Comedy and Critique: Stand-up Comedy and the Professional Ethos of Laughter 9781529200164

Comedy and Critique explores British professional stand-up comedy in the wake of the Alternative Comedy movement of the

214 19 5MB

English Pages 216 [218] Year 2018

Report DMCA / Copyright

DOWNLOAD FILE

Polecaj historie

Comedy and Critique: Stand-up Comedy and the Professional Ethos of Laughter
 9781529200164

Table of contents :
COMEDY AND CRITIQUE
Contents
Detailed Contents
Acknowledgements
Introduction
Sociology and stand-up comedy: from Talcott Parsons to Mort Sahl
Stand-up comedy and New Left politics
Outline of the argument
Part I. Analytical
1
1. The Art of Stand-Up Comedy
Ethos and morphology of the stand-up comedian
Art and the intelligence of feeling
From ritual to theatre? Stand-up comedy’s anthropological antecedents
The magic of the stand-up comedian
The modernity of the stand-up comedian
Intra-personality, or the modernism of the stand-up comedian
Coda
Part II. Synthetic
3. Representation
Stand-up: representing whom?
Stand-up in the sociology of art and culture
Comedification: from abjection to New Left hegemony
Truth to power: the humour of ‘millennial men’
Historicising millennial humour
4. Persona
Stand-up comedy after abjection
The abject ontology of comic persona
The ethics of comic persona
The limits of New Left hegemony
Part III. Critical
5. The Critique of Comic Reason
John Dowie’s grave
The sociological inquiries of paranoids, detectives and comedians
Comedy as critique
Beautiful mediocrity: towards an aesthetical sociological critique
Appendix: Methodological Tables
Notes
Bibliography
Index

Citation preview

B R I STOL

SHORTS

RESEARCH

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

Stand-up comedy and the professional ethos of laughter

DANIEL R. SMITH

DANIEL R. SMITH

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE Stand-up comedy and the professional Ethos of laughter

First published in Great Britain in 2018 by

Bristol University Press North America office: University of Bristol Bristol University Press 1-9 Old Park Hill c/o The University of Chicago Press Bristol 1427 East 60th Street BS2 8BB Chicago, IL 60637, USA UK t: +1 773 702 7700 t: +44 (0)117 954 5940 f: +1 773 702 9756 www.bristoluniversitypress.co.uk [email protected] www.press.uchicago.edu © Bristol University Press 2018 British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data A catalog record for this book has been requested. ISBN 978-1-5292-0015-7 (hardback) ISBN 978-1-5292-0017-1 (ePub) ISBN 978-1-5292-0018-8 (Mobi) ISBN 978-1-5292-0016-4 (ePDF) The right of Daniel R. Smith to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved: no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise without the prior permission of Bristol University Press. Every reasonable effort has been made to obtain permission to reproduce copyrighted material. If, however, anyone knows of an oversight, please contact the publisher. The statements and opinions contained within this publication are solely those of the authors and not of the University of Bristol or Bristol University Press. The University of Bristol and Bristol University Press disclaim responsibility for any injury to persons or property resulting from any material published in this publication. Bristol University Press works to counter discrimination on grounds of gender, race, disability, age and sexuality. Cover design by blu inc, Bristol Front cover: image kindly supplied by Alamy Printed and bound in Great Britain by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CR0 4YY Bristol University Press uses environmentally responsible print partners

Do you hear, let them be well used, for they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time. William Shakespeare – Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii

Contents Detailed Contents vi Acknowledgements viii Introduction 1 Part I: Analytical 1 The Art of Stand-Up Comedy 2 The Professionalisation of Stand-Up Comedy

11 13 43

Part II: Synthetic 75 3 Representation 77 4 Persona 109 Part III: Critical 133 5 The Critique of Comic Reason 135 Appendix: Methodological Tables 169 Notes 175 Bibliography 179 Index 195

v

Detailed Contents Introduction 1 Part I: Analytical 11 1 The Art of Stand-Up Comedy 13 Ethos and morphology of the stand-up comedian 13 Art and the intelligence of feeling 17 From ritual to theatre? Stand-up comedy’s 20 anthropological antecedents The magic of the stand-up comedian 26 The modernity of the stand-up comedian 30 Intra-personality, or the modernism of the 33 stand-up comedian Primacy of aesthetic surface: appearance as 35 essence Negation of the boundary between art and reality 39 Coda 41 2 The Professionalisation of Stand-Up Comedy 43 Comedy for art’s sake 43 ‘I’m a professional comedian, I know what’s funny’ 45 Professionalism: humour through inference 48 The thorny issue of comic originality: circuit 50 and fringe Circuit, or fringe, origins for a Fringe art 50 The Fringe show: the ground of originality 56 Sinecures and the ‘zone’ of creativity 60 Comedians’ comedians 67 Daniel Kitson and Stewart Lee 68 John Gordillo 69 Coda 73

vi

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

Part II: Synthetic 75 3 Representation 77 Stand-up: representing whom? 77 Stand-up in the sociology of art and culture 81 Comedification: from abjection to New Left 85 hegemony Truth to power: the humour of ‘millennial men’ 91 Alex Edelman’s millennial Judaism 91 The Pin’s epistemology of the class closet 97 Josh Widdicombe’s sacrificial masculinity and 104 gift of toxicity Historicising millennial humour 108 4 Persona 109 Stand-up comedy after abjection 109 The abject ontology of comic persona 110 The ethics of comic persona 114 James Acaster: being nothingness 118 A Bic For Her: Bridget Christie’s feminist ‘frame 124 analysis’ Paul Sinha: father to child 127 The limits of New Left hegemony 129 Part III: Critical 5 The Critique of Comic Reason John Dowie’s grave The sociological inquiries of paranoids, detectives and comedians Comedy as critique James Acaster’s Critique of Everyday Life Stewart Lee’s Customs in Common Sara Pascoe, ‘Feminist Killjoy’ Aamer Rahman’s Culture and Imperialism Beautiful mediocrity: towards an aesthetical sociological critique

vii

133 135 135 138 147 147 150 155 160 163

Acknowledgements This short book is the product of many people. At Policy Press I’d like to express my sincere gratitude to Rebecca Tomlinson, Victoria Pittman and Shannon Kneis for their professionalism and assistance throughout. I’d like to thank those comedians who allowed me to reproduce parts of their material verbatim, and helped in the process of gaining permissions. Thank you to James Acaster, Josh Widdicombe, Matthew Crosby, Ivo Graham, Alex Edelman, Liam Williams, Alex Owen and Ben Ashenden (The Pin), Aamer Rahman and John Dowie. The Comedian’s Comedian Podcast was a hugely helpful resource. Many thanks to Stuart Goldsmith for his time and generosity for a telephone interview and kind permission for the reproduction of a selection of excerpts from Comedian’s Comedian Podcast interviews. Also, thanks to Hannah Chambers, Katy Eyre and Brid Kirby at Chambers Management for their assistance. Additionally, I’d like to say thank you to CambridgeTV, especially Nidhi Gupta and Catie Wilkins for their extremely generous sharing of rough interview footage for their documentary, ‘Finding the Funny’. Also, thanks to Jon Green, Anglia Ruskin’s Senior Press Officer, for establishing the link with CambridgeTV. Colleagues at Anglia Ruskin University have shown much kindness. Rohan Kariyawasam for his helpful advice and support. Alison Ainley for her reading parts of Chapter Four. David Skinner for reading an entire draft, his helpful comments on structure and coherence as well as advice on the arguments made in Chapter Three. James Rosbrook-Thompson for his generosity of time, conversation and advice. Eugene Giddens for helpful comments upon Chapter Three. Liz Bradbury for reading and advising on draft sections which became Chapter

viii

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

Five. Colleagues outside Anglia Ruskin also helped in various ways. Thanks to David Feltmate, Elise DeCamp, and Morten Nielsen for generously sharing their work with me. Many thanks to Olly Double, Elspeth Miller and the staff at the British Stand-Up Comedy Archive at the University of Kent for their assistance with materials as well as responding to questions and requests with such enthused generosity. Ben Pitcher read and commented on versions of Chapters Three and Four and I am deeply indebted to him. Ben also provided follow up food for thought about stand-up and New Left hegemony, the value of which is such that I am unable to do justice to it in the finished product. Most importantly Julia Carter has been the closest critical friend I have had writing this book. More than anyone else I have failed her in my inability to be clear or convincing. I thank her for trying to help me reach a semblance of written clarity and conceptual accuracy with the ideas and arguments here. Shortcomings, of course, are all my own.

ix

Introduction

Sociology and stand-up comedy: from Talcott Parsons to Mort Sahl Comedy and Critique is a sociological inquiry which seeks to engage with the art world of the stand-up comedian as well as providing an interpretation of comedic works. The aim is to demonstrate a correspondence between what is happening within stand-up comedy routines and what is going on in the society from which such routines arise. It is an extended sociology of the artwork (Witkin, 1995). The reason Comedy and Critique is interested in exploring what comedians joke about and the society from which these jokes arise is because of a simple observation: stand-up comedy often makes for good illustration of sociological argument, theory or criticism. As soon as that is said, however, the proviso made is, always: ‘Of course, not all stand-up comedy!’ Yet some standup comedians routines can be very good examples to go to when trying to illustrate sociological concepts or arguments. But there is always that caveat; not all, not any, and other equivocations. I am, of course, not the only one to have made this suggestion (Cormack et al, 2017). Peter Berger’s Redeeming Laughter (2014: 142) states how, ‘other things being equal – that is, criteria of validity having been satisfied – one would rather hear about 1950s America from Mort Sahl than, say, from Talcott Parsons’. Here the nail is firmly hit on the head: these other things are not equal; those criteria of validity have not been satisfied. Stand-up comedy is not sociology, and neither is the reverse true. Yet while this may be, it does not quite help get rid of the appearance that comedy and sociology may be, as it were, up to the same thing.

1

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

Berger’s putting together Mort Sahl and Talcott Parsons is not, despite appearances, accidental. Closer inspection on what these two men were ‘up to’ in their respective enterprises speaks volumes. Both are, in many ways, offering accounts of what the world is like. They are looking for a convincing representation of reality or, what is really the same thing, sociological truth. Mort Sahl is a founding father to what we would today properly recognise as stand-up comedy. Talcott Parsons is a (largely marginalised but by no means irrelevant) founding father of modern sociology. Parsons’ project can be said to have been about answering the question, how do people fit in, get on and get by in modern society? In sociological terminology he is concerned with recognition, reciprocity and the (unequal) allocation of recourses (Varul, 2010). Berger’s comparison of Sahl with Parsons comes after a discussion of the socially marginalised. A marginal individual is able to, ‘through the magic of his wit, in turn marginalise the world he targets. It is now no longer the world, but a world – and a ridiculous one at that’ (Berger, 2014: 142). Parsons’ sociology is often criticised for its being little more than, and this a radical overstatement, an ideological ballast to ‘the world’ he stood for, American society (for example, Gouldner, 1971). Parsons was providing the general theory for how people fit in, get on and get by; and they were people ‘like him’. The implicit suggestion, then, is that the stand-up comedian, the marginal person, is also interested in how fitting in, getting by and getting on works but from a different point of view. Parsons was part of an ‘all American’, East Coast ‘Mayflower aristocracy’ who wrote his grand theory at an Ivy League college (Harvard) in the wake of a major social and economic crisis (the 1929 Wall Street Crash). Sahl, on the other hand, was an immigrant American Jew who spent much of his adolescence and early twenties going in and out of the army, dropping out of college programmes, finally settling upon being a club and campus comedian. From this vantage point his satirical wit was

2

INTRODUCTION

geared toward showing how ‘the world’ is really only ‘a world’. When Berger is putting together Sahl and Parsons he is implicitly suggesting that, through stand-up comedy, we see how ‘the world’ is fit for only certain people being able to fit in, get on and get by. Sahl’s satirical wit is showing how the world makes sense for a certain portion of those who live in it. The mutuality of certain forms of humour being of apiece with a certain sociological perspective is that wit debunks. Through an economy of incongruity, wit shows the partiality and limited claims to truth that social institutions, customs and conventions present. In others words, Berger is suggesting that Sahl’s humour is what Luc Boltanski (2009) calls ‘a reality test’. The choice of the immigrant Jew, Sahl, is another way for Berger to say that a certain form of Jewish wit is, in effect, one form ‘the sociological imagination’ can take. Berger returns many times (2014: 82–8, 140–43, 187–9) to the mutuality between what he detects as the distinctiveness of Jewish wit and the cognitive and existential requirements for living in modernity. Jewish humour is akin to the experience of modernity as it is predicated upon the experience of being a ‘stranger’, a marginal person who picks up on what natives, the Parsons of ‘the world’, take for granted (Berger, 2014: 85). Jewish wit, also, is grounded in a religious tradition of questioning, arguing and interpreting what ‘the Law is’ – what a dominant authority (God) asserts. Or, better put, arguing with ‘the Law’ to find out what ‘the Law (God)’ wants or wills of you: how He wants you to fit in, get on and get by. ‘It is a cognitive style,’ says Berger (2014: 87), ‘of making fine distinctions, putting things together and taking them apart again’, a cognitive style necessary for modern life, and one which has its origins in, or at least is part of the story of, Jewish diasporic experience. Berger puts a lot of grand claims into the mutuality of Jewish wit and modern cognitive and existential sensibilities: the cultural ascendency of Jews in American stand-up comedy being one of them (Berger, 2014: 89). But they remain just that:

3

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

grand claims. Part of what any book on stand-up comedy has to acknowledge, either directly or indirectly, is how many clichés are applicable to it. The way Jewish diasporic experience and modernity’s peculiar ‘sense of humour’ is dealt with in Comedy and Critique is interpretative, not exhaustive: like all clichés, it can only say so much. The same goes for the story being told about stand-up comedy and sociology: you can invest in it, but only to a certain extent. Yet if Parsons’ general theory of society has lost currency but Sahl’s satirical wit is still relevant for understanding that society is partial in who it lets fit in, get on and get by, then what is sociology to do? And, if stand-up comedy can be seen as a form of sociology, then how did this happen? Stand-up comedy and New Left politics This is the investigation Comedy and Critique sets for itself: how did UK stand-up comedy become a place where one could read it is as a form of sociological criticism? In telling this story, I have had to omit many aspects of stand-up comedy’s history, traditions and nuances. It is worth being upfront about this early on: this is a highly limited study. However, the sociological pursuit is akin to the approach Weber (2001) follows in The Protestant Ethic: to begin with a sociological observation and look for a plausible account of the relationship between such a sociological fact and the historical and cultural currents from which it arose. This approach is, as Weber (2001: 14f) cautioned, one which means that other lines of investigation, areas of focus and standpoints would necessarily result in different characteristics being brought to the surface. Comedy and Critique is only one, highly limited, account of what stand-up comedy is ‘all about’. At the heart of Comedy and Critique is a question about how arguments are made and who is making them, and the implications this has for political sensibilities and cultural outlooks today. For stand-up comedy, ‘critique’ comes in the manner of humour and its deployment by certain people.

4

INTRODUCTION

This means reconstructing both the nature of humour (how arguments – jokes – are made) and its performance (who is making the argument – jokes). Simply, how comedy’s ethos is encapsulated by a particular ‘sociological spirit’. The ‘sociological spirit’ of contemporary stand-up comedy is, really, another way of noting that it is underwritten by a New Left politics. Stand-up comedians, along with everything else they may be, are also ‘thinkers of the New Left’. By this I mean they are on the side of the dispossessed, they talk about ‘social justice’ and seek liberation against a dominant power. With economic inequality as their backdrop, they also draw to light the unequal experiences and nuances of being certain types of people – an identity: social justice includes not only a redistribution of resources but a rearrangement and reassessment of recognition. Commentary upon spheres of social life – from property, cultural pursuits, legal privileges or customary assumptions, social class or status, to opportunities within institutional arrangements – is presented as bulwarked by hierarchies or obstacles of some kind. This admittedly crude description is intentional not simply for clarity of purpose but to mirror the manner in which stand-up comedy is ‘voiced’. This is how stand-up routines are presented: the self meets an obstacle in front of equality. All this being said, what needs to be kept at the centre of our minds with the above observation is that while comedians are New Left thinkers, they are not intellectuals or ‘philosophers’ (even though they may say ‘clever things’), neither are they academics (even though they may be ‘well read’), and neither do they claim to be either. As I am very keen to point out in various guises in what follows, despite what is ‘beyond the joke’, comedians often return, almost with neurotic fixation, to the claim that they are trying to make you laugh above all else. To some, this could be read as an omission of comedy’s critical impotence and its failure as political argument. Conservative philosopher Roger Scruton’s Thinkers of the New Left (2015) claims that the New Left position is one with assertions but

5

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

not answers; if this is so, then comedians are on par with the philosophers he scorns (for example, Dworkin, Said, Lacan, Zizek). I may be convinced that comedy cannot change the world, but not for the reasons asserted by Scruton. Comedians do not fail because they are of the New Left party. What interests me is how the politics of the New Left became so readily utilised in stand-up comedy, but not as a continuation of sociological theory and New Left philosophy. Stand-up comedy and sociology’s mutuality is not because they are of the same family but acting in different circumstances and with different criteria of validity. Rather I am interested in how this can appear to be so. The point is that if comedians were New Left philosophers or sociologists but ones who, when confronted with the question ‘what is the lesson of your comedy?’, kept asserting that they ‘only want to make people laugh’, then they really would be obsessional neurotics. Lucky for sociologists and comedians (and especially their audiences), comedians are not looking for the right thing – leftist critique – in the wrong place – comedy. Comedians are committed to being nothing other than funny people. Outline of the argument If this is so, the investigation we set ourselves is this: if while being funny comedians approach a form of New Left philosophy, then we must trace the contents of their humour, its individual parts, with a view on what most fully shows it to be of apiece with New Left thinking. This is the story of Comedy and Critique. The argument is as follows. ‘The art of stand-up comedy’ (Chapter One) outlines a general theory of the stand-up comedian. It asks what type of society gives rise to a singular, unique individual defined by their humorousness. The argument shows that the figure of the stand-up comedian is someone sufficiently socialised into their culture that they may ‘play’ at a version of who they are. Comedians present, in their routines,

6

INTRODUCTION

versions of themselves seen from the perspective of other people. Stand-up comedy tries to globalise the self, but as it attempts to do it realises this is impossible. Following Witkin’s Art and Social Structure (1995), which traces how aesthetic sensibilities are sensuous realisations of the requirements of structural obligations and identity complexes, it is shown that the stand-up comedian, as we understand them, is someone who is adeptly able to acquiesce to the demands of living in modernity: a world full of strangers, a world where cultural conventions are relative and far from absolutely defensible, and a world where we are obliged to be sophisticated in the partial and limited worldview we have, and be sophisticated about the lives of those who are ‘different’ to us. This is a theory of stand-up comedy as well as a theory of ‘self ’ which incorporates a New Left political sensibility. From this vision of stand-up as the art of ‘intra-personality’ – the ‘self ’ seen from the position of the other – I move on to provide an account of stand-up comedy’s professionalisation in Britain. In order to conform to their ideals of providing intra-personal relations of ‘self-other’, stand-up comedians are under a professional obligation to write ‘original comedic material’ which begins and ends with their own self, variously called their ‘voice’ or ‘persona’. ‘The professionalisation of stand-up comedy’ (Chapter Two) explores how this obligation is institutionalised in the ‘circuit-fringe’, a calendar of working ‘the circuit’ (clubs, pubs and other regional venues and theatres) throughout the year with the goal of writing an hour-long solo show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and cognate festivals. It is through this institutional frame that I trace the cultural history of British stand-up comedy coming to realise New Left ideals. In order to submit to the obligation of unique comic material, stand-up comedy had to be revolutionised. The art of standup, to carry a ‘New Left’ politic, had to move from ‘Working Men’s clubs’ to Fringe theatre. Unable to use the vernacular humour of variety, music hall and ‘club comics’, rooted as it was in ‘trad, comic targets’ (such as mother in law gags), stand-up

7

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

comedians had to look elsewhere for a model for their genre of self-driven ‘original’ material. They settled upon the 1960s Jewish-American tradition (Limon, 2000). This was brought to British stand-up through the Alternative Comedy Movement, a movement that jettisoned the impermissible speech (of racism, homophobia, sexism, and so on) from the ‘Working Men’s Clubs’ only to retain the fringe figure of the stand-up in the American tradition: a ‘white, hetero, Jew’, a marginal figure and modernist cultural hero. This gave us the ‘comedification’ (Limon, 2000) of British stand-up. British stand-up retained its fringe status – in figuration (the stand-up is still a marginal social actor) and artform (stand-up remains ‘low-brow’) – only to enter into a mainstream to articulate, and demonstrate the limits of, ‘New Left’ politics. ‘Representation’ and ‘Persona’ (Chapters Three and Four) then proceed to put this story of stand-up (as a professionalised form of ‘modernist’ intra-personality) to the test. These chapters ask who is ‘standing up’, and how does the ‘standing-up’ of different social identities impact upon the critique being launched? In this Comedy and Critique explores how the humour of particular people, from the marginal to the non-marginal, often comes to realise those people’s places within power – cultural, social, political – as much as their comedy is ‘speaking truth to power’. Finally ‘The critique of comic reason’ (Chapter Five) puts together a subterranean history of British sociology and the rise of New Left stand-up: the collapse of the post-war progressive liberal utopianism that connected British sociology to the postwar Labour governments, through to the rise of a ‘reflexive sociology’ alongside the neo-liberalisation of the academy since the 1980s, has led to an impasse. This impasse is why it is possible to suggest, as Berger does, that some comedians become more appealing to listen to than some sociology. In this, a comic sociology is offered as one possible option for sociological inquiry today. Indeed ‘comedic sociology’, readers will discover,

8

INTRODUCTION

is really a cognate form of sociology Abbott (2007) has labelled ‘lyrical sociology’.1 Using comedy as a means of sociological critique is not new nor a particularly original contribution. Works under the banner of ‘comedy studies’ have produced many conceptual and critical analyses of comedic works which voice New Left politics: from racism (DeCamp, 2017; Rossing, 2015; Weaver, 2011, 2010), class (Smith, 2015), disablism (Lockyer, 2015a), comedy as political debate (Quirk, 2016, 2015), feminist theory and practice (Gilbert, 2004), and queer studies (Limon, 2000). Far from a definitive list, these ‘comedy studies’ also provide theories of humour to bolster their claims, either through anthropological figures – such as ‘the trickster’ (Weaver and Mora, 2016) or ‘folk bard’ (Brodie, 2014) – or discursive strategies – for example incongruity (Brodie, 2008), rhetoric (Quirk, 2016), or comic theology (Feltmate, 2013). Where Comedy and Critique makes an intervention in this story is to connect up a theory of what our modern sense of humour – being funny going hand in hand with a New Left politics – means for taking, or mistaking, this ‘comic worldview’ as a way into sociological criticism and insight. The argument pursued in the last chapter, therefore, becomes as much ‘what would stand-up comedy be if it were a form of sociology?’ as it is, ‘what would sociology be if it followed the example of stand-up comedy?’

9

Part I Analytical

11

1

The Art of Stand-Up Comedy

Ethos and morphology of the stand-up comedian The ethos of the stand-up comedian is easy to identify. Oliver Double defines the stand-up as: ‘…a single performer standing in front of an audience, talking to them with the specific intention of making them laugh’ (2014:  4, original emphasis). In terms of a social role, which like all roles in modern societies has a specialised obligation, the comedian is obliged to provide laughter. But who to? Under what circumstances? And how do they do it? For sociologists, the social morphology, the form and structure of society, remains unspecified (Durkheim, 1971a: 84–5): what type of society gives rise to a social actor whose obligations are that of the stand-up comedian? What are the conditions for this figure to arise? What form does it take? These questions are what this chapter answers. To this end, it offers a sociological theory of the stand-up comedian. In order to provide this theory, an exemplum or two may help illustrate the personage of the stand-up comedian. Stand-up comedy shares with psychoanalysis a tendency to disregard those who speak for us and, as it were, become a means to enable ‘people to speak on their own behalf ’ (Phillips, 2014: 29). And not unlike psychoanalysis, stand-up as we know it today begins with a Jew, Lenny Bruce. Speaking on his own behalf got Bruce into much trouble, so in his 1959 Steve Allen Show appearance he explains not why he is offensive but, in a mode of disclosure, how he became offensive:

13

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

I will always be accused of bad taste by people who eat in restaurants who reserve service, you know, that kinda scene, …but you might be interested in how I became offensive [nervous laughter]. It started in school with, uh, drinking and, uh [laughter]. Really! I was like a really depressed kid, you know, seven, eight years old and I’d really get juiced [laughter]. And, you know, the teacher would really get bugged [laughter], you know, with my singing, and carrying on, [laughter] and calling Columbus a fink! [laughter] (Bruce, 1959) Laughter here comes not from jokes but, like stand-up’s synecdoche artform, jazz, speech hitting certain notes which disrupt; notes which adhere to rhythm but appear to disregard the form. And each disrupted note is a modal disruption of social form: juiced, bugged, fink. Lenny Bruce disrupts social form, not so much its content; he shows content which clashes with form. When Lenny Bruce spoke to his audiences, he did so on the understanding of himself that meant that fathers, school teachers, military officers and other figures of ‘The Law’ would have their authority stripped from them, and he would assert his own ‘Law’ from laughter (Limon, 2000). What Lenny Bruce does through comedy is what Freud did with psychoanalysis: provide a way in which marginal subjects, Jews, could assimilate to their host culture and its customs (Phillips, 2014). The laughter that Lenny Bruce elicited could be read as laughter that assimilated his social being, his abject ‘Jewish’ identity and his tendency to ‘offend’ polite society. Stand-up gave him a place within the totality of social customs. Given this tendency, this book theorises the stand-up comedian as particular form of self-analysis, or a particular way in which our social being (our class, race or gender, sexuality, generation, and so on) is both rendered apparent and shown to reach an impasse, either in our assumptions of people or in the way in which we understand ourselves. Lenny Bruce, a 1950s Hipster New York

14

THE ART OF STAND-UP COMEDY

Jew, is said to have thought of stand-up comedy as a scam, a form of con-artistry (Limon, 2000: 22): what we appear to be is not who we are, and neither is really of any solid foundation. In the sociology of modernity ‘the con’ is deeply associated with role theory: the obligations which follow from our roles involve a series of dramatic tricks and confidences which we invest in our performances. These confidences are what Goffman outlined in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959). It is no surprise that Goffman was himself a fan of stand-up comedy.1 What this tells us is that stand-up comedians are made (not born) from the society which produces them. They have a sociological trajectory which can be traced, analysed and hermeneutically placed and plausibly explained. However, the Lenny Bruce exemplum is myopic, a biopic which eclipses its sociological generality. While Lenny Bruce, like all stand-up comedians, was made, the figure of the Jewish heroin addict, arrested and jailed for obscenity, who died shrouded in mystery, is unable to carry the weight of general sociological explanation. Take contemporary stand-up Ivo Graham, the opposite of Bruce in so many ways. An Old Etonian and Oxbridge graduate, Graham, at 25, still goes on holiday with his parents. He does not blame his father for spoiling him; instead he accommodates his banker father’s economic model ‘of speculate to accumulate’ (Graham, 2017). And he gets the invite to his parent’s holiday namely because of his good table manners (for restaurants which reserve service); and he organises his illegal drug taking around his parents’ holidays: ‘with a little word I like to call priorities. Put down the heroin, I’m off to the Dordogne!’ (Graham, 2017) Graham’s humour offers us an ability to perceive what Lenny Bruce’s assimilation laughter gave stand-up comedians, a means to turn social identity into individual idiosyncrasies. Stand-up is a turning of one’s social power, our role potency (what it means, what libidinal investments are made in it) into individual foible. Through disclosure to others, stand-up is an integrating of social power, and the shame of re-presenting it to audiences,

15

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

into the realm of personal guilt. To translate cultural powers into individual ethics – the shame of Jewishness into the ethical sphere of guilt and the culpability of modern individualism, or the shameless power of the Etonian into the bathetic – means social perceptions are able to be rendered impotent. Stand-up comedy is a complex scam that plays to the powers, fears and anxieties of social roles (Jews in 1950s America, Etonians in liberal 21st century Britain) and, to use Goffman’s (1952) sociologising of confidence tricks, ‘cools them out’ (makes them socially safe). The autobiography of stand-up comedy, like psychoanalysis, is an undoing of our pasts and trying to live with it. The making of a stand-up comedian comes from a learning of social position; it is knowing who you are and the inability to live with it. Shame arises from an experience of power, and an understanding that power itself is shameful: so you are ashamed of who you are because of the power this imposes on others (Limon, 2007). If shame ‘is an experience of one’s most basic subjective dividedness’, an ‘experience of being seen and seen intimately’ (Critchley and Webster, 2013: 229), then stand-up is a performance of divided selfhood. Stand-up is a shameful act because it shows the power of social position for what it is: roles we simply cannot be held responsible for, but nevertheless we are unable to be anything else. Stand-up comedy is an acting out of our social being: our freedom to ‘stand-up’ and be who we are, and the shame this evokes. The laughter we witness is a ‘self relating to self ’, building relations of self-other in the moment of performance. This is what I am trying to argue throughout this short book on stand-up comedy. Namely that there is a social role with a central obligation to elicit laughter: a stand-up comedian. But the laughter arises from a truth central to modern sociality and identity politics: given the power to ‘be who we are’, we nevertheless become aware of our social position and demonstrate its limits. As such I call stand-up the art of intrapersonality to argue that stand-up comedy, as a branch of

16

THE ART OF STAND-UP COMEDY

society’s arts, has become a site to deal with ‘New Left’ identity politics and its limitations. Art and the intelligence of feeling To provide this theory means that we have to appreciate how the stand-up comedian participates in a branch of society’s arts. However, stand-up is often not dignified the name ‘art’ and relegated to lower forms of ‘entertainment’. Friedman’s Comedy & Distinction (2014:  9ff) provides an explanation for this, demonstrating that laughter’s association with what Bakhtin (1984) called the ‘material bodily lower stratum’ means that the goal and aesthetic expression of comedy – laughter – produces unedifying effects and fails to provide moral pedagogy. Given the associations of art with powerful groups, either to bring it into existence – through patronage – or to serve as an extension of their presence and reminder of their powers in their absence (such as museums, art galleries, and so on; see Gell, 1998: 33–4), comedy is structurally insufficient to give rise to and sustain the gamut of society’s ‘symbolic universes’ (their aesthetic, cultural, political, social and economics values; Berger and Luckman, 1991:  113–22). Furthermore, the emphasis upon bodily pleasures has an aesthetic analogue to artistic illegitimacy: powerful groups use art as a means of social distinction, usually through recourse to categories of taste (Bourdieu, 1986). The social distinction arrived at through taste is appreciation, knowledge and comprehension of aesthetic form over a praise and enjoyment of content. Comedy is seen to be deficient with regard to its formal aesthetic qualities: prioritising function over form – laughter for laughter’s sake, bodily pleasure over intellectual reflection – the place of comedy within cultural and artistic life of modern societies is relegated to the low, vulgar or plebeian tastes or to that of mass entertainment (Friedman, 2014: 13–20).

17

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

This aesthete dismissal of comedy’s legitimacy is blind to the philosophical and psychological significance of laughter, and comedy generally, as form of knowing self and society. In the works of Witkin (1976, 1995, 1997, 1998, 2003), the arts – painting, poetry, music, drama and I would include standup comedy – are treated a site of knowing, what he calls ‘the intelligence of feeling’. The intelligence of feeling is a special form of knowing or realisation of ones senses. It is an awareness of self-in-the world (‘Being’) (Witkin, 1976:  20–21). Feeling, unlike moods or emotions, is awareness of senses expressed and understood at a higher level of abstraction: one feels – as a sense – and understands – as an intellectual comprehension of sensuous experience. ‘It is in and through feeling’, argues Witkin (2003: 174), ‘that the individual assimilates the sensations and emotions undergone to the (intra-subjective or intra-actional) process that is constitutive of the subject’s … orientation to the world’. Through feeling, one is at the intra-actional level of experience: beyond mere ‘being in the world’ (co-action), and beyond ‘being among others’ (inter-action), through intra-action one is experiencing self-as-other, self as seen from outside oneself and the world reflected in senses (see Witkin, 1995: 32–43). The intelligence of feeling is a sensuous experience which is ordered and rational without having an ulterior purpose or end. An intelligence of feeling realises social membership at a higher level of intellectual development than the mere acknowledgement of fact or external truths. An intelligence of feeling is reflexive knowledge – one born of living within society and able to reflect upon ones time, place, role, and conditions of membership: When a social presence reflects the sensibility of the subject, it possesses truth-value. By contrast when a social presence is formed that does not reflect the sensibility of

18

THE ART OF STAND-UP COMEDY

the subject, it becomes a rigid schema that lacks truthvalue, is inauthentic. (Witkin, 2003: 176) At this point Witkin’s theory of the arts – developed from Kantian aesthetics and Piaget’s ‘genetic epistemology’ (Witkin, 1976: 1–29; 1995: 44–53; 2003: 173–6) – turns to sociological analysis. Witkin states that art has truth-value only when the form of social life is realised and reflexively appreciated in the form of artworks: If the principles governing the ordering of social life do not also govern the construction of texts, those texts will be unable to bring that ordering of social life to mind; they will not be a means of thinking it. (Witkin, 1998: 33) This is how the intelligence of feeling becomes a mode of critique, of knowing and sensing the limits of the social world. To give a sociological analysis of this process means appreciating how ‘truth-value’ is achieved in the arts by their reflecting the conditions of social life. Sociologically appreciating art’s ‘authenticity’ requires more than knowledge of an arts contents or aesthetic principles. Rather it requires understanding the place of the aesthetic in social life. Crucially this is the value of sociologist’s engaging in art criticism: appreciation of the aesthetic principles of works of art seek to probe at how the feelings evoke and register knowledge of the society which produced and realised such artworks (Witkin, 1997). Utilising the approach that feelings register knowledge of society, in what follows I will elaborate the realities of contemporary stand-up comedy through the lens of social theory to illustrate how the social conditions of stand-up give rise to a particular mode of intra-personal and intra-subjective ‘knowing’. As Witkin explains this methodological procedure, the aim is to

19

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

identify at a theoretical level the aspects of social relations and social structure that can be said to ‘drive’ the aesthetic … even without those artists having access to such an analysis or even conceiving of their projects in these terms. (Witkin, 1997: 103, original emphasis) Crucially this procedure is not concerned with the contents of aesthetic objects – what comedians talk about (sociological, scatological, observational, satirical) makes no difference. Instead this sociology probes at the manner of construction of an aesthetic sensibility, a mode of engagement and ground of realising ‘humour’. From ritual to theatre? Stand-up comedy’s anthropological antecedents When it comes to conceptualising the stand-up comedian there is a tendency to draw upon and make recourse to certain ‘fringe’ anthropological figures or archetypes: magician (Mauss, 2001; Berger, 2014), shaman (Mintz, 1985), fool (Bakhtin, 1981), trickster (Weaver and Mora, 2016), folkloric bard (Brodie, 2014). These figures are not, however, the origins of stand-up comedy nor are they an originary key to their aesthetic. As Vernant and Vidal-Naquet (1990: 23) say in another context: the problem of origins is, in a sense, a false one. It would be better to speak of antecedents. Even then it should be pointed out that they lie at quite a different level from the phenomenon to be explained. They are not commensurable with it … It is less the origins, more the consequences which artistic inventions have on social life and customs which we should investigate.

20

THE ART OF STAND-UP COMEDY

The stand-up comedian is not a magician, trickster, medieval fool or court jester. These eccentric figures are antecedents whose features show intimations as to their place within social customs. Unifying all the figures is their ambiguous place within the social order. The magician or shaman ‘possess magical powers not through their individual peculiarities but as a consequence of society’s attitude toward them and their kind’ (Mauss, 2001: 35). ‘The rogue, the clown and the fool’, Bakhtin observes, ‘create around themselves their own special little world […] They are life’s maskers; their being coincides with their role, and outside this role they simply do not exist’ (Bakhtin, 1981: 159). The trickster walks a tightrope of liminality between cultural hero and villain (Douglas, 2007:  146). Unifying all these figures’ ambiguity is that they are simultaneously inside and outside the social order. They are liminal figures, betwixt and between order and disorder, acceptance and disapproval. Their social figuration mirrors the ontology of humour: they are incongruous. For Berger, ‘the comic should be understood as a form of magic. The comic, like magic, brings about a sudden and rationally inexplicable shift in the sense of reality’ (2014: 110) and while philosophies of humour differ, what unifies them all is that humour arises from a sudden and pleasurable psychological shift in reality (Morreall, 1987). Mary Douglas has treated joking, anthropologically, as a rite of passage where order is supplanted for disorder and the pleasure of play with society’s meanings is expressed (Douglas, 1971: 101–02). From these accounts we do not gain insight into the figure of the stand-up comedian; instead we appreciate the aetiology of comedy as a means of critique: ‘… comedy and humour can offer reinterpretations of social order that may disturb that order because of the similarity between liminality and humorous incongruity’ (Weaver and Mora, 2016: 480). However, this formulation has a tendency to reify or produce a kind of hypostasis in the figure of the joker and their incongruity (being coinciding with role, as Bakhtin observes). This hypostasis

21

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

is something analysis ought to actively avoid, as Weaver and Mora state (2016: 480). With such mythic figures, either from anthropological record or early modern European history, problems arise as to their usefulness in contemporary society when it comes to assigning a value to their critical power. As Weaver and Mora (2016: 481) go on to point out: Comedy is also a discursive practice that crosses some boundaries through the incongruities created in humour, although we would be mistaken in thinking that all comedy is trickster discourse or that all trickster discourse is comical. It is also essential to assert that the boundary crossing of the trickster can be a force for conservativism as well as radical change. A radical system may well fall victim to conservative tricksters. (original emphasis) The problem that arises when drawing upon figures (trickster, clown, and so on) is not so much methodological (that is, using them as interpretive devices, for they aptly categorise the possibility of critique in the humorous). However, the problem in making recourse to them is historical (see Jameson, 1981: 110–11). Figures such as the clown or trickster, and so on, all lack that which is essential to the nature of personhood in modern, western society: interiority, point-of-view, empathy, individual character, the ability for ego-identification and accountability. Crucially clowns or tricksters fail to have ‘the ability to tell a story’ and simultaneously be a character in the story while being the storyteller (…the central narrative feature of all stand-up comedy). In short, they lack the intra-subjectivity and intelligence of feeling outlined above.2 This is not to jettison the value of such fringe figures in the analysis of contemporary stand-up. Their central importance is in providing a series of representations for beliefs and values associated with comedians. Three usages of fringe figures in comedians’ talk, all in different contexts, illustrate that their

22

THE ART OF STAND-UP COMEDY

significance lies in being collective representations of the ethos of stand-up (ideas, beliefs or sentiments which relate to their obligation to be funny). Let’s give three examples of stand-up comedians evoking ‘fringe figures’. First, Arthur Smith, doyen of British Alternative (Alt.) Comedy: I’m very comfortable standing up in front of people and of course 98% of people in the world are absolutely terrified by that prospect.… for example I’ve spoken often at funerals … because people are terrified to speak … at funerals in particular because they don’t want to make a fool of themselves.… Yeah, that’s a type of archetype, … the fool who the other ones tut at but secretly enjoy. (Goldsmith, 2012a) Smith’s account mirrors much of Bakhtin’s ontology of the fool and Douglas’ anthropology of the joker: inside and outside the social order, one who masks life, has the privilege to ‘be other’ in the world, and also express consensus through subversive, but ultimately, benign means. Yet these ideas and beliefs are all structured around his obligation for alterity, not so much illustrating Smith’s own alterity. Notably he uses the word fool in two senses above: the fool is the one who does stand-up comedy to provide for the group, but being a fool is a position others actively do not want to be (when speaking at funerals). What Smith’s talk emphasises is less an anthropological constant but instead the singularity of stand-up comedian: the fool is not an exceptional figure but instead the singular voice, personality and character of the stand-up comedian. From Smith’s profession comes a reflection upon his self in relation to self, others and society: it is an intra-subjective reflection upon his obligation as professional comedian. Elis James says of his first experience watching stand-up comedy:

23

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

Alistair Barry walked on, he was compering, he instantly asked a couple in the front row if they were together, or what they did for a living. I had my hands gripping onto the chair, I thought, ‘he’s just improvising!’ Then the guy said, ‘Yeah I’m a teacher’… I thought, ‘Oh my God! How did he know he was going to be a teacher?’ I thought, ‘The man’s a shaman! The man’s incredible!’ (Goldsmith, 2017a) James’ talk of the shaman, like Smith’s fool, shares affinity with the anthropological figure of the shaman: ‘any individual who has the power to send forth his soul … transported at will to any place’ (Mauss, 2001: 43). The compere’s intimate knowledge of the audience, and the ability to provide comedic material seemingly ex nihilo, has all the qualities of shamanistic mysticism. Yet crucially James’ evocation of shamanism pertains to the intraactional art of stand-up comedy: the stand-up’s magic is to build relations of sociality, self-other relations, in and through the moment of performance. A common sensuous community of sociality is established through the shamanistic magic of laughter building social relations out of nothing, a room of strangers. Contrastingly, John Robins dismisses the clown: I really dislike this notion that somehow comics are a different species, like … ‘We’re clowns, man.… Different to you normal people…’ That’s all absolute bollocks. Comedians are all just people who used to teach, or used to do data-entry. (Goldsmith, 2016b) The disregard for alterity is not, however, an absolute dismissal for clowning as a tradition of theatre. While the ethos of a comedian is so defined that laughter is an absolute end, and a comedian could be the bourgeois mediocrity of a teacher or administrative technician, clowning is often entertained by professional comedians. French clown and pedagogue, Philippe Gaulier is a revered name in contemporary stand-up. His École

