Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
A Vulgar Art

A Vulgar Art: A New Approach to Stand-Up Comedy

Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 240
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    A Vulgar Art
    Book Description:

    InA Vulgar ArtIan Brodie uses a folkloristic approach to stand-up comedy, leveraging the discipline's central method of studying interpersonal, artistic communication and performance. Because stand-up comedy is a rather broad category, people who study it often begin by relating it to something they recognize--"literature" or "theatre"; "editorial" or "morality"--and analyze it accordingly.A Vulgar Artbegins with a more fundamental observation: someone is standing in front of a group of people, talking to them directly, and trying to make them laugh. So this book takes the moment of performance as its focus, that stand-up comedy is a collaborative act between the comedian and the audience.

    Although the form of talk on the stage resembles talk among friends and intimates in social settings, stand-up comedy remains a profession. As such, it requires performance outside of the comedian's own community to gain larger and larger audiences. How do comedians recreate that atmosphere of intimacy in a roomful of strangers? This book regards everything from microphones to clothing and LPs to twitter as strategies for bridging the spatial, temporal, and socio-cultural distances between the performer and the audience.

    eISBN: 978-1-62674-092-1
    Subjects: Sociology, Performing Arts

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-2)
  5. LET’S GO OUT: Stand-Up Comedy, “Folklore” or “Not Folklore”?
    (pp. 3-4)

    At the Perspectives on Contemporary Legend meeting in Logan, Utah, I was presenting some of these ideas, in particular noting—what I thought innocently—a similarity between what wasau courantin legendry research and what I had noticed about stand-up comedy (Brodie 2007a). After a brace of encouraging questions, Linda Dégh asked the inevitable, inimitable question, “What does this have to do with folklore? This is not folklore! This is show business!”

    Good question. I wish I could have said the following.

    I would like to imagine that what follows is not “not folklore” as it meets academic standards...

  6. WELCOME TO THE SHOW: A Vulgar Art
    (pp. 5-8)

    Stand-up comedy is a form of talk.¹ 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 nottobutwithan audience.

    The form stand-up comedy takes, therefore, is very much the same form of intimate talk that occurs in face-to-face encounters. However, the requirements of the professionalization of this intimate talk impose a distance between the...

  7. PART 1 The Opener:: From Folk Talk to Stand-Up

    • CHAPTER 1 Stand-Up Comedy and a Folkloristic Approach
      (pp. 11-42)

      “The Sickniks” was the title of an article in the July 13, 1959, issue ofTime. A polemic against the rise of a new form of comedy, it identified Mort Sahl, Jonathan Winters, and Shelley Berman as key players but reserved much of its venom for Lenny Bruce.

      What the sickniks dispense is partly social criticism liberally laced with cyanide, partly a Charles Addams kind of jolly ghoulishness, and partly a personal and highly disturbing hostility toward all the world. No one’s flesh crawled when Jack Benny carried on a running gag about a bear named Carmichael that he kept...

  8. PART 2 The Middle:: Creating Intimacy over Distance

    • [PART 2 Introduction]
      (pp. 43-44)

      This is the middle: a solid performer who maybe just needs more exposure before making the move to headlining. A few months from now he or she might be on television and you will sit up, listening for material you heard live and smiling at the recognition.

      I have been maintaining that stand-up comedy is a form of talk that on the surface is more or less indistinguishable in potency from everyday forms of vernacular discourse. Much of stand-up comedy’s appeal is precisely its contiguity with small group talk, as opposed to oratorical or theatrical modes. Stand-up comedy is certainly...

    • CHAPTER 2 Where Is the Stand-Up Comedian?: Stand-Up on Stage
      (pp. 45-63)

      We experience through our senses—taste, touch, smell, sound, sight—and to be present to a thing allows for the potential of experiencing that thing with all senses. When that thing is a person, we are approaching intersubjectivity and intimacy. Spatial and temporal proximity—being there—is our assurance of authenticity, much like courts privilege eyewitness accounts and dismiss hearsay (Auslander 1998). For performances, being there allows us to avail ourselves of all our senses for the interpretive act of understanding and judging and not having some experiences cut off from us by an intermediary. And in stand-up comedy, which...

