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Article Contents
·Theorizing Standup Comedy
·The Parlor, the Airplane, and the Prison
·Staging Another Stage
·Conclusion
·Endnotes
·Works Cited

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Theorizing Standup Comedy

Contemporary standup comedy has various chronotopic antecedents, for instance, in the tradition of "fools, jesters, clowns and comics, which can be traced back at least as far as the Middle Ages," to that of popular minstrel theater in nineteenth-century America, to that of the transatlantic lecture circuit supported by humorists such as Mark Twain and Artemus Ward.
[1] In the early twentieth century, standup comedy was the backbone of vaudeville, burlesque, and variety theater; and, in the post-war period, nightclubs, resorts, coffeehouses, as well as contemporary comedy clubs all emerged as venues for the stand-alone comic, the sketch ensemble, and the two-person comedy team. Those who try to account for the particular type of popularity standup comedy has enjoyed since the mid-1960s (characterized, for instance, by the emergence of the comedy club[2], and by the influence of comics in four televisional genres: the comedy/variety show, the situation comedy, the talk show, and game show) often turn to psychological and economic explanations, noting that comedy functions as an entertaining form of tension release, at an affordable cost.[3] However, a political explanation for the popularity of comedy clubs might be offered as well. The erosion of faith in a "rational" public sphere gives rise to an alternative public forum where observations on the politics not just of government but of everyday life can be aired via entertainment.

Elaborating on the standup comic as contemporary anthropologist, Stephanie Koziski credits these entertainers with making "visible to an audience tacit areas of unacknowledged human attitudes and behaviors, residing in private unofficial realms" (59).[4] Stand-up comics make political knowledge evident in everyday life amusing to ponder, and also render political aggression - expressions of desire for power - both palpable and palatable. There is always the risk, of course, that an audience will refuse to engage the comic's aggression disguised as humor. The most notable manifestation of this refusal is dead silence - an indication that the audience has not been moved. Comics typically respond to such lack of engagement by making a joke of the audience's refusal to laugh (basically, a pity joke where the comic cajoles the audience into laughing at their lack of laughter). However, the point to be registered, here, is not that the affectual public sphere ceases to exist if the comedien(ne) fails to engage the audience - they don't laugh, or laugh at parts not intended to be funny - but that an alternative forum of collective political knowledge emerges through this medium of pathos and sensation (the body shaking with laughter) that challenges classical notions of propriety and dignity, as well as (modern notions of) rationality as preconditions for a proper (communicative) public sphere. This channeling of the public sphere through entertainment suggests a notion of public dialogue being more forceful (effectual) when it is affectual as well. In other words, it's not that the notion of a rational public sphere ceases to exist, but that the tenability of this rational public sphere - resting on a notion of abstract citizenship, or requiring abstraction as precondition of voice - has been called into question.[5] Moreover, just as the "rational" public sphere does not cease to exist because there are those who cannot participate in it (e.g., the mentally infirm), the affectual public sphere, similarly, does not evaporate because there are those who refuse to be shaken. However, more and more, the rational public sphere is revealed as a phantasm; standup comedy as both commentator on and alternative to that rational public sphere underscores the phantasmatic qualities of the rational public sphere itself.

In his theory of standup comedy, John Limon casts a more formalist light on how this popular entertainment functions: "What is stood up in stand-up comedy is abjection. Stand-up makes vertical (or ventral) what should be horizontal (or dorsal)" (4). His thesis turns on a double meaning of abjection, as well as a double meaning of "standup":

By abjection . . . I mean [first] . . . what everybody means: abasement, groveling prostration. Second, I mean by it what Julia Kristeva means: a psychic worrying of those aspects of oneself that one cannot be rid of, that seem, but are not quite, alienable for example, blood, urine, feces, nails, and the corpse. The 'abject,' in Kristeva's term of art, indicates what cannot be subject or object to you. . . .

To 'stand-up' abjection is simultaneously to erect it and miss one's date with it: comedy is a way of avowing and disavowing abjection, as fetishism is a way of avowing and disavowing castration. Fetishism is a way of standing up the inevitability of loss; stand-up is a way of standing up the inevitability of return. (4-5)

To clarify the geometry that Limon offers, standup comedy both makes erect what is abased and, by doing so, staves off a kind of boundary- or category- crisis between subject and object, embodied in the liminal category of the "abject" that threatens always to return, to undo the alienation one intends for it. The erection of the abased is, in a sense, a spatial tactic of verticality that allows one (through its geometric distractions) to miss one's (temporal) date with blood, urine, feces, nails, and the corpse, precisely the elements much of standup performance employs to comic effect. I would note that vertical axis is often overlooked in spatial analysis. This vertical movement is, in fact, not only how standup operates but a principal of architecture that Cho maps as the bourgeois home.


S&F Online - Issue 2.1, Public Sentiments - Ann Cvetkovich and Ann Pellegrini, Guest Editors - ©2003.