In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Stand-Up Comedians

  • Introduction
  • Stand-Up Comedy as a Genre
  • Humor Theory
  • Jewish Americans
  • African Americans
  • Women
  • Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender
  • Britons
  • Studies in Technique
  • Interviews
  • Memoirs
  • Adaptations
  • On Television and in Film

Cinema and Media Studies Stand-Up Comedians
Sean Springer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 August 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0137


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.

    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.

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

    DOI: 10.7202/019950ar

    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.

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

    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.

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

    DOI: 10.1515/humr.1999.12.1.33

    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.

  • 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.x

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    DOI: 10.2307/2712763

    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.

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

    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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