    • CHAPTER 3 Who Is a Stand-Up Comedian?: The Social Identity
      (pp. 64-89)

      I have been arguing that the stage introduces a distance between the audience and the performer, while the microphone and, recently, video projection bridge that distance. Indeed, without amplification, speaking at a natural register in front of a crowd of any size is almost impossible, so stand-up comedy as a form cannot exist without the technology: furthermore, that technology in turn becomes symbolic of the act of stand-up comedy itself. Such is the apparatus of stand-up: the material culture and media that constitute the found comedy landscape. But it takes far more than being heard to be recognized as an...

    • CHAPTER 4 Who Is This Stand-Up Comedian?: The Performance of Self
      (pp. 90-128)

      I have been demonstrating how the stand-up comedian makes the claim to the culturally significant social identity of “stand-up comedian.” This social identity, demonstrated by vernacular theory about the stand-up comedian as a type, is largely focused on someone having a perspective and speaking from margins. The right to claim this social identity is done through a collaborative apparatus of venue, emcee, and onstage autobiographical snippets, until such point as the stand-up comedian has access to an offstage performance of biography. It is also cumulative, and as he or she becomes known for being a stand-up comedian he or she...

    • CHAPTER 5 What Is the Stand-Up Comedian?: Intimate Other
      (pp. 129-158)

      Starting from the claim of being “a” stand-up comedian, and all that implies, a comedian locates him- or herself in a specific relationship with the audience, beyond that of the complementary set of comedian and audience. For the most part, these additional social identities are also complementary sets: comedians are presented as venue- or medium-appropriate based in large part on an informed perception of an aggregate of the social identities of the audience. When that complementarity is not self-evident—as when a white comedian performs at an ostensibly African American venue or a southerner performs in the urban North—the...

  9. PART 3 The Headliner:: Distance Increases

    • [PART 3 Introduction]
      (pp. 159-160)

      This is the headliner. This is why you came, why you shelled out the ten or twenty bucks, why you got dressed up. You know it’s going to be good, because if it isn’t, why is he or she headlining? And you’ve seen the headliner before, in some form or another. But maybe he or she will just be sitting on laurels, and when it’s over you’ll think the middle was better.

      As a dialogic form, stand-up comedy requires the reaction of an audience to propel itself forward: it does not “work” without an audience. At the same time, although...

    • CHAPTER 6 Stand-Up Comedy Broadcasts
      (pp. 161-185)

      Stand-up comedy emerged in the postwar period at about the same time as television was supplanting radio as the dominant broadcast medium. The perceived intimacy of television seemed to suit stand-up very well, and a performer could be seen by millions of people at one time. The inexpensiveness of stand-up suited television producers’ budgets equally well. Several minutes of airtime could be filled without expending anything on sets, costumes, or staff writers, and while the comedian performed in front of a backdrop or curtain a new set could be arranged behind it. Wide-scale network broadcasting altered the form of stand-up...

    • CHAPTER 7 Stand-Up Comedy Recordings
      (pp. 186-216)

      We have been examining how various media—from such simple things as the elevated platform of the stage to modern contrivances like video projection—affect the stand-up comedy performance itself, discerning what each new mediation allows and proscribes, whether it be a consequence of the medium itself or of its control by owners. In this chapter, on recordings, we turn to formats where the media still have their limitations and contributions, but the audience has more or less total control over the experience of the performance. Recordings allow performances to travel beyond the confines of a live performance and a...

  10. TIP YOUR SERVERS: The Validation of Laughter
    (pp. 217-218)

    Throughout this book I have been making the argument that the form of talk that occurs on the stage at a stand-up comedy performance is coincident with the forms of talk that occur in informal, day-to-day, face-to-face communication among intimates, which is the object at the heart of folklore studies. Stand-up comedy is an intimate, interpersonal genre. However, the realities of stand-up performance—a stage introducing an explicit distinction between performer and audience, an itinerancy that brings the stand-up comedian in front of groups outside of his or her own, and the realities of broadcasting and recording, which separate in...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 219-228)
    (pp. 229-244)
    (pp. 245-250)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 251-256)