strategically constructed spaces such as large theatres, darkened spaces packed with viewers in which audiences pay to laugh, both of those options become more difficult. In a conversation with humor scholar Judy Batalion, comedy and theatre space architect Iain MacIntosh discusses three factors to consider when constructing a comedy space: stage eyeline, light, and seating arrangement. MacIntosh describes the interaction between audience and performer as a triangle of sorts:
It’s a three-way communication between me the performer, you the audience, and that member of the audience over there or up there. And the comic performer, addressing the audience, sets up that triangle, getting one part of the audience to conspire against the other. It reminds me of the situation when a man exits during the comic’s act to go to the loo. When he comes back the performer says, “Hey you, when you were out there, could you hear us in here? Because by god, we could hear you out there!” That is a way of using a real experience to trigger the rest of the audience to have a laugh. And nobody dares leave during the rest of the act (Batalion et. al. 43).
When the comic is performing in a space that allows full control over the audience, this three-way communication, in which the audience begins to turn on one another in order to associate themselves with the power of the comic, is enabled. Spaces that enable the full power of the triangle have “over half the audience below the eye-line of the actor…from this position, [the comic] is able to control the audience and to manipulate downward as well as upward” (Batalion et. al. 42). When the comic can manipulate both downward and upward, he/she has full view of the audience, and therefore full view and control of the comedy triangle MacIntosh describes; no one is out of the comic’s eyeline, and therefore no one is safe from the comic’s gaze, manipulation, and even heckling. If an audience member attempts to leave in this kind of space, they risk being called out by the comic, and becoming the butt of the joke, as MacIntosh describes.
How lit the theatre is also contributes to the difficulty of leaving the theatre, as it further increases the comic’s line of vision. MacIntosh mentions that “the house lights should be on” in order to enable the comic’s full visibility of the audience; however, you may notice that in several comedy specials or in large comedy spaces, the house lights are not on. Rather, the audience is in mostly darkness, with only slight light hovering over the audience members. You’ll notice this in Amy Schumer’s special – she allows a slight blue lighting to hover over the audience members, keeping them half in darkness, half in the light. The audience member appears to be in darkness, but in reality, the comic can see their every move. If an audience member is only half-shrouded in darkness, as opposed to in full lighting, then the comic’s ability to see the audience members is, from their point of view, uncertain. If the comic calls out an audience member in this uncertain, half-lit set-up, then the audience suddenly realizes the darkness is not a mask: in a startling realization, they realize that they have entered a space in which their movements are being watched.
This uncertainty of surveillance by a supervisor recalls Foucault’s theories on panopticism from Discipline and Punish. The Panopticon, which Foucault even himself compares to “small theatres,” involves a series of small, separated prison cells observed by a large, center tower (Foucault 200). In this arrangement, a supervisor/observer in the large tower can see all the cell members, but the cell members cannot see who occupies the tower or even when the tower is occupied. According to Foucault, this arrangement ensures the highest possible success for discipline:
This enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in which the individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded…in which power is exercised without division, according to a continuous hierarchical figure, in which each individual is constantly located, examined, and distributed among the living beings…all this constitutes a compact model of the disciplinary mechanism (197).
The key to the Panopticon, of course, is not just supervision, but rather the uncertainty of supervision. Because the cellmates cannot see who occupies the tower or when the tower is occupied, Foucault articulates this as follows: “Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so” (201). We can compare this to the comedy theatre, if we view it as a modified Panopticon: the comedy-goers, our “cell-mates,” can see the comic, and are still able to be subjected to his words – his version of reality – but it is the darkness of the theatre that creates the uncertainty of the audience’s visibility. For while the audience can see the comic at all times, because the audience is only half-lit, the audience is uncertain if the comic can see them or not. The comedy theatre ensures just enough visibility of the other audience members to guarantee collective laughter, but just enough darkness to make their own visibility in the comic’s eyes uncertain. The audience member must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment, but he must be sure that he may always be so.
To recall A. Peter McGraw’s benign-violation theory, it is this surprising, perhaps mortifying “he/she can see me!” moment that induces shock, and with it, a perhaps masochistic pleasure (McGraw, 2010). In addition, the half-lit scenario ensures that the comic is in the most light, highlighting and bringing an importance to their movements and words. It is as if a lighted halo is surrounding the comic – it further positions their words as objective truth.
MacIntosh also suggests packing audiences in so they are aware of each other, further encouraging them to both (1) merge together and laugh as one collective, and (2) conspire against one another. In the most effective comedy spaces, the seats are packed in tightly so that the collective merges together as one; the laughter becomes contagious. MacIntosh continues:
That jamming in of people means that the response from that audience comes as a whole, rather than separated. Today if you’re separated by an arm from the person next to you, it’s quite easy to maintain your composure when all those around you are laughing. But if you are sitting on a bench, you will probably be laughing sooner (Batalion et. al. 45).