24

THE ART OF STAND-UP COMEDY

outside Paris has hosted many a comedian whose act may be a contemporary form of clowning (such as clown Spencer Jones, or Phil Burgers’ ‘Doctor Brown’), or cabaret theatre (for example ventriloquist Nina Conti), or character comedy (like Alexis Dubus’ ‘Marcel Lucont’) (Shipston, 2015). However, while clowning is an aspect of the professionalisation of standup, clowning in contemporary stand-up is less an archetype or mythic figure. Clowning is taught, but the comedian may still be a former or would be teacher or administrator. The clown is used as a figure to illustrate an aspect of intra-personality: of how self relates to self and others, of ‘forensic’ self-examination and ‘finding a voice’. Former Gauiler pupil Trygve Wakenshaw says, clowning … is a lot about complicity on stage and being in the moment with fellow performers. It’s all about being light, subtle, being yourself as well.…We did little insights into Bouffon, which is people spoofing the bubble of high society, that kind of thing. (quoted in Shipston, 2015) Part court jester clowning, the contemporary direction of clowning is to undo ‘the self ’. There is an assumption that persons have an interiority, a depth which is one’s own essence and uniqueness. Clowning, in stand-up comedy, becomes the basis for subjective-reflexive action; a performance of self where self is both the subject of enunciation and object of reflection. In her analysis of American stand-up Louis C.K., Keisalo (2016) theorises the relationship between anthropological ‘clown’ figures and stand-up as part of a broader notion of play in human cultures. Noting that in games there is a substitution of the laws of everyday life to the bounded rules of the ‘game’ (cf. Caillois, 1978), in stand-up Keisalo (2016: 70–71) sees this boundary drawing act as permeable and oscillating. As such, stand-up is caught up in the processes by which self relates to self. The stand-up figure is intra-subjective: their act is ‘reflexive

25

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

and involves a perceptual distancing of the subject from its own experiencing’ (Witkin, 2003: 175). What the uses of fringe figures in comedians talk illustrate is that they are utilised as collective representations which do share affinities with their anthropological antecedents. However, such figures are directed towards illustrating the dynamics of their own obligations as stand-ups in a world radically different to the personhood which such figures have. Given this we need to explain how such figures gain their relevance despite their ethos being the same but their morphological basis being radically different in contemporary society. The magic of the stand-up comedian Part of the answer requires sociologically locating the magic of stand-up comedy and comedians structurally. Double’s definition with which we began approaches stand-up comedy from the structure of the obligation, but what of the circumstances? If comedy is akin to magical operations (Berger, 2014), then what is the place of magic in society? Mauss defined magic as: any rite which does not play a part in organised cults … it reaches the limit of a prohibited rite.… It will be noticed that we do not define magic in terms of the structure of its rites but by the circumstances in which these rites occur, which in turn determine the place they occupy in the totality of social customs (2001: 30 second emphasis added). Magical actions are, simply, techniques which are hedged around with prohibitions and mystery yet, themselves, not sacralised or official. Magical actions are distinguished from would-be nonmagical actions by the beliefs that pertain to them. Crucially Mauss notes that magical acts are in effect mundane techniques which any member of a society could do but magicians have extra-technical power over (mana): ‘With words and gestures’,

26

THE ART OF STAND-UP COMEDY

magic ‘does what techniques achieve by labour’ (Mauss, 2001: 174). Comedy and jokes, as ‘words and gestures’, have a formula and set of techniques which can be learnt and adhered to; indeed the work of contemporary stand-up comedians is working for jokes – producing original comic material – as much it is making a living (see Chapter Two). However, the ability to produce collective laughter and sustain a belief in one’s singular funniness is mastery of performative skills whose origin and efficacy is often rendered mysterious. In this regard the clues to the mystery become where does humour come from in modern society and what is its place within the totality of modern customs? In his historical study The Senses of Humour, Wickberg (1998: 171ff) traces the location of a ‘sense of humour’ within individuals as internal feelings and sensibilities as opposed to traditional epochs which saw sensibilities located ‘in’ the world. Having an individualised ‘sense of humour’, a sensibility whose location is internal to oneself, coincides with the development of the modern public sphere and polite society. Humour becomes a necessary device to navigate a society of impersonal institutions, abstract rules and role obligations (cf. Mulkay, 1988). Humourlessness in persons, in contrast, becomes viewed as a moral, almost psychological fault, to be pitied or condemned (Berger, 2014: 142–3). From this we could say that the alterity of the modern stand-up comedian is that they are distinguishable because their entire obligation is to ‘be funny’. They are overdetermined in comparison to non-comedians whose ‘sense of humour’ is occasionally called upon to navigate social life. While it may appear that they are a remnant of the archaic within modernity, their modernity arises from this alterity being located within their selves at an intra-actional level of sensuous experience. Peter Berger’s theory of modernisation has at various points pointed to the distinctive use of humour in modern societies (Feltmate, 2013). In Redeeming Laughter (Berger, 2014), this

27

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

distinct ‘modern sense of humour’ is founded on the intraactional state of social relations: Modernity pluralises the world. It throws together people with different values and worldviews; it undermines taken-for-granted traditions; … This brings about a multiplicity of incongruencies – and it is the perception of incongruence that is at the core of comic experience. Sociologists have used the phrase ‘role distance’ to describe the detached, reflective attitude of modern individuals towards their actions in society. This also implies cognitive distance … ‘permanent reflectiveness’. The same distance may well be the basis of a specifically modern sense of humour. (Berger, 2014: 188, original emphasis) Pluralisation of life-worlds, as outlined in The Homeless Mind (Berger et al, 1974), draws out the intra-actional sensibility at the heart of modern consciousness. Individuals, in their lifecourse, operate at a level of cognitive abstraction where identity – or ‘sense of self ’ – is ‘peculiarly open, differentiated, reflective and individuated’ (Berger et al, 1974: 73–5). What Berger et al stress is the fact that plurality of ‘points-of-view’ in modernity encourages – even celebrates – an unfinished self: Biography is thus apprehended both as a migration through different social worlds and as the successive realisation of a number of possible identities. The individual is not only ‘sophisticated’ about the worlds and identities of others but also about himself. The open-ended quality … makes the individual peculiarly vulnerable to the shifting definition of himself by others. (Berger et al, 1974: 73) The intra-actional is a sensibility which underlines modern self-identity (especially as it has come down to us from 18th century Romanticism; Taylor, 1989). Stand-up comedy, as

28

THE ART OF STAND-UP COMEDY

it performs self and reflects upon ‘self ’ in the moment of performance, is especially placed as a discursive medium to realise – through form – the ‘unfinished’ self of the modern adult. The importance of this ‘biographical suspense’ is that it encourages a particular consciousness of society as simultaneously built around institutions, customs, roles and other seemingly objective categories or descriptors (such as ‘class’, ‘gender’, ‘race’, and so on) whose contents or powers are understood to be differentiated from self. This encourages ‘the individual … to find his “foothold” in reality in himself rather than outside himself ’ (Berger et al, 1974: 74). Humour is the aesthetic realisation of this existential obligation: humour alerts us to the incongruities of this life. In those incongruities we realise that there is more to existence than our current state. Because humour reveals that socially created forces oppress us, it allows us to relativize our situation and reach beyond it … (Feltmate, 2013: 535) The consequence of this emphasis upon self as the centre of meaning, over a wider ‘structural’ or institutional reality, is that it encourages not only a differentiation of self-world but also a position of exteriority on reality where the locus of societal critique is captured in an experiential, lived, individualised form. The ‘permanent reflectiveness’ of modern individuals is the very ground from which critique arises. To view the social conceived from particular points-of-view means social realities – whether institutional, intersectional (class, race, gender), customary or conventional – may be rendered incongruence through comedy routines.

29

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

The modernity of the stand-up comedian In order to illustrate this more fully in the figure of the stand-up, we need to account for how the circumstances of the standup comedian’s rites drive this aesthetic of intra-personality. Despite the stand-up being an ordinary person defined by their overdetermined sense of humour, the question becomes where and to whom is humour provided? In our rollcall of anthropological figures, we have looked at the fool, clown and shaman, but what of the others listed: the rogue, or the trickster? The fool, clown or shaman accounts for intra-personality in stand-up, the rogue or trickster accounts for the circumstances in which comedians find themselves. Limon’s aperçu that stand-up comedy in America begins with the rise of suburbanisation, creating a commuting relation to abjection (sex, aggression, alterity) in urban centres, is coupled with the idea that stand-up becomes a ‘hustle’ or ‘scam’ (Limon, 2000: 22). While an interpretation at the level of literary and cultural theory, the sociological analogue to Limon’s insight is that the stand-up comedian’s structural location in the ensemble of modern social relations of ‘self-other’ is a professionalisation of the role of the trickster/confidence artist: invested with trust, knowledge and insight but ultimately out to swindle. The position of comedian as trickster is not mythic, it is structural: it arises from an awkward position in the sociality of modern societies where strangers are invested with trust implicitly (Giddens, 1990). Instead of following Limon’s stand-up as conartist wholesale, sociologically we could follow its structural location: the stand-up as stranger invested with trust but whose material is an undoing of our expectations of their ‘normality’. Goffman’s (1952) ‘On cooling the mark out’ tellingly notes that the circumstances of the con is a take on suburbanisation: it occurs on commuter trains, and the professionalisation of ‘cooling marks out’ (to preserve social order) requires a ‘perfect stranger’ (a fellow passenger) who is able to adjust the mark’s

30

THE ART OF STAND-UP COMEDY

anger into acquiescence to the swindle. While the analogies with stand-up and con-artistry are evident at a formal level (both involve creating intimacy with strangers, building trust through a payoff – laughter, or money – and is built around excitement – play), the most important analogue is the circumstances in which these acts take place. Stand-up comedy is not so much con-artistry but it is placed within the same structural location of con-artists: they work on the margins of social life. Their life is iterant and dependent on a night-time economy of stranger conviviality (pubs, clubs, bars). The obligation of humour situated in ‘the margins’: the stand-up comedian is obliged to make strangers laugh by travelling to them and intruding upon them, socially and phenomenologically. When Double describes the economic position of the stand-up, the confidence artist comes to mind not so much in terms of criminal fraud but the trust invested within them: Stand-up comedians are self-employed as sole traders seeking contracts from venues and broadcasters … Ultimately their market value is based on their ability to make an audience laugh … As a result by paying the ticket price it is … the audience that employs them in a commercial venture which trades laughs for money. (Double, 2015: 654) The confidence is pay-for-laughs, and this involves movement. Stebbins’ (1990) ethnography of initiate stand-ups in Canada drew out the twin representations of ‘the circuit’ and ‘the road’ as defining features of the lived experience of the stand-up. ‘The road’, the dominant chronotope of the modern stand-up comedian, comes to drive their aesthetic and profession’s ethos. ‘The road’ has a pivotal role within the sociality of modern societies (Dalakoglou, 2010): roads in modernity act as material agents of distanciation, of connecting presence (here-and-now) with absence (an ‘elsewhere’ or ‘meanwhile’) (cf. Giddens,

31

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

1990: 14–15; Anderson, 1983: 24–5). Roads are defined doubly by locality and mobility, permanence and transience. As such ‘the road’ as a meaningful representation comes to encapsulate the sociality of modernity: encounters with strangers, with all classes, estates, nationalities, creeds, religions, ethnic groups, whose separateness usually is extinguished, for chance events or random thoughts (Bakhtin, 1981: 243–4). Crucially all this happens within one’s own society and illustrates not an exotic life but instead ‘the sociohistorical heterogeneity of one’s own country ...’ (Bakhtin, 1981: 245) In this respect, the stand-up is a stranger who elicits confidence through peddled laughter. Simmel’s (1971) essay on ‘The Stranger’ in modernity defines him/her as at once a member and outsider to a particular group; a stranger’s strangeness arises from their ‘unity of nearness and remoteness’. And central to the figure of the clown, rogue and fool in Bakhtin’s (1981: 160) account is their separateness to society while, at the same time, evoking laughter which ‘bears the stamp of the public square where the folk gather’. The indication of being ‘not of this world’ for stand-up gains its truth-value because the figure of the stranger and chronotope of ‘the road’ encourage such a subject position. One dominant representation of the stranger, Simmel (1971) points out, is the trader, a travelling middleman outside the group who enters to peddle wares. So within Bakhtin’s (1981) pre-modern account of the medieval rogue is in fact a pearl of modernity: the marketplace and the multitude of ordinary people. While we can theoretically account for the structural liminality of stand-up comedians, in what way is the ‘stranger-clown’ able to be evidenced in stand-up comedy as a social practice? We could say the figure of the stand-up comedian is a performance, and sensuous reconstruction, of the sociality of the stranger. Brodie’s theorisation of stand-up as form of ‘folk talk’, a sustained form of autonomous and ‘popular’ storytelling beyond its commercialised dimensions, relies upon a crucial aspect of stranger sociality in stand-up: the microphone. Noting Frith’s

32

THE ART OF STAND-UP COMEDY

(1996: 187) insight that the microphone produces an illusion of intimacy in the form of a crowd (through the amplified whisper, breath, and so on), Brodie (2008: 156–60) sees the microphone as a technological means for the stand-up to transcend the timespace modalities of modern societies. The comedian, through the microphone, creates the illusion of group sentiments in a society where the dominant form of sociality is strangers as ‘near (proximally) and far (socially)’. While humour and joking-relationships have long been understood as a tool and marker of social cohesion, the standup comedian is a distillation of wider morphological features in modernity. Stand-up comedians bring together a dominant affective state which results from the ordering of social relations in a modern society: the sense of homelessness (Berger et al, 1974), loneliness in a crowd (Riesman, 1961) and permanent ‘stranger’ status (Simmel, 1971; Bauman, 2000; Weaver, 2011, 2010). The stand-up comedian, as a figure of modernity, may both embody and figuratively construct the aesthetic sensibility of sociality in modern societies as a society of strangers and a plurality of points-of-view and social types. Intra-personality, or the modernism of the stand-up comedian To this end, in this final section I shall illustrate how the modernity of the stand-up comedian drives their comedic aesthetic: the ‘inner cells’ of a comedian’s performance realise and reflect the dominant pattern of social relations of modern societies (Witkin, 1997:  107, 2003:  13–15). These relations prioritise an aesthetic which can properly be called ‘intraactional’. An intra-actional artwork is one where: the subject seeks to construct his or her social being directly in and through the process of relating to others.… The intra-actional relationship is, therefore, one in which

33

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

the identity of the parties is reflexively improvised in and through relationship itself. Identity is not something the parties bring to the relationship but something which is constructed from it (Witkin, 1995: 40). We have seen how the alterity of the stand-up comedian, far from being a mysterious, occult residue of premodernity, is in fact drawn from a thoroughly modern conception of the person (singularity, interiority, emotive) and an over-determination of the sensibility all modern people have and use to navigate the social world (an internalised, intra-personal ‘sense of humour’). Modern societies are ones where intra-personal relations predominate: these are societies where the relationship between ‘what people do’ (social action) and ‘who they are’ (identity structures) is increasingly problematic and an ongoing project of constitution (see Giddens, 1991; Bauman, 2000; Beck et al, 1991). The intra-personal relations which constitute the stand-up comedian, embodied in the time-space of the road-stranger, prioritises a distinctly modernist aesthetic. While modernism was an artistic movement c.1870 into the 20th century, what modernism established was a world view which has become commonplace to how we view society, life and identity: to live in a world where aestheticisation is part-and-parcel of the everyday (Witkin, 1995: 113–15; also, Featherstone, 1991). At the level of aesthetics, Witkin identifies seven features which defined modernist plastic arts (1995:  106–15); however, for present purposes, I will demonstrate two here which are central to stand-up as a discursive art: (1) primacy of aesthetic surface (or ‘appearance’); and (2) negation of the boundary between art and world.

34

THE ART OF STAND-UP COMEDY

Primacy of aesthetic surface: appearance as essence

Jokes, as forms of expression, are governed by what Freud (1994) called ‘thrift’. Illustrating his theory that jokes are pleasurable shifts in perception which amounts to a psychic bargain (a swindle or con), Freud offers Hamlet’s scornful witticism on his mother’s hasty remarriage upon his father death: ‘Thrift, Horatio.… The funeral bake meats did coldly furnish the marriage table’. This perfectly captures a Freudian joke, an economy of form and a ‘safe’ means for the release of repressed aggression and sexual desire (Oedipal in Hamlet’s case). However, Freud remains under the surface, so to translate the unconscious to surface appearance, Mary Douglas’ (1971) anthropological translation of Freudian joke theory is helpful: jokes, understood anthropologically, are a making apparent of the dominant ways social life is ordered. In what way, then, is stand-up joking a social bargain and how do jokes make the social ‘appear’? As stand-up comedy has become a form of ‘excavation of self ’, it has relied less and less upon ‘joke jokes’. Gone are ‘one liners’, and if they remain they become a niche (‘one liner comedians’, such as Jimmy Carr); but neither have they become ‘storytellers’ where humorousness is incidental to a yarn (as with Dave Allen). Rather stand-up comedians have adopted a practice of ‘wittification of self ’, an economisation of ‘who they are’ and commodification of self (a persona which can be peddled). This economy of selfhood is distilled in the central aesthetic device which comedians utilise, a speech idiom that Bakhtin (1984) called ‘billingsgate’ or ‘the language of the marketplace’ in Rabelais and his world. Billingsgate is a form of advertising which, through humour, scatology, and ribaldry, both charms and insults its products: it aims to ‘toy with the objects that they announce’ and creates an atmosphere where ‘the exalted and the lowly, the sacred and the profane are levelled and all are drawn into the same dance.… Popular advertising is always ironic.’ (Bakhtin, 1984: 160)

35

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

Stand-up comedians will utilise this speech idiom to introduce themselves. For instance, Katharine Ryan: ‘I’m a single mother. My daughter was planned, poorly.’ This ironising is the aesthetic sensibility and ground from which the figure, their persona, ‘stands-up’. Aesthetically comic personas, through comic incongruity, illustrate one of the founding aspects of modern role theory: how we appear is not, necessarily, who we are, much like Goffman’s (1952) con-artists. Sociologists interested in modern ‘role obligations’ have noted that as our ideas of ‘a person’ come to stress individual uniqueness, this is coupled with a structural analogue of increasing abstraction (Witkin, 1995: 32–9). Various social theorists (Simmel, 1971; Plessner, 1999; Berger, 2014) have noted the manner in which ‘role distance’ is essential to the preservation of the individual uniqueness and the performers of such roles: the postman has a social function of a deliverer of messages, but he has an individual life as a model train enthusiast. Comic personas are, sociologically, an aestheticisation of a cultural fact of modern life: a way to toy with, and ideologically place, the indeterminacy of ‘who we are’ and ‘what we appear to be’, to play to social perceptions (such as those towards single mothers) and undermine them. This is the central meaning I give to the ‘billingsgate idiom’ in contemporary stand-up as a type of joke-work. The structure of the stand-up comedy ‘gig’ may be read as a joke-rite: a stranger enters the presence of others and claims collective attention. A stranger who claims attention needs a reason to do so (ask directions, the time, borrow a cigarette lighter) and the attention has to end with assurance (they did only want directions, the time, a lighter). Appearing on stage, the questions ‘who are you?’ and ‘what do you want?’ are central to the process. ‘Billingsgate’ is a short-circuiting of this process of stranger-to-stranger. One illustration of this can be found in footage of early British Alternative comedian, Ted Chippington. Chippington’s act essentially revolved around one joke, itself a

36

THE ART OF STAND-UP COMEDY

commentary upon ‘stranger sociality’, known as ‘Walking down the road the other day’. Ted would say, I was walking down the road the other day, bloke comes up to me and says ‘how far is the train station?’ I say [gruff voice]: ‘One mile’ ‘One mile?’ [gruff voice]: ‘Aye, one mile. Roughly speaking.’ (Chippington, 2007) Contemporary comedy has extended this ‘stranger sociality’ to short-circuit the meeting on the road; billingsgate is a con in joke-form: who are you, what do you want? Billingsgate is a shortcut to identity (who they are); and the reason for attention, to joke, subverts expectations. For instance, why is Ivo Graham on stage? Who is he? He says he went to Eton College, so his billingsgate is: … I am aware the reputation Eton has. You come on stage, say you went to Eton, immediately you feel people sizing you up, people going, ‘What kind of Old Etonian is he?’ Is he one of the bad ones like David Cameron slowly dismantling the welfare state? Or one of the good ones like Eddie Redmayne, pretending to be disabled for money? (Graham, 2016) Or the more economised version of Ivo’s billingsgate is Miles Jupp’s opening one liner. A posh, white male walks on stage: ‘Thank you, I’m very privileged to be here. And in general.’ The sensuous ground which billingsgate establishes is one where laughter becomes the means by which selves are simultaneously believed in and undermined. Instead of the figure of the stand-up comedian being one of fixed essence – clown, fool, or trickster – the modernism of the stand-up comedian evidences itself in a skilful, artful and improvised performance of appearances. Roles are played to, not enacted; personas establish a starting

37

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

point to send up and toy with. There is role distance and role commitment in the same moment of the billingsgate idiom. Billingsgate works upon the psychic bargain which Freud (1994) claimed jokes relied upon (a form of ‘thrift’). But ‘billingsgate’ is the psychic made social; it is the stranger as peddler of self. Not only is it an aesthetic realisation of modern sociality, it is also a product of a particular form of humour which takes its heritage from 1960s Jewish American stand-up and 1970s/80s British Alternative Comedy. Billingsgate is not a threat to particular social groups (ethnic minorities, or other marginal groups) but rather it is an attack on the self. It takes the would-be aggression the audience has to the stand-up, as a stranger, and allows the stranger to do ‘aggression’ on themselves for the audience. As such, I am convinced by Freud’s theory of wit as psychic thrift, but not for the reasons Mary Douglas (1971) is: billingsgate is not a symbolic commentary upon patterns of social control. I would suggest instead that billingsgate is the psychic thrift which creates an aesthetic solution to a politically unconscious dimension of modern social life (Jameson, 1981). Jameson has suggested aesthetic acts ought to be treated as ideological acts in their own right, offering symbolic solutions to sociological contradictions. The social contradiction we have traced in this chapter is trying to ascertain where to locate humour in modern society. Identifying first the ethos of the comedian – a singular funny individual – has led us to explore the social morphology of humour as an aspect of modern individuation: it is both a ‘sensibility’ and a means to navigate a society where steadfast expectations (of life, others, ourselves, and institutions or customs) are not possible. As such, billingsgate in comedian’s speech is what Jameson (1981: 61) would call an ideologeme, the minute speech act which registers an antagonism in modern perceptions of people as both fixed abstract categories (of class, race or gendered identity, and so on) and unique individuals. As such billingsgate is an aesthetic realisation, through speech-form,

38

THE ART OF STAND-UP COMEDY

of the social structure of modernity as a plurality of points-ofview (Berger et al, 1974) and permanent strangers (Simmel, 1971). Billingsgate draws out how the stranger sociality of the stand-up comedian is itself reflected in the aesthetic codes of comedy: the stand-up comedian is both a stranger and a particular point-of-view aware of their strangeness and the coded social messages their persona harbours. Negation of the boundary between art and reality

Yet comic personas are unlike theatrical personae. They are not masks for stage but increasingly, for modern stand-up comedians, drawn from their own biographies and personalities. But they, still, are not direct performances of personalities; they remain either heightened versions of self, or exaggerations of parts. I will elaborate upon persona more fully in Chapter Four through the metaphysics of time and duration found in Henri Bergson’s philosophy, so to prelude that I will draw out here Bergson’s (1987) philosophy of humour as a means to illustrate the negation of ‘art and life’ found in stand-up persona. Stand-up, in contemporary guise, is a form of autobiographical lyric poetry. In literary theory, Paul de Man’s (1979) essay ‘Autobiography as De-facement’ claims autobiography to be impossible: the act which seeks to confirm the subject’s relation to itself, in fact, demonstrates a failure to ‘come into being’. Autobiography is an act which confirms the dissolution of the subject: in an act which seeks to relate self-to-self without artifice, autobiography ends up being nothing but tropes. However, autobiography in stand-up is far from an escaping of tropes, it is an embracing of them: the self becomes the basis for tropes, indeed billingsgate is the essence of this. The ‘trope’, in the sense of an invitation for metaphor, simile, allegory, is where comic personas reveal what Bergson calls the ‘mechanical in the organic’: that which ought to be a vital living force, human beings, is shown to be an automaton. For Bergson

39

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

humour as ridicule and laughing at people is not merely an aesthetic sensation, it is an ethical act: through laughter people realise they are not a rigid, mechanical automaton but rather a free, vital subject. Bergson’s philosophy is written for a modern society, a society which requires of us: a constantly alert attention that discerns the outlines of the present situation, together with a certain elasticity of mind and body to enable us to adapt ourselves in consequence. Tension and elasticity are two forces, mutually complementary, which life brings into play (Bergson, 1987: 124, original emphasis). A society where commitment to roles and adaptation to new scenarios are complementary is one where laughter crosses from aesthetic to ethical act. Laughter is a gesture to both enjoy a particular ‘aestheticisation of life’ (Featherstone, 1991: 66f; cf. Witkin, 1995: 114), and an ethical commitment to not being engulfed by ones ‘social being’ (race, class, gender, and so on). Liam Williams’ 2015 Fringe show ‘Bonfire Night’ is a good comic illustration of both Bergson’s ethical philosophy of humour and the tropology of autobiography in stand-up. ‘Bonfire Night’ was a show about capitalism, climate change, ‘the 1%’ but, really, it was about Liam Williams: I don’t mean to sound self-sabotaging and ungrateful or anything. I do appreciate you coming, but sometimes I’m like, ‘What am I doing? It’s just another white, middle class guy talking about how hard it is being fine’.… Okay, no, this time I’ll do more with it, I’ll get beyond this, sort of, solipsistic self-obsession and I’ll tackle serious themes. I’ll tackle climate change, and economic inequality. Great, how you going to do it? I’m going to mention them! (Williams, 2015)

40

THE ART OF STAND-UP COMEDY

Williams is the statistical mean of contemporary stand-up comedy identified in Chapter Three: a white, middle class (and highly educated), straight, millennial male. Here the joke of complaining about being fine, and the inability to address serious issues, is shown through the tropology of social categories. Liam is a ‘global subject’, in the sense that white, middle class, male (and straight and millennial) are positions through which hegemonic notions of ‘normal’ discursively establish ‘otherness’. So Liam’s trope of the ‘solipsistic, self-obsessed’ comedian is an ethical understanding of such a global subject position. The elasticity demanded of him to achieve an ‘otherness’ is one his subject position is incapable of: how can a global subject, defined as the category against which difference is known, understand difference? In a routine about not being able to emphasise with tragedy on the news he prints out pictures of dead polar bears and refugee children to try and provoke his sympathy. Defeated he says, ‘Argh! … I’m just gonna watch all of Mad Men again …’ (Williams, 2015). Williams’ excavation of self is not evidence of an inability to understand, or comprehend, human tragedy. The laughter ‘Bonfire Night’ provokes can be read as Bergsonian ethical laughter: a reminder of the ethical obligation to others outside of the solipsism modernity places us in, and its limits. Coda Having established stand-up comedy’s modernist aesthetic, we are in a position to begin illustrate how the cultural politics of self found in stand-up can (potentially) become the basis for sociological critique. This chapter has attempted to trace the figuration of stand-up comedy, as an artform, as the sensuous realisation of the dominant pattern of social relations found in modern society. Instead of trying to find the essence or origins of stand-up comedy, or its antecedents, the procedure has been to identify in what way existing social relations give us insight into the fringe figures to which stand-up is often seen

41

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

as analogous to (clowns, tricksters, shaman, fools). Having demystified these figures, it has been shown that the stand-up comedian’s structural location in modern societies goes hand in hand with a comedic aesthetic that intelligibly realises – becomes a means of ‘knowing’ (Witkin, 1995) – the dominant relations of ‘self-other’ that prevail in modernity. To understand how a modernist aesthetic governs contemporary stand-up is to begin to appreciate not only the obligations which stand-up comedians are under but the circumstances through which their obligations are comprehended – it is to know how we relate to one another as strangers and create mutual relations of intimacy where there ought not to be any.

42

2

The Professionalisation of Stand-Up Comedy

Comedy for art’s sake To approach professionalisation in stand-up means exploring stand-up’s central object – laughter or, better, the social production of laughter. Stories of professionalisation involve identifying where a jurisdictional claim is located and how this monopoly is maintained (Abbott, 1988). Laughter is the professional jurisdiction of the stand-up comedian. Yet how this jurisdiction is maintained is, at first instance, difficult to discern. Writing of the structural conditions of contemporary stand-up comedy, Russell Kane (2007: 130) identifies six stages in the comedian’s rise from amateur to professional through the rite of passage of gigs: ‘the five-minute ‘open spot’; the ten minute half-set; the fifteen minute; the ‘paid’ twenty; the forty-minute headline set; and the solo show’. The line between professional and amateur discerned here seemingly works through payment for 20 minutes and reaches its epitome in the solo show, which is an hour-long performance at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Treating this claim to jurisdiction through remuneration and performance of an hour-long show implies that comedy’s professionalisation comes into existence through salary and, following this, management or representation. However, this obscures the nature of comedy as professional work: if the unpaid, five-minute ‘open spot’ gains laughs, then the same material may be of use for the subsequent

43

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

stages. The amateur material could well be professional and vice versa. Significant to the account that follows is how the obligation of comedic excellence – laughter – is overdetermined in positioning the professional status of a comedian. Throughout this chapter I will approach the professionalisation of comedy by recourse to the ontology of humour so as to discern the jurisdictional boundary comedians claim for themselves. By demonstrating that laughter has a very weak jurisdictional status, it is argued that what has secured the professionalisation of stand-up is how this laughter is socially produced. Contemporary British stand-up comedy is reliant upon a dynamic model of comedy production, what I term the ‘circuit-fringe axis’: comedians work a club circuit where they peddle material and this material is shaped, moulded and performed as an hour-long Edinburgh Festival Fringe show. This model of comedy production relies upon an investment in the rigours of the comedy ‘circuit’ as a means to shape comedy material, but the ethos is directed towards creating something else beyond laughter. With the Fringe as the epitome, the material of the circuit goes into producing a piece of theatre. The Fringe show relies upon the skills and techniques of theatre, yet has its origins in lower-brow entertainment of the comedy circuit. Ultimately what contemporary standup’s professionalisation consists of is the ability for comedians to claim a jurisdiction for laughter by transforming marginal entertainment into theatrical ‘high art’ (Friedman, 2014). To tell this story, first the chapter demonstrates the ontology of humour to establish the lens of professional jurisdiction. In so doing it draws out the central facet of laughter’s jurisdictional boundary in contemporary stand-up: original comic material which is judged to be the sole property and proprietary right of the stand-up who writes and performs it. Second, exploring this emphasis on original material, the chapter outlines the way in which the ‘circuit-fringe’ provides the social space for legitimate comedy production as it foregrounds and performs

44

THE PROFESSIONALISATION OF STAND-UP COMEDY

this originality. Third the chapter provides an account of how the ‘circuit-fringe’ encourages the over-investment in comic originality. It highlights the ritual and corporate features of comic originality. Then it demonstrates how comic originality is sustained and invested in by way of a form of professional solidarity: the celebration of the ethos of fellow comedians who epitomise these values. ‘I’m a professional comedian, I know what’s funny’ The ‘amateurism’ perceived in stand-up comedy is not due to the content of comedy. Instead it is the form of humour which shows the futility of professionalising laughter: jokes only work if an audience laughs at them. One can glimpse this belief in the ironic self-referrals that contemporary comedians make to their own status as ‘professionals’.1 These can be found within what is often called ‘asides’. They are meta-comedic, ironic self-referrals: James Acaster: ‘Pictures you put your head in’

[A routine about going to the seaside and using pier-side tourist entertainments alone.] … Pictures you put your head in. Know what I’m talking about? They’re the opposite of masks, if that helps? I knew you would know it. Same hymn sheet. There was one that was free. A little kids one.… The classic scene. You know the scene. The beach scene. A big fat lady in a swim suit. A skinny guy with a knotted handkerchief on his head. I put my head in the lady one, because I’m a professional comedian, I know what’s funny… (Acaster, 2018a) Meta-comedic asides are not isolated examples but may be read as aesthetic reflections upon the conditions of contemporary stand-up: knowledge that they as comedians have an obligation to humour, but securing this belief in audiences is (seemingly)

45

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

futile. This awareness is telling: the ontology of humour demonstrates a barrier to jurisdiction claimed by comedians. Limon’s (2000: 13) notion of absolute stand-up is helpful here: audiences constitute jokes as they are retroactively confirmed as funny by proof of laughter. Stand-up material becomes merely supplementary to the perfect object stand-up: laughter without means. In the cases here, we may read these self-referrals as potential solutions to the (seeming) futility of monopolising laughter. First, these asides may be understood in terms of aesthetic form: asides are supplementary to the dominant speech whose deviation mark them out as deferrals. Yet these deferrals are punctured moments of comic speech which does not deviate from their comedic obligation, rather they further it: they get laughs. Their deferral as ‘asides’ acts to puncture narrative. Utilised for laughter they become plot-points within a comic routine, a narrative with the organising logic of laughter through deferral of punchline. Second, these plot-points evidence a self-consciousness of their position: they are commentaries on their obligation in and through the moment of performance. This intra-actional relation highlights at once a distance between obligation and identity – what people do and who they are – and its consummation: through referring to their obligation and its status, they both undermine and confirm its jurisdiction and exclusivity. Ironic self-referrals on the professional monopoly on comedy are not acts of humility or self-ridicule upon the part of the stand-up comedian. The low-social status of the stand-up comedian preformed in these ironic asides involves a sleight of hand: in a moment of power – sole speaking rights among a group and exclusive provision of the collective desire (humour) – they claim to undermine such power. If no laughter through means (material, routines, and jokes) is evidence of a failure of stand-up and absolute stand-up is laughter without means (Limon, 2000: 12–15), then ironic comments upon their

46

THE PROFESSIONALISATION OF STAND-UP COMEDY

professionalism is an expression of ‘the comic’ par excellence: it is the incongruent illustration of the stand-up’s obligation. They claim to know laughter beyond an audience’s discretion, but they can only achieve laughter through means that rely upon audience confirmation – this is not a contradiction but an incongruity, a lack of harmony (not antithesis). So third and finally these self-conscious asides uneasily situate the place of laughter within social life while also claiming a monopoly upon the comedic. These statements are humorous precisely because of the incongruity they highlight: ‘what is funny’ is intra-actional; it appears within groups and confirmed by a shared sensuous relation to the phenomenon found amusing. These ironic self-referrals evidence a cognisance of diverse and plural base of potential ‘others’ (an audience, a collective ‘you’). This is the intelligence of feeling required for humour. Not only is comedy a group activity, it needs to be apposite to echo group sentiments. ‘You would hardly appreciate the comic’, argues Bergson (1987: 199), ‘if you felt yourself isolated from others. Laughter appears to stand in need of an echo’. Taken together these asides – or meta-comedic jokes – demonstrate that contemporary stand-up routines are narrative driven; their storytellers claim a monopoly upon humour; and they are aware this monopoly has an uneasy and tenuous claim to exclusivity. Fundamentally these meta-comedic jokes owe their success to there being a public willing to engage and appreciate the nuances of their humorousness: a public that is ready to accept comic material which is unique to the comedian and with a familiarity with the aesthetics of comedy and understanding of the form. Far from being insignificant asides, their partwhole relation demonstrates significant aspects in stand-up comedy’s professionalisation. The heightened awareness of their comic obligation and a claim to its jurisdiction as well as the incongruence of a monopoly upon humour is the result of the relative autonomy of the field of stand-up comedy. Reading

47

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

these comedic contents requires awareness of the comedic field and its professional circumstances. Professionalism: humour through inference The ironic self-referrals found in contemporary comedy routines is best appreciated through the lens Abbott (1988: 40–58) uses of professional jurisdiction and its cultural machinery – diagnosis, treatment and its special use of inferences. Professions not only monopolise tasks, they also elaborate multiple solutions to the same problem by way of inference (the middle ground between the problem they encounter and its solution). Inferences are crucial to professions establishing a clear body of esoteric knowledge which they claim exclusivity over. Above the metacomedic material is incongruence recourse to professional inference: how do you make, say, seaside tourism funny? The need for inferences – recourse to evidence-based problem solving – arises when the relationship between a problem and its solution is unclear. Socially, inferences are used in professional reasoning as a basis for legitimating as well as securing their areas of jurisdiction (Abbott, 1988: 48–52). The inferences involved in stand-up comedy are central to the story of its professionalisation. Limon’s (2000) notion of ‘absolute stand-up’ distils the idea that stand-up comedy is so narrowly defined by its relationship between diagnosing a problem – an audience is not laughing – and its treatment – making them laugh – that laughter becomes an overdetermined end. ‘Standup is all supplement’ because ‘[l]aughter is more than the value of a routine; more than a determinant of the routine … it is the arteries and veins of the routine’s circulation’ (Limon, 2000: 13). If stand-up is all supplement then this means that stand-up comedy is premised upon inferences much more than other dramatic professions. Stand-up relies upon a comedian’s material in such a way that beyond their theatrical skills – timing, rhythm, delivery, physicality (non-verbal cues) – the material

48

THE PROFESSIONALISATION OF STAND-UP COMEDY

itself is judged by evidence of laughter, not appreciation of its technicality or accomplishment. Laughter retroactively confirms the worth of all that produces it; and laughter is a holistic appreciation. This point is often simplified in a popular adage of stand-up comedy: ‘there is no such thing as material’. Such an adage has become the subject of folklore. One recent example is British stand-up Russell Kane and his novel The Humourist (2012). Kane’s protagonist is an incarnate vision of Limon’s absolute stand-up, a man with a savant ability to understand pure humour beyond material: Comedians imagine it’s the material, or even more deludedly some sort of ‘technique’ that makes them funny. But … I knew. It’s material plus the tiny secret parts of them, the parts they are blind to. This makes them what they are. No ‘great comic’ has ever been able to see all that. Anyone who could would not be a comedian. They would implode, or dissolve – simply not be… (Kane, 2012: 16) Kane’s hero, however, is less an argument for the folklore of ‘no such thing as material’ or the magician archetype, instead it is a characterisation of the metaphysics of humour understood through the lens of the contemporary stand-up comedian’s professional work and jurisdictional boundaries. Kane’s metaphysic of the absolute comedian relies upon the assumption that comedians are under the obligation to provide comedic material as the basis for their exclusive, jurisdictional claim. The very notion of absolute stand-up is itself a dream scenario which arises only after the boundary and demarcation of the stand-up comedian’s obligations have been established. The objective problem with which stand-up comedians are confronted – laughter to strangers – highlights and draws out an interest in the metaphysics of humour but it is one guided by a professional politics: that comedians have to produce, and

49

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

claim exclusivity for, their own material. Their success (or failure) rests upon this effort. The thorny issue of comic originality: circuit and fringe This is distilled into a focus upon comic originality and ‘joke ownership’. While there has been philosophical, legal as well as industry debate over the possibility of ‘joke ownership’ (Double, 1997; May, 2013; Schnieder, 2009; Lee, 1995, to name a mere few), the desire for and philosophical possibility of ownership indexes the existence of a sphere of professional obligation already reliant upon ownership. A zero-tolerance policy on joke theft is the sacred core for an ethical code that contemporary stand-up endorses. Comic originality cannot be separated from the axis of comedic legitimacy to which contemporary comedians have to submit. The axis of comedy legitimacy is what I am calling the ‘circuit-fringe’: the valorisation of the clubs and circuit stand in relation to the epitome of comedy performance, dedicated comedy festivals, namely the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Circuit, or fringe, origins for a Fringe art

This is one of the central ironies of contemporary stand-up comedy. In Britain the comedy circuit has its roots in working men’s clubs (Double, 2014: 36–37). Peculiar to stand-up comedy clubs was how they worked from the vernacular humour of working class culture. The circuit clubs worked not upon comic originality nor from the authorial voice of the comedian. The working men’s clubs, through the Club and Institute Union (CIU), claimed a monopoly upon jokes and comic material. As Friedman (2014: 17) notes, ‘comedians rarely had proprietary rights over their comic material and instead bought jokes “in bulk” from the “enormous repertoire” stored by the CIU’. Vaudeville, and variety acts, maintained this tradition and club

50

THE PROFESSIONALISATION OF STAND-UP COMEDY

comics worked under the assumption that jokes were common property; jokes were to be told not owned. The Alternative (Alt.) Comedy movement since the 1980s initiated an idea that jokes were material which could, and ought to be, monopolised by a comic persona (Double, 1997). Comic material as common property has since receded despite the dubious legality of copyrighting jokes (May, 2013). Speaking in 2013 at his former college, St Edmund’s Hall, Oxford, heir of the Alt. Comedy movement Stewart Lee seeks out the origin of the ‘stand-up comedian as writer’ and pinpoints this in Jewish-American Lenny Bruce, the stand-up who approximates a comedian as writer in relation to the 1950s Beat poets and authors. Referring to a joke by British stand-up Tony Allen which references Bruce, Lee remarks that: … it places Tony Allen as part of an American tradition where the comedian is a dangerous, sort of decadent, thinker-artist figure, rather than a man in a bow-tie making fun of racial minorities before a raffle in a pub.… In the 50s and 60s, in America, Lenny Bruce’s material was obviously written by him, it wasn’t borrowed. It was in his own Jewish hipster idiom and it was from his own experiences. It ranged around, covering subjects for which there was no pre-existing pool of material to steal from: the Civil Rights movement, homosexuality, drugs, philosophy, history. And it was conversational in style, it wasn’t locked into the rhythms of gags. (Lee, 2013) The biggest debt, in many ways, contemporary stand-up owes to the Alt. Comedy movement is installing ideals of comedian as modernist, a writer ‘of a personal, private style, as unmistakable as your fingerprint’ (Jameson, 1998: 6). Yet this raises questions as to what exactly the circuit is invested in if the conditions of laughter’s production are the opposite. Not only this, the humour that the club circuit was known for

