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Cinema and Media Studies Stand-Up Comedians
by
Sean Springer

Introduction

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.

Stand-Up Comedy as a Genre

Although no one knows exactly where the term “stand-up comedian” comes from, that the term has been used widely since the late 1960s to describe a particular type of performer does suggest that stand-up comedy is a genre. Marc 1997 describes the stand-up comedian as a “heroic” archetype of American mass culture, whereas Auslander 1992 believes Marc’s sanguine perspective ignores stand-up’s complicity with consumerist values. While Auslander looks at the 1980s and 1990s, Daube 2010 examines the racial politics of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, leading Daube to claim that Auslander overlooks the centrality of racial and ethnic humor to stand-up comedy. Limon 2000 theorizes stand-up as a genre that has developed historically over time, with America becoming increasingly “comedified” from the 1960s to the new millennium. Limon argues that stand-up comedians represent America’s ability to put its abjection—in terms of race, sexuality, and gender—on display. Wuster 2006 argues that Steve Martin’s mockery of stand-up comedy represents a limit of stand-up comedy as an art form. Both Koziski 1984 and Mintz 1985 write from a functionalist perspective, arguing that the stand-up serves an important role as the mediator of cultural knowledge. Brodie 2008 and Greenbaum 1999 base their definition of stand-up comedy on the observed relationship between performer and audience. While Brodie sees stand-ups concealing the reality that their work is performative, Greenbaum sees them constructing arguments within a classical rhetorical framework.

  • Auslander, Philip. “‘Comedy about the Failure of Comedy’: Stand-Up Comedy and Postmodernism.” In Critical Theory and Performance. Edited by Janelle G. Reinelt and Joseph R. Roach, 196–207. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992.

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    Describes stand-up comedy of the 1980s and early 1990s as a postmodern form. Sees it as a way for baby boomers to live vicariously through the performance of nonconformism without having to challenge their conservative values. In this sense, stand-up comedy is about “the failure of comedy” to be political.

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  • Brodie, Ian. “Stand-Up Comedy as a Genre of Intimacy.” Ethnologies 30.2 (2008): 153–180.

    DOI: 10.7202/019950arSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that stand-up comedy is a performative genre, which depends not only on the performance but also on the audience’s response. As such, stand-up comedy creates the illusion of intimacy between comedian and audience.

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  • Daube, Matthew. “Laughter in Revolt: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity in the Construction of Stand-Up Comedy.” PhD diss., Stanford University, 2010.

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    Situates stand-up comedy within a historical context, arguing that Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, Bill Cosby, and Richard Pryor helped shape stand-up as a genre. All four comics, Daube argues, reinforced the key convention that the comic must explore how race and ethnicity affect the performance of personhood.

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  • Greenbaum, Andrea. “Stand-Up Comedy as Rhetorical Argument: An Investigation of Comic Culture.” Humor 12.1 (1999): 33–46.

    DOI: 10.1515/humr.1999.12.1.33Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Justifies the description of stand-up as a rhetorical genre by observing that the most successful comedians are those who persuade the audience to adopt an ideological position.

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  • Koziski, Stephanie. “The Standup Comedian as Anthropologist: Intentional Culture Critic.” Journal of Popular Culture 18.2 (Fall 1984): 57–76.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.0022-3840.1984.1802_57.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Ennobles the American stand-up by examining the routines of several popular comics and showing how each performer provides insight into contemporary culture. Sees stand-ups functioning as communicators of cultural knowledge.

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  • Limon, John. Stand-Up Comedy in Theory, or Abjection in America. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

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    Advanced scholarly inquiry into stand-up comedy as an art form, with each chapter focusing on a comic performance. Takes a psychoanalytic approach, arguing that American comedians put abjection (in Kristeva’s sense of the word) on display.

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  • Marc, David. Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture. 2d ed. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1997.

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    Focuses largely on TV sitcoms, but does sketch out a definition of American stand-up comedians as an outgrowth of mass culture, whereby the stand-up blurs the distinction between actor and mass-produced personality. Presents Bob Hope and Lenny Bruce as two poles on the political spectrum of American comedy, with TV sitcoms lying somewhere in the middle. See especially pp. 1–40.

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  • Mintz, Lawrence E. “Standup Comedy as Social and Cultural Mediation.” American Quarterly 37.1 (Spring 1985): 71–80.

    DOI: 10.2307/2712763Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Sees little point in describing stand-up comedy as a historically specific phenomenon. Instead characterizes stand-up as a universal comic form, in which the comedian comes off as both negative exemplar and cultural spokesperson.

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  • Wuster, Tracy. “Comedy Jokes: Steve Martin and the Limits of Stand-Up Comedy.” Studies in American Humor, n.s., 3.14 (2006): 23–45.

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    Claims that Martin’s act presented stand-up as a philosophy of meaninglessness. While Wuster focuses mostly on Martin, he uses Richard Pryor as a contrasting figure, arguing that Martin and Pryor are “opposite possibilities of stand-up comedy.” While Pryor challenged taboos, Martin mocked the banality of show business.

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Humor Theory

Although humor theory may not be the most celebrated area of inquiry, several influential thinkers have at least attempted to explain how humor and laughter work. Critchley 2002 reviews most of them, including Bergson and Freud (see Bergson 1956 and Freud 1989). The former argues that laughter’s social role is to criticize any behavior running contrary to humanity’s nature. The latter claims that various forms of humor provide psychological relief. Douglas 1968 finds Freud’s theory more appealing and incorporates it into the author’s account of how societal members perceive jokes. Bakhtin 1984 praises laughter as a group activity that suspends official culture, whereas Nietzsche 1974 cryptically celebrates the role of a humorous attitude in philosophical inquiry. The fact that each theory has its limitations is best explained by Bataille 1986, which states, “That which is laughable may simply be the unknowable” (p. 102).

  • Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Translated by Hélène Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.

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    English translation of Tvorchestvo Fransua Rable i narodnaia kul’tura srednevekov’iai Renessansa, first published in 1965. Analysis of Francois Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel introduces Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque, a collective laughter that inverts social hierarchies. An important work given his descriptions of laughter in the Middle Ages and of grotesque realism, which uses degrading images of the body both to satirize the powerful and to celebrate the body as a site of renewal.

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  • Bataille, Georges. “Un-Knowing: Laughter and Tears.” Translated by Annette Michelson. October 36 (Spring 1986): 89–102.

    DOI: 10.2307/778556Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    English translation of “Non-savoir, rire et larmes,” first published in 1976. According to Bataille, if only Bergson had realized that the laughable is “the unknowable,” he may have understood that laughter is not a mystery with a solution. Laughter is much like tears: in both cases, the individual faces the unknowable, the difference being that tears flow from a loss of dominance, whereas laughter erupts from a dominant position.

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  • Bergson, Henri. “Laughter.” In Comedy. Edited by Wylie Sypher , 59–190. Translated by Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956.

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    English translation of Le rire: Essai sur la signification du comique, first published in 1899. Influential essay on both laughter and comedy. Describes the comic as “something mechanical encrusted upon the living,” (p. 84), with laughter serving as a social corrective toward the living being in question.

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  • Critchley, Simon. On Humour. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.

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    Gives a thorough summary of the history of humor theory while also praising humor’s liberatory qualities. Believes humor can help us “to become philosophical spectators upon our lives” (p. 18).

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  • Douglas, Mary. “The Social Control of Cognition: Some Factors in Joke Perception.” Man 3.3 (1968): 361–376.

    DOI: 10.2307/2798875Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Taking an anthropological point of view, describes jokes as the symbolic destruction of hierarchy and order. Considers the role of the joker as someone who “lightens for everyone the oppressiveness of social reality” (p. 372).

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  • Freud, Sigmund. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. Translated and edited by James Strachey. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.

