Academic journal article Ethnologies

Stand-Up Comedy as a Genre of Intimacy

Academic journal article Ethnologies

Stand-Up Comedy as a Genre of Intimacy

Article excerpt

En se servant de l'amplification, les monologuistes humoristiques reussissent a creer une reaction naturelle de la part du public, en employant les modes du discours quotidien, interpersonnel, celui de la conversation, evitant ainsi dans la majeure partie des cas la distanciation requise par la plupart des formes de representation culturelle. En maintenant le controle de cette conversation, ils peuvent paradoxalement l'abandonner et le reprendre quand il le faut, creant ainsi l'illusion d'un rapport d'intimite, d'echange et de reciprocite entre le public et eux-memes. Cet article pose les premiers jalons d'un cadre permettant de comprendre le monologue humoristique dans la relation qu'il entretient avec les genres folkloristiques en considerant en premier lieu l'intimite et non l'humour.

Through their use of amplification, stand-up comedians are able to engage an audience at a natural register, employing the modes of everyday, interpersonal, conversational speech, avoiding for the most part the distancing required for most forms of cultural performance. By maintaining control of this conversation, they are able paradoxically to give control away, wresting it back when required, thus creating the illusion of intimacy, exchange, and reciprocity between themselves and the audience. This article provides the beginnings of a framework for understanding stand-up comedy and its relationship to folkloric genres by placing intimacy, not humour, as the primary consideration.


To state the obvious, stand-up comedy (1) is a form of talk. It implies a context that allows for reaction, participation, and engagement on the part of those to whom the stand-up comedian is speaking. When it is mediated through broadcasting and recording, an audience present to the performer is included in that mediation. However heavily one- sided, it is nevertheless a dialogic form, performed not to but with an audience. (2)

When the stand-up speaks, the text could be seen as a collection of smaller textual units, many of which are identifiably analogous to classic folkloric genres--riddles, jokes, legends, tall tales, toasts, dozens, dites, memorates, blasons populaires, and so forth--or to forms of rhetoric and polemic (see Mintz [1985] 1998; Zolten 1993). However, the standup performance is more than a mere collection of items; it is a contiguous entity. To divorce the stand-up text from the context and texture of performance (Dundes 1964)--as stand-ups themselves do when repackaging their work in book form (DeGeneres 1995; Rock 1997) --raises the problem of de-contextualisation critiqued by folklorists concerned with holistic understandings of performance. For example, legends, like stand-up comedy, are exchanges and negotiations within small groups. Just as recent works on legend (e.g. Degh 2001; Ellis 2001) underline the importance of recording and studying legends in context, so too must any study of stand-up comedy consider not only the verbal text but also its performance context, and the intentional adaptation by the performer for subsequent mediations.

Genre Problems

The purpose--if not the function (Bascom 1954: 343)--of standup is entertainment; as verbal play, it utilises humour. Countless theorists (Bergson 1900; Freud [1905] 1976; Lonergan 1957; Oring 1992) identify the phenomenon of the humorous as the revelation of (by the performer) or a reaction to (by audiences) a physical, intellectual, social, moral, or emotional incongruity, which could just as easily elicit feelings of terror. What critics often leave unsaid is that the identification of the incongruous implies a more or less shared worldview. Much as those engaged in legend telling are negotiating an underlying truth proposition (e.g. Degh 2001; Ellis 2001), so too do the stand-up and her audience negotiate a claim of incongruity.

Simultaneously, there is a negotiation of the appropriate response to the incongruity: of the interwoven nexus of commonly held assumptions that constitutes the worldview of the group. …

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