51

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

is socially impermissible in contemporary stand-up. The answer is that the circuit provides the basis less for comic originality, and is more a space which may be appropriated to further the ends of aesthetic modernism found in stand-up. While the working men’s clubs, by contemporary standards, epitomise the politically incorrect race, gender and sexuality politics, Double’s (1997) history of the clubs explores the manner in which club comics developed a stand-up comedy rooted in a left-of-centre politics and critique of injustices. The history of comedy as fringe theatre is valued precisely for its sociocultural association with a critique of bourgeois normality and sensibilities. Double’s (1997) history of the club circuit is one which outlines how it gave rise to a view that the world, its institutions and taken-for-granted assumptions ‘could be otherwise’. Within club amateurism was the kernel of laughter for means of critique. Indeed this evidences precisely the road to an intra-personal sensibility which contemporary stand-up prioritises. Against the bullying, ‘racist’ humour found in the clubs, Double’s vision of comedy seeks knowledge of ‘the room’ as a microcosm of a multi-cultural and diverse society. The club and the circuit remains for its mythology of its left-ofcentre critique and marginal place within culture and society. A mythology feeds stand-up comedians’ obligations to submit to the rigours of the circuit. They make the fringe nature of the club circuit into a virtue, a means to hone and master their work (Stebbins, 1990), while like the Beat poets and iconoclastic Lenny Bruce, they use the road as a means to forge their intrapersonal selfhood (cf. McCracken, 2008: 85–96). British Alternative Comedy, roughly dated circa 1979–89, can be seen as having two main concerns: revolutionising stand-up beyond humour grounded in what could be called ‘targets’ (who the joke is at: racist, sexist, bigoted humour) and maintaining a marginal position from which to launch critique at mainstream society. Oliver Double’s history of British stand-up is, in fact, caught up with his own experiences. As a former professional stand-up comedian, Double was part of Alternative Comedy

52

THE PROFESSIONALISATION OF STAND-UP COMEDY

in the 1980s and in 1988 interviewed (now doyen) Alternative comedian, Ivor Dembina. In this interview it is telling where the location, or evocation, of the Jewish-American comedians of the 1950s/60s arises. Asked by Double if ‘old … stand-up comedy targets … get a laugh’, Dembina replies: They do with a particular audience. Take the ‘Mother in Law joke’, ‘Paki jokes’, ‘Irish jokes’, if they, audiences, believe that … a mother in law is, or Pakis are a pain in the arse, or Irish people are stupid, if people believe that anyway before they go, ... they’re going to laugh. Double: It reminds me of what Mort Sahl once said, ‘the comedian should know more than the audience’, informing rather than reflecting their beliefs. (Dembina, 1988) The problem that Double and Dembina are circling around is the dyadic-form of stand-up: comedians have an obligation to make strangers laugh, and the way to achieve this is to be ‘on the same page’ as these strangers. Yet the Mort Sahl clairvoyance Double evokes, a short-hand for critique, thwarts a dyadic exchange. Dembina continues: The problem an … Alternative comic has, who wants to challenge existing beliefs, [is]: on the one hand how do they retain the integrity of what they’re doing, yet at the same time increase the love of the people they’re reaching, and the level of recognition they’re getting from what they’re doing. So you’ve got a choice, to say in the ghetto, … just performing to people who are potentially sympathetic to what you say, or trying to react to a wider untapped audience, which basically means going on telly … (Dembina, 1988)

53

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

With the use of the term ‘ghetto’ and its associations with Jewish marginalisation in Europe, the concerns of Alternative Comedians became ones where the prescience of JewishAmerican comedy is lauded for its modernist aesthetic (‘knowing more than an audience’). However, this same attachment to the socially marginalised ‘point of view’ is a challenge for achieving ‘love and recognition’. The problem with moving ‘out of the ghetto’, continues Dembina (1988), is that ‘television tends to sanitize.’ Alternative comedy’s placing of Jewish-American wit alongside the morphological circumstances of comedy – who one’s audience is, and its size, and the recognition it brings – is, then, another way of thinking about the aesthetic challenges stand-up comedy faced circa 1979–89: it was low-brow with high art aspirations. Friedman (2014) notes that Alt. Comedy borrowed from avant-garde art forms (absurdism, surrealism) in order to establish and intimate the ‘pure aesthetic’ of high culture. Given the deficiencies of form which stand-up comedy harbours, the ‘fringe’ nature of the club located such ‘fringe’ status within the figure of the stand-up as such, rather than the artform. In this regard the club comic remains a sought after identity for Alt. Comedy and the subsequent generation of stand-up comedians, not for their values, more to take forward a modernist aesthetic: a rejection of the idea that comedy’s worth or value is determined or dictated by audiences (popular or otherwise) (cf. Bourdieu, 1986: 22–6). This simply translates into preserving the fringe figure of the stand-up comedian in order to better establish ‘what is funny’ from the perspective of the comedian themselves. The Alt. Comedy movement gave rise to an idea that the comedian is a figure whose worth is, like objects of high art, cultivated by disinterest and guided by form over function. Yet as the essence of comedy is function (laughter), how does the fringe nature of the comic maintain itself beyond function? Stewart Lee demonstrates this through heckling and the example of Ted Chippington:

54

THE PROFESSIONALISATION OF STAND-UP COMEDY

I treat all heckles as a genuine inquiry … as if I’m puzzled why they would say that. And I know where I’ve got that from, it’s from one recording of Ted Chippington … going down really badly at a gig in about 1985.… I find if you treat it as a genuine inquiry then you’re, like, low-status, right, so all their hate is going nowhere, … it’s for the good of the show as a whole. (Goldsmith, 2017b) In the case of the heckle – an act which confirms audience authority over the comedic – Lee sees Chippington’s response as itself the basis of laughter, and as such, stand-up’s aestheticisation: the comedians themselves are funny precisely because, approximating the chronotope of the clown, their very ‘being coincides with their role, and outside his role they simply do not exist’ (Bakhtin, 1981: 159). Alt. Comedy required the low-brow, ‘low-status’ nature of the stand-up in order to assert an ideal of stand-up comedy beyond popular estimation of its worth, maintaining its fringe status within the world of legitimate arts and also appropriating a space for its intra-personal aesthetic against the grain of the ‘popular aesthetic’ of working men’s clubs. In his 2007 section on BBC’s The Culture Show, ‘Who the heck is Ted Chippington?’, Stewart Lee remarks: I first saw Ted supporting The Fall, in Birmingham in 1984 … Ted came out, stood absolutely motionless and told the same joke, more or less, over and over and over again in a monotonous voice, provoking a hostile and intense reaction from the audience. It was and remains to this day the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. […] There’s not much content and there isn’t much form, either. Yet time is passing and it seems to work. (Lee, 2007) Not only does the very failure – from the perspective of comedy as form is function (laughter) – of Chippington become the

55

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

Alt. Comedy movement’s aesthetic ethos, it encourages and prioritises the figure of the stand-up as an arbiter of comic standards and legitimacy. Indeed, we could go further and point out that Chippington is a culturally mediating figure; he has translated the 1960s ‘abject American Jew’ into the 1970/80s British cultural idiom of punk. In this regard, ‘circuit amateurism’ became highly valued, ironically, because it fed the aesthetic demands of high-art Fringe show writing. The Fringe show: the ground of originality

Contemporary professional stand-up’s focus upon the hour- long original Edinburgh Festival Fringe show. The height of this is a subsequent tour show as well as appearances at other international festivals. This constitutes a seasonal economy and calendar whose repetition requires each show to be ‘original’ in order to perpetuate itself. The centre piece of ‘the Fringe’ festivals is premised upon this future-proofing, for its open access programming encourages a pilgrimage of acts to descend upon the city (Wardrop and Leask, 2016). The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is one of the world’s largest arts festivals. Every August Edinburgh sees a host of prestigious artists, performers and theatre companies arrive for the Edinburgh International Festival. In 1947 the Fringe began as alternative theatre companies, capitalising and appropriating the crowds for the International Festival, utilised the August period to put on ‘fringe theatre’ alongside the major International Festival. The Fringe has the status of an open access performing arts festival with no selection criteria or formal auditions. The Fringe Society states ‘we’re proud to include in our programme anyone with a story to tell and a venue willing to host them’.2 Since the 1950s the so-called Big Four (The Pleasance, Assembly, Gilded Balloon and Underbelly) have been the centrepiece theatre companies for performers of hour-long stand-up comedy shows.

56

THE PROFESSIONALISATION OF STAND-UP COMEDY

Since 1981 The Fringe has hosted the ‘Edinburgh Comedy Award’, originally known after its sponsor as the Perrier Comedy Awards (c.1981–2005). 3 Edinburgh’s status as a world-leading arts festival is noteworthy in the fact that its professionalisation has, however, not seen it lose its open access status. In contradistinction to its peers, notably the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (est. 1987) and Just For Laughs (Montreal, Canada; est. 1983), Edinburgh’s ability to celebrate a tradition of amateurism while also being host to a professional economy of performers, scouts, producers, impresarios and other intermediaries highlights an important consequence in the status of stand-up comedy in the economy of entertainment. Notably two of the Big Four, The Pleasance and the Assembly Rooms, have the status of charities and run primarily off boxoffice sales. Their hosting of largely mainstream acts is a direct consequence of a reliance upon ticket sales over other revenue streams. Indeed, this means that their appearance of corporatism is largely directed at financing themselves. Consequently standup comedy, subject to professionalisation, retains a sense of its own democracy as an underlying belief among its participants and outsiders. Moreover, the state of the comedy industry, especially around Edinburgh as the centre piece, remains reliant upon the willed poverty of the acts. An hour show at Edinburgh is not a profit-driven process; many comedians fail to break even and the Big Four have been subject to losses at various intervals. One initiative of the Big Four which ambivalently captures this mixture of professional and amateur is their Comedy Reserve. The Comedy Reserve sees comedians go up for auditions, which then produces a long-list of 20 comedians who then become four finalists. These four will be financed for the festival run by one of the Big Four. Indicatively the Big Four have some economic power to finance four acts but also show evidence of formalised barriers of entry.4 Given this structural arrangement, the Fringe encourages and requires reliance upon the ‘circuit’, first as the centre piece

57

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

of stand-up comedy practice and second as apprenticeship. ‘The circuit’ is the foreground for comedic art and practice (Stebbins, 1990). Central to this structural axis of ‘circuitfringe’ gaining traction is the willed poverty it requires from stand-ups. Describing the circuit-fringe axis, Elis James also reproduces its economy of power and the willed poverty which makes commercial success something of a prophecy contained in amateurism: The way it works in modern comedy is that you do lots of open spots where you’re not paid and the audience seem to hate you, … And you do this for a very, very long time … But then, if you stick at it and you write material that is better, eventually you’re offered gigs where you’re offered a tenner or maybe twenty quid, … A better comedian than you might put a word in and say, ‘book Elis’, and then you’ll be on a proper bill where people have paid to come in and you might get to do ten minutes. You’re always chipping away, a sort of apprenticeship, I suppose. (James, 2012) Such poverty not only encourages a view of the industry as diverse and open, it also relies upon comedians being able to articulate their position within terms amenable to sustain the current arrangements of their industry (Oakley and O’Brien, 2016: 9f; Banks, 2014: 41ff). Comedians’ circuit-based poverty, however, is underwritten by a modernist search for authenticity which props up a commercial and professional cultural field. In this respect the circuit is relied upon to sustain the obligation comedians owe to comic originality, not the circuit in and for itself. The circuit-fringe axis is the social process which protects comic originality. May (2013) argues out that copyright, and the potential for jokes to be protected by law, remains insufficient. As such, May (2013) makes a case for how to avoid joke theft;

58

THE PROFESSIONALISATION OF STAND-UP COMEDY

it is built on how comic originality is part-and-parcel of the structure of obligations that stand-up comedians are under, an obligation which their jurisdictional claims and boundaries rest upon. Professions seek fiduciarity: they require society to take it upon trust that their monopolisation of service, task or expertise be recognised as legitimate (Perkins, 1989: 17f; Abbott, 1988: 59f). Securing this public recognition of their fiduciary service – that their knowledge is beyond the laity – in the case of comedy is, we have seen, a thorny issue. A comedy audience is overly in a position to judge comedic work. As such comedians are more likely to resent their audience precisely because their confirmation of comedy completes the Mobius strip of the humorous exchange (Limon, 2000: 12–13). Comedians’ desire for comic originality is both an obligation and a means to confirm their jurisdictional boundaries. As such May (2013) offers three possibilities to secure comic originality: (1) record routines; (2) vocalise potential theft; and (3) make material hard to copy. The first two demonstrate a self-policing among a comedy community while the third, and most important, not only underlines the fiduciary potential of comic originality and the uniqueness of each comedian. It also underlines the emphasis on intra-personal artistry: … it is not an accident that alternative comedy moved increasingly towards identity-driven material. [Stewart] Lee … claims that Harry Hill and Simon Munnery are difficult to plagiarize precisely because their material is so connected to their persona onstage. In this way, it is radically different to the mother-in-law gags that circulated around the Working Man’s Club circuit. If the material is strongly bound with your comic persona, then it will be more difficult for another comic to appropriate it. (May, 2013: 203)

59

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

Material is easier to safeguard from theft if tied to a comedic cognomen because it requires the persona to confirm its fiduciary character. In addition, personas also represent the lines of creativity, self-expression and individuality merging into commodification (see McRobbie, 2002; Banks, 2014). The ethical code of ‘joke ownership’ comes to secure the possibility for commodification of persona, while also utilising the disinterested aesthetic ethos of art for art’s sake. Sinecures and the ‘zone’ of creativity From this we can say that the circuit has retained its central place within the rites of stand-up comedians not for its position within the economy of marginal entertainment, instead its marginality mixes with the central value of aesthetic modernism: the constitution of individual self as self in and through the moment of performance (Chapter One). The circuit is apposite to capture the aesthetic disinterest and sacrifice comedians are obliged to owe to their art. Squaring these points with the contemporary realities of stand-up comedy means we have to probe deeper into what socially drives this emphasis upon comic originality and collective investment in the rigours of the circuit. Here the contours of professionalisation in comedy shows parallels with wider social developments. King’s account of the ‘professional society’ traces the development of specialist, small-scale teams and units who monopolise niche tasks and develop specialist skills, knowledge and capacities in their execution (King, 2013:  438). King seeks to capture in ‘the professional society’ a move away from an emphasis upon exemplary individuals measured against an ordinary mass in a given field. Central to the move towards small, specialist teams over individual-mass dynamics is that it gives rise to a distinctive form of social cohesion: it ‘involves the generation of co-operative relations around discrete areas of expertise; it is highly specific and limited, although … these relations involve

60

THE PROFESSIONALISATION OF STAND-UP COMEDY

complex performances and therefore demand dense cooperative ties’ (King, 2013: 443). This distinctive solidarity governs contemporary standup’s professional field and it is manifest in two ways: first by professional management and second by comedians themselves. Professional management owes itself to the heritage of the Alternative Comedy boom of the 1980s and produces small unified teams and cooperative relations. While attempts at measuring the extent of professionalisation in comedy may be fruitless, an approximation of the degree may be helpful. In contemporary stand-up what is increasingly fuelling the ‘circuit’ is the rise of comedy podcasts; these podcasts may be useful in giving an indication of the size of the circuit and the degree of management and professional representation. One podcast, The Comedian’s Comedian, is useful in this regard. The podcast’s host, Stuart Goldsmith has interviewed (as of March 2018) 239 stand-up comedians; at the time of devising the following statistics 198 had been interviewed (n = 196); these comedians are linked to 56 management companies (see the Appendix). Avalon represents the largest share of these comedians (18 acts (9%)), closely followed by Off The Kerb (17 acts, 8.5%), third by PBJ Management (11 acts, 5.5%) and fourth, Phil McIntyre Entertainments (7 acts, 3.5%) (see Table 2 in the Appendix). This illustrates that a high number of agencies compete within the comedy field. However, this competition is expressed less in competition over acts, more as an illustration of a clear jurisdictional field for comedians to practise their craft. The agencies Off The Kerb and Avalon were established in the 1980s (1981 and 1989 respectively), and represent some of the biggest names in contemporary stand-up (Michael McIntyre – Off The Kerb – and Lee Mack – Avalon). While those smaller agencies (PBJ, Phil McIntyre, UTC) share a heritage arising in the mid-1970s and early 1980s, they often focus upon comedyfor-comedy’s sake.

61

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

Speaking to the Guardian of his signing rising star James Acaster, Chris Lander of Phil McIntyre Entertainments states: One thing I stress to acts when I’m in conversations about signing them is: this is a long road … We take our time to make sure they build up a steady following. Someone like James [Acaster] has come back to the Edinburgh fringe every single year and consistently written a better show. By bringing back shows every year and getting better and better they get to a position where the channels and TV execs are desperate to work with them.… We’re the kids of alternative comedy … It’s a lot less like the wild west than I think it was in the 90s. We talk, we recommend acts to each other and we don’t poach each other’s clients. I guess we’re kind of comedy 2.0. (Lander, cited in Williams, 2017) The desire for professional representation translates as a commitment to the rigours of the circuit-fringe axis. As the latter part of Lander’s quotation illustrates, the ethos of these management companies is less competition, more longevity to professional fields. Management is based on craft collaboration underlined by a focus upon the talent as a unique persona, a distinctive comic presence. ‘We think it works in the longterm.… And it means we can say to the act: all you need to do is write a brilliant show, be as funny as you can and turn up on time – we’ll do the rest’ (Lander cited in Williams, 2017). Crucially this professional network is guided by treating the obligation of original comic material as autotelic: the comedian writes better and better material through submitting to the circuit-fringe axis. Speaking prior to performing his second solo hour, Lawnmower, Acaster remarks that his motivation is a mixture of fear, success, as well as constructing a persona to which audiences wish to return:

62

THE PROFESSIONALISATION OF STAND-UP COMEDY

You really want to create this exciting world that people want to see and revisit. But a lot of it [is] I want to write as much as possible. I don’t want to run out of stuff. I get very conscious of people coming to see me again, maybe, and just going ‘oh you did this last time’. (Goldsmith, 2013) Writing constantly, however, transforms into an obligation but also a socially cohesive practice for contemporary stand-ups. Taking shape from the aesthetic modernism of the Alt. Comedy movement, writing has come down to contemporary stand-up as a means of cohesion and execution of tasks. The professional comedian is placed in a situation where their aesthetic modernism – of persona built in and through performance – relies upon the circuit to help furnish their distinctive audience share (‘their following’) as well as artistic legitimacy (‘a brilliant show’). As a consequence this has produced a tendency among comedians to develop various means to ritually celebrate and lay bare this obligation they owe to comic originality. One centre piece of this is clubs putting on ‘new material nights’, notably in London. The real value of these new material nights is the ritual celebration of the very notion of new material and the working out of jokes. A bastion of this is the weekly new material night ‘Old Rope’, put on every Monday by The Phoenix Theatre, London. Hosted by Tiff Stevenson (Avalon) since 2009, Old Rope has a distinct ritual quality that marks it out for consideration. It is built around being for and by comedians. The stage is set with a noose in the middle, and comedians have to hold the noose if they are performing ‘old rope’ (that is, not new material). Essentially it is comedians policing themselves, and each other. Old Rope is an exemplary case of not merely jurisdictional exclusivity for comedians as purveyors of comic originality. In order for the policing to work it relies upon comedians becoming students of each other’s material. They have to know, or come to know, what is or is not ‘new’. Old Rope is built around

63

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

monopolisation through the rise of a sinecure sector overseen by comedians. As such it not only makes new material a rite of passage, with rigours of liminality – the ‘mock death’ of the noose – it is also an ingenious celebration of humour’s inability to be monopolised while maintaining its exclusive jurisdiction. By making a virtue of new material, in the knowledge that it will be received and noted by fellow comedians, it is also a means to forge a corporation of comedians in and through the ‘circuit-fringe’ axis. Unlike the old rope material of the working men’s club circuit – as in material which was held in common property by the unions – Stevenson’s Old Rope maintains the rigours of circuit-based gigs with a sinecure of new material policing. Alongside Old Rope is another sinecure, The Alternative Comedian Memorial Society (ACMS) set up by John Luke Roberts and Thom Tuck held at the SoHo Theatre (c.2011) also on Monday evenings. The premise of ACMS is a celebration of failure: the aim is to create an idea of comedy as beyond laughter as confirmation of comic legitimacy, and instead seeks new material in and of itself. While not a ‘new material night’ per se, it continues the air of potential failure and makes a virtue out of it. The audience are more than encouraged to embrace this. ACMS has a policy that audience heckles are permitted if they are chosen from the pre-approved heckle list: for example, ‘We appreciate what you’re trying to do.’ The heckle works as an inversion of the club heckle which is a denial of comedic legitimacy. An ACMS heckle is one which acknowledges failure as a virtue, a failed attempt at originality is better than old rope. The comedy which ACMS offers is essentially a form of clowning: it is a mixture of cabaret and commedia dell’arte which is negatively defined against mainstream stand-up comedy. However, the logic of ACMS is not absurdism ad absurdum. Rather it rests, as with Old Rope, upon the inability of comic originality to be professionalised through abstract means and systematic inferences. The ritualised aspect of ACMS is that

64

THE PROFESSIONALISATION OF STAND-UP COMEDY

after each act the comperes Tuck and Roberts announce, ‘A failure!’ and the audience respond with, ‘A noble failure!’ Like the ritual death of Old Rope, ACMS’s ‘Noble Failure’ liturgy celebrates what would otherwise have been a real ‘comedic death’ on the circuit. If comedians are more likely to hate their audience due to audiences retroactively confirming their esoteric claim to humour, then Old Rope and ACMS seek a celebration of failure from an audience as a prerequisite of performance. Old Rope and ACMS may be usefully understood as comedic rituals which bear a resemblance to anthropological accounts of sacrifice. Maurice Bloch’s theory of the ritual process in Prey into Hunter (1992) offers the best approximation to what I mean by the sacrificial nature of these ‘new material’ or ‘comic originality nights’. Acknowledging the general anthropological theory that sacrifices are rituals which seek contact with divine objects through death, Bloch’s (1992: 4–5) theory outlines how rituals around sacrifice are marked by a notion of rebounding violence or conquest. In ritual, humans are involved in processes which asserts the existence of a transcendent – ‘elsewhere’ – cosmology of meaning and value. This transcendent cosmos, existing beyond every day, here-and-now living humans is entered into through a ritual process and marks initiates’ separation from human society. However, this exclusion from the everyday into the transcendent is of no use if initiates remain separated off from society. As such, these member’s violent removal from the everyday is ‘rebounded’ by a bringing back of elements of the transcendent; as such initiates conquer the everyday with ‘transcendent’ powers. In the case of Old Rope and ACMS these comedy nights are sacrificial versions of everyday, banal circuit gigs. They are, however, separated off from the normal realities of the circuit. Old Rope or ACMS are a means to enter into a transcendent world of absolute stand-up, a world of laughter, conviviality and play beyond an audience’s confirmation, or as with absolute war – mutual devastation of both parties (Limon,

65

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

2000: 13). Using the sacrificial stage of Old Rope or ACMS as a willed death, instead of an audience confirmed ‘death’ on stage, comedians use this potential death as a means of vitality to be taken back onto the circuit. Indeed the very colloquialisms of ‘death’ and pseudo-military aggression at work in comedians’ talk is confirmation of the ritual processes involved. Yet Old Rope or ACMS are more than the development of ritual due to the rigours of ‘circuit-fringe’. Rather professionalisation has brought with it an acceleration of comic originality. The structural realities of contemporary comedy overdetermine the circuit and comic originality. While the circuit is the sine qua non of comedic legitimacy, comic material does not remain within the club setting. The policing of material through recording, uploading and sharing through social media, the internet and dedicated television programmes heightens audiences awareness of newness, giving new material a short shelf life. Old Rope and ACMS may be read as refractions of this reality. Seeking sinecures through an old guard and using esoteric spaces is a means to not merely preserve their obligations they owe to the comedy industry. They also sacralise it: they gain the benefits of an audience willing to appreciate their sacrifices. This account of Old Rope and ACMS comes to constitute what Banks (2014) has called the ‘being in the zone’ within the creative industries, where person and craft, body and subjectivity, fuse. As Banks conceptualises it, this zone is: … part of the mixed repertoire of actions and temporalities that enable reproduction of the field conditions of cultural (industry) capitalism – where the freedoms of the cultural worker are part-protected to ensure that public demands for original products marked by the impress of authentic creation can actually be met. It is axiomatic that those designated as ‘creatives’ can never be entirely incorporated as abstract labour and subjected to standardised work routines, simply because they need to be given the

66

THE PROFESSIONALISATION OF STAND-UP COMEDY

latitude to create exciting and novel works that can be commodified… (Banks, 2014: 248) The circuit-fringe axis of contemporary comedy seeks out a special chronotope for such an axis of obligations to be sequestered from profane commerce into a sacred space of original comedy for its own sake. Banks’ (2014) dialectic of the zone: freedom from commodification to supply commodities is not only the relation between circuit and original material, it fundamentally underlines the way in which comedy is commercialised through the circuit-fringe. Comedians’ comedians Driven by the obligation to produce new comic material, through the annual cycle of Edinburgh Fringe show followed by the circuit tour and other festivals, contemporary standups are under immense pressure to maintain not only their own humorousness but also an audience. This pressure and its demands has manifested itself into a mixture of fear – of failure in comic ability and the status of material – as well as a collective celebration of those persons who have come to epitomise these demands, demands they might be helpful in mitigating. These persons – fellow comedians – are not those who are the wealthiest, most famous, publicly celebrated or recognised comedians. Instead they are comedians whose abilities are that of having seemingly mastered the circuit-fringe zone and secured a belief among comedy audiences (critics, fans, fellow comedians) of their expert abilities. Three ‘comedians’ comedians’ stand out in this regard: Daniel Kitson, Stewart Lee, and John Gordillo (this is not an exhaustive list).

67

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

Daniel Kitson and Stewart Lee

Kitson and Lee’s statuses as comedian’s comedians are secured because they have seemingly solved the problem of an excess of comedians: if there are too many comedians for audiences to see on the circuit-fringe, how do you find an audience solely for you? Speaking of the pressure placed upon the Fringe and its central value of originality year on year, Hari Kondabolu brings up the example of Daniel Kitson: … you’re dependant on Edinburgh. Every year you’re dependant on management companies, … investing money, owing people money, taking a loss, hoping that somebody finds you and gives you a break so you get out of debt. That is awful. I don’t understand why you all don’t record your stuff and put it up, like there’s Spotify, there’s bandcamp … Like Kitson did it himself.… He has an email list, it’s a Hotmail address, my god! (Goldsmith, 2016a) Kitson has achieved that which other comedians desire: a fanbase that bypasses the professional architecture and its sacrificial culture (financial loss, debt, and so on). Kondabolu intimates that web 2.0 has some eschatological value: streaming services may have an ability to bypass the rigours of circuit-fringe towards the desired audience base, an achievement which Kitson has secured with an email address. Stewart Lee concurs on Kitson’s status as a comedian’s comedian. More than bypassing the professional architecture, Lee points out that Kitson has maintained an audience who sustain his comedic authority – an audience which does not determine a comic’s funniness: ‘Kitson has mega policed his audience.… He’s got to a point where he can crash the National Theatre’s website and no one know who he is. It’s superb.’ (Goldsmith, 2017b) Lee sees Kitson’s audience policing as the result of acknowledging the realities of contemporary circuit-fringe and

68

THE PROFESSIONALISATION OF STAND-UP COMEDY

using this model to manufacture elastic audiences. Echoing many ‘punk’ sentiments we see Kitson is regarded as the absolute stand-up because audience and comic seemingly merge and mutually cancel each other out. The structural reality of the circuit-fringe, thoroughly professionalised, gives itself over to lionising a Kitson or Lee; they have the control and lack of fear which Kondabolu, and the many others in his position, lack. Abbott’s (2014) conceptualisation of excess as a problem of social systems may be seen in relation to the ‘circuit-Fringe’: with over 3,000 shows (in 2016) at the Fringe, of which around a third (~1,000) are comedians, the problem is one of welter (Abbott, 2014:  11–12). What Kitson and Lee symbolise are strategies which rescale excess of audience acts, where too many shows meet too many choices, into one where act and show become one and the same entity. John Gordillo

This desire to bypass an audience and achieve the status of an absolute stand-up is celebrated through Kitson and Lee as paragons. What other comedians need is someone able to supplement this paragon position they seek. This can be found in the status John Gordillo has achieved within the comedy industry. While a successful and talented stand-up, Gordillo is a stand-up best known within comedy circles for his talents directing other comedians’ Fringe shows. Gordillo has directed, by his own estimation, around 60 standup comedians’ Edinburgh Fringe shows. He is noteworthy as a director partly due to the high-profile comedians whose shows he has directed (Eddie Izzard; Michael McIntyre; Reginald D. Hunter) as well as comedians who are rising stars (Elis James; Josh Widdicombe; James Acaster). However, his significance within the comedy industry is his repute as not only a comedian whose material is intellectually sophisticated but whose underlying philosophy is centred upon the mechanics and dramatic

69

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

techniques which propel humour. The line Gordillo treads is one where the ethos of comedy as pure laughter through supplementary material is perfectly encapsulated. Given the ‘circuit-Fringe’ axis, Fringe shows need to be ‘as funny as possible’ while they must also submit to the theatrical demands of an hour-long show. Gordillo’s dramaturgy encapsulates this through the intrapersonal nature of stand-up. Through a discussion of his own stand-up as well as directing for others, Gordillo’s philosophy of stand-up can be distilled into four strands: I. Conviviality

You’ve got an emotional progression and an intellectual progression, but when you’re thinking that much around it, the comic spirit goes. What’s really fun and funny at the end of the day … is a man or a woman, or a group of people, coming on stage and just having fun or creating a sense of conviviality. (Goldsmith, 2014a) This passage, in part related to his 2013 Fringe show, Cheap shots at the defenceless, centres upon how conviviality drives the comic. The mutual ‘being together’ premised upon a shared sensuous tone, ‘fun’, brings forth the supplementary material. Cheap shots effectively distils many of the ideas around the presumed intimacy upon which corporations rely. Companies aim to mirror the interpersonal closeness of real, intimate kith and kin-social relations to hide their profit motive, a theme Gordillo attributes to Naomi Klein, ‘corporate rule by personal communication’. Instead of using this conceptual apparatus as the basis for material, Gordillo’s emphasis upon ‘conviviality’ relies upon it less to shoe-horn ideas into a comedy show but rather demonstrate the collective and intra-personal ontology of humour. Comedy only arises, or shows itself as possible, within a given collective if a sense of communal equality is established.

70

THE PROFESSIONALISATION OF STAND-UP COMEDY

Given this, the intra-personal requires a distillation of both self (performance) and subject material (material): II. Literalness of self and subject

Stand-up is not sub-textual … One aspect of it is an observational comedy drive, … the other aspect to that, … was to compare that to what was happening in my own life… (Goldsmith, 2014a) The architecture of the hour-long fringe show is one which craves narrative arc and desires much more than the circuit ‘ten, twenty minutes’ set. Gordillo’s focus on the literal nature of humour, which has to be grounded in the observational, feeds the literal nature of ‘self-in-society’ that stand-up foregrounds. Cheap shots is a critique which draws upon, and furthers, the intellectual projects of left-of-centre political critique and academic social science: the subject matter is ‘Why do corporations speak to me like they are my friends and family? And, conversely, why do I relate to my family as if they are strangers or corporations?’ Yet, first and foremost a dramatic art, a stand-up comedy show grounds this critique of self-in-society in experiential and existential guise: the discrepancy between what is an official social reality and individual experience. Gordillo ought to relate to corporations with affective neutrality and ought to relate to his kin (here step-daughter) with affective investment. These are the normative orientations of action – the Parsonian ‘pattern variables’ – which guide modern social relations. Through the literal nature of the observational (‘isn’t it weird, all these companies are trying to be my friend’) it includes all who have experienced this (ostensibly all members of modern society) while also centring upon the highest value of modern society, the individual and their unique experience (Durkheim, 1971b). The intra-personal comes to foreground social critique. Yet this is not a facet of the aesthetic modernism

71

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

which the Fringe show demands; instead it relies upon fringe amateurism of circuit ‘gags’. III. Anecdotalise

Stand-up … really only works … when you anecdotalise. You can look at a big picture thing, but unless you can come up with a specific kink it in, the little thing that bothers you… (Goldsmith, 2014a) The anecdote, or keystone of observational comedy, guides Gordillo’s material. Indeed he generalises this as the basis of all stand-up comedy. Fundamentally the circuit-based amateurism of stand-up comedy is relied on precisely because it remains the cell-form for all social, cultural or political critique to which comedy gives rise. Only when material becomes an ‘anecdote’ does it have an ability to disrupt or critique the normative picture of society people experience: a small narrative based account of mundane life experience, recounted primarily for the humour, offered to a group of intimates, combines conviviality with the economy of wit all humour requires. Furthermore, the anecdote is a mode of speech which, as with folk talk (Brodie, 2014), foregrounds the ‘self ’, the persona, of the comedian. Only with this economisation of self through the anecdote do ‘big picture’ ideas present themselves. IV. Expedience

Ultimately the anecdote driven nature of stand-up comedy becomes the cellular form of narrative for comedy shows. Instead of treating the hour-long Edinburgh shows as a oneperson play that mirrors theatre, or high culture dramatic arts, the narrative nature of the Edinburgh show is one that makes a virtue of its narrative poverty. We have seen Limon’s (2000) ‘absolute stand-up’ is one which uses laughs as plot devices,

72

THE PROFESSIONALISATION OF STAND-UP COMEDY

the ‘veins’ of narrative. This is found in Gordillo’s approach to stand-up as driven by ‘expedience’. Gordillo uses expedience to mean economising for laughs. The Fringe show is treated as less a narrative arc driven by sub-text, instead built around sorting material – as isolated entities – into a semblance of coherence. This coherence arises when ‘laughs’ come to dictate less a narrative built around plot-story more around the self-in-society which is most ‘emotionally satisfying’. Gordillo’s dramaturgy is built around form not content: timing and rhythm are driven towards emotional escalation which seeks catharsis, but it is laughter which guides narrative. Narrative is, in this sense, a vanishing mediator (Jameson, 1973): the emotional intensity is drawn out in material but once this material has delivered laughter it becomes narratively void. Coda The central object of laughter which stand-up comedy claims as its jurisdiction gives way to the possibility that comedian and audience are in either/or positions. In absolute stand-up, either comic/audience are in a mutually antagonistic relationship when it goes badly or, when it goes well, one of symbiotic harmony. We have seen that professionalisation has driven stand-up comedians to actively encourage the comedian’s point of view beyond audience justification and also to structurally retain their marginal status. Professionalisation has important sociological consequences for stand-up comedy as an artform and its cultural worth. Limon’s ‘absolute stand-up’ is the prelude to a cultural revolution he calls the ‘comedification’ of America: ‘Stand-up was once a field given over to a certain subsection of a certain ethnicity [Jewish men]. By now … all America is the pool for national stand-up comedy’ (2000:  3). Mirroring this process, British stand-up began with a subset of the ‘white, working class’ who were jettisoned only to be replaced by another fringe figure: an

73

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

appeal to ‘half-suburbanised Jewish comedians’ (Limon, 2000: 2) whose aesthetic modernism foregrounded the Fringe art of British stand-up since the 1980s. This has resulted in a structural chiasmus distilled in the ‘circuit-Fringe’ axis: the ‘working men’s’ circuit was replaced by the fringe figures of American society to better secure the aesthetic modernism of the Edinburgh Fringe, which requires dedication to the comedy ‘circuit’. As we’ve seen, the trajectory of stand-up traced here shows it to be the art of the ‘self stood up’. Stand-up is the art of self relating to self in the presence of others. Has British society ‘comedified’ as Limon predicted for the new millennium? This question is explored in the second part of Comedy and Critique. If stand-up has become the art of allowing all selves to ‘stand-up’, who are the dominant performers of stand-up? Are all social identities given equal and valid prominence in contemporary comedy?

74

Part II Synthetic

75

3

Representation

Stand-up: representing whom? Brendan Burns, quoting George Carlin, describes the drama of stand-up comedy with a view to its solipsism: ‘You’re here for me, I’m here for me. Let’s go on from there’ (Burns, 2016). Encapsulating the ethos of stand-up as an intrapersonal art form, Carlin’s dictum also demonstrates what stand-up, in the language of traditional aesthetics, represents. Stand-up, at first glance, is about the presentation of self. Unlike actors in a play, and the moods, emotions and meaningful gestures they may imitate, stand-up comedians (often) appear ‘as themselves’. George Carlin is, then, a bit like Hamlet when he says ‘you’re here for me, I’m here for me’ because he is saying, simply, ‘what you see is, what you get’ just as Hamlet says his sadness is not mere acting but ‘the very trappings and suits of woe’. But the simple truth is that stand-up comedy is a form of theatre; it is not life. Carlin’s statement belies the same oddity of Hamlet’s when he suggests his emotions are authentic but expresses their authenticity in the language of a costume drama and theatrical masks (‘suits of woe’). In this respect, stand-up is about the re-presentation of self as if it were everyday life. While this statement may sound fatuous, it contains an observation which is essential to understanding the aesthetic significance of standup as an artform. This foray into aesthetics is necessary for the exploration this chapter pursues: an analysis of the cultural power of social identities as found in stand-up comedy.