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    English translation of Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewußten, first published in 1905. Breaks jokes down into three categories: tendentious (or hostile) jokes; the comic, which degrades by way of caricature; and humor. Freud ultimately concludes that each comedic form derives from an economy of expenditure: jokes overcome inhibitions; the comic overcomes cathexis; humor overcomes trauma.

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  • Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1974.

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    English translation of the second edition of Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (“la gaya scienza”): Neue Ausgabe mit einem Anhange; Lieder des Prinzen Vogelfrei, first published in 1887. Consists of a preface, a prelude, and 342 seemingly disconnected sections, all presented as a challenge to humorless, passionless approaches to scholarship. Valuable at the very least in how it exemplifies the role humor and poetry play in philosophical practice.

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Historical Development

For the past two hundred years of American popular entertainment, solo comedic performances have come in a wide variety of forms. Only until the genre formation of stand-up in the 1970s, however, did the comic monologue become a comedy show’s main, if not only, mode of expression. In the minstrel show’s second act, a white actor in blackface gave the “stump speech,” a monologue intended to parody African Americans. Vaudeville and the variety theater featured a “variety” of acts, including a headliner, who was often a comedian or a comedy team. Other popular forms of entertainment, such as the freak show, while not billed as comedy, generated the kind of shock and surprise regularly found at a stand-up comedy show.

Overviews

Gilbert 2004, Olson 1988, and Tafoya 2009 locate stand-up comedy within the history of American popular entertainment. They address key questions: where stand-up comes from, how it took shape, and what forms it draws on. Double 2005 makes similar observations while also describing the British contributions to the development of stand-up comedy. Stebbins 1990 details the history of stand-up in both America and Canada.

  • Double, Oliver. Getting the Joke: The Inner Workings of Stand-Up Comedy. London: Methuen, 2005.

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    Argues persuasively that stand-up comedy has its roots in both American vaudeville and the British music hall. See especially pp. 17–58.

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  • Gilbert, Joanne R. Performing Marginality: Humor, Gender, and Cultural Critique. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004.

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    A thorough, academic analysis of American stand-up comedy, which Gilbert characterizes as a male-dominated form of cultural critique. Explains how the historic and ideological dimensions of stand-up marginalize female comics. See especially pp. xi–71.

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  • Olson, Stephanie Koziski. “Standup Comedy.” In Humor in America: A Research Guide to Genres and Topics. Edited by Lawrence E. Mintz, 109–136. New York: Greenwood, 1988.

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    Notes similarities between stand-up and several theatrical archetypes and historical figures, including the interlocutor from Greek stage plays, fools from royal courts, and clowns in indigenous societies.

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  • Stebbins, Robert. The Laugh-Makers: Stand-Up Comedy as Art, Business, and Life-Style. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990.

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    Charts stand-up’s history as a movement from Mark Twain, to vaudeville, to the nightclub, to the first comedy room in 1963, to the comedian’s professionalization in the late 1970s and 1980s. Also examines stand-up comedy as an occupation in Canada, using interviews with professional comics to shed light on the economic and social realities.

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  • Tafoya, Eddie. The Legacy of the Wisecrack: Stand-Up Comedy as the Great American Literary Form. Boca Raton, FL: BrownWalker, 2009.

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    Traces the history of stand-up comedy from court jesters to Richard Pryor, while making the case that it is an authentically American literary form. Includes a useful stand-up comedy timeline, as well as a glossary of terms.

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Blackface and the Minstrel Show

Although it’s now widely condemned as a racist spectacle, blackface was a hugely popular mode of performance for more than a century. A history of the minstrel show, Toll 1974, shows how blackface served a racist agenda, whereas Lott 1993, Lhamon 1998, and Strausbaugh 2006 argue that the intentions and effects of blackface performance were more mixed. Cockrell 1997 also challenges Toll’s antiracist perspective in his account of the careers of George Washington Dixon and Thomas Dartmouth Rice. Chude-Sokei 2006 and Forbes 2004 discuss the important case of Bert Williams, a legendary African American comedian who performed in blackface while simultaneously transcending it.

  • Chude-Sokei, Louis. The Last “Darky”: Bert Williams, Black-on-Black Minstrelsy, and the African Diaspora. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.

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    Theoretical study of Williams’s black-on-black minstrelsy, in which Chude-Sokei argues that the West Indian performer masqueraded on stage as an African American so as to subvert the equation of racial makeup with cultural background. Makes the persuasive case that Williams’s achievements far outstrip his legacy.

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  • Cockrell, Dale. Demons of Disorder: Early Blackface Minstrels and Their World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

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    Focuses on the late 1820s to the early 1840s, before the formalization of the minstrel show. Close analyses of George Washington Dixon’s Zip Coon and Thomas Dartmouth Rice’s Jim Crow characters show that each was more subversive than many historians give them credit for. Gives a useful contrast to the Virginia Minstrels who harmonized, both musically and socially, the minstrel show.

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  • Forbes, Camille F. “Dancing with ‘Racial Feet’: Bert Williams and the Performance of Blackness.” Theatre Journal 56.4 (December 2004): 603–625.

    DOI: 10.1353/tj.2004.0164Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Close analysis of Williams’s work in minstrelsy, black musical theater, vaudeville, and Broadway demonstrates that Williams used several strategies, both onstage and off, to satisfy a range of audiences but without embodying a cruel stereotype.

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  • Lhamon, W. T., Jr. Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

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    Complicating the standard view of blackface as a racist source of pleasure for whites, Lhamon shows how early blackface performers empathized with black slaves and helped legitimize slave rebellions. The author’s juxtaposition of blackface with subsequent entertainment forms illustrates its enduring legacy.

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  • Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

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    Theorizes the white working-class male’s ambivalent attitude toward the minstrel show, arguing that the show addressed not only racial politics but gender and class politics as well.

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  • Strausbaugh, John. Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult and Imitation in American Popular Culture. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 2006.

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    Forceful argument against political correctness, arguing that despite blackface’s taboo status, white and black Americans have long been, and remain, fascinated with it. Demonstrates the integral role such phenomena as Amos ‘n’ Andy, blaxploitation films, and rap music have played in American culture.

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  • Toll, Robert C. Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

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    Takes a primarily antiracist stance, showing how the minstrel show created a “common man’s culture” (p. 3) and functioned for white Americans as a respite from their racial anxieties.

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The Freak Show

Although stand-up comedians do not usually describe themselves as freaks, many generate laughs by highlighting their purported freakishness. The portrayal in Bogdan 1988 of the freak show performer as a proud entertainer who happily exaggerated his or her “abnormality” is comparable to the self-deprecating stand-up. Fiedler 1978 examines the freak from a personal point of view, arguing that the demise of the freak show hampers his ability to understand himself. Criticizing Fiedler’s efforts to exploit the freak’s marginalized position for his own personal gain, Adams 2001 focuses instead on how certain individuals engage in politics by occupying the freak’s social position. Adams and Fiedler both contribute essays in Garland Thomson 1996, which surveys the freak show’s wide range of manifestations.

  • Adams, Rachel. Sideshow U.S.A.: Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

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    Argues that while the freak show is an artifact of popular culture, the socially constructed phenomenon of the freak is nevertheless central to American culture. An illuminating study based on analyses of several works, including Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Tod Browning’s Freaks, and Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love.

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  • Bogdan, Robert. Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

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    Describes the rise and fall in the freak show’s popularity, from 1840 to 1940, portraying freaks as willing participants who embellished their freakishness. Distinguishes between the exotic freak, who typically derived from foreign lands, and the aggrandized freak, who displayed exaggerated traits.

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  • Fiedler, Leslie. Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978.

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    In this survey of freaks’ manifestations in Western culture, Fiedler explains the importance of freaks as a fantasy upon which we project our “secret selves.”

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  • Garland Thomson, Rosemarie, ed. Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. New York: New York University Press, 1996.