Laughter and remaining in one’s seat signals agreement and acceptance with the audience collective; non-laughter and leaving signals disagreement, uncertainty, and non-acceptance of the audience collective. To recall Rebecca Krefting’s concept of “shared national imaginary,” or an imagined community of people, “group laughter in response to a joke affirms one’s position in the national imaginary by signaling group belonging and agreement” (Krefting 145). If a live audience is packed in tightly, then they become more aware of each other, and therefore more aware of the shared national imaginary of the comedy space. To refuse to laugh or to leave when the shared national imaginary is firmly established signals disagreement from the collective, and with it, betrayal of the collective. The collective assures that there are even more eyes on the betraying individual audience member. To return to Foucault, it is the possibility of being seen by other audience members that heightens the stakes of leaving: the audience collective, a presence ready to be mobilized, is able“to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Foucault 201). The individual, then, knowing he/she is monitored, is less likely to betray the collective, and the collective, united, is more likely to conspire against the betraying individual. The cycle feeds into itself.
In these successful comedy spaces in which the shared national imaginary is firmly established, then an audience member leaving or refusing to laugh becomes a bold choice. In these spaces, audience members are more likely to laugh at the comic’s jokes, even if the joke violates their personal moral code. Since laughter signals agreement, through laughing enough, an audience member may even begin to believe in messages behind jokes that violate their personal moral codes (for example, a feminist, laughing enough at a comic’s sexist jokes, may begin to question their own feminist beliefs). Therefore, the comedy space is purposely constructed so that both refusing to laugh and/or leaving become as difficult as possible, and so laughing and agreeing with the comic’s presentation of their own objective reality becomes as easy as possible. These spaces are often larger and more prestigious; as a comic gains access to capital, they gain access to spaces that ensure their power over an audience. In these larger theatres, where the comic is positioned, as MacIntosh wishes, at a point where they can see the entire audience but the audience, half-lit, is uncertain that they are seen – and by that, uncertain that they will be punished for “disobeying” or disrupting the performance – the Panoptic structure allows the comic to almost cruelly present their subjective experience to the audience without disobedience.
Comedy then, involves an intense exchange of power between comic and audience. In an almost sadistic tug-of-war, the comic and the audience play with giving and taking power and agency to and away from each other. The audience, buying a ticket, volunteers (an almost masochistic act, if the theatre is a quasi-prison) to give up their power. They agree to pay money to laugh (a pleasurable act), yes, but also to sit in a half-lit space with other audience members, to agree with the comic’s material, and occasionally even to subject themselves to ridicule (the potential that the comic may roast them). They are held, submissive, in the space, subjected to another person’s version of reality, which is presented as objective in the space. Comedy in this sense becomes a highly erotic and sadistic exchange of power.
This, of course, describes the live audience as the one who is “held.” The Netflix audience has a bit more agency; it is much less difficult to turn off a special than it is to leave a darkened theatre, squeezing past other annoyed audience members on the way while risking harassment by the comic. When a special becomes available on a streaming platform such as Netflix, it creates a reverse Panopticon of sorts; the Netflix spectator can see the comic, but the comic cannot see the spectator. This grants the Netflix spectator more agency than the theatre-goer, as it is easier to turn off a special than it is to exit a theatre. This agency is, of course, limited, because the special has been recorded in the past. Because the special has already been recorded, the Netflix spectator’s agency is limited; their rejection of the performance will not affect the non-live performance. The Netflix spectator has the power to watch, but has little power to discipline and punish. Thus, in refusing to laugh or “leaving” (which, in this case, we’ll define as switching off the special) the Netflix spectator may be rejecting watching the comic’s special for their own personal reasons, but their rejection of the special does not debate the legitimacy of the comic’s subjective experience. The special is still available on the streaming medium, the special still stands intact, and switching off a special in the middle does not necessarily affect the comic’s success. The spectator can, of course, leave a bad review, rant on social media, or email the streaming medium’s team – all these may both question the legitimacy of the comic’s performance in front of a public audience – but these actions, which may not even be effective, require an exertion of effort that the spectator may not want to undergo.
In addition, streaming platforms open up accessibility to ears that did not even intend to listen to the comic in the first place. A Netflix special can buzz in the background of a family living room, finding its way into the ears of children and other unintended listeners. It can be watched and rewatched by the viewer; the special’s language, body movements, and bits, forever available, can even become memorized and incorporated into everyday conversation. It plants itself in the psyches of intended or unintended listeners and sits there, waiting to be accepted, absorbed, and re-appropriated, or rejected.