77

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

Aesthetic reactions to other people, argues Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin (1990), differ from non-aesthetic reactions to other people because an aesthetic reaction: is a reaction to the whole of the hero as human being, a reaction that assembles all of the cognitive-ethical determinations and valuations of the hero and consummates them in the form of a unitary and unique whole that is a concrete, intuitable whole, but also a whole of meaning (Bakhtin, 1990: 5, original emphasis). Aesthetic reactions, Bakhtin is suggesting rather obliquely, are ones where people’s perception of ‘who you are’ is rendered complete. Our knowledge of the other person, including our moral evaluation and sense of knowing what they stand for, where they come from, is rendered whole. We could, to anticipate the following chapter, suggest that a fully aesthetic realisation of a stand-up comedian is their persona. Indeed a litmus test of fully aesthetically realised comic characters is whether you could suggest a situation and know exactly what that character would do or say in it. However, before we reach persona, we need to fully theorise representation in stand-up comedy. Contrastingly to aesthetic reactions, Bakhtin (1990: 4) argues, non-aesthetic reactions ‘have a scattered character, that is, they are reactions to isolated self-manifestations of a human being and not to the whole that he is, not to all of him’. In the presentation of self, Bakhtin is suggesting, we have partial understandings of people through the limited interactions and relations we engage in. ‘In life’, as opposed to art, ‘we are interested … only in those particular actions … of special interest to us’ (Bakhtin, 1990: 5). In this respect, stand-up comedy offers us an interesting way of understanding the aesthetics of representation. As with Carlin’s dictum that stand-up comedy is about the person performing it, and the suggestion that we are only interested in them for their

78

REPRESENTATION

being who they are, the aesthetic question stand-up comedians are seeking to solve is: How do I make the ‘whole meaning of myself ’ amenable and acquiescent to other people, unlike in ‘real life’ where I am a scattered character, a stranger? Another way of putting this would be: what do I bring to the stage from my mere appearance (from my height, facial features, weight, hair, to my class, my gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race, age, and so on), and what will people make of it? How do I make them think about my appearance what I want them to think about it? What does my social identity say about me, and how can I say what I want to say about it and have it accepted by others? If ‘I am here for me’ and ‘they are here for me’, how do I make them go where I want to go? While these questions are broad, they help foreground what Bakhtin sees as the essence of aesthetic acts, how component parts relate to one another to achieve a sense of wholeness or what he calls consummation (Bakhtin, 1990:  12–17; Holquist, 2002: 147–9). Previously I suggested that stand-up is a dyadic exchange (Chapter Two); however, a cursory examination of the performance of stand-up shows it to be far from absolutely ‘twoway’. Having already demonstrated that stand-up is an absolute genre in that a joke requires not only laughter as its confirmation to be a joke, but also that laughter is the sole end of stand-up (Limon, 2000), what stand-up represents is more than the self as an absolute singularity. Rather stand-up represents a three part relation in the aesthetic completion of the comedic exchange: attempted joke, laughter, confirmed joke. There are three parts to the stand-up comedian’s represented self: a centre (attempted joke), a not centre (laughter), and the relation between the two (confirmed joke) (cf. Holquist, 2002: 26–9). As such, what the sociology of stand-up comedy needs to understand is the role the performance plays in getting the ratio or proportion between the two ‘spot on’. How do stand-up comedians manage the ratio of self to the other, between the attempted joking and

79

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

confirmed joke? What ‘self ’ is most adept at handling this ratio of otherness in the foregrounding of self? Brendan Burn’s evocation of Carlin’s solipsistic view on standup is offered to foreground not his success in controlling other people’s perception of his identity, or the ‘whole of meaning’ he is given in aesthetic forms, but rather his failure in British standup. Aiming to deal with contentious comic material, Burn says: taboo jokes, they’re all about trust, and some rooms don’t know the love and credit you are giving them by trusting me with this subject. I’m a left leaning guy … but in England I’m not embraced by the left because I don’t have the right accent, …I’m a misogynist, bigoted, racist, uncouth, boorish Australian.… That’s why I make fun of the left; they don’t really embrace me that much, ‘white Left’ doesn’t. Everyone else is cool with me, in actual fact, I think pretty much every other ethnicity identifies with me, because they don’t trust the left either. (Burns, 2016) Burns’ reference to ‘white Left’, from the context of his speech, may be more aptly called the ‘New Left’ for it appears to be a matter of New Left ideals (feminism, anti-racism and a queering of self) that Burn’s persona rubs up against. The persona of Burns requires specific forms of trust which British comedy culture is not willing to embrace. The suggestion Burns is making, quite contentiously but no less intriguingly, is: in British stand-up one may begin with oneself, but you have to go on to articulate the self within a political and cultural language of New Left individualism. More plainly he is saying that you have to be left wing but you have to ‘have the right accent’. Burn’s representation of self is such that his masculinity, ethnicity and manner of expression precludes his stand-up material gaining cultural ascendancy in British society. This chapter pursues this line of thought. If contemporary stand-up proceeds from the a priori assumption that New Left

80

REPRESENTATION

ideals govern the ethos of the stand-up comedian, then how does this manifest itself in the performance of stand-up comedy? How are New Left ideals being positioned and how did they become the language of stand-up comedy? This chapter pursues these questions through a specific line of inquiry. My aim is to relate the state of social stratification in Britain’s arts and cultural industries to the particular form of political affiliation (New Left individualism) which governs the performance of stand-up comedy. The question at the heart of this chapter is: Why is it, at a time of radical inequality in Britain, especially in the arts, that the socially privileged (white, middle class, young men) – people with ‘the right accent’ as Burns would describe them – are succeeding at the same time as holding onto a politics of the socially disadvantaged and marginalised? How do they reconcile their privilege with their politics? What do privilege and New Left politics mean for the representation of self through humour? Stand-up in the sociology of art and culture A lack of social diversity in Britain’s arts and culture industries has become a pressing concern (O’Brien et al, 2016; Friedman et al 2016; Oakley, 2016; Oakley and O’Brien, 2016; Banks and Oakley, 2015; McRobbie, 2015; Littler, 2013; Banks and Milestone, 2011). The arts being highly skewed towards a majority ‘white, middle class, male’ population has led to a focus on its consequences for representations: whose stories get told, and who is telling them, and in what manner (O’Brien et al, 2017; Oakley and O’Brien, 2015). These questions are as deeply aesthetic as they are sociological. As O’Brien et al (2017) explain in reference to the current social landscape of Britain’s arts participation, an understanding of the relationship between who is able to ‘get in and get on’ in arts and cultural industries necessarily impacts upon the types of representations that are produced of individuals and communities, nationalities and

81

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

regions, along with ethnic and racial groups as well as classes and genders. Pursuing an arts equalities agenda necessarily means asking questions about aesthetics as much as the social positioning of arts creators. Within Britain’s creative industries, there is an overrepresentation of white, middle class males. Class-based privilege is evident with 14% being privately educated compared to a national average of 7% (Oakley and O’Brien, 2016: 9). As O’Brien et al’s (2016) analysis of the 2014 Labour Force Survey demonstrates, not only are the arts and creative industries over-represented by those from professional, middle class backgrounds, this demographic is skewed to a gender and racial bias as these breakdowns also see the privileging of males (55.1% in music, performing and visual arts and 75.9% in film, TV, radio, and photography) and whites (92.9% and 93.2%, respectively). These become compounded in terms of cultural capital as those in the arts are educated to degree level or higher is 60.4% and 59.6%, respectively (O’Brien et al, 2016). These institutional inequalities reflect and reinforce the widening and deepening inequalities around income and wealth found in the works of Piketty (2014), Dorling (2014) and Savage et al (2015). However, when it comes to inequality in the arts and culture industries, ‘culture’ becomes doubly articulated in this institutional setting. ‘After Piketty’ ‘culture is implicated as both an explanatory factor and a site for the replication of social inequality, highlighting the importance of connecting those occupations “making” culture and broader questions of inequality’ (O’Brien et al, 2017: 272). This double articulation of culture as both the ground and figure through which inequalities are established and reproduced makes the role that representation plays in the arts and culture industries central to sociological analysis. The study of representation – of who is producing culture – means looking at ‘the causal connection between who works in the production of culture, what cultural forms this labour produces, how the consumption of these forms

82

REPRESENTATION

are stratified and what difference this makes to … reinforcement or reduction of inequality’ (Oakley and O’Brien, 2016: 11). While in agreement with Oakley and O’Brien’s (2016) orientation to the sociological significance of representations, I would slightly redefine the problem for present purposes: looking at who produces culture and the cultural forms this aesthetic labour produces does tell us how inequalities are reinforced or ameliorated. But the missing link is attending to how aesthetic forms themselves preserve and reflect the dominant patterning of social relations and inequalities. Attending to representations means entering into the realm of aesthetic forms as historicised entities. That is, we can locate how certain aesthetic forms are the means by which privileged persons retain and preserve their cultural power. To historicise is to locate how aesthetic forms reflect or anticipate the social structure and its contradictions ‘within’ their aesthetic structure (see Jameson, 1981; Witkin, 1997; Limon, 2009). For present purposes the aim is to show how ‘representations of self ’ in stand-up are being implicated in the historical present alongside deepening wealth inequalities and cultural divisions, and how such divisions are being compounded through humour. Turning our attention to stand-up comedy, the demographic data on ‘who performs stand-up comedy’ retells the overrepresentation of white, middle class males. For this information I have made use of a digital archive – a podcast – The Comedian’s Comedian Podcast (ComComPod) to attain simple survey information of professional comedians at present. ComComPod is hosted, produced and distributed by professional standup comedian Stuart Goldsmith, and has 239 episodes as of March 2018 (of which I have made use of 198 for statistical information). The aim of using the archived podcast interviews as survey information is to take advantage of digital data’s ability to ‘survey the social’ as a by-product of user-engagement (Beer and Burrows, 2013). While ComComPod does not provide official survey information, it does offer insight into how digital

83

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

data captures an ethnographic portrait of the social. Crucially the use of this information is illustrative rather than explanatory. ComComPod, which began in March 2012, is dedicated to interviewing stand-up comedians working largely the UK ‘circuit-fringe’ – pubs, clubs and other venues along with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and other dedicated comedy festivals. It tells us that of the guests interviewed (n = 196) the majority are: male (78%) and white (89%). Many are also millennials (b. 1980–99) (43%). If we break ComComPod’s cohort down to include only male British stand-ups we see 100% of Baby Boomers (aged c.52+) covered on ComComPod are white compared to 96.2% of Gen X-ers (c.40–52) and 78.6% (c.20–40) of millennials (see the Appendix). ComComPod is not a representative survey of comedians working in UK comedy; but this is not to disqualify it from use. In fact ComComPod gains its explicit sociological significance as an archive of contemporary comedy precisely because it gives shape to a partial substratum within the comedy landscape. I discussed in Chapter Two how ComComPod disproportionately represents comedians whose industry representation and management was established during the Alternative Comedy period (c.1989) (Off The Kerb; Avalon; PBJ; Phil McIntyre Ents.). As noted generally by Anheier et al (1995) and Giuffre (1999), and more explicitly in reference to comedy by Friedman (2014) and Reilly (2017), artists tend to work in the form of cliques and clubs. ComComPod gives an archived voice to this ‘club’ as much as evidencing the limits of it (see Derrida, 1998). ComComPod’s conversations reflect the industry demands of Fringe show writing; iterant touring life; work on persona and ‘voice’; most crucially, the status of New Left ideals in comic performance – how to ‘deal with’ and ‘respond to’ sexism, racism, homophobia and so on. Far from being a representative survey, ComComPod is unrepresentative in a way which aids our comprehension of the fault lines in contemporary comedy production. Centrally I am claiming that ComComPod’s status as

84

REPRESENTATION

a far from disinterested survey of acts, in fact, gains its fruitfulness from its interested position as a reflection of such ‘cliques’. Speaking to host Stuart Goldsmith, he confirmed that of a subscription count of around 55,000, ComComPod has a strong ‘comedian listenership’: comedians listen to one another, and speak to one another in and through the podcast. For my purposes, the question this chapter pursues is how this sociological substratum of New Left ‘cliques’ in contemporary comedy is reflected and managed in terms of comedians’ ‘representation of self ’. The simple fact of ComComPod’s descriptive statistics is that they provoke the question: not why are young, middle class, white males entering into comedy disproportionately to other classes, genders and ethnicities, nor why are they doing so well? But, moreover, how are they doing it? How can we detect their ascendancy in their humour? Answering these questions requires two accounts: the first, how stand-up comedy became a site for a New Left politics to be articulated; and the second, a sustained analysis of the humour of comedians who conform to this social profile (white, middle class, young men). As to the first, the New Left sensibility which dominates stand-up comedy, I claim, is not merely rhetoric or an empirically indeterminate statement. Simply, I am not suggesting that stand-up comedians are insincere: like Hamlet they use theatre to mirror their true nature. Rather, what the following aims to demonstrate is that Alternative Comedy owes itself to a particular tradition of stand-up comedy which has historically merged with radical Leftist politics and since become individualised and normatively obligatory. Comedification: from abjection to New Left hegemony As was demonstrated in Chapter Two, what Alternative Comedy brought to stand-up comedy in Britain was the ability to write original comic material understood to be the voice of the comedian. Speaking retrospectively Jeremy Hardy says,

85

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

‘establishing the idea of … comedians being people who just talk … was the real revolution that Alternative Comedy was …’ (Goldsmith, 2017c). While the revolution of comedy being ‘people who just talk’ is the central representational mode of contemporary stand-up comedy, the question becomes who were the people ‘just talking?’ As the influence for Alt. Comedy arose from 1960s American stand-up comedians, it is worth noting who these comedians were and what their humour was directed towards in their own time.‘Around 1960’, begins Limon’s Standup Comedy in theory, or, Abjection in America (2000): Jewish heterosexual men formed the pool of American citizens that produced most American stand-up comedians. […] The cultural fact … is the connection between being a Jewish heterosexual man in America in 1960 and making one sort of living. The job was … to provide humour of a certain kind in a certain setting. Not the humour of the dozens, for example, or the camp. [Rather there was a] tense intimacy [between] national stand-up comedy as it was practiced in 1960 and the suburban moment of modern American culture. (Limon, 2000: 1–2) Samuel S. Janus’ 1975 study of 55 national American comedians showed them to be majority male (92%), heterosexual and Jewish (80%). Stand-up as it is practised today begins in 1960s America where Jewish heterosexual men provided humour to a gentile, ‘suburban’ America through television and radio. Limon’s sociology of the relation between an ethnic group and their Judaic ‘spirit of capitalism’ at a particular point of American modernity, ‘suburbanisation’, becomes a means to historicise humour, to show how a particular form of humour articulated cultural power: stand-up was a technique of accommodation and licence for critique by liminal figures, ‘suburbanite Jews’. Stand-up comedy becomes a story of Jewish acculturation and

86

REPRESENTATION

it may be understood as a continuation of the ‘Jewish Question’ which plagued Western modernity since 1789 (Sutcliffe, 2006). The place of ‘the Jews’ is the quilting point for the limits of Enlightenment rationalism, as various commentators have acknowledged (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1997; Bauman, 1998; Sutcliffe, 2006). As such one can view Jewishness’ place in the history of Western stand-up comedy as a microcosm of the wider ‘allosemitism’ which Bauman (1998) claims has been the form Western attitudes towards the Jews have most often taken: a profound ambivalence as they fail to fit, and defy, clear categories. Stand-up is the cultural performance of this liminal position. Limon’s conceptualisation of stand-up as the performance of abjection captures a liminal sense of self. Standing-up abjection amounts to: a psychic worrying of those aspects of oneself that one cannot be rid of, that seem, but are not quite, alienable … When you feel abject, you feel as if there were something miring your life, some skin that cannot be sloughed, some role … that has become your only character. Abjection is self-typecasting. (Limon, 2000: 4, emphasis added) Stand-up as the performance of abjection translated a particular ethnic experience of modernity into a cultural language of ‘self ’ which was open to all. This was a historical process. ‘Suburbanite Jews’ were carriers of abjection; as straight, male Jews, their comedy revealed them to be ‘female, homosexual, black, and Christianizing.’ (Limon, 2000: 6) Through stand-up comedians American society quarantined, but did not rid itself of, abjection. As such stand-up became the cultural means by which ‘America, between 1960 and the millennium, … comedified’ (Limon, 2000: 3). Comedification is a cultural moment and social process: your ‘white, male, hetero Jews’ from New York and other urban centres brought to suburban America that which was abject (‘queer, black and female’), paving the way for the rise

87

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

of identity politics to be acted out by ‘abject subjects’ (such as Richard Pryor; Ellen DeGeneres). Stand-up, as the art of abjection – of living your flaws, only for them to be displaced to better return again – makes anyone open to the state of ‘abject subject’ and its historicised power; to launch critique at ‘straight’ society’s conventions through one’s ‘abject’ inability to properly adopt conventions wholesale. ‘Comedificiation’ means standup begins with idiosyncrasies of self which are projected onto society only to return to oneself. The end result is: ‘… a world that makes a joke of class, ethnicity, origins – of all situations. The American joke, 1960–2000, is that our abjection sees in the alienation of body, voice and name the freedom to perform’ (Limon, 2000: 82). The ‘comedification’ of society – as a sensibility of ‘self ’ – reached Britain through Alternative Comedy. It may be incidental that Alternative Comedy in Britain (at least in its own telling) begins with two Jewish men. Peter Rosengard, along with Don Ward, began what is now London’s Comedy Store c.1985 after Rosengard visited the American Comedy Store. And the London Comedy Store’s first compere was Alexei Sayle, a descendent of Lithuanian Jews, and, following Sayle, Arnold Brown, ‘a middle-aged accountant of Glaswegian-Jewish descent’ (Double, 2014: 196). However, the founding of the Comedy Store, and the institutional beginning to Alternative Comedy, took from Jewish-American stand-up comedy two things. As demonstrated in Chapter Two, the Jewish-American comics were appealed to for their ability to critique ‘mainstream society’ and foreground the modernist ethos of comedy: writing about your life, personal experiences and politics. As such the ‘comedification’ of British stand-up was less about abject Jewish cultural assimilation, more a way to foreground a Marxist politics (c.1979–89) through comedy. Before the Store and outside London, comedy was located in a folk and cabaret circuit, the punk music scene, and also university revues (like the Cambridge Footlights and Oxford

88

REPRESENTATION

Revue). The folk scene of the 1970s is responsible for the rise of certain Alt. stand-up comedians (John Dowie, Jasper Carrot, Billy Connelly, Tony Allen) and the punk movement of the late 1970s/early 1980s for the ‘Ranting Poets’ (John CooperClarke, Claire Dowie) as well as comedians who would open for punk bands (like Ted Chippington). Crucially these fringe music and theatre scenes were seen as alternative by way of the audiences to whom they played: ‘The main concern of the new comics was life as it was experienced by their audiences – many of them young, radical, working class … and perhaps also unemployed and somewhat disenchanted.’ (Wilmut and Rosengard, 1989: xiv) While diverse in cultural origin, Alternative Comedy – through folkies, cabaret theatre, punk and rock scenes – dovetails in it being the artistic expression of New Left radicalism. The demos is assumed to be the New Left radicals. The humour being provided around the birth of Alt. Comedy in the late 1970s, into the early 1980s, was of apiece with a cultural Marxism and arose out of music rather than theatre. Playing to ‘pubs, clubs and small cabarets rather than well to do audiences’, Alt. Comedy descended from not so much prewar Music Hall and Vaudeville but ‘the continuing tradition of rock concerts which had built up since the emergence of rock and roll in the 1950s’ (Wilmut and Rosengard, 1989: xiv). It was anti-bourgeois, yet it may not have been performed by (exclusively) a proletariat. Indeed with the influence of university revues in the history of Alternative Comedy, what Wilmut and Rosengard (1989: xiv) called the ‘Oxbridge mafia’, their theatre driven comedy introduced a ‘erudite middle class approach to the university of wits’. As such Alt. Comedy is a mixture of fringe culture – folk, punk and cabaret theatre – meeting middle class sensibilities which, all agreed, over-turned the ‘easy techniques’ of television and club comedy reliant upon sexism, bigotry and stereotyping. The ethos is fringe and alternative, of ‘seeing society otherwise’, and a demos inheriting a ‘working

89

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

class’ faction and merging with a ‘middle class core’. Crucially what Alt. Comedy gave British culture was a space in which to perform, and act out, the language and ethos of New Left ideals. What comedificiation did to British comedy culture was give New Left politics a platform: a space to foreground the self in a cultural language which was able to situate oneself as an aberration of dominant political categories of belonging (class, race, gender, sexuality, etc.) – New Left radicalism. Far from the dominant New Left sensibility in stand-up comedy being either mere rhetoric or disingenuous, it may be understood as British society’s means of acculturation to and assimilation of abject selfhood. Stand-up comedy is the performative space within which to discursively situate the self in radical opposition to collective categories (be they one’s class, race, gender, ethnicity, religion, you name it). It is in this that ‘comedification’ in Britain meets with a wider process of accommodation of New Left politics in society and culture. Ben Pitcher’s (2011, 2009) work on New Left politics demonstrates that the problem of ‘the Left’ is that their ‘New Left’ (anti-racism, sexism, homophobia) ideals, by the turn of the millennium, had been detached from the collective social movements which produced them in the 1960s–1980s. New Left radicalisms have since become hegemonic ideals. This paradoxically leaves ‘radical subject positions’ with no radical standpoint from which to voice their countercultural or ‘alternative’ politics; the once-alternative is now mainstream political ‘sense’. No longer ‘collective’, the once ‘radical subjectivity’ of the New Left has become a sensibility individualised and obligatory to all persons. In short, we have a historicising moment: the self-casting of abjection that is the central practice of the individual stand-up comedian stands in historical conjunction with the de-collectivisation of New Left ideals, as such ideals become hegemonic, mainstream political sense.

90

REPRESENTATION

‘Comedification’ in Britain has meant less a diversification of who performs stand-up comedy in real terms. Instead ‘comedification’ means that, arising out of mid-century Jewish abjection in America and combining with late 20th century radical Leftist politics, stand-up is the central cultural expression of New Left ideals understood as ‘beginning with self, going on from there’. Truth to power: the humour of ‘millennial men’ What could be the significance of British stand-up comedy being the self-casting of abjection in the language of New Left politics and its being dominated by ‘millennial’ white males? Can we historicise the humour of the ‘white, straight millennial male’ in the same way Limon did with ‘suburbanising hetero Jews’? In an attempt to do so, I will turn to an analysis of three acts who embody the ‘millennial’ picture of contemporary comedy: Alex Edelman, comedy duo The Pin (Ben Ashenden and Alex Owen), and Josh Widdicombe. Alex Edelman’s millennial Judaism

Bostonian turned New Yorker, Alex Edelman (b. 1989) continues a tradition of Jewish-American stand-up since the 1950s/1960s. However, Edelman’s Orthodox Judaism is not what is taken to be – if not by him, certainly in the form of his act – his defining identity characteristic: his 2014 Edinburgh Festival ‘Best Newcomer’ show Millennial (2017) self-declares him a ‘voice of a generation’. Yet as social identities go, ‘generations’ have a weak status in defining individuals. While marks of age give us hints, these are dubious, and when it comes to generational mentalities, these too remain weak and only really come into meaningful relevance in hindsight. So Alex Edelman’s stand-up on being a millennial becomes an oddity: how is his material so perceptive of the ‘millennial mentality’, and why

91

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

does his generational membership define him? The answer is that Edelman’ Jewishness is what gives his generationalism its peculiar appeal and shape in the explication of social experience. Edelman treats his ‘millennialism’ as he does his Jewishness: as inescapable. In Millennial Edelman remarks: Sometimes I talk to people in this country and they’ll say to me… ‘Well I was a Christian, but I’m not anymore’. That blows my mind, because Judaism, for me, is a mailing list I can never unsubscribe from. Cos it’s not just a … belief in a God, it is a tradition, it is an attitude, sadly for me it is a prominent facial feature. (Edelman, 2017) What could be gleaned by understanding the ‘millennial’ from the subject position, and ethnic experience, of Jewishness? Characterising Jewish experience of modern Western European societies is a unique position of failing assimilation (Alexander, 2006:  459ff). Phillips’ (2014:  39) biography of Freud offers the practice of psychoanalysis as an allegory of the ‘Jewish Question’: it was ‘among other things, a story of acculturation; about how individuals adapt and fail to adapt to their cultures’ by way of an investigation into ‘what was unassimilable about modern people in the processes of acculturation’. The Jewish experience of ethnicity, and the anti/allosemitic perceptions of Jews, shows them to be an ethnic group divided: in their stubborn commitment to scripture, ritual and tradition in the face of modernising adaptations and changes, Anglo-European Jews have also been overly-eager to adapt to their host countries and cultures. Jews have occupied a position in modern Europe of resident aliens: their ‘remoteness is no less general than their nearness’ (Simmel, 1971:  149). Simmel saw the Jew as a stranger of a certain type, one who ‘had his social position as a Jew’ fixed by his social being, ‘not as the bearer of certain objective contents’ (Simmel, 1971: 149). The fixing of being

92

REPRESENTATION

may be something all social identities are subject to, but to Jewish experience it appears as the defining characteristic. It is with this view to all aspects of identity as something one ‘cannot unsubscribe from’ that Edelman learns of his ‘millennialism’. Millennial (2017) tells of how he is approached by social researchers to take a test on how ‘millennial you are’. The Jewish gloss Edelman’s Millennial has is that he treats social science methodology as if it fixes being. Instead of thinking of the ‘how millennial are you?’ survey as something which defines the millennial ex post facto, in Judaic spirit Edelman incorporates its findings as another knot in the mythic structure which organises Jewish identity (cf. Sutcliffe, 2006:  703–04). The categorisation of millennial is treated as the necessary beginning out of which the experiences and eventualities of ‘being a millennial’ are defined. Edelman’s Millennial (2017) reports the findings of social science data through personal experience, a practice in the ‘double hermeneutic’ of sociological knowledge (Giddens, 1976): the survey he takes is ipso facto taken into his identity and made part of conduct. Mannheim (1952: 289–90) took the ‘problem of generations’ to be one of social location akin to class position in the Weberian sense: an objective fact in the distribution of economic and political power which holds the possibility of developing a sense of common identity and purpose (but only provisionally). In the case of generational location, it followed for Mannheim (1952:  291) that a positioning in historical processes was a foreclosure of knowing yourself: it is ‘a specific range of potential experience, predisposing them for certain characteristic modes of thought and experience’. ‘Generation thinking’ is often criticised for providing the illusion that all those categorised within a generational cohort have unified experiences and expectations (White, 2013). Yet what Mannheim is offering are ‘generations’ as interpretative tools. Generations historicise: they are a way we ‘know’ the mediation of the past upon the present, how the past is ‘felt’ by the presence of a new population who

93

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

are named to help ‘make sense of ’ contemporary social, political and economic problems and processes (White, 2013). As such, Edelman’s stand-up gives us a means to comprehend the status which millennialism has as a sociological identity category (alongside that of class, gender, race or ethnicity) in the era of New Left hegemony and contemporary inequality. Achieving this in the form of stand-up becomes an exercise in autobiography as a dialogue with the past – with previous generations. Millennial produces material on the pensée sauvage of his own generation through the prosopopeia – borrowed voices (de Man, 1979) – of The Greatest Generation (b. 1920–45) and Baby Boomers (b.1945–65). As such the millennial figure appears in Edelman’s stand-up through the prosopopeia of previous generations, out of which the millennial subject shows the limits of New Left hegemony. Edelman’s material makes the New Left position a generational mentality treated with the same objective facticity as his Jewish ancestry. Millennial begins with a Thanksgiving Dinner where Edelman ‘comes out’ to his family: ‘I’m not gay, I just thought it would be hilarious! I have an uncle who doesn’t like gay people and, because of that, I have come out of the closet every Thanksgiving for the past four years.’ When his 88 year-old grandfather comes to Thanksgiving, committing to his coming out joke, Edelman’s grandfather has the punchline: ‘I’ve known since you were 9 years old’ (Edelman, 2017). The prejudice of the uncle becomes the joke’s target. The only reason for Edelman’s homosexuality is his uncle’s homophobia. Yet the butt of the joke is Edelman. The Greatest Generation, in the prosopopeia of Edelman’s grandfather, confirms heteronormativity. Edelman is gay compared to previous generations, showing millennial metro-sexuality to be an incorporation of abject selfhood as the hegemonic position. This is (to my knowledge) Edelman’s most tendentious joke, and it is telling that he can report offence taken only from one person who saw it as trivialising ‘coming out’ in LGBT communities (Hughes, 2015). The hegemonic position

94

REPRESENTATION

of anti-homophobia means that the formalism of Edelman’s joke is a ‘through the looking glass’ of Freudian tendentious jokes which mask homoeroticism. In Freud (1994), covering up aggression and sex in heterosexual couplings occurs via a third party who is introduced to civilise sexuality. Here the faux homosexual ‘coming out’ to a homophobe introduces a third male, the heteronormative grandfather, to expose faux homoeroticism as homosexuality viewed anachronistically. New Left politics therefore enters Edelman’s material through a dialogue with past prejudice embodied in generational personages. Speaking of himself in 2008 campaigning for Barack Obama and the excitement of post-racial America, Edelman treats politics as less about ideology than the generational location of ideology. As such, John McCain is understood more as an anachronism than living conservatism. Edelman makes him part of a mythic repertoire: I couldn’t imagine anyone older than John McCain when I was 17 years old. John McCain, Emperor from Star Wars, nobody. John McCain is intensely old; John McCain is in the Bible. I’m not kidding if you open up to the second page of the Bible there’s John McCain killing his brother McAbel. (Edelman, 2017) Establishing political personages in the guise of generational significance has, in terms of literary effect, the result of imagining the hegemonic subject – Edelman (young, white, educated, straight, middle class) – as not so much a subject out of history but rather at the end of it. However, what Edelman’s jokes achieve is the very bulwark of Jewish unassailability, of identification and repulsion, nearness and remoteness, which returns to undo acculturation. When Edelman takes his elderly, racist neighbour to vote, (generationally positioned, the two go hand in hand), he is both surprised that she is voting for Barack Obama and reassured of

95

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

her generational position: “…I’m waiting outside the booth for her and as I’m doing so, she sticks her head outside the curtain and says, ‘Hey, Jew! Which lever do I pull for the Coloured fella?” (Edelman, 2017). In the representational guise of Edelman’s stand-up, the past is felt anachronistically: it is a slur from behind a veil. The millennial figure appears through the prosopopeia of previous generations. Edelman’s generational prosopopeia becomes a way in which autobiography in humour is given an explicit temporal location and historical conjunction. Without Edelman ventriloquising the voices of previous generations, the ‘millennial figure’ is formless. Through generational chiasmus Edelman’s stand-up illustrates mythic veracity to generations having ‘mentalities’. But far from giving the ‘millennial’ substantive form, Edelman’s stand-up demonstrates the impossibility of the autobiographical act to render the self ‘present’ in the moment of elicitation: generationalism in his stand-up becomes an inability to know one’s self as oneself. Paul de Man (1979) takes autobiography to be a form of prosopopeia, a witnessing the dead speak. And it is in the moment of writing autobiography that the authorial subject witnesses their own absence, not recognising the self in what is written. Strictly speaking, for de Man, autobiography is impossible: autobiography is a desire to move beyond literary tropes to reproduce self-knowledge only to reveal the impossibility of closing this gap between self and text. Autobiography is a failure to ‘come into being’ and becomes a form of self-annihilation. As such it becomes ‘defacement’: witnessing their own absence in their own speech, autobiography becomes foreknowledge of death – non-being. Through defacement, the self glimpses death in the ‘dead-speech’ of prosopopeia (de Man, 1975: 922–3). Translated sociologically, Edelman’s approach to generational mentalities is a lesson in the impossibility of identity being something we can ‘unsubscribe from’: a generation becomes, as with his Judaism, less that part which defines us as us, rather it is that part of ourselves we

96

REPRESENTATION

surrender to ‘the other’ – how we witness our own absence in what we appear to be. In the era of New Left hegemony, Edelman – the now hegemonic subject – continues the Jewish tradition of trying to utilise alternative means to assimilate that which is unassimilable. The Pin’s epistemology of the class closet

In many ways, Edelman’s stand-up is an act which illustrates a ‘failing to be’ by way of the limits of autobiography. The Pin, as we shall see, also harbour a failure to ‘come into being’ but instead of the medium of stand-up, their theatrical double act approach provides a different angle. The line between stand-up comedy and theatre may be drawn in its relationship to the script: while comic routines are written, and assumed to be, the voice of the performer – where writing meets character – they rely upon being perceived to be extemporaneous for the discovery of humour between the lines. Given the emphasis upon the perceived extemporaneity of stand-up comedy ‘scripts’, the perceptual emphasis of the comic content is given over to the comedian: the material is a vanishing mediator to that which is the avowed goal of comic technique, the absolute humorousness of the comic person. This effectively is the structural closure required from comic material: the script is consummated, and perceived to be whole and complete, by way of audience laughter which confirms humorousness. Crucially the relationship to the audience is essential to comedic consummation. When it comes to the ‘double act’, the role of the audience – the third party – is slightly modulated in their relationship to comedic consummation: the joking, regardless of type, becomes tendentious; it serves purposes beyond laughter in and of itself. In Freud’s (1994:  143–46) analysis of tendentious joking the introduction of the third party to a joking relationship serves the purpose of announcing sex and aggression by other means:

97

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

laughter steps in to take the place of actual sex or violence. And within this formulation Freud proposes a sociological topology. Among the ‘common people’, tendentious joking is smutty and exposes libidinal impulses towards women for the sake of homosocial bonding. While among ‘good society’ tendentiousness moves towards greater degrees of abstraction as joking is reliant upon formal considerations over content. In ‘good society’ sexuality is announced through the geometry of social relations rather than their immediacy (Freud, 1994: 144f). Freud uses the term ‘allusion’ in the place of what I see as the geometry of sociality, but I employ this mathematical terminology as tendentious joking is all about objects in space: the laughter of tendentious joking arises from the satisfaction of desires by way of circumventing an obstacle. The obstacle to be circumvented is a taboo. And since Freud, the triadic relationship required for homosociality and its tendency towards ‘abstraction’ in high status circles has been treated as an alibi. In queer theory, Eve Sedgwick has argued that the ‘alibi of abstraction’ (1990: 164) found in modernism – the tendency to view all content as kitsch in favour of a purely formal aesthetic – is an attempt to place homosexual desires ‘in the closet’, to secret it from overt view. Crucially for our purposes, Sedgwick sees this alibi of abstraction as a disavowal of representation itself – namely the desired male body: one does away with representation in favour of the self-sufficient text which, in form, is consummated without answerability. Abstraction is an act of forgetting who is performing and the taboo they harbour (homosexuality). I introduce The Pin, 2012’s Cambridge Footlights double act Alex Owen and Ben Ashenden, in this way as it brings to bear the central themes of comedy male-male double acts: homosociality winking at homosexuality (Simpson, 1994; Limon, 2000: 28ff), a modernist aesthetic of form over content (Sedgwick, 1990), and the relationship of abstraction in art to social status in society (for example, Bourdieu, 1986). The

98

REPRESENTATION

Pin’s comic genius is reliant upon a commitment to form over content and abstraction over figuration. Their laughs occur in moments of self-conscious awareness of the ‘material textuality’ of the sketch rather than the comedic content. For instance: Ben: Alex: Ben: Alex: Ben: Alex: Ben: Alex: Teacher: Student: Teacher: Student: Teacher: Ben: Alex: Ben: Alex: Ben: Alex: Ben: Alex: Ben: Alex:

…Next up is the big Swimming Teacher sketch Oh, I love this one! Yes, okay, but my point is just remember to perform the big reveal line as clearly as possible so… Yeah! Such a good twist: you think it’s one thing, and then actually… Yes, don’t ruin… I’m not going to say, I’m not going to say, I’m not going… I’m just saying that on that line, give it a bit of oomph! Big delivery! It’s such a great reveal. All right, let’s do it! You here for the swimming lesson, mate? Yeah that’s me Great, I’m Niall and I’m ya teacher Are we in lane three? The lesson is in LANE FIVE! …Now have you brought? Sorry, Alex, no, that’s not the big reveal line Is it not? The lesson’s in lane five? Bit of a reveal for the swimmer… Nah, its new information for the swimmer but Yeah, but imagine if he had dived into lane three… the incorrect lane Let’s just start that one again See if we can improve on it! See if we can perform it correctly Often the best way… (Ashenden and Owen, 2017)

99

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

The formalism of this sketch, regardless of intent, announces the sketch genre as kitsch and foregrounds their comic skill as ‘knowing winks at’ form, to show how the sketch is made and find humour in the formal architecture of the play. But as we have become accustomed, since Freud and Sedgwick, to view abstract formalism as an alibi which circumvents an obstacle, what is The Pin’s alibi of abstraction circumventing? From the quoted sketch the circumvention is, seemingly, comic content: the content is itself banal and kitsch but the laying bare the material textuality is the invitation for humorous exchange. It was the Russian Formalists who divided poetic speech in plot and story: plot is what ‘slows story down’ and, as such, is given over to an appreciation of form. In the ‘Swimming Teacher’ sketch the prolepsis of the ‘reveal’ is a disappointment structurally designed to position analepsis, a returning to content. Through repetition the formal treatment turns kitsch into modernist perfection. The alibi of abstraction with The Pin, unlike the odd couples of the 20th century, is not reducible to homosociality (Simpson, 1994), nor homosexuality in high social circles (Sedgwick, 1990) or the taming of aggression (Freud, 1994). With The Pin the discovery of the secret of the ‘double act’, the pleasure of malemale humorousness, is solely the formal geometry of humour they can harness. With their fixation on the material text over anything else, The Pin attempts to become closer and closer to either a play, novel or novella. As such it means the personalities of the act – so central to the pleasures of the double act – are utterly redundant. The Pin’s formalism, like Brik’s anti-authorial take on Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, makes us believe that the text – the script – would still be funny without their presence: if Ben and Alex did not exist, The Pin would still have been written. The Pin’s sole comic achievement is to make abstraction an alibi for their very existence: without their ability to master form, The Pin would cease to exist. Ultimately theirs is a desire to make comedy appear as a self-sufficient consummated text

100

REPRESENTATION

without the answerability of the third party laughter. It is possibly too far to claim that The Pin rely less upon the personalities of the duo than their named Footlights predecessors (such as Fry and Laurie, Mitchell and Webb) but the origin of their name The Pin is testament to a desire for form over content: Alex:

Cariad: Ben:

The first show we wrote together … was a kind of play, sort of sketch play, where the show started at the end of the day and each sketch took you back in time two or three minutes until you got back to the beginning of the day and everything made sense, and it turned out that the beginning of the day had been someone stepping on a pin and knocking into someone else and that, kind of, set of the whole chain of events.… Ashenden and Owen sounds, so [off]. Sounds like a mortgage brokers, doesn’t it. A good one! (Comedy of the Week, 2017)

The Pin is both the name for their ‘literariness’ – the abstraction which violates ordinary speech to produce awareness of the material reality of literary language – and an alibi of circumvention: if the attention were not on the materiality of comic form, it would be on their social being. We would see them as the upper-middle class ‘mortgage brokers’ (and good ones at that!) within which their Oxbridge education and RP (received pronunciation) accents place them. The secret of homosexuality was once concealed in the comedy double act, but now the epistemology of the closet takes the form of eliding class position. In the present era of New Left hegemony the secret The Pin’s formalism conceals is their social privilege. In an era of arts equality movements and the structural disadvantage evident in public institutions (especially the BBC), it is telling (or at least noteworthy) that each episode of The Pin has as its central plot device the cancelling of their BBC radio

101

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

show. Each episode of The Pin is an exercise in escaping their own fate. However, their escapology is achieved through nothing other than a commitment to their formalism: their fate is both jeopardised by their social class and escaped by a mechanism of class privilege. The alibi of abstraction, therefore, is to establish the very means to circumvent the obstacle of class position and, through commitment to it, also achieve the laughter which – otherwise absent – would mean they would be reduced to bourgeois mediocrities (but good ones). The function of their humour is to displace class position while utilising its ideology of the aesthetic. In so doing they conceal their privilege through sensuous pleasure, laughter. It is this which, as Freud (1994: 146) would have it with tendentious joking, masks the sources of our enjoyment of The Pin: is it the occasion of New Left hegemony in a time of immense structural inequalities, or the technique of mastery of comic form? This is the ‘open secret’ which The Pin establish: they know that you know they are privileged, but the very means which accuses them (modernist formalism) excuses them in the end (laughter derived from form). Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Grey was Sedgwick’s canonical example of high modernism concealing homosexuality, and it is in impersonating Oscar Wilde being interviewed by police that The Pin reveal their aesthetic ideology and class alibi: Policeman: Oscar Wilde, as the sole witness obviously your testimony is our only hope in catching this sick murderer, so please be as clear as you can. Where exactly were you stood at the time of the attack? Wilde: In this life, one cannot stand anywhere before understanding what one cannot. Policeman: Right, if you could just keep it simple, that would…

102

REPRESENTATION

Wilde: Policeman: Wilde: Policeman: Wilde: Policeman: Wilde: Policeman: Wilde:

Simplicity is the most complex idea known to man… Where were you stood, mate? By the bins. By the bins. And the murderer, what was he wearing? He wore an expression that all men wear, a mask… Not his expression, his clothes. He had about his head that ornament which flatters to deceive, yet deceives to flatter. Er, a hat? Yes but enjoy the craft of it! (Ashenden and Owen, 2016b)

The punchline is the ideology: they want you to enjoy the craft of it, regardless of its classed impermissibility in an era of New Left politics and exaggerated material inequalities. In the current epoch, the post-modernism of contemporary double acts – where knowledge of form becomes the location for humour – does not so much perpetuate the ‘glass closet’ but rather redirect its gaze. Elsewhere I have detailed the evasion strategies of class privilege in speech and its perpetuation in conduct in British elite circles (Smith, 2016:  89–93): the discrepancy between ‘what is said and what is done’ is where one discovers privileged mechanisms (cf. Khan and Jerolmack, 2012). In the case of The Pin this process becomes, in comic form, incongruous: the very rhetoric of formalism is the very same action which preserves privilege, and our enjoyment of the craft. The abstraction of The Pin preserves their privilege and guarantees their humorousness. We can understand this humorous exchange as a class transaction, an exchange which mediates relations between groups in society: the sociological analogue to the part-whole formalism of their aesthetic. What type of economic transaction is their alibi of abstraction, and

103

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

what type of sociality does it produce? As tendentious joking is an enigma of occasion and technique, the answer Marx gave to an enigmatic exchange – commodity exchange – is apposite. The enigma of The Pin’s abstraction ‘arises from the form itself ’ (Marx, 1976: 164). Their humour follows the logic of commodity exchanges: in their transactions with the materiality of the text, the consummation of the parties involved – The Pin and ‘Audience’ – becomes one of making each ‘distinct’ and preserving, through the exchange, the different identities of those involved and leaving them ‘quits’ once the transaction has occurred. Following this transactional logic, commodity exchange produces a sociality which accommodates privileges through a process of misrecognition. As Marx (1976: 169) said of commodity exchange, a social relation among people appears in fantastic form as a relation among things: we misrecognise Alex and Ben’s labour of privilege for The Pin’s humorous material text. Josh Widdicombe’s sacrificial masculinity and gift of toxicity

Stand-up, unlike the double act, is unable to produce the perceptual distance between speech and text, script and performance, self and character. As a transaction, stand-up is closer to gift exchange than it is to commodity exchange. With gift exchanges, there is a merging of parties, a consummation of identities which cement relationships of mutuality between the two. The gift, unlike the commodity, makes people more alike, and as such produces collective sentiment out of individual action. Viewed this way stand-up as a gift exchange is a sacrificial act. Mauss and Hubert’s (1981: 13) definition of sacrifice is an act which, through ‘the consecration of a victim’, diffuses power to the collective. Sacrifice, through a consecration of victims, harnesses transgressive powers and gives their illicit potency over to a collective. Stand-up, as sacrifice, is a gifting of identity

104

REPRESENTATION

potency to a collective and making safe its transgressive powers for communal value. To be Josh Widdicombe is to live with a desire for masculine power but, if approximated, have no idea with what to do with it. Like Seinfeld, Widdicombe’s sitcom Josh is about nothing. The nothingness is the humour derived from his coming too close to male power, either in sex or aggression, and it ending with – to use a favourite Widdicombe idiom tellingly taken from failed pyrotechnics – a damp squib. Understanding the humour of Widdicombe, his claiming of male power, is to theorise the sacrifice of phallic potency as a damp squib. Edicts of hegemonic masculinity, classically understood as domination of women and a marginalisation of alternative forms of masculine identity (Connell and Messerschmidt, 2005), are manifest in Widdicombe’s cultural pursuits: sports commentary, centrally football (BBC Radio 5 Live’s Fighting Talk), and standup, the one performing art where heteronormativity is assumed. Yet what he does, and how he is placed in those interests, reveals everyone else to be in possession of the power he covets, and his power being extinguished in the laughs he receives. The question currently circulating around masculinity in sociological debate could be put as: where does masculine power go? After the acknowledgement of a decline in masculine hegemony – a ‘feminised’ workplace, a fracturing of labour markets, cyclical unemployment, and the gains of feminist activisms – where, if anywhere, is masculine power directed? The journalistic phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ is revealing in its figuration of masculine power as a voluminous substance harming social organs. Alongside toxicity, in the argot of contemporary masculinity the debate around hegemonic masculinity also uses Greek classifications: alpha, beta, gamma and incels (involuntary celibates) (a scale measured by hegemonic masculinity’s capacity for phallic penetration; Ging, 2017). Widdicombe’s Greek classification is declared, in an episode of Josh, as ‘… barely even beta! I’m a much lower Greek letter, I’m zeta!’ (Widdicombe, 2015).