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    Dealing mostly with American freak shows, this collection of essays adds up to an important cultural history. The authors describe, in varying ways, how the meaning of freak shows changed over time. The final section is of special importance, demonstrating how this amusement endures in other entertainment forms.

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Mark Twain

Stand-ups blur the boundary between fiction and reality. They play themselves, leaving audiences wondering whether their characters are “real.” Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens had a comparable relationship with audiences: although he sought to appear “authentic,” part of Twain’s charm lay in his playful presentation of self. Budd 1983 characterizes Twain as a unique lecturer whose multiple personae put his authenticity in doubt. Lee 2006 makes Twain’s influence on stand-up comedians explicit, arguing that Twain acted like a stand-up by keeping audiences wondering who he really was.

  • Budd, Louis J. Our Mark Twain: The Making of His Public Personality. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.

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    Represents Twain as the architect of not just one but multiple public personae that, taken together, have led the public to view Twain as a complex, multisided icon.

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  • Lee, Judith Yaross. “Mark Twain as a Stand-Up Comedian.” Mark Twain Annual 4.1 (September 2006): 3–23.

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    Describes Twain’s work on the lecture circuit as a precursor to stand-up comedy insofar as Twain showed comics how to make their onstage selves seem authentic yet unstable. Notes the importance this form of branding has to comedians working in an information economy.

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Vaudeville, Burlesque, and the Borscht Belt

The distinction between vaudevillian monologists and stand-up comedians is a loose one, given that so many vaudevillians—for example, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, and George Burns—have been retroactively called stand-ups. Surveys of vaudeville’s leading comedians, as found in Cullen 2007, Smith 1976, and Trav S. D. 2005, give a useful overview of the stand-up comedian’s closest ancestor. Jenkins 1992 describes how the aesthetic sensibilities comedians gleaned from vaudeville impacted Hollywood’s sound comedies of the 1930s, while Havig 1990 examines vaudeville’s impact on radio comedy. Most histories of burlesque have focused on its erotic spectacles, although Minksy and Machlin 1986 does offer some insight into burlesque comics of the early 20th century. Brown 2002 delivers a detailed history of the Borscht Belt, including a chapter on its comedians or “toomlers.” Allen 1956 writes his assessment of his generation’s leading comedians shortly before the onset of the so-called sick comics.

  • Allen, Steve. The Funny Men. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956.

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    A collection of profiles of the most popular comedians of his era. Allen’s book is also an important history of American comedy. For Allen, the era’s greatest stand-up comedian was Bob Hope.

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  • Brown, Phil, ed. In the Catskills: A Century of the Jewish Experience in “The Mountains.” New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

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    A collection of writings on the Borscht Belt. From the 1930s to the 1950s, this expanse of resorts showcased future superstars such as Jerry Lewis and Lenny Bruce.

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  • Cullen, Frank, Florence Hackman, and Donald McNeilly. Vaudeville, Old and New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America. 2 vols. New York: Routledge, 2007.

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    Encyclopedia profiling popular performers and defining key terms. Includes a useful taxonomy, which distinguishes between the many varieties of vaudeville comedians: comedy teams, monologists, sketch actors, stand-up comics, storytellers, clowns, comic musicians, dialect comedians, and impressionists.

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  • Havig, Alan. Fred Allen’s Radio Comedy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.

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    An assessment of Fred Allen’s comedy, or “verbal slapstick,” which reached its zenith with radio in the 1930s and 1940s. Offers insight into how the transition between vaudeville and radio impacted performers.

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  • Jenkins, Henry. What Made Pistachio Nuts? Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

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    Exploration of what Jenkins calls Hollywood’s “anarchistic comedies” of the 1930s. These spectacles were based on the antics of comedians who honed their skills in vaudeville and on Broadway.

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  • Minsky, Morton, and Milt Machlin. Minsky’s Burlesque. New York: Arbor House, 1986.

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    Entertaining first-person account of the burlesque era in New York, focusing on the theaters owned and operated by the author and his three brothers. Includes transcribed comic routines of such Minsky comics as Phil Silvers and Abbott and Costello. Shares illuminating details into the era’s moral attitudes.

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  • Smith, Bill. The Vaudevillians. New York: Macmillan, 1976.

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    Thirty profiles of famous acts, including Milton Berle, George Jessel, and Jean Carroll. Smith focuses mostly on comedians. Includes a brief history of vaudeville.

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  • Trav S. D. No Applause—Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous. New York: Faber & Faber, 2005.

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    Describes the influence vaudevillian and monologist Frank Fay (the “great Faysie”) had on such comedians as Bob Hope, Milton Berle, and Don Rickles. Goes on to claim that black comics and women comics in vaudeville were not permitted to display the kind of “aloof arrogance” that Fay popularized. See especially pp. 182–190.

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Pioneering Comedians of the 1950s and Early 1960s

In 1959, Time magazine labeled a new wave of comedians the sickniks. Among them were Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory, Bob Newhart, and Jonathan Winters, all of whom represented a more aggressive style of humor than previously seen and heard on American television and radio. They were solo performers (with the exception of comedy team Mike Nichols and Elaine May), but as Nachman 2003 points out, they were both diverse in form and representative of a youthful, rebellious movement. Kercher 2006 characterizes their comedy as pointed satire. Hendra 1987 begins the author’s history with the so-called sick comics, working its way up to sick humor’s depoliticization on Saturday Night Live.

  • Hendra, Tony. Going Too Far. New York: Doubleday, 1987.

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    Explores the development of “boomer humor,” an intellectual brand of comedy stretching from the mid-1950s to the early 1980s. Hendra, a former National Lampoon editor, tracks it development from Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce and the “Second City” improv troupe, to The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and National Lampoon magazine, to Saturday Night Live and Animal House. See especially pp. 1–174.

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  • Kercher, Stephen E. Revel with a Cause: Liberal Satire in Postwar America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

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    Shows that liberal satire in postwar America derived from several sources, including cartoons, magazines, stand-up comedy, sketch comedy, radio, film, and television. Demonstrates that liberal satirists were well represented within the mass media.

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  • Nachman, Gerald. Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s. New York: Pantheon, 2003.

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    A persuasive counterargument to the popular claim that the 1950s and early 1960s were devoid of dissent. Refers to more than a dozen comedians, including Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Shelley Berman, Woody Allen, and Joan Rivers, and explains how in their different ways they went from performing in small clubs to finding fame nationwide.

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Genre Formation

While Berger 2000 describes the history of stand-up stardom over the course of the 20th century, Borns 1987, Stone 1997, Knoedelseder 2009, and Zoglin 2008 each focus on a specific aspect of stand-up comedy’s genre formation. Knoedelseder and Zoglin explain how stand-up became a culture of its own in the 1970s. Borns discusses the legacy of the 1970s, although she focuses more on how stand-up became a national institution in the 1980s. Stone reflects upon some of the talents who, in the 1990s, challenged stand-up’s genre conventions.

  • Berger, Phil. The Last Laugh: The World of Stand-Up Comics. Rev. ed. New York: Cooper Square, 2000.

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    Readable and entertaining history of comic stars, from Henny Youngman to Lenny Bruce to Eddie Murphy. Describes cable TV’s impact on the rise of comedy clubs. Includes excerpts from routines.

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  • Borns, Betsy. Comic Lives: Inside the World of American Stand-Up Comedy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.

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    Although presented as a snapshot of American stand-up comedy in the 1980s, Borns’s narrative has since aged and now serves as an important survey of stand-up comedy’s boom period. Based on dozens of interviews with top comics and insiders of the era.

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  • Knoedelseder, William. I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-Up Comedy’s Golden Era. New York: PublicAffairs, 2009.

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    An entertaining, story-driven account of stand-up comedy’s formation in the 1970s, focusing on how the L.A. Comedy Store produced some of America’s most successful stand-ups.

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  • Stone, Laurie. Laughing in the Dark: A Decade of Subversive Comedy. Hopewell, NJ: Ecco, 1997.

