Stand-Up Comedians

Sean Springer

in Cinema and Media Studies

ISBN: 9780199791286
Published online August 2012 | | DOI:
Stand-Up Comedians

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In the 1980s, American stand-up comedy boomed. Clubs opened in every major city, cable television showcased budding stars, and “stand-up comedian” became a viable profession. Meanwhile, academic studies of stand-up didn’t experience a boom so much as a trickle. At the time, stand-ups didn’t fall within a discipline: playing “themselves” on stage, they weren’t considered theatrical actors or even sketch comedy actors, and because stand-ups performed live, they weren’t specimens for media studies. But as more stand-up comedians entered the public eye, more scholars began analyzing performances mediated by albums, concert films, and TV shows. A generation later, media studies scholars had a solid basis upon which the study of stand-ups can develop. The relevance of this bibliography, which reviews a multidisciplinary body of writings, depends on whether the media studies scholar considers the live setting in which the comedian works a medium unto itself. Perhaps the most perplexing question has been, simply, “What is stand-up comedy?” Unlike singing, dancing, or spinning plates, it might not appear to involve any unique talent. The stand-up does what almost anyone can do: make people laugh. But as anyone who’s tried it knows, a successful stand-up routine is an amazing feat; it is no small task to command the audience’s attention and make them laugh. While this art form has its predecessors—blackface performers, vaudevillian monologists, and burlesque emcees resembled the stand-up comic—scholars have been curious to learn how stand-up comedians function within the culture, specifically American culture. Although stand-up comedy is performed around the world, most scholarly work focuses on the United States. As many scholars have discovered, when stand-up became a distinct genre of performance in the 1970s, several comics became stars in the mass media, which helped blur the separation between the comic’s stage character and their “real” self. Partly for this reason, many comics have become spokespeople of a social movement (whether they like it or not): Lenny Bruce of anti-Puritanism; Richard Pryor of black liberation; George Carlin of free-speech advocacy. In their acts, Roseanne Barr, Kate Clinton, and Margaret Cho identify themselves as feminists, while Andrew Dice Clay and Sam Kinison have been vilified as representatives of homophobia and misogyny. An apolitical comedian who jokes about airplane peanuts might be seen as the upholder of superficial living. As stand-up comedy continues to grow, the culture’s comedic archetypes seem only to diversify.

Article.  10994 words. 

Subjects: Media Studies ; Film ; Radio ; Television

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