105

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

Widdicombe’s humorous representation, on the scale below beta, is not asexual nor homophobic, but neither is it understood as a form of homophilia. Rather it is governed by the spectre of heteronormative ‘hegemonic’ values of domination of woman and marginalisation of alternative masculinities. The decline of homophobia and an openness to tactile, intimate homosociability has been theorised as putting an end to hegemonic masculinity (Anderson, 2009; McCormack, 2012), while others maintain that such a normative embracing of New Left non-homophobia homophilia is ‘little more than another strategy for straight, white, middleclass men to secure economic, social and political power in an era of gay rights’ (Ging, 2017: 4). Widdicombe’s humorous exchange is a version of the latter. No empirical claim of a decline or reformation in masculinity can be made here, but the social exchanges where Widdicombe’s masculine desire is placed and the humorous discoveries made from these exchanges positions everyone else to be in possession of what he is coveting. In the world in which Widdicombe is placed, a heteronormative, hegemonic masculinity prevails ‘in the background’ and shows everyone else to be able to share or harness its powers, its toxicity, but him. Widdicombe’s observational humour often takes the form of an inability to impose his agency upon physical objects, and being seduced by them in turn. Shopping in Argos Extra but unable to find any products the store clerk says, ‘What you’ve got to remember, sir, is that we’ve got a greatly reduced range.’ ‘Turns out,’ Widdicombe’s (2012) ire exclaims, ‘they’ve used the rare definition of extra to mean “far, far, less”. What I’m doing is keying in numbers, trying to guess what’s on the other side of that wall: this isn’t shopping, this is battleships!’ Masculine power, as phallic imposition on external objects, is thwarted at each turn. Tellingly Widdicombe’s most tendentious piece of observational humour involves not the triadic relationship of male-femalemale but zeta male-object-object as alpha male:

106

REPRESENTATION

The only time I’m confident answering a question is when my computer asks a question. Like when your computer crashes and it asks: ‘Do you want to send a report?’ … No! I’m not a grass! If I was going to grass up my computer I wouldn’t do it via my computer, he’ll know! I start grassing him up, he’ll start grassing me up, and he’s got far more on me than I have on him, I can tell you! (Widdicombe, 2011) Possibly the most family friendly masturbation joke of the last decade, the computer, anthropomorphised, is given the figuration of masculine Law (the injunction, ‘You wanker!’) By not being the alpha, we can see that Widdicombe allows alpha masculinity and its hegemonic powers to be exposed. More importantly it allows those not able to experience its power, those denied access to it, to appropriate it. Widdicombe’s role in late-night chat show The Last Leg is telling in this regard. A show conceived after Widdicombe, Alex Brooker and Adam Hills covered the 2012 Paralympic Games, The Last Leg’s humour is derived from the disabled subject’s ability to impeach normality: if Othering is the discursive construction utilised to know one’s own normality, The Last Leg’s positioning of the disabled subject in the position of symbolic Law, through its hosts (Hills and Brooker), obliges its audiences to disclose the shame of the able bodied subject through individual confession: the hashtags of #IsItOk and #DickoftheYear induce the shame of phallic potency. Widdicombe’s position in this is to be the beta male, acceptable face, of hegemonic masculinity as Brooker and Hills reappropriate it. Through social class and nationality, the Essex Lad (Brooker) and Aussie Bloke (Hills), Widdicombe’s beta masculinty triangulates masculine impotence to redeliver the potency of which disability robs Brooker and Hills. When Widdicombe (2016) discloses his ‘disability’ (having to wear glasses), Hills remarks: ‘don’t feel bad you were the last picked for the team’. Widdicombe’s sporting impotence is compounded with Brooker’s admission that of all his disabilities wearing

107

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

glasses is still too embarrassing. The hegemonic subject after hegemony, Widdicombe gifts masculine toxicity to those denied it, and rather than quarantining it, directs its potency to those in whose hands it will be better served for radical subjectivity. Historicising millennial humour To historicise humour is to appreciate its significance in the transmission of power, a speaking truth to power (Limon, 2009: 306). If we assume that humour is ‘generational’, as jokes are products of their time, historicising the location of New Left politics in stand-up comedy has shown that the power to which New Left individualism ‘speaks’ is the subjects own: millennial humour is how powerful subjects give up, hide or redirect their power. Widdicombe holds a position of power and has no idea with what to do with it; Edelman tries to champion the achievements of New Left individualism only to fail to properly realise himself in them as the ‘dead speak’ back; and The Pin’s compulsive formalism is evidence of a desire to disappear altogether and leave nothing but an archival text – an impossibility in the representational triad of stand-up. Humour, Freud tells us, is always the result an unexpected discovery in human social relations. Occupying positions of hegemony, millennial comedians’ humour is the unexpected discovery of anti-hegemony. Millennial, male comedians assert their abjection from a position that they cannot help but understand (and be understood by their audiences) as having its origins in positions of privilege. The laughter they receive is recognition of power revealed as impotence. Theirs is a humour which comes from the powerful to serve the impotent, and it rests upon an answerability that tries to ameliorate the shame of their subject position by using laughter as a gift (Widdicombe), text (The Pin) or failed autobiography (Edelman) to escape themselves (but always failing to do so).

108

4

Persona

Stand-up comedy after abjection Stand-up is an act involved in the politics of abjection. Theorising stand-up as abjection, John Limon (2000:  26) claims stand-up ‘begins with aggression toward an audience in order to submit that aggression to the law, which it hopes to mollify’. Performing abjection, stand-up offers the possibility of oscillating between our subjectivity and objectivity: who we think we are, and how we are seen. Abjection is said to involve a coupling of desire and revulsion, which is neither object nor subject, which beseeches but fails to be assimilated (Kristeva, 1982). As such, stand-up is about the shame of ‘who we are’ trying to be mollified. This is the power of a comic persona and it faces a contradiction: it begins with a move to see that which is abject, that which you live with but cannot expel, as something you are invested in as much as you wish to expel it. Stand-up comedians are our ways into seeing the inadequacies of self as far from a tragic failing or pathway to a comic soteriology, but ‘a way of placing or displacing abjection’ (Kristeva, 1982: 8). Many studies have stressed the potential of comic personas to act as vehicles of critique as they place and displace various forms of abjection (for example, Meier and Schmitt, 2016; Quirk, 2015; Lockyer, 2015; Tønder, 2014; Weaver, 2011; Lockyer and Pickering, 2005; Lavin, 2004). Unifying these is a shared concern to demonstrate humour’s power to foreground and reassess the politics of abject subjects:

109

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

racism, sexism, homophobia, disablism, environmentalism. In the wake of the social movements associated with these subjects, whose central messages have become socially and culturally accommodated, I ask: what now for abjection in stand-up comedy? To rework the title of Ben Pitcher’s ‘Radical Subjects after Hegemony’ (2011), what is ‘Stand-up after Abjection’? This chapter is concerned with seeking the ontology of comic persona in contemporary stand-up so as to assess the basis of critique which stand-up now offers. The argument begins with asking what a comic persona is in order to arrive at less its abjection but more what its ontology might imply for humour and critique in a time of New Left hegemony. If we are to see stand-up as a way of knowing the social after abjection, what is it about stand-up personas that offer us this privileged view-point despite an abject politics being the hegemonic, taken-for-granted position in contemporary political life? If we don’t need a Richard Pryor to know that racism is bad, as being anti-racist is a condition of social acceptability, what knowledge of society can stand-ups offer us which we don’t already know? By outlining the ontology of a comic persona, I offer in this chapter a way to think through and work out the conditions of comedic critique: what does it matter who is doing the critique? How does persona foreground abjection? The abject ontology of comic persona ‘Persona’ is used to describe and attribute distinctive aspects of personality, character and point-of-view to a comedian’s routines. It is a unique character attribute but it is not fictional; often it is an exaggerated version of their ‘real life’ self. It is an intrapersonal view of self: oneself seen from the position of another. While a feature of modern sensibilities, a standup persona is also a necessity within an industry subject to celebrification. The logic of persona becomes a commercial necessity as a clear, well-defined persona is central to success

110

PERSONA

(Quirk, 2015: 128–9; Lockyer, 2015b), and comedians rely upon the realness of their persona as a basis for their appreciation from audiences; investment in their personality and lives as ‘authentic’ is central to the intimacy of stand-up (Double, 2014: 77–8). Yet while the logic of ‘persona’ has become the dominant model of selfhood for all of us as the logic of celebrity has spread to nearly all areas of social and institutional life (Marshall, 2014), what distinguishes the persona of comedians from others is comedians’ inability to be ‘anything else’. Stand-up comedians, largely, are unable to win the privilege of ‘reinventing’ or ‘rebranding’ themselves. While certain celebrities reach a level of apotheosis which denies them an ability to change – the Platonic Idea of Greta Garbo in Barthes’ Mythologies (cf. Alexander, 2010) – stand-up comedians’ inability to be ‘anything but themselves’ is not the result of an ability to transcend earthly concerns. Rather it is the opposite: they are too much immersed in their own being, and how they relate to themselves as much as they relate to others. As Limon (2000: 6) notes of the performance of stand-up, it: itself has the structure of abjection insofar as comedians are not allowed to be either natural or artificial.… All a stand-up’s life feels abject to him or her, and stand-ups try to escape it by living it as an act. The persona of stand-ups, like all celebrity culture, relies upon a psychology of narcissism; however, given stand-up’s abject structure, it also gives their narcissism a peculiar gloss. Kristeva notes of the abject subject that they are driven by a form of narcissism where ‘the Other’ is given too much weight and authority while, simultaneously, there is a ‘lapse of the Other’ as the abject subject seeks to take ‘the Other’s’ place: ‘it establishes narcissistic power while pretending to reveal the abyss’ (Kristeva, 1982: 16). Stand-up comedians’ personas, as a form of abject narcissism, contain within them a wrestling with a desire to be

111

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

rid of themselves while, also, being peculiarly bent on insisting upon themselves in order to mollify law. Tellingly, Kristeva (1982: 16) says the knotted narcissism and weight of authority – of desire and conscience (Limon, 2000: 72) – from which the abject subject suffers is akin to ‘an artist who practices his art as a “business”’: stand-up comedians treat their inability to be anything but themselves as both a basis of their humorousness and also that of their livelihood (Chapter One). This perversion is driven by a crusade to not so much dismantle law, authority, religion and morality (‘hegemony’) but rather to acknowledge ‘the impossibility’ of their demands (Kristeva, 1982: 16). In the face of this impossibility, the abject subject ‘takes advantage of them, gets round them, and makes sport of them’ (Kristeva, 1982: 16). Like sport, stand-up is business and pleasure and, like sport, consists in a flouting of law (Caillois, 1978). While I contend that all stand-up personas have the quality of abject narcissism that involves a flouting and play with law, authority and power, it has been argued that some personas are more powerful than others. Sophie Quirk’s Why Stand-Up Matters (2015) claims: … there is a definable methodology and ideology that marks out ‘political’ comedy as something different to that created by the … commercial mainstream. McIntyre’s material may challenge the communal experience of the dominant social group, but it is this latter group of comedians who challenge dominance itself and deliberately press for an alternative practice or reality to replace that which is challenged. (Quirk, 2015: 160) Some comedians can change the world; others not so much. A hierarchy of personas, and their ability to flout law and authority, is presented by Quirk: from the observational comedy of Michael McIntyre to the overtly ‘political comedy’ of Mark Thomas, Stewart Lee or Paul Sinha. I remain unconvinced by

112

PERSONA

this hierarchy. This is not to say Quirk is wrong to position a hierarchy of persona this way. Indeed she is working within a tradition of Marxist analysis of popular culture which is well worth pursuing. What stand-up comedy shares with low or popular culture protest, especially the traditions of counterhegemony Gramsci located in the common-folk ‘spontaneous philosophy’ or ‘common sense’, is using the language of the powerful to undermine the logic of power itself (especially Thompson, 1993:  11–12). Stand-up is, discursively, a form of folk ‘common sense’ talk (Brodie, 2014, 2008) whose investment in the language of the powerful is rewarded by the ability to ‘curse’, to rid the powerful of their own language, or to admonish the powerful in the very language the powerless inherit from them (Limon, 2001: 426). The problem, however, is that at a time of New Left hegemony, the dominant ideals and beliefs we are obliged to follow at the level of spontaneous common sense (anti-racism, feminism, queering of self, and so on) are precisely what is hegemonic, the ‘dominant thought’ we are all obliged to follow (or have to evade if we are opposed to it). New Left ideology is the language of power: presently the language of power is directed toward victims of material and cultural disadvantage or discrimination, but its dominant voices come from privileged subjects. Stand-up comedians are often the latter, as we have seen (in Chapter Three). As such we need to rethink what critique means. The question becomes: if New Left ideals are mainstream ‘political sense’, how do comedians face up to the obligations of New Left political subjectivity from the social identities they voice their New Left ideals from? If stand-up is an artform whose lesson is that you cannot escape who you are, then what does this imply for social critique? In the political climate of hegemonic New Left identity politics, all social identities bear the quality of abjection. Tyler (2013) and Ahmed (2004) situate abjection arising in the ‘episteme’ of the age: abjection is ‘capillary power’ as bodies, races, classes, religions and so on are discursively and

113

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

institutionally constructed as problematic and narrated as such. What stand-up comedy illustrates is how, in the time of New Left hegemony, abjection is the episteme of the age: abjection is now selfcast in the personas of stand-up. The answer to the question ‘where does the abject come from?’ is not from the powerful to the lowly, but rather in our very ability to narrate ourselves within a language of deficiency: to acknowledge our own power in our own shortcomings to the obligations of New Left politics. To think this through is to understand what the ontology of comic persona implies for an ethics of selfhood. The ethics of comic persona As explored previously, comedians are in compromised positions as they have to be exemplary ‘left subjects’ while, structurally, they occupy social positions which negate the position of subordination in which ‘left critique’ is (traditionally) voiced. One consequence of this sociological impasse can be found in comedians’ own talk on their central obligation: comedians, of differing comic genres, share similar views as to the importance of laughter over politics in their conception of the ideals of stand-up. Contrary to the hierarchy of personas which Quirk establishes, take the statement of Paul Sinha, an overtly ‘political comedian’ whose persona is, to use Stewart Lee’s (2017) description, ‘the world as seen by a gay, Hindu, ex-GP’: ‘I don’t, necessarily, value my opinions enough to think that people should, necessarily, listen to them.… If I’m not making them laugh then I’ve failed in my primary concern’ (Goldsmith, 2012b). Sinha’s remarks about desiring laughter first and foremost, over encouraging thought, pairs very much with observational comedian Josh Widdicombe’s statement, whose persona rests on, according to Brian Logan (2015), ‘cosy laughs from a pampered millennial’: ‘[stand-up] is a very twodimensional form … there’s not that much ability to change or any of that … you’re a cartoon, essentially’ (Goldsmith, 2012c).

114

PERSONA

The cartoon figure of Widdicombe, a desire to be defined by humorousness, is shared with Sinha. Why this is can be found in the link between the ontology of humour and the ethics of selfhood it encourages. Widdicombe’s statement of a stand-up persona as akin to a cartoon is tellingly reminiscent of Henri Bergson’s philosophy of laughter: we laugh when the appearance of ‘the mechanical’ appears in that which is ‘organic’. Bergson claims our aesthetic appreciation of humour of this sort ‘comes into being just when society and the individual, free from the worry of self-preservation, begin to regard themselves as works of art’ (Bergson, 1987: 125). The ethical consequence, for Bergson, was that laughter at oneself becomes a moral virtue in a society beyond scarcity but one liable to increased automation and stasis; laughter allows us to be attentive, in mind and body, to the situation and able to adapt to continuous change, to expel rigidity. Bergson explored this ethics of self through the metaphysics of time and consciousness, one which is helpful in thinking through the uniformity of comic persona – from high politics, to low observational – at a time of New Left hegemony. Bergson’s philosophy of time can be simplified to be concerned with ‘the problem of continuity’: how we reconcile the immediate nature of ‘this moment’ with the flux of impressions and images which give us a sense of temporal duration. We experience time as continuous duration without perceptible gaps or transitions and yet think in such terms of presence, past and futures as discontinuous entities (Gell, 2013:  96f). Bergson’s philosophy of laughter is an answer to this ‘paradox of contemporaneity’ (Deleuze, 1994:  81): laughter illustrates the presence of stasis to what we would usually experience as continuous, seamless duration with imperceptible moments of change. Ethically what this implies is that our relationship to ourselves – as neither fixed in essence nor continuously changing – is an obligation we have to extend to the other, neither are they wholly fixed nor open to change.

115

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

Continuing the comparison between Sinha, the high political comic, and Widdicombe, the low observational comic, their relationship to the temporality of stand-up also shines a light on the ethics of selfhood which a stand-up persona foregrounds. Asked by Stewart Lee how he uses material in different length sets, Sinha responds: Well the 20 minute set in a club does actually contain bits and pieces which actually began their life in an hour long show, but it’s the catchiest, most direct jokes. I think the big difference of an hour show is you can actually do two or three minutes without a laugh, deliberately, because you’re actually saying something important, or serious. And the audience will let you get away with it. You do that in a 20 minute set and they’ll start getting very impatient, and rightly so. (Lee, 2011) Jokes economise material as it short-circuits politics into persona. As argued in Chapter Three, stand-up has a structural analogue to what anthropologists call ‘gift exchanges’. Persona, in this guise, is that which is called up to keep up the temporality of exchanges which confirm funniness: the obligation the comedian owes to an audience, ‘the Other’. Sinha’s observation that audiences get annoyed without jokes in short sets may be rendered an observation on the tempo of comic gifts: persona becomes the strategic means to ensure the ongoing acceptability of self to ‘the Other’ through ‘little joke’ gifts. As Sinha sees jokes as the means to economise politics, Brian Logan (2015) tellingly observes of Widdicombe that ‘you could remove all the words from Josh Widdicombe’s set and the rhythm and pitch alone would get the job done. He sounds funny.’ Widdicombe – devoid of identity criteria, a subject without qualities but an object of humour – uses the economy of jokes only for laughter, whereas Sinha uses the economy of jokes to shortcut politics. Sociologically what this tells us is that Sinha’s ‘abject

116

PERSONA

identity’ – gay, Hindu, ex-GP (from professional to clown) – uses jokes to remind audiences he is more than his abjection, whereas Widdicombe uses jokes to escape his privilege (see Chapter Three). Where they meet is in laughter as an ethical ‘gift’ which, directed at ourselves, begins in the presence and proximity to ‘the Other’. And what they both learn is that the way they manufacture their escape from themselves – economy of thought, or jokes over content – only better returns them to themselves (see Phillips, 2001; Limon, 2016). The obligation for laughter at ourselves is to recognise the power of who we are as seen from the position of ‘the Other’. Neither fixed in our social being – our class, race, gender, sexuality, politics – and neither able to change these object-like feature of ourselves, stand-up personas provide us with a view on the ethical obligations of New Left political subjectivity. Stand-up encourages a view of self which is at once narcissistic in its search for laughter, and at once ashamed of self its desire to escape who we are. Abjection is, psychologically, close to both narcissism and shame. The experience of shame, according to Lévinas (2003: 64), is premised upon the desire to escape our very selves as much as it is a reminder that we cannot be anything other than ourselves. Stand-up may be alerting us to our naked inability to be anyone else, but the role that laughter plays is not the experience of shame but the compromised enjoyment of our being. At a time of New Left hegemony, the laughter we owe to once ‘abject subjects’ (more often the ‘political comedian’, such as Sinha) is not the laughter we reserve for the ‘privileged subjects’ (often the ‘observational comedian’, like Widdicombe). As we saw Chapter Three, the humour of ‘millennial men’ – the privileged subject – spoke ‘truth to power’ by trying to escape the privileged positions they occupy. Their humour was evidence of an investment in the language of the powerful to curse themselves. What this means for the laughter reserved for the once ‘abject subject’ is not so much its challenge to dominance; instead it implies that their laughter is evidence

117

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

of a hierarchy not of ‘speaking truth to power’ but rather ‘the place of the speaker in power’. The knotted form of abjection – repulsion and desire, self-loathing and narcissistic self-insistence – shows us that power is indeterminately placed: it comes from within and without, it can be found ‘in ourselves’ and imposed from ‘outside’. Stand-up can be our way to locate the exorbitant inside and outside of power through the ‘self ’ stood up. The ethics of selfhood which New Left hegemony obliges means we can view stand-up personas as offering a philosophy of ‘the subject’: instead of looking at how comedians challenge hegemony, we can view their persona as offering points-of-view on ‘self in society’. From their point-of-view, their philosophy of self that their humour presents, we can abstract from it a way to look at their place within power and their relations of ‘selfas-Other’. To do this I invert the hierarchy offered by Quirk (2015), moving from low observational to the high political to observe how a comedian’s social position and its abjection offers differing subject positions to exemplary the obligations of New Left hegemony. James Acaster: being nothingness

To begin this, let us first notice something which occurs in interviews with observational comedians which does not occur with heavier, ‘political’ or ‘point-driven’ comedy: the question, ‘Is that true?’ ‘Did that really happen?’ We are obliged to understand the perspective of the abject subject, by dint of their race, gender, sexuality, as offering a space to disrupt our narrowly privileged position and standpoint. This is the moral obligation to ‘radical subjects after hegemony’ (Pitcher, 2011). Yet in stand-up the ‘observational comedian’ is plagued by questioning the verisimilitude of their point-of-view despite being, normatively speaking, the hegemonic subject. It seems that as oppositional politics (anti-racism, feminism, gay rights, green politics) have been incorporated into our dominant

118

PERSONA

political outlook, the person who is most suspicious to us is not the abject other (‘Jew’, ‘Black man’, ‘Woman’) but the ‘white, middle class male’ stand-up. Denied the possibility of being an abject subject, this results in their relationship to truth being, in keeping with their position of privilege, seen to be a personal, individual idiosyncrasy. Truth is something they may bend and twist to their own gain. Indeed, the second most common question for the observational comedian is, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ In the case of James Acaster, it is telling that what is true and where ideas come from, at first sight, seemingly bear little resemblance to ‘ordinary life’. A James Acaster routine of note is ‘You wouldn’t bring an apple to an orchard’ from 2013 Edinburgh Fringe show, Prompt (now available on his Netflix special Recap: Acaster, 2018d). Writing in the Guardian, Acaster (2014) says: This routine is based on a real-life event, but I changed a lot of the details, such as people’s names and where it took place and the circumstances under which it took place in. Not to protect the people involved but to protect myself … because I’m a coward and was scared they might confront me. We could generalise this as the rule which Acaster uses in all routines: it is all true, but it is from the perspective of someone unable to face up to life. Adding in Acaster’s social identity to this dictum reveals Acaster to be both everyone and no one: being male, middle class, white, and straight, feminist and antiracist, Acaster’s position as an ‘everyman’ is such that his humour is seen to be purely his own invention, a miracle of his own imagined world if only because he cannot face up to reality. Or has he nothing to face up to? When observing Acaster’s routines it is hard to pinpoint what is his own invention, or established cultural conventions. As ‘observational comedy’, sociologists

119

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

would claim his world rests upon a world of normative order and expectation – a world ‘we all’ inhabit. Let’s see where the ‘turning one’s back on reality’ takes us. One routine helps brings it into view: I’m a prankster when I go out with my friends. One of them left me alone with his pint when he went to the toilet. Big mistake. It’s a classic prank; I always do this whenever someone leaves me alone with their pint. I went round the bar using his pint to propose toasts with, deliberately proposing toasts to things I knew he disagreed with. He comes back, has a sip, ‘Urgh! What have you done with my pint?’ I’m like, ‘Ha, ha, ha! You just drank to the service charge being included with the bill’. ‘You just drank to the bedside lamps that don’t have the switch on the chord, which is convenient, but on the neck of the lamp under the bulb. It’s like a bolt you have to somehow slide across. You can’t even reach it, you have to get your whole hand up inside the lampshade. It hurts. It’s really awkward. You can’t even see it, you have to look in the top of the lampshade to see what you’re doing, and then you turn it on and it blinds ya. You just drank to those lamps, you love those lamps!’ (Acaster, 2018b) Acaster’s routine turns its back on reality to deliver what already is the case. Is the premise, merely, a way to smuggle banal observational material into a world so thoroughly absurd that we find it amusing? Or are there deeper metaphysics at work? The first thing we notice is that depth, either noumenonal or transcendental, does not appear in Acaster’s world. Everything is literal and follows a customary logic of sense. If James Acaster ever said something truly absurd, to paraphrase Wittgenstein (1953: 190), we would not be able to understand him. All reality is stable and sensible in Acaster’s world. Literalness underlines Acaster’s comedic world; it is mathematically perfect. It

120

PERSONA

seemingly all adds up. If this is the case, then how is incongruity becoming evidenced? Is Acaster the figure who is incongruous to the social, or is the social incongruous with Acaster? Quirk (2015) has argued for observational comedy, such as Acaster’s, to be read as form of ethnomethodology: through comic material comedians act out ‘breaching experiments’; an undoing of normative order through their observations. But what if we thought of Acaster as the social, not a dualism between structure and agency? What if he is social order, what if he is hegemony, that is what ought to be, according to the powers that be, at the level of spontaneous, ‘taken-for-granted’ thought? This would mean his abjection is his hegemony: his desire to be rid of himself is to be rid of all meaning, order, sense and ability to ‘get on’ in the world. It would also mean he is a victim of his own power to assert normality, sense and logic, while also being the subject against which normal, sensible and logical are measured. Notice how Acaster’s world is almost algebraic in form. For instance, in one routine, he says if we buy ‘ready to eat apricots’ in a resealable bag they should, by the rule of ‘x’ (ready to eat apricots), be called ‘ready to eat some apricots’ by dint of ‘y’ (the resealed bag). If norms, values or rules exists in Acaster’s world, their status consists in being taken literally. This literalness does not have any ontological priority, or sui generis quality to it: rules or norms appear ‘as they are’. Yet as we have seen, this world of Acaster’s is far from another reality, it is our world. The social, however, in dominant social theory, does not add up as such. What is the status of convention if it is observed but not known, acted but not reflected upon, and only shows itself when presented literally? Is Acaster showing us to be ‘cultural dopes’, as Parsons (1967) was accused of? Or is this a type of ‘tacit knowledge’ of which we ‘could have acted otherwise’ as in Giddens’ ‘structuration theory’ (1979:  55ff)? Or an ‘on-going practical accomplishment’ gone exactly right but somehow wrong as we chuckle (Garfinkel, 1991)? Or, the art of ‘impression management’ (Goffman, 1959) whose

121

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

eccentricity is not so much eccentric but too centric and, as such, amusing? No, it merely ‘is’. We ‘have reached bedrock’ (Wittgenstein, 1953:  72, para 217) in Acaster’s world. What we demand of Acaster’s logic is not a definition of the content of his world but its form: ‘our requirement is an architectural one; the definition of a kind of ornamental coping that supports nothing’ (Wittgenstein, 1953: 72, para 217). Acaster’s material exhibits nothingness. In The Art of Stand-up (Yentob, 2011) David Baddiel describes observational stand-up as ‘the art of the inconsequential’ in a segment called ‘the art of nothing’. However, in relation to Acaster, this conflation of ‘the inconsequential’ is not to be understood as being synonymous with ‘the art of nothing’. Inconsequential still implies the possibility of consequences; there is quantity and magnitude still at work. Baddiel’s statement is of apiece with a Leibnizian calculus concerned with infinitesimals, those things which are so small there is no way to measure them but, still, presupposes a scale to which they pertain: a ‘transcendental law of homogeneity’. In Acaster there is nothing, no finite thing, which the infinitesimal may be attributed to and worked out from. There is no theorem to make Acaster’s world add up. Acaster’s stand-up may appear on par with custom and convention but his disregard for Lebenizian infinitesimals in comic form undermines its manifest content. However if we take all Acaster’s material, a montage of scenarios, we understand the nothingness is a journey. The true significance in Acaster’s seeming affirmation of everyday life is that it is underwritten by precisely its opposite: death without redemption, or death realised through the mediocrity of the imponderabilia of everyday life.1 In Acaster’s adventures of the everyday ‘death comes to us all’ after he breaks the ice at a cocktail party; he fakes his own death in order to avoid telesales; and to the man in the cinema who says ‘that’s two hours of my life I’m never getting back’, Acaster gleefully states that all hours are irretrievable and death is the end (see Acaster, 2018a, b, c, d). But still we remain

122

PERSONA

unaffected by this triumph of death and nothingness in Acaster: if there is not a transcendental aesthetic which underlines his world, there can be no despair nor salvation. You can be sure that the silliness was a journey to and for nothing: death (Limon, 2012: 147). There is nothing lapsarian or eschatological in Acaster’s standup: ‘What is comic is that the essence of verticality uncovers itself as the sign of a complete horizontal impotence’ (Limon, 2000: 79). Or, ‘the hidden logic of a successful joke cannot be the reiterated point of a horrifically explicit sermon2 on behalf of the inescapable theology’ – or social structure, nor ideology – ‘of the entire united community’ (Limon, 2009: 308). In Acaster’s stand-up what truly disrupts is that his material shows us, without value or normative orientation, ideology or programme, that all sense is nonsense, all phenomena is appearance without depth. He shows us that what has power over us is, really, our own self-imposed reason which is, from a change of contour, far from necessary or desirable. It is hegemony – white, middle class, heterosexual, maleness – feeling the shame of its own potency: there is nonsense behind the sense. The highest form of critique is what Acaster offers us, an existential test of our most immediate realities (Boltanski, 2009). Trivial, whimsical, infantile or frivolous as the content of Acaster’s material may be, it offers nothing in the way of salvation nor a better path to follow. Existential tests, as Boltanski (2009: 108) sees them, ‘open up a path to the world’ (in Wittgenstein’s sense of ‘everything that is the case’). Existential tests ‘are one of the sources from which a form of critique can emerge that might be called radical, in order to distinguish it from reformist critiques intended to improve existing reality tests’ (Boltanski, 2009: 108). Far from being epiphenomenal, the nothingness which Acaster’s world presents to us is the most radical critique possible. More troubling, there is not a case being made in Acaster’s stand-up. The highest forms of critique arise from personas which approximate that of an Acaster; it leads us

123

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

to the highest concentration on our world sense of sense and shows it to be thoroughly senseless. A Bic for Her: Bridget Christie’s feminist ‘frame analysis’

Acaster’s abjection is the essence of life; being and world are reduced to no-thing-ness; he is neither artificial nor natural; neither following rules nor acting ‘otherwise’. As such Acaster’s world is only able to be analysed not interpreted. It is pure form: his persona sees the ‘imposition of a geometrical perfectionism upon compounded liminality’ (Limon, 2000: 31). Formalism is the desire to circumvent the position of hegemony occupied by the subject; but, even in spite of a lack of content, it leaves traces of identity in the routes of escape (Chapter Three). Not winning the privilege of the hegemonic subject, the female comedian, however, approaches the geometry of identity not as a subject in a world of objects but as an object. Bridget Christie’s triumph when it comes to feminist-driven stand-up comedy is to occupy the position of an object in a world where female objectification is the default female mode of existence. Christie first began talking about feminist politics not as herself but anthropomorphically: she used to dress as an ant on stage as a comic foil where ‘The Ant’ would, through comic substitution, voice the experience of women in comedy. ‘Why do critics always have to mention we’re ants in reviews?’ for instance. No longer in costume, Christie continues the anthropomorphic approach so as to further undermine the pseudo-position ‘The Woman’ occupies in contemporary society. Comically, Christie is at her best when she is a talking object. From pretending to be an ant, to a pen with her head on top (the poster of her Edinburgh Award-winning 2013 show, A Bic For Her), the object she plays is ‘feminism’. Feminism is, through Christie’s performance of ‘a feminist’, reduced to the status of absurdity. She says:

124

PERSONA

We’re clowns, we’re comedians, … I don’t feel I should be a high status character … it’s much easier to laugh at someone whose in a rage about, like a lolly or a pen, or something, rather than looking at someone who is angry about what they should be angry about. (Goldsmith, 2014b) The ranting feminist is reduced to petty annoyances or trivialities. If we follow the logic of Christie’s persona, ‘the woman’, after feminism and in comedy, is unable to appear angry about that which a feminist ought to be angry about, so instead takes refuge in the problems of an observational comedian (‘a lolly or a pen’) in order to talk about the serious. Feminism remains within the confines of anthropomorphism, of a Bergsonian ‘mechanical in the organic’. A ridiculous person becomes, then, ‘the feminist’ in a society that has moved beyond the taboo of the homosexual or the Jew, black man or independent woman and their pollution. As such the polluting element is now their subject position’s political triumph redux: why do they have to talk about this? By being an object, Christie maintains the central tenant of object-ification which patriarchal society places women in and, through her anthropomorphism, gives voice to ‘The Feminist’ as a form of prosopoperia. Series Two of her BBC Radio 4 show begins with her imagining the audience’s response to another series of feminism (Christie, 2017). It is almost as if Christie reduces the audience to the tired response of, ‘You would say that, you’re a feminist’. It becomes the assumed Audience response to which Christie’s material becomes the Law she seeks to establish. In A Bic For Her Christie’s prosopoperia as a talking object, and turning the Audience into Law, is worked out through a de-construction of advertising. The subject matter par excellence for a ‘feminist comedian’ after feminism is advertising (as the ‘Name of the Father’ or ‘Big Other’ to use Lacanian psychoanalytic terminology; see Campbell, 2004: 156–7). In

125

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

her routine about auditioning for a yoghurt advert, Christie employs a form of ‘frame analysis’ or Goffmanian keying. An inability to adapt to the right female ‘frame’ becomes the reason for her not getting the part, as ‘The Feminist’ is unable to fully adopt the position of ‘woman as object’: the ‘definition of the situation’ is one whose artifice is made evident, shown to ‘not add up’, through the presence of ‘The Feminist’. Christie’s routine on women in adverts is such that the problem of ‘harmless sexism’ is revealed to be far from harmless when Christie’s ‘Feminist’ points to sinister qualities of home invasion, males offering women unknown food/drinks, the desire to ‘swoon’ at the handsome home-invader and her inability to ‘know how to’ swoon. In the time of New Left hegemony, Christie plays Goffman against himself. When Goffman sought to write a theory of the social as performance shifts, to seek out the typification of the everyday in Frame Analysis (1976), his raw material was marked pseudo-verisimilitude. When Goffman selected examples of ‘everyday life’, he chose examples from advertising (Jameson, 1976: 130). As any viewer of Mad Men knows, advertising hides more than it reveals. Jameson puts this failing of Goffman’s down to an insufficient formalisation, and dissolution of, ‘the “subject”’. Goffman’s turn to a mathematical vision of the social – harmonics – through ‘keys’ and ‘keying’, remains plagued by an anthropomorphic subject of ‘role and character’ (Jameson, 1976: 131–2). Unlike Goffman, Christie is not seeking out a theory of the subject but rather demonstrating how the position of the feminist after hegemony becomes another part played in the artificial typification of the ‘everyday’. Just as advertising invents the ‘the subject’ through an inverse technology (the product becomes a solution in need of a problem; Wagner, 1981: 62f), the ‘acting object’, Christie ‘The Feminist’, is able to use the limits of objectification to uphold the edicts of feminism. ‘The Feminist’, as with ‘Women in Adverts’, gives a name to a problem which disturbs the ‘sense of normality’ which ‘woman’ is granted. The virtue of Christie’s

126

PERSONA

‘frame analysis’ is to take the position of ‘The Feminist’ as the means to demonstrate that the typification of the everyday is a spectacle only when seen from another, just as spectacular, ‘key’. Christie denies the existence of a real ‘subject’ for a feminist politics as she reduces herself to an object among others. Paul Sinha: father to child

Limon’s (2000: 27) conceptualisation of stand-up as the process of turning ‘Audience into Law’ is psychoanalytic: stand-up is ‘the resurrection of your father as your child’. This psychoanalytic rendering of stand-up betrays the conventional, clinical definition of stand-ups as neurotics. Janus’ ‘The Great Comedians’ (1975) may not use the term neurotic but his summation is in keeping with what psychoanalysis terms neurosis (anxious, fearful, depressive, but ultimately with a grip on ‘reality’): … comedians are shy, sensitive, fearful individuals, who fight their fears constantly and who win only for short periods of time, needing repetitively to do battle with the enemy both within and without (Janus, 1975: 174). Going against the neurotic diagnosis, Limon’s vision of the telos of stand-up is more in line with a treatment for psychosis. Lacan’s (1966: 198ff) definition of psychosis is the inability to adopt the ‘Name of the Father’, to internalise the language of ‘the Other’ in the unconscious as it transformed in the language of Law, the symbolic order. Stand-up is a form of psychosis if it is not adopting the ‘Name of the Father’ (Law) but instead the resurrection of the law in the form your child: making your reality the reality of ‘the Other’. However, at a time of New Left hegemony the abject has the status of ‘the Law’. The once abject subject becoming the law means, as we have seen with Christie, the laughter we give them is not at their being but

127

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

at their ability to direct audiences’ attention away from their occupying positions of New Left hegemony. Paul Sinha is a subject of New Left hegemony: a privileged subject (educated; former professional) who embodies the features of abjection in race and sexuality. Sinha takes these once abject facets of his identity to become the voices of prejudice redux in the form stereotypes: he uses his race to disrupt white privilege and his sexuality to disrupt his racial identity. He is nothing but a self seen from the position of the other: a stereotype. Stereotypes are a fixed signifier of Law defining the essence of ‘the subject’ (see Holquist, 2002: 175). So if Paul Sinha is openly gay and a British-Indian, surely his homosexuality will be a problem for his family and his race a problem for British society? His 2011 Edinburgh Fringe show, Looking at the stars, is an attempt to play these tensions off one another: British society is represented with default prejudice toward race, and his ethnic identity (Pakistani Hindu) is presented with default prejudice toward sexuality. Between these two Laws, Sinha stands as the subject. In Looking at the stars we witness Sinha collapsing this chiasmus of prejudice in and through ‘himself ’. He begins by discussing how his parents are disappointed he’s chosen to be a clown for a living, despite their immigration to Britain being for his educational advantage. Sinha’s parent’s position in the time- space of immigration (arriving in 1968) is used as the basis for a chiasm of prejudice knotted through ‘self ’: Indian homophobia meeting with British racism, the two coinciding with his birth. How to reconcile British racial prejudice with Indian homophobia? Sinha proudly speaks of being an ‘out’ homosexual who fears not the reaction of society but the reaction of his father. Upon coming out to his father, and his father being accepting and encouraging, he realises that only British tolerance could have given his father a liberal worldview. But if so, then how can Britain be tolerant when, going on to retell a night

128

PERSONA

where he finds himself drunk in a Glasgow kebab shop, and punched in the face at random, the first question the police ask is: was this a racially motivated attack? Sinha’s inability to make sense of the event or attribute racism leaves him catatonic. The finale to Looking at the stars leaves Sinha wiping tears and blood off his Glasgow Celtic football shirt and the audience, through the comic device of a ‘pull back and reveal’, realise Sinha’s race is secondary to the ills of Scottish football rivalries and binge drinking culture. By resurrecting the father as the child, Sinha closes a chiasm of prejudice as stereotypes collapse into one another to allow the geometry of prejudice to become a ‘compounded liminality’. In Sinha’s stand-up persona of a knowing stereotype, British society ameliorates the literal father into accepting homosexuality and his alterity obliges multicultural conviviality on the part of the audience as hate crimes are revealed as British drinking culture and football rivalries. The newly resurrected father, a Britain beyond racism and homophobia, becomes Sinha himself, his father turned child. The psychic catharsis in Sinha’s chiasma is the same that Freud identified in ‘tendentious joking’, it realises pleasures as it liberates inhibitions – around homophobia and racism – while not removing them fully. The limits of New Left hegemony Sinha’s chiasmus and Christie’s prosopopeia all mask the nothingness that would result if their abjection were not from where they begin. The opposite starting point would end in Acaster’s mediocre death. Denied abjection, the observational comic is given the ridiculous sublimity of supporting nothing(ness). Knowing the social from the perspective of comic persona is the ability to ‘be in it but not of it’, ‘outside and in’ at once. Having accommodated abjection, the power of comedic critique is not weakened but rather gives us the insight that persona rests upon the economy of material: persona

129

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

is nothing without consensus – shared understandings of what is senseless. Accommodating abjection as a ‘moral ought’, no longer quarantined but still far from factual ‘is’, both Sinha and Christie foreground their abjection as the basis for a foreclosure of the symbolic order: you accept my being, but do you really want to? Their abjection is given place to show that far from their identity being inadequate, the obligations of New Left politics is thwarted in the position they occupy – their response being to make themselves ridiculous. Stand-up, in the language of New Left individualism, means that abject subjects have no superior claim to tendentious material. Socially the problem with this is that the triumph of New Left hegemony is its backlash: presently we are seeing an assault on it being the normative ‘starting point’ to contemporary political life and debate. After the UK’s EU referendum in 2016, Guardian critic Brian Logan (2017) reported how a selection of (young) white, middle class male comedians had turned their back on the New Left ‘PC culture’ of stand-up. One reason for this new discursive mode is facing up to New Left hegemony. In a time of New Left hegemony in tandem with a regressive politics of opposition (Brexit, Trump, Alt. Right populism), the (accused) ‘moral superiority’ of the privileged ‘liberal left’ leaves comedians with no radical standpoint to voice their critique. Turning their back on New Left politics through stand-up, in part a form of apostasy and part ‘return of the repressed’, foregrounds exactly the problem comedians face: to voice critique they need to situate this in the language of abjection – abasement and self-criticism – to provide the moral obligation to their politics; but the sociological facticity of their identity (often occupying position of identity privilege) leaves them compromised.3 As a form of apostasy, the attack on the ‘Church of New Left hegemony’ is of a piece with apostates documented in new religious movements: rather than detractors who leave and never return, apostates embody and articulate contradictions

130

PERSONA

within the movement itself (Foster, 1984). Apostates foreground institutional flaws as internal struggles of conscience with themselves, doubts which are refractions of contradictions within a sect’s doctrine and apologetics (Mauss, 1998). As for ‘return of repressed’ the problem is that many of those opposed to the New Left – variously called the ‘Alt. Right’ or their demagogues – often use the language of New Left identity politics to deflect criticism: Trump will insist on properly reconstructing the context of his remarks, thereby utilising the interpretivist relativism of texts and their differing discursive registers (Munro, 2016); Jacob Rees-Mogg will advocate his Catholicism as the reason for his view that rape victims ought to be denied abortions, and in the same breath deflect rebuke because to attack his views is religious persecution. Yet what comedians win over those appropriating the language of the New Left is that comedians, unlike demagogues, know (or learn) the limits of selfhood: in an act which tries to globalise their subject position – ‘to stand-up’ – they show themselves as ‘unable to live up to themselves’. The stand-up comedian is not the moral subject they are supposed to be, and their laying bare of self (their abjection) denies them of the possibility to globalise beliefs or being. James Acaster cannot be the universal cogito giving order to chaos; Bridget Christie cannot be the ‘feminist’ in a society full of pseudo-frames ‘to be’ a woman; and Sinha cannot be without prejudice as prejudice economises political triumph. Comic persona is a way of seeing the limits of comic reason: a critique of comic reason suggests that persona is the ‘condition of comic experience and the condition of comic knowledge’. As such the once radical subjects of New Left politics, embodied in stand-up personas, demonstrate the limits of ‘taken-for-granted’ New Left thinking.