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    A collection of articles from Stone’s column, Laughing in the Dark, which the Village Voice began publishing in 1987. Although the author characterizes the book as her personal reflections on stand-up comedy, the book’s organization—sections on different comedic styles—along with the introductions to each chapter give the columns a useful historical context.

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  • Zoglin, Richard. Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-Up in the 1970s Changed America. New York: Bloomsbury, 2008.

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    Charts the development of stand-up comedy as a movement emerging out of Lenny Bruce’s rebellious pose. Looks at the emergence of different comedic archetypes in the 1970s.

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Founding Figures

As stand-up comedy was coming of age in the 1970s, the reputation of certain practitioners helped romanticize the comedian as an iconoclast. Three comedians in particular—Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor—gave stand-up a socially meaningful public image and helped inspire legions of future comics. Unlike the family-friendly monologist from vaudeville, Bruce, Carlin, and Pryor used their humor both to entertain and to advance a social cause. For example, Bruce attacked anti-Semitism, Carlin opposed the Vietnam War, and Pryor exposed systematic racism—all doing so through a personal and honest stage persona, which redeemed stand-up comedy as something more than a pop-culture commodity. Their career transformations—Bruce from burlesque emcee to fearless social critic, Carlin from purveyor of media parodies to voice of the hippie generation, Pryor from Bill Cosby clone to antiracist satirist—further suggested that the comic could be an artist.

Lenny Bruce

When Bruce passed away in 1966 from a morphine overdose, many observers—including a lawyer who helped prosecute him on obscenity charges—claimed that by destroying his career, Bruce’s legal opponents had effectively killed him. Bruce’s autobiography (Bruce 1965) includes a lengthy defense of his right to free speech, while Collins and Skover 2002 closely analyzes the legal arguments for and against Bruce, and concludes that the justice system did carry out a witch hunt. The belief that Bruce died for the simple act of uttering jokes laced with so-called filthy words served to canonize Bruce as a comedic martyr. Davies 1989 argues that Bruce used references to his Jewish heritage in order to distance himself from mainstream American culture, whereas Goldman 1974 focuses on the uglier, drug-addicted side of Bruce. Azlant 2006 analyzes Bruce’s performances—many of which are transcribed in Bruce 1967—implying that what set him apart and made him an influential performer were his free-flowing performances, which made him seem less like a character and more like the real, off-stage Lenny Bruce.

  • Azlant, Edward. “Lenny Bruce Again: ‘Gestapo? You Asshole, I’m the Mailman!’” Studies in American Humor, n.s., 3.15 (2006): 75–99.

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    Argues that Lenny’s legacy as a free speech martyr obscures his life and art. Analyses of Bruce’s recorded performances highlight his improvisational voice, wordplay, fusion of idioms, sophisticated parodies, and complex views on morality.

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  • Bruce, Lenny. How to Talk Dirty and Influence People: An Autobiography. Chicago: Playboy, 1965.

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    Originally serialized in Playboy, Bruce’s autobiography is a fierce defense of his moral outlook and his battles against the censors. Mixes stories about his personal life with tales from the road.

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  • Bruce, Lenny. The Essential Lenny Bruce. Compiled and edited by John Cohen. New York: Ballantine, 1967.

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    Transcriptions of Bruce’s routines. Includes such bits as “Religions, Inc.” and “Typical White Person’s Idea of How to Relax Your Colored Friends at Parties.”

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  • Collins, Ronald K. L., and David M. Skover. The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks MediaFusion, 2002.

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    Focuses primarily on Bruce’s arrests and battles against obscenity charges. Gives insight into the court proceedings and their impact on Bruce.

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  • Davies, Ioan. “Lenny Bruce: Hyperrealism and the Death of Jewish Tragic Humor.” Social Text 22 (Spring 1989): 92–114.

    DOI: 10.2307/466522Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Using Baudrillard’s theory of hyperreality, Davies theorizes that Bruce’s performances were an attempt to find a reality outside the hypocritical world of the 1950s and 1960s.

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  • Goldman, Albert. Ladies and Gentleman: Lenny Bruce!! New York: Random House, 1974.

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    Although Goldman dwells excessively on Bruce’s perceived flaws, this biography draws on an impressive array of primary-source materials.

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George Carlin

Picking up where Bruce left off, in 1968 Carlin ditched a successful, mainstream comedy act and went on to become comedy’s countercultural hero. As seen in the joke book Carlin 1997 and explained in both Carlin’s “sortabiography” (Carlin and Hendra 2009) and the biography Sullivan 2010, no cow was sacred. Carlin skewered dogmatic beliefs concerning such topics as the war on drugs, abortion, class inequality, and American exceptionalism—and did so without the legal woes that dogged Bruce. Corcos 2007–2008 argues that, in his infamous “Seven Dirty Words” sketch, Carlin came off as a brilliant constitutional law scholar, while Altschuler and Burns 2009 portrays Carlin as a libertarian political philosopher. Ultimately, Carlin made stand-up seem like a noble end in itself. Over the course of his fifty-year career in show business, he was first and foremost a stand-up comedian.

  • Altschuler, Glenn C., and Patrick M. Burns. “Snarlin’ Carlin: The Odyssey of a Libertarian.” Studies in American Humor, n.s., 3.20 (2009): 42–57.

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    The authors summarize Carlin’s career, explaining how his views on language, politics, and religion reflect Carlin’s commitment to libertarianism.

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  • Carlin, George. Brain Droppings. New York: Hyperion, 1997.

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    A good representation of Carlin’s irritations. Loaded with such witticisms as “What clinic did Betty Ford go to?” Features his views on stupid expressions, pretentious speakers, and why reincarnation is mathematically improbable.

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  • Carlin, George, with Tony Hendra. Last Words: A Memoir. New York: Free Press, 2009.

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    Carlin covers his childhood in a Catholic, single-mother household, as well as court-martials in the air force, early days as part of a comedy team, the impact Lenny Bruce had on his career, and many other transformational moments. This posthumous publication includes Carlin’s personal take on the art of stand-up comedy.

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  • Corcos, Christina A. “George Carlin, Constitutional Law Scholar.” Stetson Law Review 37 (2007–2008): 899–940.

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    Useful analysis of Carlin’s famous “Seven Dirty Words” routine and the subsequent legal decisions. Corcos demonstrates that Carlin had a significant impact on media law. Goes on to claim that Carlin offered a sophisticated legal argument that the Federal Communications Commission should take into account when reviewing its indecency policy.

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  • Sullivan, James. Seven Dirty Words: The Life and Crimes of George Carlin. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2010.

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    Well-researched celebration of Carlin details the highs and lows over the course of his career. Includes an interesting assessment of Carlin’s standing within show business and the influence he had on future generations of comics.

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Richard Pryor

Frequently hailed by journalists and fellow comedians as the greatest stand-up of all time, Richard Pryor started out as what he describes as a “colorless” comedian in the vein of Bill Cosby (see Pryor and Gold 1995). Haskins 1984 notes that the reinvention of his act in the late 1960s saw Pryor presenting himself as a black man traumatized by the social realities of race. Felton 1974, a Rolling Stone profile, catches up with the comic following his transformation, while Carpio 2008 gives Pryor’s legacy a useful context by comparing it to Dave Chappelle’s. The contributors to McCluskey 2008 praise Pryor for basing much of his comedy upon the pain brought on by racism and doing so while reaching out to a racially mixed mass audience. Although Pryor critiqued racism, Cooper 2007 suggests that Pryor’s critique did not reach his entire audience. Pryor and Crimmins 2006 describes Rain Pryor’s emotionally traumatic relationship with her father.

  • Carpio, Glenda R. “The Conjurer Recoils: Slavery in Richard Pryor’s Performances and Chappelle’s Show.” In Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery. By Glenda R. Carpio, 72–117. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

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    Compares Pryor’s comedy albums to Chappelle’s Show, noting that Dave Chappelle, more so than contemporaries Chris Rock and Eddie Murphy, has continued Pryor’s quest to address the legacy of slavery.

