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Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Laughter in revolt: Race, ethnicity, and identity in the construction of stand-up comedy
by Daube, Matthew, Ph.D., Stanford University, 2010, 235; 3395868
Abstract (Summary)

Positing stand-up comedy as a comic performance structure which emerged in the United States beginning in the 1950s, this dissertation employs performance analyses and historical contextualization to argue that stand-up's style and subject matter are inextricably linked to issues of race, ethnicity, and the production of identity. The major comedians on whom I focus—Lenny Bruce, David Gregory, Bill Cosby, and Richard Pryor—constituted a vanguard of comics who altered the older traditions of joke-telling into an extended direct conversation with the audience. These comics employed laughter to survive and understand pain; to explore obscenity, taboos and stereotypes; and to construct a refashioned form of comedy as a contemporary means for both the comedian and his or her audience to understand the performance of personhood.

Introducing a dynamic that would become a major mode of operation for stand-up comedy, Bruce presented ethnicity as a performative process which deserves to operate openly in the public realm. In the late 1950s and early-to-mid 1960s, he placed ethnicity in the United States within the larger framework of race and also launched Jewishness as the fashionable forefront of stand-up comedy self-fashioning. The state-instigated obscenity trials of Bruce shock in retrospect largely because of the success of his legacy, which was the creation of stand-up as a free speech zone, in which flirtation with the obscene is not only tolerated but expected.

Building on the approaches established by Bruce, Dick Gregory and Bill Cosby introduced black comedy to the integrated main stage in the early 1960s, each of them pioneering a model of how African American comics could intervene in a racial discussion within comedy that had been initiated by non-blacks. Gregory blended gentle generic jokes with sharp social critique, carefully calibrating humor and one-line structure to make some very pointed barbs under cover of congeniality, before his anger channeled into direct political activism off-stage. Cosby quickly followed up as stand-up's first superstar, successful in large part because he approached race by eliminating direct references to it from his act. Gregory and Cosby began the process of integrating comedy, breaking down the barrier live and in person and establishing black humor a serious matter.

Gregory and Cosby also paved the way for Richard Pryor. Driven by a compulsion to examine sites of pain and motivated by an acute consciousness of being a black man in the United States, Pryor revolutionized stand-up through unprecedented attempts to co-opt traditional stereotypes and reverse the centuries-old minstrel tradition, as his work managed to both entertain and instruct. With bravery and bravado, from the late 1960s to early 1980s, Pryor called out the racism of the United States from center stage, using stand-up comedy to turn the previous object of comic discussion—the black man in particular—into the subject speaking on his own behalf. Pryor dramatically expanded the options of what black performers and comics could say and what white audiences would hear. Pryor also shifted the performance movement back onto the track pioneered by Bruce, consisting of open explorations of race and ethnicity, a testing ground of taboo language and topics, and confessions involving an unusually intimate relationship with the audience.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Elam, Harry
School: Stanford University
School Location: United States -- California
Source: DAI-A 71/01, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: African American Studies, Black studies, Theater, Ethnic studies, Performing Arts
Keywords: Bruce, Lenny, Comedy, Cosby, Bill, Ethnicity, Gregory, David, Pryor, Richard, Race, Stand-up comedy
Publication Number: 3395868
ISBN: 978-1-109-58356-4
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