131

Part III Critical

133

5

The Critique of Comic Reason

John Dowie’s grave In 1984 John Dowie appeared on Alternative Comedy television show, Pyjamarama, and sang this rhyme after claiming to have died on the way to the gig. He says he was hit by a bus, his entire life flashed before his eyes and dropped dead from boredom: I’ll tell you about the man in the grave that’s next to me, Perhaps he’s best described as ‘dead boring’. He scratches at his bones, he grizzles and he groans, He keeps us all awake with his snoring. Alive, he used to be, a lecturer in sociology Liberal, unto the nth degree, a real humanitarian: He was clubbed to death by a couple of pot-crazed, black, homosexual, vegetarians. (Dowie, 2012) If Anthony King is right in his provocative and amusing claim that ‘sociologists have an undeveloped sense of humour’ (2004: 1), I suspect many sociologists reading Dowie’s joke will have already closed this book. Yet this underdeveloped sense of humour is lodged within the disciplinary history of sociology. King (2007) and Abbott (2005) note humourlessness goes hand in hand with a sanctimony that characterises professional sociology. Humourlessness arises from a particular trajectory which sociology fashioned for itself, a heroic task in the utopian development of progressive social democracy in European

135

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

modernity. A feat which, by the time Dowie told this joke, had failed in the face of Thatcherism and early neo-liberal developments. Sociology after 1945 saw itself as the discipline that sought to assist progressive social democracy (Hasley, 2004; Savage, 2009): its methods of interviews and social surveys would be the gateways to rationally explicating social divisions, giving voice to the marginalised and addressing the shortcomings of advanced societies through government policy. Professional sociologists after the War – many of whom had served – ‘argued themselves into democratic socialism and enthusiastic support for Attlee’s government on His Majesty’s ships, airfields and army camps’ (Halsey 2004: 73). This moment was an overturning of what Savage (2009) called the ‘gentlemanly ethos’ of pre-war sociology and their overly scholastic ‘armchair’ theorising. There was a shift in political orientation as much as a shift in the class position of sociologists: after 1945 sociologists were drawn from lower-middle class positions (often grammar schools) and committed themselves to a left-of-centre politics (Hasley, 2004; King, 2007; Savage, 2009). Sociology would align itself with socialist democracy and annex social problems through its rational constructs of the sample survey and face-to-face interview: social divisions – of class, race, gender, and other material and identity troubles – would dissolve as these rational methods installed a ‘social ontology’ of ‘a flat, homogenous, bounded nation, composed of changing individuals and social groups’ (Savage, 2009: 211). A nation which could be rationally reconstructed through empirical sociological studies. By 1984, this vision was falling apart and the discipline entered into a crisis moment when a ‘combination of social, political and economic forces’ configured to signal ‘at least temporary disaster for sociology’ (Halsey 2004:  143). The 1980s was a moment where British sociology started to become embattled and beleaguered. The Thatcher government announced cuts to social science funding and also sought to remove sociology all

136

THE CRITIQUE OF COMIC REASON

together. Sir Keith Joseph not only administered million pound cuts but renamed the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) the Economic Social Research Council (ESRC) as, in his eyes, sociology ought to be replaced by the ‘less ambitious and better established disciplines which are heirs to the grander claims of sociology – for example, human geography, social psychology and social anthropology’ (Halsey 2004:  139–40; cf. Stacey, 1982). In addition to this moment of fiscal and literal silencing, sociologists, too, fractured: fault lines arose around sociological perspectives being aligned through political allegiances to New Left movements – of feminism, black radicalism, Marxism and the Green movement, a process which ‘split and weakened the collective ranks of the sociologists’ (Halsey 2004:  122). While King (2007:  510) has noted that Hasley’s analysis of this period of British sociology is cursory and assertive at best, John Dowie’s joke is an excellent exemplum to the ideological maelstrom sociology experienced at this historical moment. In this one can imagine that the sociologist in Dowie’s joke is killed by his students and or colleagues: too many ideological subject positions to take up (the ‘pot-crazed, black, homosexual, vegetarians’ are ciphers for the New Left radical movements) at a crisis moment where professional sociology was being buried in the graveyard of intellectual history. Sociologists today may well feel a moment of déjà vu as Dowie’s joke can be uncannily read as speaking to contemporary sociology and our political climate. Tempting as it is to follow this path, however, what I feel Dowie’s joke gives sociologists today is a way to understand the triumphs of New Left political movements being incorporated into professional social science as the necessary disruption to sociology ‘propping up’ the state (a ‘reflexive sociology’: Goulder, 1971; Stacey, 1982; Bourdieu and Waquant, 1992). But it is also a moment to rethink the orientations sociologists have to society and culture today: we need to forego the dream of the post-war settlement and sociology’s role in bringing about a rational, socialist democracy.

137

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

To follow up these claims I shall take Dowie’s joke seriously (because what else have I been doing throughout?) to pursue an ‘elective affinity’ between the art of stand-up and the practice of sociology. Both stand-up and sociology are, to me, ‘beautiful failings’ (Limon, 2001). It is not so much that neo-liberalism has won and we must now resign ourselves to failure; it is that we can salvage the ethical virtue and aesthetic beauty failure offers. The beauty of failure is that ‘you can lose all the time but you cannot win all the time’ (Limon, 2001: 415). It is the homology between the beautiful failure of sociological theory and the wilful failure of stand-up comedy that this chapter now pursues. The mediocre fates of comedians – unsung cultural heroes, never going to achieve the greatness of Beethoven or Einstein – and sociologists – whose utopian vision of their discipline has seemingly fallen away – are to be seen as aesthetic and ethical virtues, a perfect place to launch critique. This is what this chapter pursues through an analysis of the concealed sociological truths which stand-up comedians’ routines outline and economise through humour. To begin to make this claim means outlining the mutuality between how sociologists comprehend ‘the social’ – their distinctive social ontology – and how comedians comprehend their central object, ‘the humorous’ – their comic ontology. The sociological inquiries of paranoids, detectives and comedians Orientations to sociology withstanding, all sociologists apprehend the logic of social relations – more specifically, ‘all sociology can observe is power relations’ (Boltanski, 2009: 1). Centrally sociologists are tasked with reconstructing the relations among people and their lines of symmetry and asymmetry; they look for the form social relations take and, representing this, comment upon the situations, institutions and practices which social relations act out. This analysis of social relations is also an

138

THE CRITIQUE OF COMIC REASON

operation of critique as it discerns the logic of ‘sense’ upon which shared ways of life rest. For sociology, ‘social reality’ is the proper object of analysis and the question is: how is social order possible? Or, how is order guaranteed? Social order is achieved through a shared bedrock of experience and expectation, meaning and explanation, of which a shared consensus takes as ‘acceptable’. This has been called the ‘paramount reality’ (Schutz, 1962); our dominant province of meaning and explanation to which we appeal. It is the reality where ‘but why?’ is not entertained as a question. And it is this reality which needs to be protected and secured through strategies called ‘legitimations’ (Berger and Luckman, 1991: 110ff) or ‘reality tests’ (Boltanski, 2009, 2014). Studying any lifeworld means investigating not only the paramount reality but how this reality is sustained, from where the paramount is derived and where it gains its collective investment (Berger et al, 1974: 62). It is in societies called ‘modern’ that the ‘paramount order’ is seen to be more precarious. The accent of reality is open to challenge not only by a plurality of systems of belief but also alternative accounts of what sustains the paramount reality, for whom and by whom. Asking how the ‘reality of reality’ is achieved is both a sociological and existential question (Boltanski, 2009; 2014). As the sociologist is tasked with this existential feat, it is worth asking both how sociologists solve this existential problem, and what type of social figure they are? In the history of modernity, the ‘sociologist’ has at points been referred to by clinical psychologists as ‘paranoid’. The type of sociologist in mind is one looking for global answers. Early clinical accounts of paranoids by French psychoanalysts Serieux and Capgras (c.1910) drew a parallel between paranoids and sociologists as both had a tendency to assign subterranean causes to isolated and divergent phenomena (Durkheim’s Suicide may be a canonical example: the individual act of self-slaughter is correlated to particular social ‘currents’). Initially a footnote in On Critique (2009: 162, n.6) Boltanski expanded the association

139

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

between paranoids and sociologists in Mysteries and Conspiracies (2014: 175–7) to prelude the rise of ‘paranoia’ in 20th century American politics and the rise of ‘conspiracy theories’. Tellingly this historical moment (c.1950–70, Cold War/Vietnam) is also the moment of stand-up comedy’s ascendency as pseudopolitical debate, with Mort Sahl appearing on talk shows with a newspaper in hand, or a blackboard to illustrate political orientations. Conspiracies involve logical inferences of event/fact, followed by an explanation which adequately assigns causes and effects. This process involves an issue of narration: who is telling the story and how are events being rendered. The methodological question raised by the ‘paranoid sociologist’ is: what explanations and accounts are plausibly involved or evoked to explain a ‘conspiracy’? Either receiving or fashioning a narrative of supposed ‘cover up’, ‘facts left out’ or ‘silences’ in official accounts, explaining conspiracy involves either evoking, or recourse to, ‘expertise’ or taking on the position of ‘expert’. This recourse to ‘experts/expertise’ is the path from the ‘grammar of normality’ to ‘plausibility’. Often the grammar of plausibility made recourse to in expertise is that of ‘narrative’ whereas the plausibility of ‘conspiracy’ tends towards that of ‘fable’ (Boltanski, 2014: 221–2). The narrative form will present ‘facts left out’ or ‘silences’ in official accounts but remain solely focused on that which may be ‘observable’ whereas fables tend towards the ‘symbolic’ (Boltanski, 2014: 221). Fables not only require the investment of the imagination, and faith/conviction in the storyteller (their charisma or point-of-view; their sociological position – of race, class, and so on), but they are also prone to both embroidery and imaginative expansion, to extend beyond the given case to other, seemingly unrelated, ‘cases’ (Boltanski, 2014: 222). One may see here that the case of fable stories, over narratives, is reminiscent of stand-up routines presented in Chapter Four, where it was argued that, in and through the temporality of

140

THE CRITIQUE OF COMIC REASON

persona, the comedians’ ‘knowledge of the social’ arises in the interstitial embroidery of material drawn from the intrapersonal idiosyncrasy of ‘self-in-society’. Yet the problem this presents stand-up comedy qua sociological knowledge is this: despite following the ‘grammar of normality’, the appeal of ‘plausibility’ is (and has to be) short-circuited into their ‘self ’ over objective ‘observable phenomena’. The question of plausibility in comedic analysis of social realities, as in ‘how social bonds and normality are preserved’, rests upon the perceived verisimilitude of persona. The short-circuit of the perception of the world as skewed in favour of certain identity privileges locates ‘expertise’ in the figure of the stand-up. The paranoid stand-up qua sociologist thus reaches the limits of their inquiry in their ‘self ’. A comedic sociology fails in this ‘paranoid mode of inquiry’ as the paranoid approach seeks to confront reality with an alternative in such a way that it begins ‘elsewhere’ rather than with the ‘immanent’ here-and-now of the ‘paramount reality’ (Chapter Four). The comedian qua sociologist does not and ought not to follow such a path. Rather comedians deal with the immanent reality. Dealing with an immanent reality – what is seen and observable over that which is beyond experience (transcendent reality) – is where Boltanski (2014) offers another proto-sociologist figure in the history of modernity: the detective. If the paranoid seek explanations to conspiracies, detectives seek solutions to mysteries. Solving mysteries means the detective works with the immanence of social life, the contours of the ‘paramount reality’: A mystery arises from an event … that stands out … against a background … constituted by ordinary understandings as we know them through the intermediary of authorities … and/or through experience … by associating them with habits. A mystery is thus a singularity … but one whose character can be called abnormal, one that breaks with the

141

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

way things present themselves under conditions that we take to be normal, so that our minds do not manage to fit the uncanny event into ordinary reality. The mystery thus leaves a kind of scratch on the seamless fabric of reality. In this sense … a mystery can be said to be the result of an irruption of the world in the heart of reality. (Boltanski, 2014: 3, original emphasis) In order for critique to be possible there must be a disjuncture between what is and what could be. This is Boltanski’s distinction between ‘reality and world’. Boltanski’s detective solves mysteries: they provide an interpretation for, and solution to, an irruption of abnormality into what is normal. In Boltanski’s reading of Sherlock Holmes, the solving of mysteries is such that the detective acts as a servant of power; Holmes’ detective work secures ‘the reality of reality’ (Boltanski, 2014: 14–15) on behalf of the powerful, the police and the state. While Boltanski (2014: 32–5) may grant the sociologist with the powers of a detective in their explorations of ‘official and unofficial realities’ (as in Bourdieu’s sociology), the approach of the stand-up comedian as sociologist deals less in mysteries (or ‘official/unofficial’ accounts) but more in a sub-class of them, incongruities. We experience the comic as an intrusion into the reality we take to be most real, the one which is experienced as normal and in line with expectations (Berger, 2014: 6–7). ‘The comic’ intrudes by disrupting our sense of normality: the banana skin which trips us up, and so on. This difference between mystery and incongruity helps us conceptualise the power of the figure who deals in incongruities (the comedian) and mysteries (the detective). Bolstanki (2014:  71–2) sees the detective as a sovereign power: acting outside but, at the same time, for the law, the detective effectively sutures reality for established powers. Sherlock Holmes, the gentleman amateur ‘detective’, acts for his brother, Mycroft, ‘who is the British government’, and

142

THE CRITIQUE OF COMIC REASON

Lestrade, Inspector for Scotland Yard: the detective is in a ‘state of exception’. Both inside and outside the social order the detective is able to decide upon order itself (Agamben, 1998). A mystery is of the world whereas incongruity is a slippage of reality. A mystery tests reality by undermining its very foundation; whereas incongruity tests reality by presenting normal ‘another way’, acting as temporary evidence of the world’s intrusion (but not irruption) into reality. Comic incongruity has been called a Mobius strip ‘between a reality and its other side’ (Zupancic cited in Watson, 2015: 412). To use the image employed in Chapter Four: incongruity is verticality made horizontal. Whereas a mystery is a solitary dot on the edge of the circle of reality. Unlike detectives who make what is mysterious sensible, and so uphold the normative and prevailing social order, comedians pursue a far more mediocre venture. A comedian ‘does nothing to create the situation’ but ‘merely expresses it’ (Douglas, 1971:  99; cf. Smith, 2015). Just as jokes ‘appear’ when the formal relationships among participants in groups, institutions or relations give rise to the ‘possibility’ of a joking situation – an incongruous commentary upon social relations (Douglas, 1971: 98) – comedians, like sociologists, also demonstrate the formal arrangements of situations or institutional groupings by expressing the patterning another way: for example, the family as seen sociologically is not a clarified mystery to the family as seen by its members. As sociologists look for patterns of symmetry and asymmetry they illuminate social relations; they make them apparent for those involved at a distance. But this distance is not twice, or even once, removed; it is from a change of contour – outlining social forms sociologists change the frame through which form is seen (for example, Goffman, 1976; Chapter Four in this volume). Sociologists and comedians are orientated not to bringing about new policy, solutions or a reaffirmation of the existing order, but by showing the limits of knowledge: comedians approach the limits of social order. Jokes

143

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

are a suspension of the sense – order, power relations, institutions, social forms – by which we live. A joke: represents a temporary suspension of the social structure, or rather it makes a little disturbance in which the particular structuring of society becomes less relevant than another. But the strength of its attack is entirely restricted by the consensus on which it depends for recognition. (Douglas, 1971:  107, added emphasis) In short, jokes approach the limits of the social order but do not offer another way of organising society, institutions or relations; they provide ‘comic relief ’ to the burdens of dominant patterns of thought, practice and ways of living. Not granted the sovereign role of assigning reason to mystery, the comedian deals in incongruities. Moving beyond the ‘critical’ or ‘paranoid’ sociologist to the ‘detective’ sociologist, the figuration we’ve traced in this study offers a third way of envisioning critique for ‘comedic sociology’. The account we have traced in the development of stand-up comedy gives us an insight into the sociocultural matrix of the ‘incongruous’ stand-up figure. In British stand-up, they are a marginal actor and fringe figure (in theatre and society at large) whose ‘being coincides with role’, that is their sole obligation of laughter from strangers. These strangers, in the modern sense of ‘near but far’ social others, find common ground and sensuous communion in the knowledge manifest through the stand-up; relations of self-other are made and constituted in and through the stand-up comedian. The history of this figure moves from the low-brow, ‘vulgar’ entertainment of the ‘working man’s clubs’ (‘circuit’) which, via a detour with 1960s suburbanising Jewish-American stand-ups (abject ‘fringe’ figures), arrives back at ‘the circuit’ to utilise their high art intrapersonal modernism for the ‘circuit-Fringe’ axis. Sociologically, we have a chiasm of abject ‘working class art’ made permissible and legitimate

144

THE CRITIQUE OF COMIC REASON

through suburbanising and metropolitan Jews (1960s American stand-up); as ‘fringe figures’, modern stand-ups maintain their abjection by utilising the theatre of the abject subject, but work through this abjection via the urbanite, cosmopolitan and iterative life of a ‘stand-up’ on the ‘circuit-fringe’. This led us to the comic persona as the living mask of this incongruity, both real ‘self-in-society’ while also fictional ‘character’, neither inside nor outside.1 It can be rendered as shown in Figure 1. Figure 1: The social-cultural ‘chiasmus’ of contemporary stand-up Working man’s comedy (Circuit I)

1960s suburbanite Jewish-American stand-up (Fringe I)

Modernist, cosmopolitan stand-up (Fringe II)

Iterant ‘circuit-Fringe’ stand-up stranger (Circuit II)

The chiasmus of contemporary stand-up differs markedly from those of the paranoid or detective modes of critique. There is a dialectical synthesis found in Figure1 that is absent in either the paranoid or detective modes of inquiry as these latter modes work a triadic structure of official powers reaching an impasse, concealing a mystery/conspiracy from a public, revealed or concealed by an unofficial power (Figure 2). The triadic structure offers the closure (not ‘synthesis’) of official and unofficial reality. The premise of a dualistic social structure means that the ‘third term’, of detective or paranoid, has more the status of a deus ex machina than of a dialectical synthesis. The chiasmus of stand-up offers this synthesis which Figure 2 lacks. The stand-up qua sociologist begins with abjection (‘circuit 1-fringe 1’) but, working through this – historically as well as culturally – their intrapersonal modernism (‘Fringe’) becomes a way to embody the power of the abject for a post-abjection society.

145

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

Figure 2: The triadic structure of ‘detective/paranoid’ modes of critical inquiry The Detective: ‘concealment’ The Paranoid: ‘revelation’

‘Unofficial reality’ (mystery/conspiracy)

‘Official reality’

Sociologically this explains why stand-up comedy has become such an appropriate site for the articulation of identity-politics and its contestation: as a democratic space where abjection meets expertise short-circuited into ‘one’s self ’. The expertise relied upon for a paranoid or detective has the status of being ‘outside’ of the paramount reality, either to undermine or suture it, while the comedian’s expertise begins with ‘being in society’ and ends with their offering no solutions to what is observed. Instead of thinking about critique as the means to offer solutions or changes, the best way to comprehend stand-up’s critique, and its power, is to see that stand-ups exist not in a ‘state of exception’ but a ‘state of mediocrity’. Their mediocrity positions and foregrounds an existential solution to the perils of modernity, of having a ‘sense of doing things’ which is ultimately ‘senseless’.

146

THE CRITIQUE OF COMIC REASON

Comedy as critique The highest form of critique, it was argued in Chapter Four, is observational comedy and the observational comedian is a perfect stranger – a mediocrity, known but forgettable, one who demands our attention only because we do not want it (Chapter One). Detectives are sought out, whereas comedians ‘stand-up’ to a room full of strangers: what they tell us is what we already know, and they only tell us because they have amplified their voice above ours, achieving verticality artificially out of a horizontal middle ground (Brodie, 2008). In what follows the crux of the critique running through comic routines relies upon stand-up’s knowing that stand-up is far from the most successful form of (a) offering solutions to social, cultural, political or economic problems and (b) knowing that people have come to listen to them is confirmation of this. This is the power of comic mediocrity: looked up to but not measured against greatness, comedy tells you that which you already know but you become sophisticated in your ability to know its own limitations (cf. Limon, 2012). James Acaster’s Critique of Everyday Life

So what could be more mediocre than observational comedy about banalities of everyday life?What good observational material does is provide a ‘critique of everyday life’ in Lefebvre’s sense. In modernity ‘everyday life’ arises as a sphere of experience separate, and felt as such, from specialised spheres (work, domesticity, leisure, politics, economy, private/public). An ‘everyday life’ exists in the residual, leftovers of specialised knowledge and practice. ‘Everyday life’ connects and reconnects spheres of experience through providing a ‘common ground’ ‘that connects isolated systems’ while also it ‘expresses ‘the totality of the real’ in partial and incomplete social relations like friendship, love, play, communication, comradeship and so

147

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

on’ (Law, 2015: 200). As such everyday life is the basis for an ordered and controlled society of programmed consumption and rational-legal authority: routines, monotony, repetition and temporal rhythms (days, weeks, months, years) are at the service of imposed, programmed organisation of life through social forms. For Lefebvre social forms refer to the inner dynamics of social relations and practices which are reproduced in and through everyday life: the rules of queuing; the etiquette of train carriages at rush hour; the use of kitchen items; the desire for caffeine in the morning; the many varieties of milk in supermarkets. Observational comedy’s virtue is to disrupt, and confront, our experience of ‘everyday life’ as a given or un-reflected upon reality. The laughter which accompanies observational comedy could be seen as an aesthetic means to appreciate what Lefebvre calls ‘moments’ (Law, 2015: 203–6): heightened self-awareness as to the contents of everyday life (social forms) while remaining outside of them; an invitation to move outside of the taken-forgranted while at the same time furnishing the everyday with a new vitality. James Acaster is a master of moments. Acaster achieves a critique of everyday life by way of not merely comic incongruity – the basis of all humour – but through literalness. In a routine about receiving a ‘tele-sales call’ Acaster literalises ‘calls may be used for training purposes’. What would happen if telesales really recorded calls that people needed to train for? I mean who knows what happens next? I’m a normal guy this week, this time next week I could be a tele-sales celebrity. […] You’ve got to stand out if you’re going to be used for tele-sales training. You’ve got to do something original that makes them go, ‘Yeah. Yeah, we’re going to need to train for this.’ Something like half way through the phone call, out of nowhere, I dunno, fake your own death? Really go for it! And also don’t make them know

148

THE CRITIQUE OF COMIC REASON

you’ve faked it. That’s very important. They can’t actually believe you’re not dead. Little rule in tele-sales, if they can still hear you breathing they will try and close the deal. I don’t know if you’ve noticed that. (Acaster, 2018d) The ground of everyday life is ‘brought to mind’ in the sociality of Acaster’s routine, or rather it is the form through which comic intrusion arises and the possibility of critique established: knowing the form of tele-sales and its impression management (‘I’m sorry now’s not a very convenient time’); knowing the bureaucratised dehumanisation which accompanies the presumed intimacy of tele-sales (‘Exercise 17’); knowing the tenacity of sale-closing in the metricised commission culture of call centres (‘…they will try and close the deal’) all works through literalising the contents of everyday life. By literalising what ‘may be recorded for training purposes’ consists of, Acaster is demonstrating the ‘moral sense’ of the tele-sales. If taken literally even the most extreme act – suicide – will still demonstrate an inability to really treat each caller as unique: even suicide will not stop tele-sales from trying to sell their product. Acaster is Kantian in his critique as he rants about people being treated as means over ends, product over people, masquerading as the other way round. If the only way out of the programmed reality of modernity is death, the presumed uniqueness of each caller, their singular significance for training, only illustrates their inhumanity further. Having shown death to underline Acaster’s aesthetic persona (Chapter Four), suicide in Acaster has a special resonance for an ethics of selfhood in modern society. Suicide is an ethical act for the mediocre, it is ‘the sign of the inverse greatness of mediocrity, the highest path to forgetfulness of greatness’ (Limon, 2012: 66). Modern society makes greatness, ‘celebrity’, out of what would be, otherwise, mediocre persons – indeed, a celebrity’s very ordinariness is the basis of their elevation, a greatness which we are not able to attain because, if we did,

149

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

we would cancel out their ‘greatness qua ordinariness’ (Smith, 2017). This is the paradox of ‘being alive’ in modern society. Freed to be ‘anything’, ‘greatness’ becomes doubly impossible first structurally (‘you’re all individuals!’) and second existentially (‘I’m not’). As such remaining in a state of ‘mediocrity’ is the best place to be, both psychologically and sociologically. Mediocrity is the most appropriate tutelage to death; it prepares us so well for the inevitably of being forgotten (Limon, 2012: 59ff). Modernity prioritises the ‘once-occurrent uniqueness’ of each individual, as an ethical stance, while it uses this purported uniqueness to better control and enact regimes of power upon individuals. This form of stand-up, singular-self building relations of ‘self-other’ in the ‘moment’ of performance, perfectly encapsulates this in the art of mediocrity: ranting. For Limon, ranting ‘is the elevation and imposition of powerlessness’ (2012: 66), which is also the essence of stand-up: an anger that goes nowhere (Chapter Two). Pretending to be a dialogue with an audience, stand-up is always a monologue; which is, we know from Hamlet, always a prelude to ‘to be or not’. Stewart Lee’s Customs in Common

No one rants like Stewart Lee. By which I mean he best approximates what Limon (2012) sees as the thanatophobic drive behind the rant, the desire to expel death by ejecting the body into the world, only to find oneself. Ranting is talking to one’s self as other, a doppelganger, while confronting one’s own mortality – ‘by dialogue with his doppelganger, the monologist visits his own morgue’ (Limon, 2012: 67). Two features make Lee an ideal stand-up and ranter: one, he alienates his audience deliberately only to require them even more and, two, he repeats himself (not only in his act but throughout his career), the rant being in-exhaustive through its own circularity. This is how Stewart Lee has survived as a stand-up for over 30 years. This is: How I Escaped my Certain Fate (Lee, 2009).

150

THE CRITIQUE OF COMIC REASON

Limon’s three propositions about rants/ranters can be distilled in an analysis of one of Lee’s most perfectly crafted routines, ‘A pear cider that’s made from 100 per cent pear’, (to which I turn in a moment): 1. The rant has an indirect object, it both alienates and needs an audience (Limon, 2012:  76); structurally this is the microeconomic problem of the stand-up comedian – not ‘who will go see them’ with a surfeit of comedians on offer, but also who will keep going to see them? (Chapter Two). 2. The rant is phallogorrhea (Limon, 2012: 82), male power made impotent by ‘words, words, words’, one where pride and envy, shame and hubris are dejected onto an audience. 3. The ranter seeks not immortality but a prolonged life, not for greatness but simply so their mediocrity can better keep them afloat until the inevitability of, and as tutelage for, death (Limon, 2012: 86–7). Escaping his certain fate, Lee talks in a language which mixes microeconomics with high art: ‘art for art’s sake’ with a view to ‘net product’. These languages combine in recent interviews in which Lee claims that ‘Stewart Lee’ is a character: … my life for a long time has been ‘I am a comedian’ and I do gigs, and I know other comedians, and I think about comedy all the time; I think about that much more than I think about how annoying it is to wait for buses or the things we’re supposed to talk about. So I kind of think it is true and logical that ‘he’ would talk about the business of the work ‘he’s’ doing.… When you see a stand-up come out on stage and say he’s been to the shops, I think, who are you? Who are you supposed to be? Whereas ‘he’ [Stewart Lee] is a man who has to come out and get people to pay to see ‘him’ for a period of time and ‘he’ uses that money for his children and mortgage, that’s ‘his’ job, to do this;

151

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

and what happens when ‘he’s’ doing that job is that ‘he’ gets crippled by self-doubt or various antagonisms towards the public or jealousy of other people or whatever. So there’s a sort of reason for ‘him’ to be there, I think. The longer it’s gone on the more I’ve had to think about it in these terms, which I never thought I would. But it is an elaborate character creation which is mainly the same as me. (Lee, 2016) As a ranter he needs an audience, but one he’s frustrated by, and a ‘prolonged life’, to feed his kids and pay his mortgage, and he does so through phallogorrhea: various antagonisms he voices. The positioning of Lee’s ‘comedy about the state of comedy’ is therefore as much strategic as it aesthetic; it seeks to carve out a niche of comedic identity in a glutted economy of comedians, as much as it is an appreciation of the obligation of the comedian to aestheticise ‘who they are’ in order to achieve their central goal of laughter (see Chapters One, Two and Four). Lee often mentions other comedian’s acts within his own – Michael McIntyre, John Robins, the three Russells (Brand, Howard, Kane), Graham Norton – this mentioning is often read as condescending, patronising or polemical. It is, also, an aesthetic exercise which tests the reality of the stand-up form. Lee’s aesthetic principles seek to maintain stand-up comedy as a fringe art, an inheritance of the Alternative Comedy movement of the 1980s and the social position of the stand-up comedian as a fringe, low-status (stranger) figure. In his 2009 tour-show If you prefer a milder comedian, please ask for one, Lee ends with a 20-minute routine (rant) about an advertisement for Magners Pear Cider which employed standup comedian Mark Watson as the face of the campaign, and contained the tagline, ‘Just give it to me straight, like a pear cider that’s made from 100% pears’. Lee’s rant is both circular and repetitive. It is, also, an old one and rehashes a long-standing fringe-comedy critique of the inauthenticity of advertising, for

152

THE CRITIQUE OF COMIC REASON

example in the stand-up of Bill Hicks. In an episode of their 1999 BBC Two show This Morning with Richard and Not Judy, Stewart Lee berates his double act partner, Richard Herring, for using the show to advertise cress (Lee and Herring, 1999). Lee states a comedian cannot gain respect from an audience if they are also advertising a product. The reason is that (a) advertising is parasitic upon high-art; and (b) by being parasitic advertising for commercial purposes, robs cultural customs from their place of origin and induces a politics of context and authenticity. Sociologically one can see echoes of late 20th century Marxism in his stance on the disinterest and autonomy of art and its inverse relation to commerce, from Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (2009) to Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1971). The finale to If you prefer a milder comedian is an extension of this stance in relation to Lee’s relationship to the current epoch of stand-up comedians: an industry buoyed by commercial demands for comedy and the professionalisation of a marginal artform. In the routine, Lee’s rant becomes one which uses normative reasoning reminiscent of E.P. Thompson’s Customs in Common (1993): We may never return to pre-capitalist human nature, yet a reminder of its alternative needs, expectations and codes may renew our sense of our nature’s range of possibilities … of a new kind of ‘customary consciousness’ in which once again successive generations stand in apprentice relation to each other, in which material satisfactions remain stable … and only cultural satisfactions enlarge … (Thompson, 1993: 15) Lee shares Thompson’s Arcadian view of custom. He remarks that said cultural satisfactions do not enlarge as he ages: ‘My main response to the world, as I get older, is not one of anger, I find it’s one of disappointment … in culture, in government

153

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

or a general disappointment as all the things I valued as a child are taken away from me and changed and I can’t get them back.’ (Lee, 2014) Lee weaves – what he claims to be – factual accounts from his own experience attached to the cider advert’s tagline. In so doing, discursively one reads the material as a critique on the state of stand-up comedy masquerading as a critique of advertising. But, as we’ll see, his routine is always circulating around ‘Stewart Lee’ (see Chapter One). Beginning with his own experience of getting medical test results back for ulcerative colitis, he says to the doctor that he has a family history of Crohn’s disease, he knows the drill, ‘Just give it to me straight, like a pear cider that’s made from 100 per cent pears’ (Lee, 2010). When the doctor is stumped by the phrase, he goes on to elaborate a scenario where it was one of family custom; his parents said it, before them his grandparents: ‘So many of my profound childhood memories are attached to that phrase’ (Lee, 2010). From this Lee then imagines his family’s ancestry in the fields of Worcestershire making pear cider prior to the Industrial Revolution. Lee then reprises the argument about the legitimised theft of the advertising industry as he recounts hearing the phrase on an advert for Magners Pear Cider. While it is quite obvious that the phrase is the invention of an advertisement, not a custom of working people, Lee outlines Thompson’s account of Custom over Law as a basis for normative reasoning and ‘reality testing’ the manipulation of sentiment for corporate profit. Lee champions, through stand-up comedy, a vision of popular culture as a ‘rebellious traditional culture’ that ‘resists in the name of custom, those economic rationalisations and innovations … which rulers, dealers or employers seek to impose’ (Thompson, 1993: 9, original emphasis). Through all of this Lee is elaborating upon the importance of ‘things being seen in context’: by valorising popular culture as a communion of customs, he argues that seeking the origins of custom, over established usage, is itself a political act. It is not a critique

154

THE CRITIQUE OF COMIC REASON

of everyday life but a rendering apparent of experience in relation to present circumstances. Through the archival work of historians, as Thompson saw his work on custom (1993), or retracing the origin of the stand-up comedian’s artform as fringe art, is a steadfast concern to give voice to a forgotten history. This is a politicising of experience, where ‘experience is valid and effective but within determined limits: the farmer “knows” his seasons, the sailor “knows” his seas, but both may remain mystified by kingship and cosmology’ (Thompson, 1995: 9–10). The stand-up ‘knows’ their artform. Here critique is all reliant upon the ‘context’ of the experience being rendered apparent. Through the weaving of context – a language of custom over the language of commerce – the critique is able to render intelligible what is essentially a routine about the transformation of popular culture from a subversive terrain of ‘resistance through rituals’ to a landscape of flat, depthless commodification as also a story about the abjection of adulthood and the mediocre status Lee is reigned to. The philosophical lesson of Limon’s Death’s Following (2012) is that ordinary adulthood – a shutting down of potential and learning to do one thing well, here stand-up comedy – is also a prelude to ‘knowledge of what it means to be dead’, to be one day forgotten. Sara Pascoe, ‘Feminist Killjoy’

Acaster and Lee’s abjection can only take the form of their own imagined corpses, either in mock suicide for Acaster or the experience of adulthood in Lee. This means their mediocrity, not their abjection or mediocrity as abjection, illustrates the limits of social forms being infinitely adhered to, or taken without question. Abject subjects do not win the privilege of mediocrity, they come with the burden of being repudiated. So abject, how do you make feminism funny if ‘[f]eminists might be strangers at the table of happiness’ (Ahmed, 2010:  581)? Aware of the potential of being a ‘feminist killjoy’ (Ahmed,

155

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

2010), how does Pascoe mask her earnestness? There is a tradition of female stand-ups being androgynous (for example c.1986 Ellen DeGeneres) or approaching excessive or extreme forms of femininity to foreground humour; for example ‘The Kid’ (1990s DeGeneres), ‘The Bawd’ (Mae West), ‘The Bitch’ (Joan Rivers), ‘The Whiner’ (May Irwin) (Gilbert, 2004: 97ff). These are artifices which seek to forego the obliviousness of laughter; instead of an audience laughing and not knowing why, as Freud says of humour, these artifices of female humorousness constantly keep an audience alert of what is funny about the female comedian. Contemporary female stand-ups, however, rely less – or not at all – on such ‘postures’ as Gilbert calls them (the kid, bawd, and so on). Instead contemporary female comedians (Katherine Ryan; Fern Brady; Tiff Stevenson; Aisling Bea; Cariad Lloyd; Claudia O’Doherty; Ellie Taylor) all conform to mainstream notions of femininity: they are all ‘attractive’ (in the sense of being in keeping with the generic beauty norms of contemporary femininity); and they do not try to hide their femininity on stage. Rather they stand-up it up. This is not to deny that a tradition of androgyny is now non-existent; for example, Zoe Lyons or Hannah Gadsby still utilise this as means of foregrounding their queer politics and feminist critique. Foregrounding femininity is both a political act and patriarchal institution: Brady (Goldsmith, 2016c) has spoken of her inclusion on popular, mainstream television being dependent upon her playing up her attractiveness and femininity. The patriarchal rule of celebrity seems to be that women have to be attractive to gain a platform. If so, what is significant about their attractiveness for a feminist politics and humour? Pascoe (2016) and a certain strand of female comedians speak of wanting to be actors first, and have used comedy as a transition to comic and dramatic acting (Cariad Lloyd; Aisling Bea). Yet while this portion of contemporary female stand-ups desire more to be actors than stand-up comedians, what they retain of the cinematic in their ‘on stage’ stand-up persona is their

156

THE CRITIQUE OF COMIC REASON

attractiveness: you never forget you are watching an attractive woman with many contemporary female stand-ups, compared to a generation ago where androgyny was premised upon a politics of disappearance. ‘[T]he evacuation of the star’s body at the moment it was evoked’ (Limon, 2000: 108) was the art of Ellen DeGeneres or Paula Poundstone. Many contemporary female stand-ups forego the tradition of androgyny; they do not wear suits, and are unmistakably feminine. As many of these same female stand-ups perform a feminist politic on stage, Pascoe especially, we need to theorise attractiveness as a form of feminist critique: is feminism reducible to choice, or is choice feminism the result of New Left hegemony giving way to a regressive politics in the language of freedom? Framed this way, the problem of feminism in stand-up centres upon the body and attractiveness; woman first, comedian second. In persona, and material, politically feminist comedians engage in and negotiate with ‘choice feminism’ through the patriarchal premise of female presence: a woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her. Her presence is manifest in her gestures, voice, opinions, expressions, clothes, … there is nothing she can do which does not contribute to her presence … almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. (Berger, 1971: 40) Feminist stand-up, through the performance of attractiveness, seeks to reconcile this panopticon of ‘self-seen from male gaze’ by making attractiveness appear to be a matter of choice. But, on closer inspection, it shows ‘choice’, as ‘free, autonomous, agency’, to be illusory. It is a way of trying to retain, or preserve, the agency and decision making capacity of women without abandoning a feminist politics as merely ‘matters of choice’ (see Thwaites, 2017: 58–9). As Thwaites (2017: 62) argues, in

157

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

popular feminist discourse and public debate, the pointing out of the patriarchal basis to actions which most self-defined feminists do (such as change their surname upon marriage), both willingly and enjoyably, is not a permissible rhetorical strategy. The only recourse to a perceived non-feminist action by a self-declared feminist is to appreciate such actions as affirmations of autonomy: ‘it’s her choice’. We may read contemporary feminist stand-ups foregrounding their bodies, their stand-up attractiveness, and their discussions of it, as reconciling this feminist dilemma – how to be singular and collective, to be mediocre as well as preserving the heroic politics of feminism. Stand-up is the perfect medium for this as ‘choice feminism’, understood as ‘feminism is part of the fabric of everyday life’ (Kirkpatrick, 2010), prefigures mediocrity: feminism is nothing special, and its political obligation is no burden of heroic greatness. Pascoe’s foregrounding of choice therefore becomes a means to demonstrate, through her body and a discussion of it, what is radical in a liberal era of ‘choice’. Her routines about the ‘Campaign against Page 3’ – the convention of British tabloid newspapers showing a topless women on the third page – is illustrative of this position. The routine foregrounds her beauty and sexuality, while it also produces its denial. Are we laughing at Pascoe, or is her beauty the way she laughs at us? Does she tell us what to do or think, or allow us to be whatever we want? Pascoe’s way into the Page 3 routine is by presenting two opposed arguments that are seemingly unresolvable: Page 3 is objectification, it corrupts children’s expectations of gender relations; or, the Western world is one where no one is forced into such positions, ‘why are feminists telling other people what to do?’ In the wake of choice feminism, the figure of the ‘feminist killjoy’ (Ahmed, 2010) rears her Medusa head. The first position is one where ‘… feminists are read as being unhappy, such that situations of conflict, violence, and power are read as about the unhappiness of feminists rather than about what feminists are unhappy about’ (Ahmed, 2010:583). The second position is one