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  • Cooper, Evan. “Is It Something He Said: The Mass Consumption of Richard Pryor’s Culturally Intimate Humor.” Communication Review 10.3 (July 2007): 223–247.

    DOI: 10.1080/10714420701528065Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Reports on a study in which a group of respondents fill out a questionnaire after listening to a Richard Pryor stand-up album. Cooper concludes that black and white respondents were likely to interpret Pryor’s representation of African Americans through a hegemonic lens.

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  • Felton, David. “Jive Times: Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin and the Theater of the Routine.” Rolling Stone, 10 October 1974, 38–46, 69–72.

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    Profile based on a candid interview as well as a close analysis of Pryor’s routines. Includes excerpts from I Can’t Believe This Is Happening to Me, a screenplay authored by Pryor.

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  • Haskins, James. Richard Pryor: A Man and His Madness; A Biography. New York: Beaufort, 1984.

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    Sympathetic biography explains the comedian’s destructive behavior as a partial consequence of racism and childhood abuse. Behind-the-scenes look at Pryor’s career accounts for his struggle to cross over into film and television.

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  • McCluskey, Audrey Thomas, ed. Richard Pryor: The Life and Legacy of a “Crazy” Black Man. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.

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    Essays celebrate various aspects of Pryor’s career: as a champion of black liberation, a social critic, a folklorist of African American culture, a philosopher, a foul-mouthed poet, and a groundbreaking performer. Includes film reviews and biographical essays.

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  • Pryor, Rain, with Cathy Crimmins. Jokes My Father Never Taught Me: Life, Love, and Loss with Richard Pryor. New York: Regan, 2006.

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    A memoir by Pryor’s daughter, Rain. Shares painful moments in her life, including times when Pryor physically and emotionally abused her and her witnessing of her father’s gradual deterioration from multiple sclerosis.

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  • Pryor, Richard, with Todd Gold. Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences. New York: Pantheon, 1995.

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    Pryor gives a candid portrait of a traumatized life: growing up in his grandmother’s brothels in Peoria, Illinois; moving to New York City to develop his comedy act; reinventing his act in Berkeley, California; getting married and divorced several times; struggling with drug addiction; setting himself on fire; and coping with multiple sclerosis.

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Jewish Americans

An oft-cited Time magazine article from 1978 claimed that “Although Jews constitute only 3% of the U.S. population, 80% of the nation’s professional comedians are Jewish” (“Analyzing Jewish Comics,” Time, 2 October 1978, 76). As such, the author of Finkelstein 2010 appears to have had little difficulty finding enough candidates to fill a book on Jewish comedy stars. Epstein 2001 cites several factors—among them the search for truth in Jewish tradition, the verbal nature of Jewish culture, and the marginal social position of Jews—that might explain the Jewish dominance of American comedy. Berger 2001 argues that dozens of star comedians have infused Jewish sensibilities into their comedy and, as such, “Judaicized” American culture. Lewis 1983 claims that Jewish performers have used comedy to act out their contradictory feelings toward their Jewishness.

  • Berger, Arthur Asa. Jewish Jesters: A Study in American Popular Culture. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 2001.

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    A selective survey of 20th-century comedians, including the Marx Brothers, Jack Benny, Henny Youngman, Woody Allen, and Jerry Seinfeld. Each chapter details a particular comedian’s debt to Jewish culture and the techniques used to integrate Jewish heritage into American popular culture.

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  • Epstein, Lawrence J. The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America. New York: Public Affairs, 2001.

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    A persuasive explanation of why Jewish performers have dominated American comedy. Epstein begins his story in the 1890s when Jewish immigration to America grew exponentially and tracks the representation of Jewish comedians in mass culture over the next hundred years.

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  • Finkelstein, Norman H. Jewish Comedy Stars: Classic to Cutting Edge. Minneapolis: Kar-Ben, 2010.

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    Useful reference to the most famous Jewish comedians since the early-20th-century years. Contains forty-six pithy biographies.

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  • Lewis, Anthony. “The Jew in Stand-Up Comedy.” In From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Jewish-American Stage and Screen. Edited by Sarah Blancher Cohen, 58–70. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.

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    Briefly analyzes the stage performances of several Jewish comedians, arguing that each comic’s Jewishness is strategically incorporated into the act.

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African Americans

On one of his comedy albums, Richard Pryor jokes, “You all know how black humor started. It started on the slave ships. Cat was on his way over here rowing. And a dude say, ‘What you laughing about?’ Says, ‘Yesterday I was a king.’” Watkins 1994 illustrates the richness of African American humor by tracing it back to slavery and analyzing its manifestations over the past four hundred years. For his history of African American humor (Littleton 2006), Littleton lets dozens of interview subjects help tell the story. Haggins 2007 critiques African American comics and their efforts to enter mass culture in the post-soul era. Fulton 2004 and Harris 1988 give voice to female stars—Harris to Jackie “Moms” Mabley and Fulton to comediennes from Def Comedy Jam.

  • Fulton, DoVeanna S. “Comic Views and Metaphysical Dilemmas: Shattering Cultural Images through Self-Definition and Representation by Black Comediennes.” Journal of American Folklore 117.463 (Winter 2004): 81–96.

    DOI: 10.1353/jaf.2004.0010Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Focuses on black comediennes from Def Comedy Jam, such as Mo’Nique, Adele Givens, Cheryl Underwood, and Sommore. Argues that contemporary black comediennes continue the tradition of African American comedy while also serving as popular representations.

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  • Haggins, Bambi. Laughing Mad: The Black Comic Persona in Post-Soul America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007.

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    A critical assessment of black comedians from the 1960s onward. Haggins examines their movement into mainstream culture and their impact on black representations. Subjects include Dick Gregory, Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson, Richard Pryor, Whoopi Goldberg, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, and Wanda Sykes.

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  • Harris, Trudier. “Moms Mabley: A Study in Humor, Role Playing and Violation of Taboo.” Southern Review 24.4 (Autumn 1988): 765–776.

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    Assesses the legacy of Jackie “Moms” Mabley, using examples from her comedy routines in order to describe how she subverted stereotypes of black women and used humor to unite disparate groups.

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  • Littleton, Darryl. Black Comedians on Black Comedy: How African-Americans Taught Us to Laugh. New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema, 2006.

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    Interviews with a long list of black comedians give fascinating insight into the history of African American comedians. Littleton’s introductions and segues contextualize and link the interviews.

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  • Schulman, Norma. “The House That Black Built: Television Stand-Up Comedy as Minor Discourse.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 22.3 (Fall 1994): 108–115.

    DOI: 10.1080/01956051.1994.9943675Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Analyzes televised stand-up comedy shows featuring African American performers. Argues that the comics’ politically incorrect speech is not directed against white people but rather against “the whitewashing of racial difference.”

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  • Watkins, Mel. On the Real Side: Laughing, Lying, and Signifying; The Underground Tradition of African-American Humor That Transformed American Culture, from Slavery to Richard Pryor. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.

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    Thorough, exhaustively researched history of African American humor, broken down into genres and temporal periods. Begins with slave humor and works up through minstrelsy, vaudeville, the Theater Owners Bookers Association, Hollywood, radio, television, street humor, and the stand-up comedy of Dick Gregory, Bill Cosby, and Richard Pryor.

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Women

The works listed here acknowledge that comedy clubs are especially hostile toward women comics. As Auslander 1993 argues, however, changes in popular attitudes toward female empowerment have coincided with the rise in empowered female comedians. Lavin 2004 and Horowitz 1997 discuss the significance of Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers, among other legendary comics; Horowitz looks at their effect on popular culture, whereas Lavin considers the range of feminist themes in their performances. Fraiberg 1994 describes the star female comics of the 1980s as heroes continuing the work of feminist writers. Dresner 1991 and Starcevich 2001 note that certain female comedians have addressed political issues pertaining not only to gender but also to race, ethnicity, and class. Greenbaum 1997 describes not the stars of stand-up comedy but rather three road comics, each with a distinct stage presence, and bases its conclusions on interviews and analyses. Gilbert 2004 explores how women comics have subverted stand-up comedy’s patriarchal genre conventions.