What does this mean, then, for prejudices regarding gender? In comedy, gender – especially sexist approaches to gender – is a popular topic of conversation. Gender and sexism, of course, in the American cultural imaginary, are presented as unchangeable facts of human existence. In his 2015 special Live at the Comedy Store, Louis C.K. asserts: “sexism isn’t going anywhere, ’cause sexism is way deep the fuck down inside, so it’s just the way we feel about each other.” This bit, of course, has societal advantages for C.K., as it re-inscribes ideas of sexual difference, compulsory heterosexuality, and masculinist hegemony as articulated by Judith Butler:
Because there is neither an ‘essence’ that gender expresses or externalizes nor an objective ideal to which gender aspires, and because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender create the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all. Gender is, thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis; the tacit collective agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions is obscured by the credibility of those productions – and the punishments that attend not agreeing to believe in them; the construction ‘compels’ our belief in its necessity and naturalness (Butler 114).
The “tacit agreement to perform, produce, and sustain discrete and polar genders and cultural fictions” reinforces ideals of compulsory heterosexuality and innate sexual difference (which, in turn, produces the fiction that males are the more rational, strong, and ideal sex). These ideals benefit what Krefting has argued are the ideal citizens, and ideal candidates of humor productions: bodies that are white, heterosexual, male, and able-bodied. Sexist discussions of gender and sexual difference in the comedy space are perpetuated by a cycle of the same bodies dominating the space, the same people laughing the most at these “ideal” bodies in the space, and the same bodies making jokes that benefit their own positionalities as white, heterosexual, male, and able-bodied while subordinating those beneath them in the social hierarchy.
Since the most successful comedy theatre is a space of power and pleasure that enables the reinforcement of these ideals, the comedy theatre, by the transitive property, becomes an enclosed, darkened space in which gender prejudice is reinforced into the psyche. When gender prejudice is reinforced into the psyche, it has the potential to transfer itself (e.g. through conversation) from the private theatrical sphere into the public sphere through conversations with other human beings. This becomes even further enabled through the emerging presence of stand-up comedy specials as available through public streaming mediums such as Netflix, when a bit that includes gender prejudice can be replayed for as long as an audience member wishes.
Where, then, do we go from here? Though stand-up comedy has traditionally been a white, masculinized space, new faces have been and continue to change the structures of the comedy scene. I have written on Amy Schumer, a Roseanne Barr-esque unruly woman whose raunchy, personal comedy on sex and relationships has created a space for women (albeit, white, cis, and heterosexual) that combats postfeminist sensibility (Middleton, 2017; Shannon, 2017). I have written on Ali Wong, a smart Asian-American woman whose playful anti-neoliberalism invites audiences to laugh openly at the potential flaws in liberal feminism, and potentially consider a restructuring of the social system (Shannon, 2017). We have Sarah Silverman, a Jewish woman whose ironic shock comedy asks audiences to question normative assumptions about gender and race (Goehring et. al., 2013; Mizejewski, 2017). We have Margaret Cho, an Asian-American bisexual woman who continues to queer the comedy space with radical approaches to body image and sexuality (Mizejewski, 2017). Stand-up comedy may presently remain as a space of cultural hegemony, but as new faces change the architecture of the social space, a new vision – and with it, a new construction of social and cultural capital – has the potential to emerge.
Batalion, Judy, & Iain MacKintosh. “Room for Comedy.” The Laughing Stock: The LiveComedy and Its Audiences. Edited by Judy Batalion. Anderson, SC: Parlor, 2012.
Bateson, Gregory. “A theory of play and fantasy.” The Game Design Reader. A rules of play anthology (2006): 314-328.
Butler, Judith. “Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions.” The Judith Butler Reader. Ed. Sarah Salih. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004. 90-118. Print.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish : The Birth of the Prison. 2nd Vintage Books ed. ed., New York, Vintage Books, 1995.
Glick, Peter, and Susan T. Fiske. “An ambivalent alliance: Hostile and benevolent sexism as complementary justifications for gender inequality.” American Psychologist 56.2 (2001): 109.
Krefting, Rebecca. “Laughter in the Final Instance: The Cultural Economy of Humor (Or why women aren’t perceived to be as funny as men).” The Laughing Stalk : Live Comedy and Its Audiences. Ed. Judith Batalion, Anderson, South Carolina, Parlor Press, 2012.
Lowrey, Lacy, Valerie R. Renegar, and Charles E. Goehring. ““When God Gives You AIDS… Make Lemon-AIDS”: Ironic Persona and Perspective by Incongruity in Sarah Silverman’s Jesus is Magic.” Western Journal of Communication 78.1 (2014): 58-77.
Middleton, Jason. “A Rather Crude Feminism.” Feminist Media Histories 3.2 (2017): 121-140.
Mizejewski, Linda. Pretty/Funny: Women Comedians and Body Politics. University of Texas Press, 2014.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema.” Visual and other pleasures. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 1989. 14-26.
Shannon, Kelly. Power, Pleasure, & Prejudice: Gender in Mediated Stand-Up Comedy. 2017.