158

THE CRITIQUE OF COMIC REASON

of choice, of sexual display, entertained to be permissible as it is an act of freedom. What shall we do? Pascoe maintains the position of the feminist killjoy by way of seeming to allow the patriarchal institution to remain: …the whole issue was an unresolvable problem… until I did solve it in a dream. I dreamed we make page 3 like jury duty. So suddenly every women over the age of 18 becomes eligible and all that happened was that you got a letter one day and it said: Dear -----Please come to the Sun offices at 9 tomorrow morning. Bring some snazzy pants and a pithy quote about Syria. So you would have to go, and you would have to do it. Because if page 3 represented the whole spectrum of what it looks like to be a woman, it wouldn’t be objectification any more, it would just be nudity. It wouldn’t be dangerous anymore as page 3 would just be breasts: there would be small ones, saggy ones, different sized-ones, hairy ones. And straight men would still like it, cos it’s still boobies. (Pascoe, 2016: 147, original emphasis) Having established the consent of being a feminist killjoy by undermining the institution by its own logic, Pascoe then further critiques the figure of the Page 3 model. She claims to have the coquettish, demure female replaced by a blank stare through the lens of the camera, itself undermining the permission to look which the Page 3 ‘male gaze’ encourages. Instead of rejecting the institution, Pascoe proffers a way in which the feminist killjoy acts as a mediator. Laud’s The Cancer Journals (1997) and Songtag’s Illness as metaphor (2009) develop a

159

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

feminist phenomenology of the body and fragility, ones which Ahmed (2004) illustrates as essential to a feminist politics of social justice. Bodies, and their fragility, intrude upon the happiness of others: Pascoe’s suggestion that ‘all breasts’ be represented is the joke which expresses a feeling of feminist struggle. Stand-up is the medium which foregrounds the mediocrity of feminist politics but reveals choice to be, really, a non-choice. Pascoe’s routine builds consensus from permitting a patriarchal institution ‘to exist’, overturning the figure of the ‘feminist killjoy’. But it remains a radical critique by way of being appearing to be a reductio ad absurdum yet showing ‘choice’ to be, properly speaking, non-existent (Hirshman, 2006). Aamer Rahman’s Culture and Imperialism

If Pascoe knows that stand-up is merely a prelude to properly dealing with a feminist politics, then Rahman’s ‘Reverse Racism’ routine was written as a suicide note to stand-up comedy. A clip he recorded at Melbourne Athenaeum Theatre, dressed in a tongue-in-cheek suit and bowtie, ‘Reverse Racism’ was a short routine which Rahman used as an opening to his act, echoing Richard Pryor’s Live in Concert which begins with an active division of the audience into ‘blacks and whites’ to prelude turning of the object of the gaze, the black stand-up, back to the subject – white people – so as to isolate the subject (Limon, 2000:  84). Beyond the desire to foreground mediocrity, safe in the knowledge of his impending end to the art – a form of suicide as the stand-up ceases to exist without an audience – Rahman’s routine about a ‘post-race’ society’s impossibility is, if not that funny, persuasive. In the routine Rahman skirts towards a ‘critical theory of domination’; however, its performative fatigue, delivered through stand-up, preserves the ranting quality detected in Lee, as it actively alienates its audience. For reasons of clarity, it ought to be quoted in full:

160

THE CRITIQUE OF COMIC REASON

… If you ask some black Americans they will tell you flat out there is no such thing as reverse racism. I don’t agree with that. I think there is such a thing as reverse racism. I could be a reverse racist, if I wanted to. All I would need would be a time machine. Right? And what I’d do is I’d get in my time machine, I’d go back in time to before Europe colonised the world, right. I’d convince the leaders of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Central and South America, to invade and colonise Europe. Right, just occupy them. Steal their land and resources. Set up some kind of, I don’t know, trans-Asian slave trade where it would export white people to work on giant rice plantations in China, just ruin Europe over the course a couple of centuries so all their descendants would want to migrate out and live in the places that black and brown people come from. Of course in that time I’d make sure I’d set up systems that privilege black and brown people at every conceivable social and political opportunity. White people would never have any hope or self-determination. Just every couple of decades make up some fake war as some excuse to go and bomb them back to the Stone Age. Say it’s for their own good because their culture’s inferior. And just for kicks subject white people to coloured people’s standard of beauty so they end up hating the colour of their own skin, eyes and hair. If after hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of years of that I got on stage at a comedy show and said, ‘Hey, what’s the deal with white people? Why can’t they dance?’ That would be reverse racism. (Rahman and Hussain, 2011) Unlike other ‘reverse discourse’ comics examined by Weaver (2010) Rahman’s ‘Reverse Racism’ routine does not allow for the possibility of misplaced meaning; the position of the white racist is not entertained. Rahman’s critique is meta-critical. It exposes domination ‘concealed in systems whose patent forms

161

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

of power are merely their most superficial dimension’ (Boltanski, 2011: 2, original emphasis). As much as it is a comedy routine, Rahman is doubly constructing a social ontology, from objectification to internalisation (Berger and Luckman, 1991), to outline a critical theory of domination. Rahman’s cr itique chimes with Said’s ‘contrapuntal perspective’ outlined in Culture and Imperialism (1994). Said (1994:  37–9) highlights discrepant experiences between recalling the same phenomena. The imperial makes it possible only for the partial truths (news, histories, worldviews, and so on) of the metropolitan core to reveal themselves. That is, the culture of an Empire brings up discrepant experiences between core-periphery which, while entwined, also have an ‘internal coherence and system of external relationships, all of them coexisting and interacting with others.’ (Said, 1994: 36) Rahman entertains the possibility of ‘reverse racism’ only insofar as the discrepant experiences be contrapuntally played out: colonial history needs to be played in reverse for structures of domination to be overturned. Rahman’s position is against a culture of ‘racial equivalence’ (Song, 2014). Notably, however, Rahman’s position is not one of a purely intellectual endeavour nor is it a vehicle for social change. It smacks of lethargy. He is not interested in the nuances of ‘super-diversity’ (Vertovec, 2007) which accompany the lived experience of ethno-racial diversity. The expedience of stand-up comedy, in the verbal assault of the rant, simplifies reality. Stand-up comedy, while able to engage with post-colonial theory, is fundamentally comic relief. Neither world view nor reality remains changed, sutured or explained differently, despite the meta-critical position in which Rahman places his rant. The conclusion that Rahman offers rests upon what could be seen as stand-up comedy’s impotence, the limits of its form: telling people what they already know with comic expedience means stand-up is ineffective if change is our intention. The point is change is never an impulse for joking: jokes are only ever said, written or thought of when we

162

THE CRITIQUE OF COMIC REASON

see the possibility of ‘things being otherwise’ from a position of impotence. Looking at power, the mediocrity is unable to know or incorporate the position of the great and powerful. But by outlining the powerful’s logic from their mediocre position they mirror it. Through mirroring, not imitation, stand-ups craft their material, which appears to be ‘spontaneous’ workings out of the logic of accepted reality, only to demonstrate the limits of sense. The limit of the stand-up form is the limit of the social; it is critique par excellence. Beautiful mediocrity: towards an aesthetical sociological critique This chapter has sought to demonstrate the mutuality of standup comedy’s orientation to the humorous and sociology’s orientation to their special sphere of knowledge, ‘the social’. Having begun with a joke which contextualised a protracted sense of crisis in sociological critique against the backdrop of its heroic Leftist politics following its institutionalisation after 1945, I claimed that sociology ought to embrace a position of failure and mediocrity. This language of deficiency certainly, at first glance, will not fill sociologists with any sense of hope, pride or conviction in their discipline. Still, however, I want to offer failure and mediocrity as aesthetic-ethical virtues as they help position the true power and special discovery that sociology as a discipline established. This is the discovery of the power of social relations and the special domain of knowledge upon which they are founded. What sociology as a discipline achieved is to show that human social relations have a unique, self-referential reality: Humans must orient themselves to shared meanings because their actions can be co-ordinated only insofar as all have a common understanding of what they are trying

163

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

to achieve. These collective understandings are constitutive of their social relations and practices without which the latter would not exist. (King, 2007: 521) Humour is the ritual expression of King’s exposition of the power of human collective understandings: we all begin with ‘common sense’ understandings, and comedians illustrate the limits of this sense in and through humour. This short book has tried to demonstrate that stand-up comedy is the art of building collective experience and knowledge seemingly ‘out of nothing’. This is the ‘magic’ of stand-up (Chapter One). I hope to have demonstrated with the routines of Acaster, Lee, Pascoe and Rahman that humour is the incongruous, economised means which both shows human social life to be built upon shared ‘common sense’, and that this same ‘common sense’ is the means of critique – it demonstrates the limits of social order. What sociological formulations share with jokes is that their logical formulations retain the content, context and meaning of the social in their abstractions (Limon, 2000: 6): ‘the formal abstraction of a gag retains as its subject matter the pollution of the liminal’. This ontology of the comic is shared with the ontology of the social as both comic knowledge and social knowledge are ‘observer-relative’: to see the joke is to also see the shared, collective logic of social relations (‘seeming to be F is logically prior to being F, because … seeming to be F is a necessary condition of being F’ – Searle, 1995:  13) The existential conclusion to this ontology of the social is that we come to see and learn that social relations, institutions, patterns and practices are without metaphysical guarantee. Our sociological abstractions – in joke form or otherwise – are not a purification of fuzzy ways of ‘getting on’ but show that all we have are those fuzzy concepts (Chapter Four; Boltanski, 2009: 54–7). A radical uncertainty haunts our shared comprehension and knowledge of collective practices. What I have sought to demonstrate, immanently through each comedians routine, is that this radical

164

THE CRITIQUE OF COMIC REASON

uncertainty which underlines our shared comprehension of everyday life, popular culture, feminist or racial politics has to use the ‘common sense’ logic of the social life as its starting point of critique. Through comic incongruity we thus come to the realisation that, as Boltanski (2009: 57) argues, ‘the preservation of an order only become fully meaningful when one realises that they are based on the constant threat … represented by the possibility of critique’: critique works upon a shared and collective ‘common sense’ being shown to be inadequate and less than steadfast. However, we still seem beset by crisis in sociology and in sociological theory (King, 2004, 2007; Law, 2015). In a time of New Left hegemony where the ‘moral superiority’ of the ‘common sense’ of the liberal left is accused of hypocrisy (see Chapter Four); where regressive politics have come to the forefront of political life; and where sociology, and sociologists, may share sympathy with the beleaguered position that John Dowie’s joke evoked, to claim failure as beautiful and mediocrity an ethical virtue still sounds unconvincing, I admit. But I remain convinced that the incorporation of New Left politics as the subject position of the stand-up comedian should be understood as a triumph of sociological acculturalisation: part of sociology’s triumph after the ‘reflexive turn’ (for example, Gouldner, 1971; Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992) is an appreciation of the necessity of utilising ‘common sense’ and being distrustful of it in equal measure. As we know ‘common sense’ to be the place of ‘naturalising arbitrary beliefs, the root of everyday prejudice, stereotypes, error, bias, and irrationality, the “what everyone already knows” of exclusionary social identities, the self-evident appeal of last resort of racism, nationalism and sexism’ (Law, 2015: 2), comedians use such ‘common sense’ in the discursive register of New Left politics to both show the triumph of such politics becoming ‘normative sense’ and how its normativity is extremely fragile. This is precisely what we have seen demonstrated in the routines of Acaster, Lee, Pascoe

165

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

and Rahman: our individuality, pleasures, choices and racial histories are anything but closed questions. Therefore, in order to appreciate that failure is beautiful and mediocrity ethically dignified is to understand that sociology’s discovery of the power of social relations premised upon shared understandings does not require, or need, the heroism sociology set itself from 1945 onward. Heroism is a tragic subject position, not a comic one. Interestingly King’s The Structure of Social Theory (2004) and Law’s Social Theory for Today (2015) evoke the tragic hero of Hamlet to both show the impotence of sociological critique at present and the root of the present crisis sociologists are facing. Hamlet is the archetypical social theorist in our time of crisis: a soliloquist whose reflections on the world become the basis for thinking that intervention in the ‘real world’ needs to be at ‘an appropriate moment’. A position, Law rightly points out, Hamlet can only occupy due to his status as a prince, a sovereign position: ‘a performative space for personal autonomy and freedom from social convention’ (Law, 2015:  2). The Hamlets of sociology are the result of the disciplinary impasse which the 1980s crisis has left upon sociology: can sociology adequately critique the social at a princely distance? Can its studies empirically outline social problems without upholding a state it knows to be rotten? This is the ghost of John Dowie’s ‘dead boring’ sociologist haunting us ‘so horridly to shake our disposition … What should we do?’ (Hamlet, Act 1, Sc. 4) The answer I give is that Hamlet is not who we, sociologists, ought to mirror. We should not mirror princely greatness but embrace Yorick’s, quite chap fallen, mediocrity: we should not write soliloquys but follow stand-up comedians in their ranting. For ‘the ranter exists by alienating … institutions, so alienates, inevitably, immortality. The only technique is secondariness, subinstitutional mediocrity, because the only originary power is institutional power’ (Limon, 2012: 90). What the clownish ranter wins over tragic soliloquist is appreciation of the contradiction which modern sociality makes us live with: we know institutions

166

THE CRITIQUE OF COMIC REASON

to be ‘rotten’ but we also know they are necessary – comedy is how that contradiction is appreciated and lived with (whereas tragedy shows us no way out) (Boltanski, 2009:  84ff). This mediocre but beautiful realisation is a position which will mitigate against our resignation to the dustbins of academic history. As King warns, forgetting our trajectory of exploring the special domain of the social means: [t]here is, of course, another future for British sociology. It will forget its common origins and endeavours; it will forget the distinctive social ontology on which the discipline is justified. Sociologists will be carried passively along by contemporary trends, reflecting rather than analyzing the current era. They will comment loosely on important social themes rather than mobilizing sociological theory to analyze the precise character of contemporary social developments (King, 2007: 522). Set towards avoiding this fate, we close the circle to the possible affinity between the sociologist’s ontology of the social and the comedians’ apprehension of the comic. Stand-up comedy, whose mutuality with sociological knowledge, performs an adequate explication of collective understandings and shows the limits of social order. Comic routines, like sociological treatises, are properly speaking ‘the abstract and brief chronicles of our times’.

167

Appendix: Methodological Tables The tables below are derived from the count of interviewees who appeared on The Comedian’s Comedian Podcast (ComComPod) between 2012 and 2017. At the time of devising these tables there were 198 interviewees who had appeared on the podcast. The intention was to use their demographic and institutional information as a starting point for understanding the size and relative ethnic and gender make-up, and age range, of a substantive sample of working, professional stand-up comedians. These tables are used here for illustrative purposes and referred to in Chapters Two and Three to provide ethnographic information as to the size of professional representation at present, and the ethnic and gendered make-up of contemporary comedians.

169

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

Table 1. The list of ‘Representation’ for ComComPod acts Management or PR company (‘Representation’)

Count of Representation

Andrew Roach Talent

1

APA Agency

3

Arts Entertainment

2

Avalon

19

Brillstein Entertainment

1

Brillstein Entertainment / Frontier Comedy

2

Buxstock Comedy

3

Chambers

6

CK Productions

8

Comedy Store Management

6

Creative Representation

1

DAA Management

2

Dawn Sedgewick Management

1

Dawn Sedgewick Management / Mick Perrin Promotions

1

Don’t be Lonely

2

DSA Agency

1

Fox Entertainment Agency

1

Gag Reflex Management +

1

Gersh LA

2

Get Comedy Ltd.

1

Glorious Management

4

Gordon Poole Agency

1

Ian Wilson (agent)

1

IMWP Ltd.

1

Independent Talent Group / Buxstock Comedy

1

Jo Wander Management

1

Joey Edmonds

1

John Noel Management

2

170

APPENDIX

Management or PR company (‘Representation’)

Count of Representation

Laughterhouse Comedy Acts

1

Lisa Thomas Management

2

Live Nation

1

Mandy Ward Management

1

Marlene Zwickler & Associates

1

Mick Perrin (Promotions)

6

Mick Perrin (Promotions) / DAA Management

1

Mick Perrin (Promotions) / PBJ Management

1

No Representation

28

Nortorious Management

2

NRH Management

2

Off The Kerb

18

Omnipop Inc.

1

Paramount Management

1

PBJ Management

11

Phil McIntrye Entertainments

5

Phil McIntrye Entertainments / Troika

2

Primary Wave

1

Red Comedy

1

Roar Comedy

1

Shepherd Management

1

Stewart Talent

1

Supporting Wall

1

The Conversation Company Ltd.

1

The Galton Agency

1

Tim Payne Management

1

Token

2

Troika

5

171

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

Management or PR company (‘Representation’)

Count of Representation

United Agents

4

United Talent Agency

1

Unknown

8

Vivieene Smith Management

1

Vivienne Clore

5

Vivienne Smith

1

WME Entertainment

1

World By Night

1

Grand Total

198

Table 2. British male stand-ups covered on ComComPod by ethnicity and generational cohort Count of Ethnicity

Ethnicities Asian

Black

White

Grand Total

Millennials

8

5

48

61

Gen X

2

1

78

81

Baby Boomers

X

X

15

15

Grand Total

10

6

141

157

Generations

172

APPENDIX

Table 3. British female stand-ups covered in ComComPod by ethnicity and generational cohort Count of Ethnicity

Ethnicities Asian

Black

White

Grand Total

Millennials

X

X

24

24

Gen X

1

1

13

15

Grand Total

1

1

37

39

Generations

Note: This count excludes the one trans act to appear on ComComPod and the one male-female double-act to appear (n = 196).

173

Notes

Introduction 1

While I make no further recourse to Abbott’s article, his arguments can be felt in the background. The intention is to show rather than tell. For disclosure, the lyricism of stand-up comedy includes: (a) stand-up comedy adopts a stance of active, emotional engagement; (b) the stance is one of personal reaction and intrapersonal reflection. In terms of chronotopes, stand-up is about ‘momentaneity’: the ephemeral and transitory present. Stand-up adopts a dispositional relation to social space: comedians respond to their own view of the situation. Finally, stand-up is about ‘mutability’: our position is impossible to globalise.

Chapter 1 1

2

One could make the suggestion that Goffman’s dramaturgical sociology was the result of the world seen from the Jewish American stand-up’s point of view. Marvin Scott says: ‘… when I checked his [Erving Goffman’s] record collection I was surprised to find the absence of music! All his recordings were comic albums: Radio Bloopers, Bob Newhardt, Don Rickles, Jonathan Winters, and other jesters.… Lenny Bruce was also very important to Erving, and so was Mort Sahl…’; Marvin Scott, ‘Remembering Erving Goffman’, 13 November 2010, http://cdclv.unlv. edu/archives/interactionism/goffman/scott_10.html For accounts of ‘western personhood’ covering the traits listed here, see Taylor (1989) and Mauss (1985).

Chapter 2 1

2 3 4

This is not a historically new phenomenon; it has antecedents in various forms of stand-up, especially 1980s Alternative Comedy. However, the role it plays here is to situate a problem for the analysis of professionalisation and the consequences it leads to in stand-up comedy practice. www.edfringe.com/about-us For an ethnographic account of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, see Friedman (2014: 143ff). This information was kindly offered by an employee of one of The Big Four.

175

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

Chapter 4 1

2

The ‘imponderabilia of everyday life’ is a phrase taken from Bronislaw Malinowksi’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific wherein Malinowski entrusts would-be ethnographers to observe all the mundane, taken-for-granted aspects of everyday life that, for members of a given culture, would seldom refer to or reflect upon. They are aspects of culture which are never commented upon, and cannot be recorded by objective means. In short they are the stuff of observational comedy: what we do but do not reflect upon, what we know we know but do not understand or care to think about too much. Malinowksi’s suggestion being that one finds here clues of how social order is preserved, and here we can see how Acaster’s observational material is itself a way into an ontology of the social and how order is achieved. When I originally wrote this section on Acaster it was a standalone essay. I considered exploring Acaster in relation to English middle-class mediocrity, especially its Church of England (CofE) variety: his clothing of reasonably priced cardigans, corduroy trousers and brogues gives him the look of the CofE faithful. It seemed logical that I could relate his CofE mediocrity to his observational humour. His act would be read as a secularised comic theology which, translating Christian apologetics into sociological theory, turns a sermon into ethnomethodology. The move was to notice that all social theory is secular theology (Milbank, 1990), then explore Christian apologetics as allegories lodged in observational routines. For instance, the ‘toasting to things he disagrees with’ is a comic mocking of transubstantiation in the Eucharist; the ‘service charge being included in the bill’ could be an ironic take on Calvinist predestination; and the ‘lamps with the bolt’ is a literal version of the light of faith being difficult. It was only when I eventually saw the full hour long version of the show where these routines were taken from, 2015’s Represent (Acaster, 2018b), that it was made clear that Acaster’s material is Christian apologetics in comic form. The best, and central joke, to Represent is: ‘I used to be a little Christian boy, now I’m agnostic. I’m absolutely certain about that.’ The show begins with Acaster asking ‘What comes before nothing? When I was little I was a Christian boy and I would go, ‘before nothing was God’, and then I’d go, ‘yeah, that’s right’.’ The Christian apologetics (a theology of the first creation of matter and origin of evil) is continued in Acaster’s Represent but in allegorical form: the show is about Acaster doing Jury Service and acting as the doubting Thomas among 12 secular apostles. The fact that Acaster’s observational humour is allegorical Christian apologetics does not mean that it becomes soteriology, neither does it mean that it is a

176

NOTES

3

sermon of tragic failing. Capturing aspects of theological struggle, Acaster’s allegorical apologetics do not necessarily ‘mean that it is, in fact, a gateway to the sacred’ but rather that theology becomes irreducibly human: ‘it is part of the ongoing social construction of what is meaningfully conveyed through humour’ (Feltmate, 2013: 538). This point, along with the following, comes from correspondence with Ben Pitcher. I thank Ben for his insights on these issues; but rest assured that I bear responsibility for the written text.

Chapter 5 1

I have elaborated this structural ‘chiasmus’ from Limon’s cultural history of stand-up in American late-night chat shows, ‘the hick, though in New York, is the host; the guest may be a New Yorker. The New Yorker, on the couch, is suburbanised in the city, by a midwesterner (Paar, Carson, Cavett, Letterman) who feels the enticement of New York verbal assault’ (Limon, 2012: 144; cf. Limon, 2000: 3–5).

177

Bibliography Abbott, A. (1988) The System of Professions: An Essay on the Expert Division of Labour, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Abbott, A. (2005) ‘Process and temporality in sociology’, in G. Steinmetz (ed), The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences, Durham, NC: Duke University. Abbott, A. (2007) ‘Against Narrative: Preface to a Lyrical Sociology’, Sociological Theory, 25(1): 67–99. Abbott, A. (2014) ‘The Problem of Excess’, Sociological Theory, 32(1): 1–26. Acaster, J. (2018a) James Acaster: Repertoire – Part 1: Recognise, Netflix, 27 March 2018) Acaster, J. (2018b) James Acaster: Repertoire – Part 2: Represent, Netflix, 27 March 2018. Acaster, J. (2018c) James Acaster: Repertoire – Part 3: Reset, Netflix, 27 March 2018. Acaster, J. (2018d) James Acaster: Repertoire – Part 4: Recap, Netflix, 27 March 2018. Adorno, T. and Horkheimer, M. (1997) Dialectic of Enlightenment, London: Verso. Agamben, G. (1998) Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. Ahmed, S. (2004) The Cultural Politics of Emotion, London: Routledge. Ahmed, S. (2010) ‘Killing Joy: Feminism and the History of Happiness’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 35(3): 571–94. Alexander, J.C. (2006) ‘The Jewish Question: Anti-Semitism and the Failure of Assimilation’, The Civil Sphere, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Alexander, J.C. (2010) ‘The celebrity-icon’, Cultural Sociology, 4(3): 323–36. Anderson, B. (1983) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, London: Verso.

179

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

Anderson, E. (2009) Inclusive Masculinity: The Changing Nature of Masculinities, London: Routledge. Anheier, H.K., Gerhards, J. and Romo, F.P. (1995) ‘Forms of Capital and Social Structure in Cultural Fields’, American Journal of Sociology, 100(4): 859–903. Ashenden, B. and Owen, A. (2016) ‘The Pin: Shoestring’, Series 2, Episode 2, 23:00, 14 September, BBC Radio 4, 15 mins. Ashenden, B. and Owen, A. (2017) ‘The Pin: Education’, Series 3, Episode 1, 22:00, 20 July, BBC Radio 4 Extra, 30 mins. Bakhtin, M. (1981) The Dialogic Imagination, Austin: University of Texas Press. Bakhtin, M. (1984) Rabelais and his World, Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Bakhtin, M. (1990) Art and Answerability, Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. Banks, M. (2014) ‘Being in the Zone of Cultural Work’, Culture Unbound: Journal of Current Cultural Research, 6(1): 241–62. Banks, M. and Milestone, K. (2011) ‘Individualization, Gender and Cultural Work’, Gender, Work and Organization, 18(1): 73–89. Banks, M. and Oakley, K. (2015) ‘Class, UK art workers and the myth of mobility’, in R. Maxwell (ed), The Routledge Companion to Labour and Media, New York: Routledge. Bauman, Z. (1998) ‘Allosemitism: Premodern, modern and postmodern’, in B. Cheyette and L. Marcus (eds), Modernity, Culture and ‘the Jew’, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. Bauman, Z. (2000) Liquid Modernity, Cambridge: Polity Press. Beck, U., Giddens, A. and Lash, S. (1991) Reflexive Modernisation, London: Sage. Beer, D and Burrows, R (2013) ‘Popular Culture, Digital Archives and the New Social Life of Data’, Theory, Culture & Society, 30(4): 47–71. Benjamin, W. (2009) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, London: Penguin. Berger, J. (1971) Ways of Seeing, London: Penguin.

180

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Berger, P.L. (2014) Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience, Berlin: De Gruyter. Berger P.L. and Luckman, T. (1991) The Social Construction of Reality, London: Penguin. Berger, P.L., Berger, B. and Kellner, H. (1974) The Homeless Mind: Modernisation and Consciousness, London: Penguin. Bergson, H. (1987) ‘Laughter: An essay on the meaning of the comic’, in John Morreall (ed), The Philosophy of Laughter and Humour, Albany: University of New York. Bloch, M. (1992) Prey into Hunter: The Politics of Religious Experience, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Boltanski, L. (2009) On Critique: A Sociology of Emancipation, Cambridge: Polity Press. Boltanski, L. (2014) Mysteries and Conspiracies: Detective Stories, Spy Novels and the Making of Modern Societies, Cambridge: Polity Press. Bourdieu, P. (1986) Distinction: a Social Critique of Judgement and Taste, London: Routledge. Bourdieu, P. and Wacquant, L. (1992) An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Brodie, I. (2008) ‘Stand-up comedy as a genre of intimacy’, Ethnologies, 302: 153–80. Brodie, I. (2014) A Vulgar Art: A New Approach to Stand-up Comedy, Mississippi: University of Mississippi Press. Bruce, L. (1959) ‘Lenny Bruce’, Tonight Starring Steve Allen, NBC Productions, 5 April 1959. Burns, B. (2016) Brenden Burns interviewed by Catie Wilkins, ‘Finding the Funny’, CambridgeTV: footage kindly provided by production company. Caillois, R. (1978) Men, Play and Games, translated by Mayer Barash, New York: Schocken. Campbell, K. (2004) Jacques Lacan and Feminist Epistemology, London: Routledge. Chippington, T. (2017) Walking down the road: A history, [CD], Big Print.

181

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

Christie, B. (2017) ‘Bridget Christie Minds The Gap’, 23:00, 21 March, BBC Radio 4, 30 mins. Comedy of the Week (2017) ‘The Pin plus interview’, podcast, BBC Radio 4, www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p058nwgy Connell, R.W. and Messerschmidt, J.W. (2005) ‘Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the concept’, Gender and Society, 19(6): 829–59. Cormack, P., Cosgrave, J.F. and Feltmate, D. (2017) ‘A funny thing happened on the way to sociology: Goffman, Mills, and Berger’, The Sociological Review, 65(2): 386–400. Critchley, S. and Webster, J. (2013) Stay, Illusion! The Hamlet Doctrine, New York: Knopf Doubleday. Dalakoglou, D. (2010) ‘The Road: An ethnography of the AlbanianGreek cross-border motorway’, American Ethnologist, 37(1): 132–49. DeCamp, E. (2017) ‘Negotiating race in stand-up comedy: interpretations of ‘single story’ narratives’, Social Identities: Journal of Race, Nation and Culture, 23(3): 326–42. Deleuze, G. (1994) Difference and Repetition, London: Athlone. Dembina, Ivor (1988) ‘Ivor Dembina interviewed by Oliver Double’, accessed from the British Stand-Up Comedy Archive, Special Collections and Archives at the University of Kent. Catalogue number: BSUCA/OD/1/4/1. Derrida, J. (1998) Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, Chicago: Chicago University Press. Dorling, D. (2014) Inequality and the 1%. London: Penguin. Double, O. (1997) Stand-Up! On Being a Comedian. London: Methuen Drama. Double, O. (2014) Getting the Joke: The Inner Workings of Stand-Up Comedy, London: Bloomsbury. Double, O. (2015) ‘‘What do you do?’: Stand-up comedy versus the proper job’, ephemera: theory & politics in organisation, 15(3): 651–69. Douglas, M. (1971) ‘Jokes’ in Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Douglas, M. (2007) Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concept of Pollution and Taboo, London: Routledge.

182

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Dowie, J. (2012) ‘John Dowie’ Pyjamarama, ITV, 13 Jan 1984. Durkheim, E. (1971a) ‘Social morphology’ in A. Giddens (ed), Emile Durkheim: Selected Writings, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Durkheim, E. (1971b) ‘L’individualisme et les intellectuels’, in A. Giddens (ed), Emile Durkheim: Selected Writings, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Edelman, A. (2017) ‘Alex Edelman: Millennial’, 23:00, 9 March, BBC Radio 4, 30 mins. Featherstone, M. (1991) Consumer Culture and Postmodernism, London: Sage. Feltmate, D. (2013) ‘The Sacred Comedy: The problems and possibilities of Peter Berger’s Theory of Humour’, Humor, 26(4): 531–49. Foster, L. (1984) ‘Career Apostates: Reflections on the works of Jerald and Sandra Tanner’, Dialogue: A journal of modern thought, 17(Summer 1984): 34–60. Freud, S. (1994) Jokes and their relation to the unconscious, London: Penguin. Friedman, S. (2014) Comedy and Distinction: The Cultural Currency of a ‘Good’ Sense of Humour, London: Routledge. Friedman, S., O’Brien, D. and Laurison, D. (2016) ‘“Like skydiving without a parachute”: How class origin shapes occupational trajectories in British acting’. Sociology, published online 28 February, doi:10. 1177/0038038516629917 Frith, S. (1996) Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Garfinkel, H. (1991) Studies in Ethnomethodology, Oxford: Wiley Blackwell. Gell, A. (2013) ‘The Network of Stoppages (c. 1985)’ in Liana Chua and Mark Elliott (eds), Distributed Objects: Meaning and Mattering after Alfred Gell, Oxford: Berghahn Books. Gell, A. (1998) Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory, Oxford: University of Oxford Press.

183

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

Giddens, A. (1976) New Rules of Sociological Method, Cambridge: Polity Press. Giddens, A. (1979) Central Problems in Social Theory: Action, Structure and Contradiction in Social Analysis, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Giddens, A. (1990) The Consequences of Modernity, Cambridge: Polity Press. Giddens, A. (1991) Modernity and Self-Identity, Cambridge: Polity Press. Gilbert, J.R. (2004) Performing Marginality: Humour, Gender and Cultural Critique, Detroit: Wayne State University Press. Ging, D. (2017) ‘Alphas, Betas, and Incels: Theorising the Masculinities of the Menosphere’, Men and Masculinities, OnlineFirst, 10 May, doi: 10.1177/1097184X17706401 Giuffre, K. (1999) ‘Sandpiles of opportunity: success in the art world’, Social Forces, 77(3): 815–32. Goffman, E. (1952) ‘On Cooling the Mark Out: Some aspects of adaptation to failure’, Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes, 15(4): 451–63. Goffman, E. (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, London: Penguin. Goffman, E. (1976) Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organisation of Experience, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Goldsmith, S. (2012a) ‘Episode 8: Arthur Smith’, The Comedian’s Comedian Podcast, www.comedianscomedian.com/8-arthursmith/ Goldsmith, S. (2012b) ‘Episode 5: Paul Sinha’, The Comedian’s Comedian Podcast, www.comedianscomedian.com/5-paul-sinha/ Goldsmith, S. (2012c) ‘Episode 15: Josh Widdicombe’, The Comedian’s Comedian Podcast, www.comedianscomedian. com/15-josh-widdicombe/ Goldsmith, S. (2013) ‘Episode 28: James Acaster’, The Comedian’s Comedian Podcast, www.comedianscomedian.com/28-jamesacaster/

184

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Goldsmith, S. (2014a) ‘Episode 114 (1 of 2): John Gordillo’, The Comedian’s Comedian Podcast, www.comedianscomedian. com/114-john-gordillo-1-of-2/ Goldsmith, S. (2014b) ‘Episode 90: Bridget Christie’, The Comedian’s Comedian Podcast, www.comedianscomedian.com/90-bridgetchristie/ Goldsmith, S. (2016a) ‘Episode 158: Hari Kondabolu’, The Comedian’s Comedian Podcast, www.comedianscomedian. com/158-Hari-Kondabolu/ Goldsmith, S. (2016b) ‘Episode 181: John Robins’, The Comedian’s Comedian Podcast, http://www.comedianscomedian.com/181john-robins. Goldsmith, S. (2016c) ‘Episode 190: Fern Brady’, The Comedian’s Comedian Podcast, http://www.comedianscomedian.com/190fern-brady. Goldsmith, S. (2017a) ‘Episode 192: Elis James’, The Comedian’s Comedian Podcast, www.comedianscomedian.com/192-elisjames-2/ Goldsmith, S. (2017b) ‘Episode 200: Stewart Lee’, The Comedians Comedian Podcast, www.comedianscomedian.com/200-stewartlee/ Goldsmith, S. (2017c) ‘Episode 204: Jeremy Hardy’, The Comedians Comedian Podcast, www.comedianscomedian.com/204-jeremyhardy Gouldner, A.W. (1971) The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology, New York: Basic Books. Graham, I. (2016) ‘Ivo Graham’, Russell Howard’s Stand-Up Central, Comedy Central, 22 June 2016. Graham, I. (2017) ‘Live from the BBC … Ivo Graham’, 00:10, 31 August, BBC1 Wales, 30 mins. Halsey, A. (2004) A History of Sociology in Britain: Science, Literature and Society, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Hirshman, L.R. (2006) Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World, New York: Viking.

185

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

Holquist, M. (2002) Dialogism: Bakhtin and his World, London: Routledge. Hughes, S. (2015) ‘Sean Hughes under the radar with Alex Edelman’, 20 August, www.acast.com/under theradar/ seanhughesundertheradarwithalexedelman James, E. (2012) The Talented… Elis James, BBC One, 10 October 2012. Jameson, F. (1973) ‘The vanishing mediator: Narrative structure in Max Weber’, New German Critique, 1(1): 52–89. Jameson, F. (1976) ‘On Goffman’s Frame Analysis’, Theory & Society, 3(1): 119–33. Jameson, F. (1981) The Political Unconscious, London: Routledge. Jameson, F. (1998) ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’ in The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983–1998, London: Verso. Janus, S.S. (1975) ‘The Great Comedians: Personality and other factors’, The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 35(2): 169–74. Kane, R. (2007) ‘Did you hear the one about a comic’s narrative?’, in M. Butt (ed), Story: The Heart of the Matter, London: Greenwich Exchange. Kane, R. (2012) The Humourist, London: Simon & Schuster. Keisalo, M. (2016) ‘‘Picking people to hate’: reversible reversals in stand-up comedy’, Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society, 41(4): 62–76. Khan S. and Jerolmack, C. (2012) ‘Saying meritocracy, doing privilege’, The Sociological Quarterly, 54(1): 9–19. King, A. (2004) The Structure of Social Theory, London: Routledge. King, A. (2007) ‘The sociology of sociology’, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 37(4): 501–24. King, A. (2013) ‘The Professional Society’, in The Combat Soldier, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Kirkpatrick, J. (2010) ‘Introduction: Selling Out? Solidarity and Choice in the American Feminist Movement’, Perspectives on Politics, 8(1): 241–5.

186

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Kristeva, J. (1982) Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, translated by Leon S. Roudiez, New York: Columbia University Press. Lacan, J. (1966) Ecrits, London: Routledge. Laud, A. (1997) The Cancer Journals, San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books. Lavin, S. (2004) Women and Comedy in Solo Performance: Phyllis Diller, Lily Tomlin, and Roseanne, London: Routledge. Law, A. (2015) Social Theory for Today: Making Sense of Social Worlds, London: Sage. Lévinas, E. (2003) On Escape, translated by Bettina Bergo, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. Lee, S. (1995) ‘Joe Pasquale’, The Sunday Times, 1 December, www. stewartlee.co.uk/written-for-money/joe-pasquale/ Lee, S. (2007) ‘Stewart Lee meets Ted Chippington’, www.stewartlee. co.uk/what-is-stewart-lee/what-is-stewart-lee-2007/ Lee, S. (2009) How I Escaped My Certain Fate: The Life and Death of a Stand-Up Comedian, London: Faber & Faber. Lee, S., (2010) If You Prefer a Milder Comedian, Please Ask for One, Tim Kirkby, Comedy Central, 11 October 2010. Lee, S. (2011) ‘Stewart Lee Presents… Paul Sinha’, Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, Series 2, London, Episode 2, BBC Two, 11 May 2011, www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00gwn3h Lee, S. (2013) ‘On Not Writing’, paper presented at St. Edmunds Hall, University of Oxford, 1 July 2013, https://podcasts.ox.ac. uk/not-writing Lee, S. (2016) ‘Stewart Lee speaking on BBC Radio 4 Loose Ends’, 18:15, 27 February, BBC Radio 4, 45 mins. Lee, S. and Herring, R. (1999) ‘This Morning with Richard and Not Judy’, Series 2, Episode 7, Broadcast 2 May, BBC Two, www. stewartlee.co.uk/video-audio/tmwrnj/ Limon, J. (2000) Stand-up Comedy in Theory, Or, Abjection in America, Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Limon, J. (2001) ‘Beautiful Failing: Franz Kafka and the Curse of the Bambino’, The Yale Journal of Criticism, 14(2): 415–29.

187

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

Limon, J. (2007) ‘The Shame of Abu Ghraib’, Critical Inquiry, 33(3): 543–72. Limon, J. (2009) ‘American Humour in History’, American Literary History, 21(2): 306–15. Limon, J. (2012) Death’s Following: Mediocrity, Dirtiness, Adulthood, Literature, New York: Fordham University Press. Limon, J. (2016) ‘Escapism; or, the soul of globalisation’, Genre, 49(1): 51–77. Littler, J. (2013) ‘Meritocracy as plutocracy: The marketising of ‘equality’ within neoliberalism’, New Formations: A Journal of Culture/Theory/Politics, 80(81): 52–72. Lockyer, S. (2015a) ‘From Comedy Targets to Comedy-Makers: Disability and Comedy in Live Performance’, Disability and Society, 30(9): 1397–412. Lockyer, S. (2015b) ‘Performance, Expectation, Interaction and Intimacy: On the Opportunities and Limitations of Arena Stand-up Comedy for Comedians and Audiences’, Journal of Popular Culture, 48(3): 586–603. Lockyer, S. and Pickering, M. (2005) Beyond a Joke: The Limits of Humour, Basingstoke: Palgrave. Logan, B. (2015) ‘Josh Widdicombe review – cosy laughs from a pampered millennial’, Guardian, 8 October, www.theguardian. com/stage/2015/oct/08/josh-widdicombe-review-g-liveguildford-surrey-standup-comedy Logan, B. (2017) ‘Why did the lefty cross the road? How PC liberal Edinburgh comics are panning PC’, Guardian, 25 August, www. theguardian.com/stage/2017/aug/25/leftwing-edinburghcomedy-fin-tayor de Man, P. (1979) ‘Autobiography as De-facement’, MLN, 94(5): 919– 30. Mannheim, K. (1952) Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Marshall, P.D. (2014) ‘Seriality and Persona’, M/C Journal, 17(3), http://journal.media-culture.org.au/index.php/mcjournal/article/ viewArticle/802

188

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Marx, K. (1976) Capital, Volume One, London: Penguin. Mauss, A.L. (1998) ‘Apostasy and the management of spoiled identity’, in D.G. Bromley (ed), The Politics of Religious Apostasy: The Role of Apostates in the New Religious Movements, Westport: Praeger Publishers. Mauss, M. (1985) ‘A category of the human mind: the notion of the person; the notion of self ’, in M. Carrithers, S. Collins and S. Lukes (eds), The Category of the Person: Anthropology, Philosophy, History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Mauss, M. (2001) A General Theory of Magic, London: Routledge. Mauss, M. and Hubert, H. (1981) Sacrifice: Its Nature and Functions, London: W.W. Norton & Co. May, S. (2013) ‘Take my gag, please! Joke theft and copyright in standup comedy’, Comedy Studies, 4(2): 195–203. McCormack, M. (2012) The Declining Significance of Homophobia, Oxford: Oxford University Press. McCracken, G. (2008) Transformations, Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press. McRobbie, A. (2002) ‘From clubs to companies: notes on the decline of political culture in speeded up creative worlds’, Cultural Studies, 16(4): 516–31.McRobbie, A. (2015) Be Creative, Cambridge: Polity Press. Meier, M.R. and Schmitt, C.R. (eds) (2016) Standing up, Speaking out: Stand-up Comedy and the Rhetoric of Social Change, London: Routledge. Milbank, J. (1990) Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, Oxford: Blackwell. Mintz, L.E. (1985) ‘Stand-up comedy as social and cultural mediation’, American Quarterly, 37(1): 71–80. Morreall , J. (ed) (1987) The Philosophy of Laughter and Humour, Albany: The University of New York. Mulkay, M. (1988) On Humour: Its Nature and Place in Modern Society, Cambridge: Polity Press.