  • Auslander, Philip. “‘Brought to You by Fem-Rage’: Stand-Up Comedy and the Politics of Gender.” In Acting Out: Feminist Performances. Edited by Lynda Hart and Peggy Phelan, 315–336. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.

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    Argues that American patriarchy perceives women’s comedy as dangerous. Notes, however, that while this restricted Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers, Roseanne Barr and others have since found a forum for their empowering “fem-rage.”

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  • Dresner, Zita Z. “Whoopi Goldberg and Lily Tomlin: Black and White Women’s Humor.” In Women’s Comic Visions. Edited by June Sochen, 179–192. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991.

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    A comparison of Goldberg’s and Tomlin’s bodies of work gives insight into some general differences between men’s and women’s humor. Argues that while they share a common feminist perspective, certain differences between their performances reflect their ethnic and class positions.

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  • Fraiberg, Allison. “Between the Laughter: Bridging Feminist Studies through Women’s Stand-Up Comedy.” In Look Who’s Laughing: Gender and Comedy. Edited by Gail Finney, 315–334. Langhorne, PA: Gordon & Breach, 1994.

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    Argues that Roseanne Barr, Paula Poundstone, Ellen DeGeneres, and Margaret Cho bridge feminist writing with stand-up comedy.

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  • Gilbert, Joanne R. Performing Marginality: Humor, Gender, and Cultural Critique. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004.

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    Describes how women comics make space for cultural critique within a male-dominated genre. Discusses the topics acceptable for performance, how they address these topics, and whether their jokes are politically transformative.

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  • Greenbaum, Andrea. “Women’s Comic Voices: The Art and Craft of Female Humor.” American Studies 38.1 (Spring 1997): 117–138.

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    Uses interviews with three female stand-ups and analyses of their performances to explain how women comics find their way in a male-dominated profession.

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  • Horowitz, Susan. Queens of Comedy: Lucille Ball, Phyllis Diller, Carol Burnett, Joan Rivers, and the New Generation of Funny Women. Amsterdam: Gordon & Breach, 1997.

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    Based on interviews with the performers profiled, Horowitz explores how several women comics have expanded the range of socially acceptable comedic roles for women in popular culture.

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  • Lavin, Suzanne. Women and Comedy in Solo Performance: Phyllis Diller, Lily Tomlin, and Roseanne. New York: Routledge, 2004.

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    Uses close analyses of performances as well as journalistic sources to demonstrate that women stand-ups from Diller onward have advanced the goals of feminism.

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  • Starcevich, Lara Elizabeth. “Women Stand-Up Comics, Performance Communities, and Social Change.” PhD diss., University of Colorado, 2001.

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    Examines the performances of four contemporary women comics—Whoopi Goldberg, Janeane Garofalo, Marga Gomez, and Henriette Mantel—arguing that their social relevance derives from their views on race, sexuality, class, and moral conservatism.

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Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender

Gay male comics face hostility in the stand-up comedy world as well. Although there have been several insightful articles on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender comedians, virtually all of them focus on female comedians. Karvoski 1997 includes profiles of both gay and lesbian comedians, but this text is mainly a reference guide. Williams 1998, Esposito 1998, and Coughlin 2004 offer a useful history of lesbian comedians, with each scholar giving insight into the rise of lesbian comedians in the 1990s. Shugart 2003, Pershing 1991, Lee 2004, and Pelle 2010 deal with specific performers: Shugart analyzes Ellen DeGeneres’s ambiguous “passing” prior to her coming out in 1998; Pershing looks at Kate Clinton; Lee and Pelle look at Margaret Cho.

  • Coughlin, Colleen. “Lezbe Friends, U-Hauls and Baubo: A Study of Lesbian Stand-Up Comedy.” PhD diss., Bowling Green State University, 2004.

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    Coughlin begins her dissertation with a good theoretical grounding of why humor, lesbian performance, and lesbian stand-up comedy matter culturally. Close analyses of several lesbian stand-ups reveal commonalities in their performances, among them the foregrounding and recentering of lesbian sexual identity and desire.

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  • Esposito, Maria. “The Laugh That Dare Not Speak Its Name.” Journal of Lesbian Studies 2.2–3 (1998): 157–163.

    DOI: 10.1300/J155v02n02_11Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The author, a British comedian, reflects on her own professional experience while also explaining the recent history of lesbian comedy, describing the difference between gay and lesbian comedians, and predicting how lesbian comedy will continue to develop.

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  • Karvoski, Ed, Jr., comp. A Funny Time to Be Gay. New York: Fireside, 1997.

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    Short, celebratory profiles of lesbian and gay performers who broke into solo comedy performance in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Each profile includes a transcribed routine.

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  • Lee, Rachel C. “‘Where’s My Parade?’: Margaret Cho and the Asian American Body in Space.” TDR 48.2 (Summer 2004): 108–132.

    DOI: 10.1162/105420404323063427Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Focuses on I’m the One That I Want, the title of Cho’s stand-up show, concert film, and memoir. Insightful reading characterizes these texts as a “heroic pedagogy,” which politicizes Cho’s race, gender, and sexuality

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  • Pelle, Susan. “The ‘Grotesque’ Pussy: ‘Transformational Shame’ in Margaret Cho’s Stand-Up Performances.” Text and Performance Quarterly 30.1 (January 2010): 21–37.

    DOI: 10.1080/10462930903366977Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Sophisticated application of critical theory to what Pelle calls Cho’s “queer performances.” Argues that Cho’s presentation of her own ideologically produced shame illustrates the effects shame has on bodies and relationships.

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  • Pershing, Linda. “There’s a Joker in the Menstrual Hut: A Performance Analysis of Comedian Kate Clinton.” In Women’s Comic Visions. Edited by June Sochen, 193–236. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991.

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    Analyzes two performances by stand-up Kate Clinton, focusing on how Clinton functions within a traditionally male-dominated environment. Clinton is distinct, Pershing argues, given that she presents herself as a feminist lesbian, does not use self-deprecatory humor, and tends to attract audiences made up mostly of women.

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  • Shugart, Helene A. “Performing Ambiguity: The Passing of Ellen DeGeneres.” Text and Performance Quarterly 23.1 (January 2003): 30–54.

    DOI: 10.1080/10462930310001602039Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examines DeGeneres’s performance of her sexuality prior to her coming out as a lesbian in 1998. Focuses on her performances in stand-up, on television, and in interviews, arguing that DeGeneres could have been read coherently as either gay or straight.

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  • Williams, Frances. “Suits and Sequins: Lesbian Comedians in Britain and the US in the 1990s.” In Because I Tell a Joke or Two: Comedy, Politics, and Social Difference. Edited by Stephen Wagg, 144–162. London: Routledge, 1998.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203208328Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Reflects on why the 1990s were deemed “the decade of the queer comedian.” Describes how several comedians incorporated their sexual identity into their routines and negotiated acceptance from the audience.

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Britons

Double 2005 gives a solid overview of the history of British stand-up comedy, while Wilmut and Rosengard 1989 tells the story of Britain’s alternative comedy movement, which thrived in the early 1980s. All of the top comedians to have emerged from this movement are profiled in Hall 2006. Focusing on a more recent trend, Hunt 2010 considers the moral implications of British stand-up comedy’s “new offensiveness.” The essays in Wagg 1998 put British comedy in a cross-cultural context, while Medhurst 2007 explores whether there is something inherently “English” about English popular comedy.

