In the recent flowering of online theatre, it is clearly the monologues and the Zoom formats that best suit the restrictions of the streamed experience. These front facing pieces resemble the direct address of stand-up, and prompt speculation about the similarities and differences between the two art forms. Often in such comparisons, stand-up is characterised as authentic and honest, its audiences uniquely empowered (through the conventions of heckling and audience participation), while theatre is seen as artificial and its audience deferential. However, this account risks minimising both stand-up’s artifice and the seduction of the pleasure it offers, which can render an audience docile rather than powerful.
The Dark Side of Stand-up Comedy, a new title from Palgrave’s Studies in Comedy series, is keenly aware of the importance of authenticity in stand-up and the attendant disavowal of artifice. Ian Brodie, for instance, argues that ‘The stand-up comedian’s performance…bears such close resemblance to spontaneous social talk among friends that it is seemingly indistinguishable therefrom’ (313), and it is largely because of this blurring of the line between the representation and the ‘real’ that it seems bereft of artifice. The accuracy of its ‘simulacrum’ means that ‘the art of stand-up is given no heed’. And indeed, its efficacy relies to some extent upon the maintenance of that illusion, which is partly why there is resistance to analysing the craft of the form. Brodie invokes ‘Castiglione’s twinned terms of verbal sprezzatura (nonchalance) and embodied disinvoltura (ease), performance that makes a display of exceptional ability seem unaffected’ and suggests that this concealment of effort is crucial to stand-up (313). Evident effort impacts upon our ability to believe in stand-up’s spontaneity, and as Sheila Lintott writes elsewhere in the collection ‘Unlike many other arts, stand-up doesn’t so much ask for a suspension of disbelief, as it insists on belief or something closely resembling it’ (215). We want to believe in the truth-telling of comedy, in its honesty, and therefore the intimacy of its address.
But while nonchalance and ease are the means to an end – part of the apparatus of stand-up as truth-telling – they are also part of the appeal in and of themselves. The appearance of nonchalance in the performance of affective and bodily competency, something we are all acutely preoccupied with, is a key part of what we find so fascinating about the form. There’s a momentary escape from the struggle of personhood in watching others perform it so adroitly, and relief in the foregrounding of that ongoing drama.
There is, moreover, an escape from the requirement to respond fully to the personhood on display: intimacy but without the effort. Lauren Berlant implies that it is only the comedian who gains from the performance of intimacy, but we gain too: ‘Taking an audience into his confidence like this creates a singular, intimate public whose terms of reciprocity are also freeing because they’re impersonal, nonmimetic and nonobligatory. He no longer has to pretend to be in conversation or to imitate listening onstage’ (319). While the audience is obviously listening, we too are exempt from the reciprocity of other social protocols.
To describe stand-up as being free from the trappings of theatre and therefore free of artifice, potentially denies the similarities between the forms, with character and script utilised by both. But, as Sheila Lintott suggests, the will to believe is that much stronger with comedy. The promise of intimacy and truth-telling as well as laughter is a potent combination, and one which can render us peculiarly susceptible. Comedy audiences may have more agency than theatre audiences in some respects – both in terms of answering back or heckling and in the innately collaborative nature of the form, given audiences turn ‘jokes into jokes’ (Limon 13) through their laughter. But there’s also a kind of passivity which is insufficiently recognised; wherein the sheer pleasure of the intimacy and the laughter impedes critical thinking. Primed for pleasure, we experience a certain slackness when watching comedy – a relaxation that is in opposition to the alertness of criticism. Our lack of resistance is also due to the obvious fact that comedy rarely overtly aspires to seriousness: the material may be serious and even didactic, but in being framed as comic, as ‘just a joke’, we are less defended against its influence and it thereby escapes some of the interrogation that ‘serious’ art is subject to.
Berlant, Lauren, ‘Humorlessness (Three Monologues and a Hairpiece)’. Comedy, an issue, special issue of Critical Inquiry, vol.43, no.2, 2017, pp. 305- 340. University of Chicago Press Journals, doi-org.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/10.1086/689657
Brodie, Ian, ‘Trudging Through Time’s Trenches: Reflections on Larry Fulford’s, “The Complete and Utter Loss of Time” in The Dark Side of Stand-Up Comedy eds. Patrice A. Oppliger and Eric Shouse. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020, pp.308-315.
Limon, John. Stand-up comedy in theory, or, Abjection in America. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.
Lintott, Sheila, ‘Stand-Up Comedy and Mental Health: Critiquing the Troubled Stand-Up Stereotype’ in The Dark Side of Stand-Up Comedy eds. Patrice A. Oppliger and Eric Shouse. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020, pp.197-222.
© Emma Sullivan 2020.