189

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

Munro, R. (2016) ‘Trumping the text? Reflections on doing sociology in a post-truth society’, The Sociological Review Blog, 4 December, www.thesociologicalreview.com/blog/trumping-thetext-reflections-on-doing-sociology-in-a-post-truth-society.html O’Brien, D., Allen, K., Friedman, S. and Saha, A. (2017) ‘Producing and consuming inequality: A cultural sociology of the culture industries’, Cultural Sociology, 11(3): 271–82. O’Brien, D., Laurison, D., Miles, A. and Friedman, S. (2016) ‘Are the creative industries meritocratic? An analysis of the 2014 British Labour Force Survey’, Cultural Trends, 25(2): 116–31. Oakley, K. (2016) ‘Whose creative economy? Inequality and the need for international approaches’, Les Enjeux de l’information et de la communications, 17(2): 163–71. Oakley, K. and O’Brien, D. (2016) ‘“Learning to labour unequally: Understanding the relationship between cultural production, cultural consumption and inequality”, Social Identities: Journal of Race, Nation and Culture, 22(5): 471–86. Parsons, T. (1967) The Structure of Social Action, Volume 1: Marshall, Pareto, Durkheim, New York: Free Press. Pascoe, S. (2016) Animal: The Autobiography of the Female Body, London: Faber & Faber. Perkins, H. (1989) The Rise of Professional Society: England since 1880, London: Routledge. Phillips, A. (2001) Houdini’s Box: On the arts of escape, London: Faber & Faber. Phillips, A. (2014) Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst, New Haven: Yale University Press. Piketty, T. (2014) Capital in the Twenty-First Century, translated by Arthur Goldhammer, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Pitcher, B. (2009) The Politics of Multiculturalism: race and racism in contemporary Britain, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. Pitcher, B. (2011) ‘Radical Subjects after Hegemony’, Subjectivity, 4(1): 87–102. Plessner, H. (1999) The Limits of Community: A critique of social radicalism, London: Humanity Books.

190

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Quirk, S. (2015) Why Stand-up Matters: How Comedians Manipulate and Influence, London: Bloomsbury Academic. Quirk, S. (2016) ‘Preaching to the Converted? How Political Comedy Matters’, Humor, 29(8): 243–60. Rahman, A. and Hussain, N. (2011) Fear of a Brown Planet Returns, Danielle Karalus, Madman Entertainment. Reilly, P. (2017) ‘The Layers of a Clown: Career development in the cultural production industries’, Academy of Management Discoveries, 3(2): 145–64. Riesman, D. (1961) The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character, abridged and revised edition, New Haven: Yale University Press. Rossing, J.P. (2015) ‘Emancipatory Racial Humour as Critical Public Pedagogy: Subverting Hegemonic Racism’, Communication, Cultural and Critique, 9(4): 614–32. Said, E. (1994) Cultural and Imperialism, London: Vintage. Savage, M., Devine, F., Friedman, S., Cunningham, N., Laurison, D., Miles, A., Snee, H., Mackenzie, L. and Wakeling, P. (2015) Social Class in the 21st Century, London: Penguin. Savage, M. (2009) Identities and Social Change in Britain since 1940: The Politics of Method, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Schnieder, D. (2009) ‘Stop! (Joke) Thief!’, http://daveschneider. co.uk/2009/11/stop-joke-thief/ Schutz, A. (1962) ‘On Multiple Realities’, in Collected Papers, Vol. 1, The Hague: Nijhoff. Scruton, R. (2015) Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, London: Bloomsbury. Searle, J. (1995) The Construction of Social Reality, London: Penguin. Sedgwick, E. (1990) Epistemology of the Closet, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Shipston, B. (2015) ‘Don’t fear the clown: Philippe Gaulier graduates speak of his peculiar methods’, Chortle, www.chortle.co.uk/ features/2015/09/09/23188/dont_fear_the_clown Simmel, G. (1971) ‘The Stranger’, in On Individuality and Social Forms, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

191

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

Simpson, M. (1994) ‘The Straight Men of Comedy’, in S. Wagg (ed), Because I tell a joke or two: Comedy, Politics and Social Difference, London: Routledge. Smith, D.R. (2015) ‘Self-Heckle: Russell Kane’s stand up as an example of ‘comedic sociology’’, ephemera: theory & politics in organisation, 15(3): 561–79. Smith, D.R. (2016) Elites, Race and Nationhood: The Branded Gentry, Basingstoke: Palgrave. Smith, D.R. (2017) ‘The Tragedy of Self in Digitised Popular Culture: The existential consequences of metricised fame on YouTube’, Qualitative Research, 17(6):  669–714, doi: 10.1177/1468794117700709 Song, M. (2014) ‘Challenging a cultural of racial equivalence’, British Journal of Sociology, 65(1): 107–29. Songtag, S. (2009) Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, London: Penguin. Stacey, M. (1982) ‘Social Sciences and the State: Fighting Like a Woman’, Sociology, 16(3): 406–21. Stebbins, R. (1990) The Laugh-Makers: Stand-up Comedy as Art, Business and Life-style, Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press. Sutcliffe, A. (2006) ‘Judaism and the politics of Enlightenment’, American Behavioral Scientist, 49(5): 702–15. Taylor, C. (1985) ‘The Person’, in M. Carrithers, S. Collins and S. Lukes (eds), The Category of the Person: Anthropology, Philosophy, History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Taylor, C. (1989) Sources of the Self: The Making of Modernity Identity, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Thompson, E.P. (1993) Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture, New York: The New Press. Thompson, E.P. (1995) The Poverty of Theory: Or an Orrery of Errors, London: Merlin Press. Thwaites, R. (2017) ‘Making a choice or taking a stand? Choice feminism, political engagement and the contemporary feminist movement’, Feminist Theory, 18(1): 55–68.

192

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Tønder, L. (2014) ‘Comic Power: Another road not taken’, Theory & Event, 17(4), https://muse.jhu.edu/article/562827 Tyler, I. (2013) Revolting Subjects: Social abjection and resistance in neoliberal Britain, London: Zed Books. Varul, M. (2010) ‘Talcott Parsons, the Sick Role and Chronic Illness’, Body & Society, 16(2): 72–94. Vernant, J.P. and Vidal-Naquet, P. (1990) Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, New York: Zone Books. Vertovec, S. (2007) ‘Super-diversity and its implications’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 30(6): 1024–54. Wagner, R. (1981) The Invention of Culture, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Wardrop, K. and Leask, A. (2016) ‘Edinburgh Festivals: how they became the world’s biggest arts event’, The Conversation, 5 August, https://theconversation.com/edinburgh-festivals-howthey-became-the-worlds-biggest-arts-event-63460 Watson, C. (2015) ‘A sociologist walks into a bar (and other academic challenges): Towards a methodology of humour’, Sociology, 49(3): 407–21. Weaver, S. (2010) ‘The ‘Other’ Laughs Back: Humour and Resistance in Anti-racist comedy’, Sociology, 44(1): 31–48. Weaver, S. (2011) The Rhetoric of Racist Humour: US, UK and Global Race Joking, Abingdon: Ashgate Publishing. Weaver, S. and Mora, R.A. (2016) ‘Tricksters, humour and activism’, International Journal of Cultural Studies, 19(5): 479–85. Weber, M. (2001) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, London: Routledge. White, J. (2013) ‘Thinking Generations’, British Journal of Sociology, 64(2): 216–47. Wickberg, D. (1998) The Senses of Humour: Self and Laughter in Modern America, New York: Cornell University Press. Widdicombe, J. (2012) Live at the Apollo, BBC3, 31 August 2013, https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/ prog/02314DBA (accessed 26 February 2018).

193

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

Widdicombe, J. (2015) Josh, Teabag and No Sympathy, BBC3, 3 December 2015. Widdicombe, J. (2016) The Last Leg, Channel 4, 11 November 2016. Williams, B. (2017) ‘Seriously Funny: The new comedy agents steering stand-up careers’, Guardian, 31 January, www.theguardian.com/ stage/2017/jan/31/funny-comedy-agents-steering-standupscareers-james-acaster Williams, L. (2015) ‘ID 463 Liam Williams: Bonfire Night – Trailer’, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ixugk-BapK8 Wilmut, R. and Rosengard, P. (1989) Didn’t you kill my mother-in-law? The story of Alternative Comedy in Britain from the Comedy Story to Saturday Live, London: Methuen Drama. Witkin, R.W. (1976) The Intelligence of Feeling, London: Heinemann Educational Books. Witkin, R.W. (1995) Art and Social Structure, Cambridge: Polity Press. Witkin, R.W. (1997) ‘Constructing a sociology for an icon of aesthetic modernity: Olympia Revisited’, Sociological Theory, 15(2): 101–25. Witkin, R.W. (1998) Adorno on Music, London: Routledge. Witkin, R.W. (2003) Adorno on Popular Culture, London: Routledge. Wittgenstein, L. (1953) Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Blackwell. Yentob, A. (2011) Imagine: The Art of Stand-Up, Part Two, 20 December 2011, BBC1, https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index. php/prog/0230CA22 (accessed 22 Jun 2017).

194

Index

intelligence of feeling 17–18, 19, 20 intra-personality 34 and laughter 40 magic of the stand-up comedian 29, 33 meta-comedic asides 45 modern sociality 38 originality 54, 55, 60 primacy of aesthetic surface 35–9 public familiarity with 47 reactions, aesthetic versus nonaesthetic 78 representation 77–108 and social class 102 ‘standing up’ of persona 36 zone of creativity 63 Agamben, Giorgio 143 agencies 61–2, 68 aggression 30, 35, 38, 66, 95, 97, 100, 105, 109 Ahmed, Sara 113–14, 155, 156, 158, 160 Alexander, J.C. 92, 111 algebraic formulations 121–2 alibi of abstraction 98, 100, 102, 103–4 alibi of circumvention 101 Allen, Dave 35 Allen, Tony 51, 89 alpha masculinity 104–7 alterity 23, 24, 27, 34, 129 Alternative (Alt.) Comedy Movement 8, 23, 51, 54–5, 61, 64, 84, 85–6, 88–90, 135, 152 Alternative Comedian Memorial Society (ACMS) 64–5 Alt.Right 130–1 amateurism 43, 44, 45, 56, 57, 58, 72 America 30, 86 see also Jewish-American comedy analepsis 100

A Abbott, A. 9, 43, 48, 59, 69, 135 abjection Alex Edelman’s millennial Judaism 94 and the chiasmus of stand-up 145 comedification and the New Left hegemony 86, 87, 88, 90 fringe figures 145 historicisation 108 identity politics 146 and the Law 127–8 limits of New Left hegemony 129–31 and mediocrity 155–6 modernity of the stand-up comedian 30 persona 109–14 see also self-other relations absolute stand-up 46, 48, 50, 65, 69, 72–3, 79 abstraction 18, 28, 36, 64, 98, 99, 100, 102, 103–4, 164 Acaster, James 45, 62–3, 69, 118–24, 129, 147–50, 164, 165 accents 80, 81, 101 acculturation 86, 90, 92, 95, 165 Adorno, Theodor 87 advertising 35, 125–6, 152–3, 154 aesthetics aesthetic modernism 52, 60, 63, 71–2, 74, 98 alibi of abstraction 98 arts equality agendas 82 billingsgate 35 of failure 138 fringe arts 152 historicisation 83 of humour 115 as ideological acts 38 and inequalities 83

195

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

Anderson, B. 32 Anderson, E. 106 androgyny 156, 157 anecdotalising 72 anger 31, 150, 153 Anheier, H.K. 84 answerability 108 antecedents of stand-up comedy 20–6 anthropology 20–6, 35, 116 anthropomorphism 124–5, 126 apostasy 130–1 apotheosis 111 appearance, physical 79, 156–8 appearance as essence 35–9 apprenticeships 58 arguments, making of 4–5 art art-reality boundary negations 39–41 arts equality agendas 82, 101–2 comedy for art’s sake 43–5 versus entertainment 17 high art 44, 54, 56, 68, 72, 144, 151, 153 low-brow art 8, 54, 55, 144 and representation 78 stand-up in the sociology of art and culture 81–5 theory of the arts 19 truth-values 19 Ashenden, Ben 98–104 asides 45–7 assimilation 14, 15, 88, 90, 92, 109 attractiveness 156–7, 158 audiences alienation of 150 assumed responses of 125 comedians’ comedians 67–73 dyadic form of stand-up 53, 79 maintenance of 67 millennial men 97 originality 59, 73 pretence of dialogue with 150 see also laughter auditions 57 Australia 57, 160 authenticity 19, 58, 153 autobiography 39–41, 94, 96, 108

Avalon 61, 84 avant-garde forms 54

B Baddiel, David 122 Bakhtin, Mikhail 17, 20, 21, 23, 32, 35–6, 55, 78–9 Banks, M. 58, 66, 81 barriers of entry to comedy 57 Barry, Alistair 24 Bauman, Zygmunt 33, 34, 87 BBC 101–2 Bea, Aisling 156 Beck, Ulrich 34 Beer, D. 83 Benjamin, Walter 153 Berger, J. 157 Berger, Peter 1–3, 8, 17, 20, 21, 26, 27–8, 29, 33, 36, 39, 139, 142, 153, 162 Bergson, Henri 39, 41, 47, 115, 125 beta masculinity 104, 106 Big Four, Edinburgh 56, 57 billingsgate 35–9 Bloch, M. 65 Boltanski, Luc 3, 123, 138, 139–40, 141–2, 162, 164, 165, 167 Bourdieu, Pierre 17, 54, 98, 138, 142, 165 Brady, Fern 156 Brand, Russell 152 Brexit 130 British Alternative Comedy 23, 36–7, 38, 52–3, 88–90 British contemporary stand-up 44, 80 Brodie, I. 20, 32, 33, 72, 113, 147 Brooker, Alex 107 Brown, Arnold 88 Bruce, Lenny 13–15, 51 Burns, Brendan 77, 80 Burrows, R. 83

C cabaret theatre 25, 88, 89 Caillois, R. 112 Campbell, K. 125 Canada 31, 57 Carlin, George 77, 80

196

INDEX

Carr, Jimmy 35 Carrot, Jasper 89 cartoon-like personas 115 celebrity 110–11, 149, 156 changing the world 112–13 character 22, 23, 25, 78, 87, 97, 104, 110, 126, 145, 151 see also persona chiasmus 74, 96, 128, 129, 144, 145 Chippington, Ted 36–7, 54–6, 89 Christian apologetics 176n2 Christie, Bridget 124–7, 130 chronotopes 31, 32, 55, 67, 175n1 circuit, working the 7, 31, 50–6, 57–8, 61, 144 circuit-fringe axis 44–5, 50–60, 64, 66, 67–73, 84, 144, 145 circumvention 101 class, social 82, 88, 89–90, 93, 97–104, 107 clichés 4 cliques 84, 85 clowns 21, 22, 24–5, 32, 55, 64, 125 Club and Institute Union (CIU) 50 club circuits 44, 50, 52, 63, 116 clubs (of artists) 84 cognitive distance 28 coherence 73 collective experience 23, 26, 27, 36, 46–7, 70, 90, 104–5, 158, 163–4, 165 Comedian’s Comedian, The (podcast) 61, 83–5 comedians’ comedians 67–73, 83–5 comedification 8, 73, 74, 85–91 Comedy Reserve 57 Comedy Store, London 88 comedy studies 9 commodification 60 commodity exchanges 104 ‘common sense’ 113, 164, 165 con-artistry 15, 16, 30–1, 35, 36 Connell, R.W. 105 Connelly, Billy 89 consensus 23, 130, 139, 144 conservatism 22 conspiracies 140, 146 continuity, the problem of 115 convention 121

conviviality 70–1 Cooper-Clarke, John 89 copyright 51, 58–9 counter-hegemony 113 Critchley, S. 16 critique abjection 86, 88 comedy as critique 147–63 intelligence of feeling 19 and the intra-personal 71 and the limits of comic reason 135–67 meta-critical critique 161, 162 modernism 29 originality 52 persona 108, 110, 113, 123, 130 sociology 138 culture cultural capital 82, 86 cultural dopes 121 Marxist analysis of 113 stand-up in the sociology of art and culture 81–5 custom 122, 154

D Dalakoglu, D. 31 de Man, Paul 39, 94, 96 death 122–3, 129, 149, 150, 151, 155 defacement 96 deferrals 46 DeGeneres, Ellen 88, 156, 157 Deleuze, Gilles 115 Dembina, Ivor 53, 54 demos 89 Derrida, Jacques 84 detectives 141–3, 145, 146, 147 digital data 83–4 directing 69–73 disability 107, 110 discursive practice, comedy as 22, 29 disruption 14, 123, 148 distanciation 31 divided selfhood 16 Dorian Grey (Wilde) 102–3 Dorling, Danny 82 Double, Oliver 13, 26, 31, 50, 52–3, 88, 111

197

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

double acts 97–104 Douglas, Mary 21, 23, 35, 38, 143, 144 Dowie, Claire 89 Dowie, John 89, 135, 138, 165, 166 dramatic art, comedy as 15, 48, 69, 71, 73, 157 dramaturgy 70 Durkheim, Emile 13, 71, 139 dyadic form of stand-up 53, 79

Feltmate, D. 29 female comedians 124–7, 155–60 female objectification 124, 125, 126, 158, 159 femininity 156 feminism 9, 80, 105, 113, 118, 124–7, 137, 155–60 folk circuits 88, 89 folk talk 32–3, 72, 113 folkloric bards 20 fools 20, 21, 23, 32 Footlights, Cambridge 88, 98, 101 form over content 98, 99, 100, 101, 103 form over function 54, 73 formalism 95, 100, 101, 102, 103, 108, 124 formulae of comedy 27 Foster, L. 131 frame analysis 126–7 Freud, Sigmund 35, 38, 92, 95, 97–8, 100, 102, 108, 129, 156 Friedman, S. 17, 44, 50, 54, 81, 84 Fringe see circuit-fringe axis; Edinburgh Festival Fringe fringe figures 22–6, 144, 145, 152, 155 fringe venues 89 Frith, S. 32–3 fully-realised comic characters 78 function over form 17

E eccentricity 122 economics 5, 31, 57, 94, 103–4, 151, 153 Edelman, Alex 91–7, 108 Edinburgh Comedy Award 57 Edinburgh Festival Fringe 7, 40, 43, 44, 50, 56–60, 68, 69, 72, 84, 119, 128 education levels, in the arts 82 ego-identification 22 empathy 22 environmentalism 110, 118, 137 ethical acts 138, 149–50 ethical codes 50, 60 ethical laughter 39–41 ethics of comic persona 114–29 ethnicity 80, 87, 88, 90, 92, 162 ethnography 31, 84, 121, 176n1 ethnomethodology, observational comedy as 121 ethos, comedy’s 5, 13–17, 22, 24, 38, 44, 60, 70, 77, 89 everyday life 119, 122, 126, 147–50 everyman 119 exaggeration of self 39, 110 existentialism 123, 139, 150, 164 expedience 72–3 expertise 140–1, 155 extemporaneity 97

G Gadsby, Hannah 156 Garfinkel, H. 121 Gaulier, Philippe 24–5 gay rights 106, 118 Gell, A. 17, 115 gender 14, 29, 38, 40, 52, 79, 82, 85, 90, 94, 117, 118, 136 generational thinking 91, 93, 94, 95, 108 Giddens, Anthony 30, 31, 34, 93, 121 gift exchanges 104, 108, 116, 117 gigs 36–7, 43 see also circuit-fringe axis Gilbert, J.R. 156

F fables 140 fanbases 68 Featherstone, M. 34, 40 feeling, intelligence of 17–20, 22, 47 fellow comedians 67–73

198

INDEX

Ging, D. 105, 106 Giuffre, K. 84 global subjects 41 Goffman, Erving 15, 16, 30–1, 36, 121, 126, 143 Goldsmith, Stuart 23, 24, 55, 61, 63, 68, 70, 71, 72, 83, 85, 86, 114, 125, 156 Gordillo, John 67, 69–73 Graham, Ivo 15, 37 Gramsci, Antonio 113 green politics 110, 118, 137 guilt and shame 15–16

and Freud 108 laughter as proof of 46, 49, 79, 97, 117 metaphysics of 49 ontology of humour 44, 46, 115, 164 ‘sense of humour’ 27, 34 and social cohesion 33 and sociology 135–6 theories of 9, 27–9, 38 humourlessness 27, 29, 135 Hunter, Reginald D. 69 hustle, stand-up comedy as 30–3

H

I

Halsey, A. 136, 137 Hamlet (Shakespeare) 35, 77, 85, 166 Hardy, Jeremy 85–6 heckling 54–5, 64 Herring, Richard 153 heteronormativity 94–5, 105, 106 Hicks, Bill 153 high art 44, 54, 56, 68, 72, 144, 151, 153 Hill, Harry 59 Hills, Adam 107 Hirshman, L.R. 160 historicisation 83, 86, 87, 88, 90, 93–4, 108 history of stand-up comedy 20–6 Holmes, Sherlock 142–3 Holquist, M. 79, 128 homophilia 106 homophobia 8, 84, 90, 94, 95, 106, 110, 128–9 homosexuality 51, 87, 94–5, 98–104, 128–9 homosociality 98–104 Horkheimer, Max 87 Howard, Russell 152 Hubert, H. 104 Hughes, S. 94 humour and abjection 109–10 collective human understandings 164 ethical act of 40 and female comedians 156

identity carving out 152 identity politics 16, 17, 88, 113, 131, 146 identity-driven material 59 impossibility of unsubscribing from 96 millennial 93 self-identity 28–9 social action versus identity structures 34 social identities 8, 15, 33–4, 77, 79, 80, 93, 113, 116–17 see also self-other relations ideologemes 38 idiosyncracies 15, 119 immanent reality 141, 165 impotence 163 improvisation 24 incongruity art of stand-up comedy 21, 28, 29, 36 and critique 165 persona 121, 142–3, 144, 148 professionalisation 47, 48 representation 103 inconsequential, the 122 indirect objects 151 individualism 16, 36, 71, 80, 81, 85, 108, 130, 150 inequality 5, 40, 81, 82–5, 94, 101–2, 103, 113 inference 48–50, 64, 140

199

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

injustice, critique of 52 intelligence of feeling 17–20, 22, 47 interiority 22, 25 internet 66, 68 intimacy 16, 24, 31, 33, 42, 70, 72, 111, 149 intra-actional art 24, 28, 33–41, 46 intra-personality art of stand-up comedy 16–17, 25, 30, 33–41 modernism of the stand-up comedian 33–41 persona 110 professionalisation 7, 8, 52, 59, 70–1 representation 77 sociology and critique 141 see also self-other relations intra-subjectivity 22, 23, 25–6 intrusion, stand-up comedy as 31 irony 35, 36, 45, 46, 48 iterant life 31, 84, 145 Izzard, Eddie 69

tendentious joking 97–8, 102, 104, 106–7, 129, 130 Jupp, Miles 37 jurisdictional boundaries of comedy 43–74 Just for Laughs 57

J

L

K Kane, Russell 43, 49, 152 Kant, Immanuel 19, 149 Keisalo, M. 25 Khan, S. 103 King, Anthony 60–1, 135, 136, 137, 164, 165, 166, 167 Kirkpatrick, J. 158 kitsch 98, 100 Kitson, Daniel 67–9 Klein, Naomi 70 knowing, sites of 18 knowledge 18–20, 141, 155, 164 Kondabolu, Hari 68, 69 Kristeva, Julia 109, 111–12

Lacan, Jacques 125, 127 Lander, Chris 62 language of the marketplace 35–6 Last Leg, The 107 Laud, A. 159 laughter and aesthetics 40 art versus entertainment 17 comedians’ views on importance of 114 comedy beyond laughter 64 derived from form 102 and double acts 97–8 economics of 31, 116 embodied nature of 17 ethical laughter 39–41 and female comedians 156 John Gordillo’s philosophy 70 jurisdiction of 43, 44 as obligation of the stand-up comedian 13 at ourselves 117 as overdetermined end 48 as payoff for building trust 31

James, Elis 23–4, 58, 69 Jameson, F. 22, 38, 73, 83 Janus, Samuel S. 86, 127 jazz 14 Jerolmack, C. 103 Jewish millennial comedy 91–7 Jewish roots of stand-up comedy 3–4, 13–14, 38 Jewish-American comedy 8, 38, 51, 53, 73, 86–8, 144–5 joker figures 21, 23 jokes abstraction 164 economy of 116–17 joke ownership 50, 59–60 laughter as proof of 46, 49, 79, 97, 117 ownership of 50–1 primacy of aesthetic surface 35 and the psychic bargain 38 rites 21, 36 and social order 143–4

200

INDEX

philosophy of 115 and the professionalisation of standup comedy 43–4, 45–7 as proof of humour 46, 49, 79, 97, 117 self-sufficient texts not reliant on 101 shamanistic magic of 24 significance of 18 social production of 44 as the ultimate end of stand-up 24, 79 Law, A. 148, 165, 166 Law, symbolic 14, 107, 112, 125, 127 Leask, A. 56 Lebenizian infinitesimals 122 Lee, Stewart 50, 51, 54–5, 59, 67–9, 112, 114, 116, 150–5, 164, 165 Lefebvre, Henri 148 left-of-centre politics 52, 71, 80, 85, 136, 163 see also New Left politics legitimations 139 Lévinas, E. 117 life, drawing material from 119–20 see also everyday life life-courses 28, 39–40 liminal figures 21, 32, 64, 86, 87, 124 Limon, John 8, 14, 15, 16, 30, 46, 48, 59, 65, 72, 73, 74, 79, 83, 86, 87, 88, 91, 98, 108, 109, 111, 113, 117, 123, 124, 127, 138, 147, 149, 150, 151, 155, 157, 160, 164, 166 literalness 71, 120, 148–9 Littler, J. 81 Lloyd, Cariad 156 Lockyer, S. 111 Logan, Brian 114, 116, 130 low-brow art 8, 54, 55, 144 Luckman, T. 17, 139, 162 Lyons, Zoe 156

Mannheim, K. 93 marginalisation 2, 3, 31, 32, 52, 54, 60, 144 Marshall, P.D. 111 Marxist politics 88, 89, 104, 113, 137, 153 masculinity 80, 104–8, 151 materiality of the text 101, 104 Mauss, A.L. 131 Mauss, Marcel 20, 21, 24, 26, 27, 104 May, S. 50, 51, 58–9 McCormack, M. 106 McCracken, G. 52 McIntyre, Michael 61, 69, 112, 152 McRobbie, A. 81 mediocrity 146, 147, 149, 150, 151, 155, 158, 160, 163–7 Melbourne International Comedy Festival 57 Messerschmidt, J.W. 105 meta-comedic asides 45–7 meta-critical critique 161 microphones 33 millennials 41, 84, 91–108, 117 Mintz, L.E. 20 mirroring 163, 166 misrecognition 104 modernisation, theory of 27–8 modernism 27, 30–41, 52, 54, 63, 71, 88, 98, 100 momanteneity 175n1 monologues 150 Mora, R.A. 20, 21, 22 morphology of the stand-up comedian 13–17, 33, 38, 54 Morreall, J. 21 movement 31–2 multiculturalism 52 Munnery, Simon 59 Munro, R. 131 music 89 mutability 175n1 mysteries 141–3, 145, 146

M Mack, Lee 61 magic 21, 24, 26–9 magicians 20, 21, 49, 164 Malinowski, Bronislaw 176n1 management 61–2, 68, 84

N Name of the Father 125, 127 narcissism 111–12, 117, 118

201

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

narrative 46, 47, 71, 72–3, 114, 140 neo-liberalism 8, 136, 138 networks, professional 62 neurosis 127 New Left politics art of stand-up comedy 17 backlash 130 and feminism 126 and the Law 127 limits of New Left hegemony 129–31 mediocrity 165 persona 113–14, 117, 130 representation in stand-up comedy 80–1, 84, 85, 89–90, 94, 95, 97, 102, 103, 106, 108 and sociology 129–31, 137 and stand-up comedy 4–6, 7–8, 9 new material nights 63–4 night-life 31 Norton, Graham 152 nothingness 105, 120–1, 122–4, 129

open access performing arts festivals 56, 57 open spots 43, 58 opposition politics 130 ordinary life 119, 122, 147–50 originality 7–8, 44–5, 50–60, 63, 65, 66, 85 Owen, Alex 98–104 own behalf, speaking on 13–14 ‘Oxbridge mafia’ 89

P paramount orders 139, 141 paranoids 139–41, 145, 146 Parsons, Talcott 1–3, 121 Pascoe, Sara 155–60, 164, 165 patriarchy 156, 158, 159 patronage 17 pattern variables 71 pay-for-laughs 31 payoffs 31 PBJ Management 61, 84 performative skills 27 Perkins, H. 59 Perrier Comedy Awards 57 persona 109–31 art of stand-up comedy 36, 37–8, 39 professionalisation 51, 59–60, 62, 72 representation 78, 84 sociological inquiry 141, 145, 156–7 personhood 22 phallic potency 105, 106, 107 phallogorrhea 151, 152 Phil McIntyre Entertainments 61, 62, 84 Phillips, A. 13, 14, 92, 117 philosophy 5–6, 18, 40, 50, 113, 115, 118 Piaget, Jean 19 Piketty, Thomas 82 Pin, The 97–104, 108 pitch 116 Pitcher, Ben 90, 110, 118 plagiarism 51, 59 plausibility 141

O Oakley, K. 58, 81, 82, 83 obligations of professional comedians art of stand-up comedy 23, 26, 42 persona 115, 116, 117, 118, 130 professionalisation 46, 58–9, 62 O’Brien, D. 58, 81, 82, 83 observational comedy comedians’ comedians 71 as ethnomethodology 121 feminist 125 limits of New Left hegemony 129 mediocrity 147–8 and nothingness 122 persona 112–13, 117, 118–20 sacrificial masculinity 106 O’Doherty, Claudia 156 Off The Kerb 61, 84 offensiveness 13–14 ‘Old Rope,’ Phoenix Theatre, London 63–5 one liners 35, 37 ontology of comic persona 110–14 ontology of humour 44, 46, 115, 164 ontology of the social 138, 162, 167

202

INDEX

play, in human culture 25 Plessner, H. 36 plot-points 46, 72–3, 100 pluralisation 28, 33, 39 podcasts 61, 83–5 poetry 39–41 points-of-view 22, 28, 29, 33, 39, 54, 73, 110, 118 policing of material online 66 political acts 156 political comedy 112–13, 114, 117 see also left-of-centre politics; New Left politics political correctness 52, 130 post-colonialism 162 post-modernism 103 poverty, willed 57, 58 power and abjection 114 anti-hegemony 108 and art 17 ethical act 16 hegemonic ideologies 113, 121 hegemonic masculinity 104–8 language of 113 limits of New Left hegemony 129–31 and mediocrity 163 in ourselves 118 powerlessness and ranting 150 of self-imposed reason 123 of stand-up comedian’s critique 146 truth to power 8, 91–108, 117, 118 undermining logic of power 113 prejudice 94, 95, 128, 129, 131, 165 privilege 81, 82, 101, 102, 103–4, 108, 113, 117, 119, 128, 130 professional management 61–2, 68, 84 professionalisation 7, 43–74, 153 profit motives 57, 58, 70, 110–11, 112, 151 prolepsis 100 prosopopeia 94, 96, 125, 129 Pryor, Richard 88, 110, 160 psychic bargain 38 psychoanalysis 13, 16, 92, 127 psychosis 127 punchlines 46, 94, 103

punk 56, 69, 88, 89

Q queer politics 87, 156 queer theory 9, 98 queering of the self 80, 113 Quirk, Sophie 111, 112, 113, 114, 118, 121

R race 14, 29, 38, 40, 52, 79, 80, 82, 90, 94, 117, 118, 128, 160 racism 8, 9, 52, 80, 84, 87, 90, 95–6, 110, 128–9, 160, 161, 165 radical critique 123, 130, 160, 165 radical politics 85, 89, 90–1, 131, 137, 138, 158 Rahman, Aamer 160–3, 164, 166 ranting 89, 125, 149, 150–5, 160, 166–7 ‘Ranting Poets’ 89 reality everyday life 148 immanent reality 141, 165 and persona 119–20, 123, 127 reality testing 3, 154 self-referential 163–4 shifting 21 social reality 139, 141 sociological inquiry 139, 141–2, 143, 145, 146 rebranding of self 111 Rees-Mogg, Jacob 131 referencing other comedians 152 reflexivity 8, 18, 19, 25–6, 34, 137, 165 reformist critiques 123 Reilly, P. 84 reinvention of self 111 representation 77–108 return of the repressed 130–1 reverse discourse comedy 160–2 rhythm 14, 73, 116 ribaldry 35 Riesman, D. 33 rites 21, 26, 30–3, 36, 43, 63 rituals 45, 63, 64–6, 92, 155, 164 road, being on the 31–2, 34, 52

203

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

Roberts, John Luke 64 Robins, John 24, 152 rock music 89 rogues see tricksters role distance 28, 36 role obligations 36 role potency 15 role theory 15, 16, 36 roles, playing to 37–8 Rosengard, Peter 88, 89 Russian Formalism 100 Ryan, Katherine 36, 156

professionalisation 47, 74 representation in stand-up comedy 78, 79–80, 97, 107 self-as-other 18, 23 sociological inquiry 144, 150 see also abjection; intra-personality self-policing 59, 63, 64, 66 self-presentation 77, 78 self-referral 45, 46, 48 self-representations 77–81, 83, 85, 96, 111 self-ridicule 46 self-understanding 28 self-undoing 25 ‘sense of humour’ 27, 34 sense of self 28 senselessness 124, 130, 146 sensory experiences 18, 24, 27 sexism 8, 84, 89, 98, 110, 126, 165 sexuality 14, 52, 79, 82, 90, 94, 95, 98, 118, 128 shamans 20, 21, 24 shame 15–16, 117, 151 shelf-life of material 66 Shipston, B. 25 Simmel, Georg 32, 33, 36, 39, 92 Simpson, M. 98, 100 sinecures 64, 66 Sinha, Paul 112, 114, 116, 127–9, 130 Smith, Arthur 23 Smith, Daniel R. 103, 150 social action versus identity structures 34 social bargain 35 social being, rendering apparent 14–15, 40 social class 82, 88, 89–90, 93, 97–104, 107 social cohesion 33, 60–1, 63 social contradictions 38 social democracy 136, 138–9 social identities 8, 15, 33–4, 77, 79, 80, 93, 113, 116–17 social justice 5 social media 66, 68 social morphology 13–17 social order 14, 21, 30, 33, 139, 143–4, 164

S sacrifice 65, 104–5 Sahl, Mort 1–3, 4, 53, 140 Said, Edward 162 Savage, M. 82, 136 Sayle, Alexei 88 scam, stand-up comedy as 15, 16, 30–3 scatology 20, 35 Schnieder, D. 50 Schutz, A. 139 Scott, Marvin 175n2 scripts 97 Scruton, Roger 5–6 Searle, John 164 Sedgwick, Eve 98, 100 self, theories of 7 self-analysis 14 self-as-other 18, 23 self-commodification 35 self-conscious awareness 99, 148 self-employment 31 self-excavation 35, 41 self-foregrounding 71–2, 80, 90, 116, 146 selfhood, ethics of 114–29 selfhood, limits of 131 self-identity 28–9 self-in-society 71, 73, 118, 141, 145, 146 self-in-the-world (“Being”) 18 self-other relations art of stand-up comedy 16, 24, 30, 33–4, 41 persona 111, 116–17, 118

204

INDEX

social reality 139, 141 social relations 24, 28, 71, 148, 163–4, 166 see also self-other relations social roles 16 sociality 32–3, 98, 100, 103–4 society and art 19 comedy’s place in 17 and humour 27–8 magic in 26 point-of-view 29 and the road 32 social membership 18 stand-up comedians made (not born) from 15 sociology and art 19 critique of comic reason 135–67 ‘sociological spirit’ 5 sociological theory of stand-up comedy 1–4, 6, 8–9, 13–42 solidarity 60–1 solo shows 43, 56–60, 116 Song, M. 162 Sontag, Susan 159 speech idioms 36–9 stand-up, definition of 13 Stebbins, R. 31, 52, 58 stereotyping 89, 128, 129, 165 Stevenson, Tiff 63, 156 storytelling 22, 32–3, 35, 47, 140 stranger, comedian as 30–1, 32, 33, 34, 36–7, 39, 42, 144, 147, 152 structuration theory 121 suburbanisation 30, 86, 145 subversiveness 23, 37 suicide 149–50 superdiversity 162 supplementary material 46, 70 Sutcliffe, A. 87, 93 swindles 30, 31, 35

Taylor, Ellie 156 techniques of comedy 27, 97, 102 telos 127 temporality 115–16, 140–1 tendentious joking 97–8, 102, 104, 106–7, 129, 130 The Pin 97–104 theatre 44, 48, 70, 77, 85, 144 theft of material 50, 58–9 third parties, introducing 97 Thomas, Mark 112 Thompson, E.P. 113, 153, 155 thrift 35, 38 Thwaites, R. 157–8 timing 73 tour shows 56, 84 toxic masculinity 105–6, 108 transcendence 65, 111, 120, 123 tricksters 20, 21, 22, 30–3 tropes 39, 40–1 Trump, Donald 130, 131 trust 30, 31, 80 truth 8, 19, 32, 117–18, 119 Tuck, Thom 64 Tyler, I. 113–14

U unconscious, the 35, 38, 127 unfinished self 28–9 university revues 88–9

V Vernant, J.P. 20 verticality 123, 143, 147 Vertovec, Steven 162 Vidal-Naquet, P. 20 voice 5, 7, 25, 84 see also persona

W Wagner, R. 126 Wakenshaw, Trygve 25 Ward, Don 88 Wardrop,K. 56 Watson, Mark 152 Weaver, S. 20, 21, 22, 33 Weber, Max 4

T taboos 52, 80, 98, 125 tacit knowledge 121 ‘targets’ 52, 53, 94 taste 17

205

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE

Webster, J. 16 welter 69 White, J. 94 white, middle class males 41, 81, 82, 83, 84, 85, 91–108, 114, 119–20, 130 ‘who we are’ 15, 16, 36, 109, 117, 152 Wickberg, D. 27 Widdicombe, Josh 69, 104–8, 114–15, 116 Williams, Liam 40–1 Wilmut, R. 89 Witkin, R.W. 1, 7, 18–20, 26, 33, 34, 36, 40, 42, 83 Wittgenstein, Ludwig 120, 122, 123 wittification of self 35 women see female comedians; female objectification; sexism working class culture 50, 73, 89, 144 working men’s clubs 7, 8, 50, 52, 74, 144 writer, stand-up comedian as 51, 63

Y Yentob, Alan 122

Z zone of creativity 66–7

206

“Provides a stimulating accountaccount of the way in which “Provides a stimulating of the way instand-up which stand-up comedians respondrespond to their to sociological contextscontexts and offers comedians their sociological and offers valuable insightsinsights into how comedians ‘do’ sociology.” valuable into how comedians ‘do’ sociology.”

SHORTS

Sophie Quirk, University of Kent of Kent Sophie Quirk, University

COMEDY AND CRITIQUE DANIEL R. SMITH COMEDY AND CRITIQUE DANIEL R. SMITH

Comedy andexplores critique explores British professional R.Senior Smith is Senior Comedy and critique British professional Daniel R. Daniel Smith is comedy in the wake of the Alternative Lecturer in Lecturer in Sociology stand-upstand-up comedy in the wake of the Alternative Sociology at Anglia at Comedy movement oftwentieth the late twentieth Anglia Ruskin University. His Comedy movement of the late century, century,Ruskin University. His research it as an extension of theofpolitics of the New seeing it seeing as an extension of the politics the New interests research are in theinterests sociologyare in the Left: standing up foras oneself as anti-racist, sociology class and culture, Left: standing up for oneself anti-racist, feminist feminist of class and culture,ofidentity to a queering of social self and social institutions. identity andaspopular and openand to aopen queering of self and institutions. and popular culture well culture as welland as social media and as social media celebrity. Smith demonstrates that the comic Daniel R.Daniel Smith R. demonstrates that the comic Along withcelebrity. ComedyAlong and with Comedy sensibility contemporary humour is as sensibility pervadingpervading contemporary humour is as he is Critique, and he iscritique, the author ofthe author much ‘speaking truth toaspower’ as it is realising much ‘speaking truth to power’ it is realising of Elites, race and nationhood: Elites, Race and Nationhood: one’s ‘in’ position ‘in’The power. The professionalisation one’s position power. professionalisation The branded The Branded Gentry. gentry. of New Left offers humour offers a challenge social and of New Left humour a challenge to social to and cultural Stand-up critique. Stand-up comedy cultural critique. comedy has madehas us made all us all sociologists of self,and identity andpower cultural power while sociologists of self, identity cultural while also resigning us towhere a place wheresensibility a comic sensibility also resigning us to a place a comic an acknowledgment of the necessity of becomesbecomes an acknowledgment of the necessity of social change. social change.

ISBN: 978-1-5292-0034-8

SR4815

@bristoluniversitypress www.bristoluniversitypress.co.uk @BrisUniPress www.bristoluniversitypress.co.uk

9 781529 200157

B R I S TO L B R I S TO L

ISBN 978-1-5292-0015-7

COMEDY COMEDYAND ANDCRITIQUE CRITIQUE

Stand-up comedy and the professional ethos of laughter

DANIEL DANIEL R.R.SMITH SMITH