  • Double, Oliver. Getting the Joke: The Inner Workings of Stand-Up Comedy. London: Methuen, 2005.

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    While acknowledging the American influence on stand-up, Double makes the case that its roots are also in Britain. Includes interviews with Rhona Cameron, Ross Noble, Jo Brand, and Alexei Sayle.

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  • Hall, Julian. The Rough Guide to British Cult Comedy. London: Rough Guides, 2006.

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    Covers the major trends in British comedy from the mid-1970s onward. Profiles fifty of Britain’s leading “cult” comedians including Ben Elton, Alan Carr, Harry Enfield, and Jenny Eclair.

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  • Hunt, Leon. “Near the Knuckle? It Nearly Took My Arm Off! British Comedy and the New Offensiveness.” Comedy Studies 1.2 (2010): 181–190.

    DOI: 10.1386/cost.1.2.181_1Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Explores the “offensive” comedy of British stand-ups Jimmy Carr, Russell Brand, Frankie Boyle, Roy “Chubby” Brown, and Jerry Sadowitz. Argues that while their jokes do not warrant moral outrage, we should not assume that the comedians are morally innocent.

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  • Medhurst, Andy. A National Joke: Popular Comedy and English Cultural Identity. London: Routledge, 2007.

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    Describes the role comedians have played in the construction of a national English identity. Includes analyses of performances by stands-up Frankie Howerd, Roy “Chubby” Brown, Larry Grayson, and Victoria Wood.

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  • Wagg, Stephen, ed. Because I Tell a Joke or Two: Comedy, Politics, and Social Difference. London: Routledge, 1998.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203208328Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Essay collection that does not focus exclusively on British comedians; however, it does have more emphasis than most. Includes an interview with Jo Brand as well as an essay on why British comedians have not been as politically engaged as their American counterparts.

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  • Wilmut, Roger, and Peter Rosengard. Didn’t You Kill My Mother-In-Law? The Story of Alternative Comedy in Britain from the Comedy Store to Saturday Live. London: Methuen, 1989.

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    Wilmut’s history of the alternative comedy scene describes the progressive stand-up acts, sitcoms, and films made by those comedians who broke from a stale tradition exemplified by “mother-in-law” jokes. Opening chapter by Rosengard chronicles his experience in opening London’s Comedy Store in 1979.

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Studies in Technique

These authors focus primarily on how stand-up comedians carry out their performances. Seizer 2011 examines the artistic uses of foul language, Conway 1994 surveys the shared catalogue of heckler retorts, and Glick 2007 explores the effects of Eddie Izzard’s multi-“voiced” performances. The remaining authors contemplate the performative aspects of stand-up comedy—it is less a monologue than an ongoing interaction dependent upon stand-up comedy’s live qualities. Rutter 2000 shows that an emcee’s introductions are not scripted but are actually actions and reactions to the audience’s involvement. French 1998 uses the author’s own professional experiences to show how stand-ups develop different stage personae based on the audiences they frequently encounter. Double 2005 uses examples from British and American acts to explain how comedians have managed the fragile relationship between performer and audience. Scarpetta and Spagnolli 2009 examines how four African American performers change their material based on the audience’s racial makeup.

  • Conway, Jeff. “You’re Ugly, Your Dick Is Small, and Everybody Fucks Your Mother: The Stand-Up Comedian’s Response to the Heckler.” Maledicta 11 (December 1994): 34–46.

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    Gives a thorough summary of conventional heckler retorts. These include implying the heckler is inebriated, childish, stupid, or ugly; mocking the heckler’s sexual prowess; insulting the heckler’s parents; and suggesting the heckler works a degrading job.

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  • Double, Oliver. Getting the Joke: The Inner Workings of Stand-Up Comedy. London: Methuen, 2005.

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    Breaks down the stand-up’s “bag of tricks” by parsing out how the comic creates a personality, challenges the audience, exploits the show’s live qualities, and crafts their delivery. See especially pp. 59–262.

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  • French, Daniel B. “Through the Eyes of the Comic Mask: An Ethnographic Exploration of the Identity of a Stand-Up Comedian.” PhD diss., University of South Florida, 1998.

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    A study of the author’s experiences as a stand-up. Describes how different audiences and settings led him to develop a range of comic selves over the course of his career.

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  • Glick, Douglas J. “Some Performative Techniques of Stand-Up Comedy: An Exercise in the Textuality of Temporalization.” Language and Communication 27.3 (July 2007): 291–306.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.langcom.2007.01.003Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An application of Bakhtin’s concept of dialogism to Eddie Izzard’s comedy reveals the humorous potential in acting out several “social voices.”

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  • Rutter, Jason. “The Stand-Up Introduction Sequence: Comparing Comedy Compères.” Journal of Pragmatics 32.4 (March 2000): 463–483.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0378-2166(99)00059-4Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Uses an analysis of the introductions that a lineup of comics receive from a “compère” (the emcee for a British stand-up show) to argue that a joke’s meaning emerges out of a structured performance. This structure depends on an ongoing interaction between performers and audiences.

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  • Scarpetta, Fabiola, and Anna Spagnolli. “The Interactional Context of Humor in Stand-Up Comedy.” Research on Language and Social Interaction 42.3 (July 2009): 210–230.

    DOI: 10.1080/08351810903089159Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The authors observe the live performances of four African American performers and conclude that each comic alters the act based on the audience’s racial makeup. The comics made more “audience-referred jokes” in black rooms, while in white rooms they referred more to themselves.

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  • Seizer, Susan. “On the Uses of Obscenity in Live Stand-Up Comedy.” Anthropological Quarterly 84.1 (Winter 2011): 209–234.

    DOI: 10.1353/anq.2011.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Successfully argues against conservative assessments of “blue humor.” Specifically demonstrates the artistic and comedic potential in using profanity such as “fuck” and “shit.”

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Interviews

Each of these collections features interviews with some of the most accomplished stand-ups of the past century. Read in tandem, Ajaye 2002 and Wilde 2000 reveal changes in how comedians of separate generations have approached their craft; Ajaye spoke with comedians of the 1980s and 1990s, whereas Wilde spoke with comedians of the 1950s and 1960s. The interviews in Randall 2008 focus less on the artistic process and more on the celebrity’s life, whereas Provenza and Dion 2010 dwells on its subjects’ feelings toward incendiary material.

  • Ajaye, Franklyn. Comic Insights: The Art of Stand-Up Comedy. Beverly Hills, CA: Silman-James, 2002.

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    Includes interviews with seventeen legendary stand-ups, including George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, and Chris Rock, all of whom describe how they incorporated their personality and style into the conventions of stand-up comedy.

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  • Provenza, Paul, and Dan Dion. Satiristas: Comedians, Contrarians, Raconteurs, and Vulgarians. New York: It Books, 2010.

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    Probing, challenging interviews, which get comedians to reflect on the sanitation of popular discourse, on material deemed “vulgar” or politically sensitive, and on how they incorporate dissent into their routines.

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  • Randall, Stephen, ed. The Playboy Interviews: The Comedians. Milwaukie, OR: M Press, 2008.

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    Interviews with twelve subjects, the first (with Don Rickles) conducted in 1968 and the last (with Tina Fey) in 2008. Gives extra insight into the careers of Bill Cosby, George Carlin, Steve Martin, and Robin Williams, each of whom have two interviews in the collection.

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  • Wilde, Larry. The Great Comedians Talk about Comedy. Mechanicsburg, PA: Executive Books, 2000.

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    Seventeen engrossing interviews with such luminaries as Johnny Carson, Milton Berle, and Jack Benny, each one sharing their personal views on the art of comedy. Originally published in 1968, this edition adds an interview with Jerry Seinfeld.

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Memoirs

The following list is a representative sampling of the dozens of memoirs written by comedians. Cho 2001, Diller 2005, and Rivers 1997 describe how their authors fought gender discrimination in the male-dominated world of stand-up comedy. Cho 2001 also speaks to racial discrimination, as do Gregory 1964 and Mooney 2009. Reid, et al. 2008 chronicles Dreesen and Reid’s unique act as an interracial comedy team. Butler 1996 and Cho 2001 describe struggles with drug addiction. The author of Mooney 2009 describes stand-up comedy from several angles: as Richard Pryor’s writer, friend, and confidant, a sober commentator intent on deglamorizing show business, and a practitioner for more than forty years. Common to most memoirs about stand-up comedy are stories of discrimination and trauma. Cho 2001, Gregory 1964, Rivers 1997, Diller 2005, Klein 2006, and Mooney 2009 all share stories of discrimination and the trauma that followed. Not surprisingly, each comic says that comedy was a positive outlet. Gregory, Diller, and Martin (Martin 2007) do, however, explain why they decided to leave stand-up.

  • Butler, Brett. Knee Deep in Paradise. New York: Hyperion, 1996.

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    Writing about the period before her television series Grace Under Fire launched, Butler shares insight into her troubled life growing up in the South. Focuses mostly on her struggles with addiction and an abusive relationship, although it touches upon her career in comedy.

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  • Cho, Margaret. I’m the One That I Want. New York: Ballantine, 2001.

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    Describes Cho’s life growing up in San Francisco, where Cho says she learned to cope with feelings of alienation by becoming a “fag hag” (a woman who prefers the company of gay men). Cho goes on to relate her harrowing experience as the star of her own sitcom.

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  • Diller, Phyllis, with Richard Buskin. Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse: My Life in Comedy. New York: J. P. Tarcher, 2005.

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    Diller details her life before and after she became a 1960s icon. After growing up in a loveless household, she got married, had kids, became an ad writer, and eventually began performing in unusual New York City venues. Diller discusses comic technique at length.

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  • Gregory, Dick, with Robert Lipsyte. Nigger: An Autobiography. New York: Dutton, 1964.

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    Released after Gregory had helped break the color line by performing in Chicago’s Playboy Club; Gregory explains how the racial oppression he experienced over the course of his life—as a child growing up in Missouri, as an athlete, and as a comedian—resulted in his decision to become a civil rights activist.

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  • Klein, Robert. The Amorous Busboy of Decatur Avenue: A Child of the Fifties Looks Back. New York: Touchstone, 2006.

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    Klein takes a mostly light-hearted look at his formative years: growing up in the Bronx, attending Alfred University, and his finding his way in show business. The memoir ends before Klein made his mark as one of the most influential comedians of his generation.

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  • Martin, Steve. Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life. New York: Scribner’s, 2007.

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    Focusing more on his stand-up than on his personal life, Martin traces his career path from a Disneyland vendor at age ten all the way up to early 1980s when he quit stand-up to pursue acting full time. Maps out how his act developed into what he calls “a parody of comedy.”

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  • Mooney, Paul. Black Is the New White: A Memoir. New York: Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2009.

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    Mooney shares fascinating stories about his personal and professional friendship with Richard Pryor, about politics at the L.A. Comedy Store, about the time he wore whiteface on Geraldo, and about his encounter with Michael Richards after Richards’s racist rant.

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  • Reid, Tim, Tom Dreesen, and Ron Rapoport. Tim & Tom: An American Comedy in Black and White. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

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    Third-person perspective on the black-and-white comedy team Tim & Tom, active from 1969 to 1973. Gives insight into the era’s racial politics by describing the team’s modest success in reaching out to black and white audiences.

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  • Rivers, Joan. Bouncing Back: I’ve Survived Everything—and I Mean Everything—and You Can Too! New York: HarperCollins, 1997.

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    Rivers writes like a motivational coach, urging readers to learn from her resilience to such tragedies as her husband’s suicide, her daughter Melissa’s refusal to speak to her, and her talk show’s demise.

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Adaptations

Many stand-ups adapt their acts for the printed page. With the exception of Hicks 2004, the adaptations listed here differ significantly from the comics’ stage performances. Nevertheless, they all reinforce the stand-up’s stage persona: Cosby as the perpetually bemused family man (Cosby 1986); Seinfeld as the proudly superficial man (Seinfeld 1993); Rudner as the bimbo who’s actually smart (Rudner 1994); DeGeneres as the happy, sexually ambiguous wit (DeGeneres 1995); Miller as the angry libertarian (Miller 1996); Rock as the acute observer of racial politics (Rock 1997); Romano as the harmless wimp (Romano 1998); and Hicks as the fiercely uncompromising progressive (Hicks 2004).

On Television and in Film

Most people know the comedians listed in this bibliography from their appearances on television and in film. Borns 1987, Marc 1997, and Neale and Krutnik 1990 discuss their authors’ successful and less-than-successful transitions to television: Borns focuses on late-night talk shows, Marc on the American sitcom, and Neale and Krutnik on British and American sitcoms. Leverette, et al. 2008 and Haggins and Lotz 2008 examine the cable television network HBO and the function it served in popularizing stand-up comedy. Gelbart 1996 surveys the roles stand-ups have played in American television since its inception, while Gehring 1997 explains why films featuring “personality comedians” constitute a genre. Moon 2007 focuses on the representation of stand-ups in film and theater.

  • Borns, Betsy. Comic Lives: Inside the World of American Stand-Up Comedy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.

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    Based on interviews with star comedians from the 1980s, Borns describes how network television, especially The Tonight Show, served as an influential arbiter of taste. See especially pp. 191–215.

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  • Gehring, Wes D. Personality Comedians as Genre: Selected Players. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1997.

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    Defines those films whose appeal stems from the comedian’s distinct personality as the “personality comedian” genre. Deals with a range of comedic performers, including “antihero” stand-ups Woody Allen and Bob Hope.

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  • Gelbart, Larry, ed. Stand-Up Comedians on Television. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996.

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    Collection of short articles celebrating American stand-ups’ forays into the sitcom, talk show, and variety show genres. Each article deals with a comedic archetype. These include observationalists, political activists, working-class champions, and wise guys.

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  • Haggins, Bambi, and Amanda D. Lotz. “Overview: At Home on the Cutting Edge.” In The Essential HBO Reader. Edited by Gary R. Edgerton and Jeffrey P. Jones, 151–171. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008.

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    Historical summary of HBO’s stand-up comedy specials, from On Location: Steve Martin (1976) to Cedric: Taking You Higher (2006).

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  • Leverette, Marc, Brian L. Ott, and Cara Louise Buckley, eds. It’s Not TV: Watching HBO in the Post-Television Era. New York: Routledge, 2008.

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    Considers the importance stand-up comedy has had on HBO’s groundbreaking sitcom conventions. Also examines how HBO’s profanity-laced stand-up specials allow viewers a transgressive TV-viewing experience. See especially pp. 108–151.

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  • Marc, David. Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture. 2d ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1997.

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    History of the sitcom’s role in American culture explains why the genre could serve as a vehicle for such stand-ups as Roseanne Barr and Jerry Seinfeld but not for Don Rickles and Lenny Bruce. See especially pp. 41–204.

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  • Moon, Tony. “Spotlight Kids: The Depiction of Stand-Up Comedians in Fictional Drama: Film, Television, and Theatre.” Comedy Studies 1.2 (2007): 201–208.

    DOI: 10.1386/cost.1.2.201_1Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that cinematic and theatrical representations of stand-ups, as seen in the films Mr. Saturday Night, Gumshoe, and The King of Comedy and the plays Comedians and The Entertainer, give insight into the personality of real-life stand-up comedians.

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  • Neale, Steve, and Frank Krutnik. Popular Film and Television Comedy. New York: Routledge, 1990.

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    Describes the formal characteristics of British and American comedic genres on television, notably the variety show and sitcom, and the influence certain performers have had on them. See especially pp. 176–261.

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LAST MODIFIED: 08/29/2012

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199791286-0137

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