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A Study of Race and Stand-up Comedy on Cable TV Essay

Most of us have likely heard a variation of a joke that starts with the above words, and ends with a punch line intended to make an audience of one or numbering in the hundreds or millions burst into fits of uncontrollable laughter. But do we all find the joke funny? Ruling out the very subjective nature of what we as individuals find humorous, do some jokes elicit belly-aching laughter from certain social groups while getting little or no response from others? Though laughter may be an almost universal act, the causes seem to be much less so.

As a life long fan of stand up comedy, the questions that led to this paper have been ruminating in my head for several years. Comedy seems to come, if you’ll pardon the cliche, in all shapes and sizes. From television sit-coms and late night shows, to satirical magazines and comedy recordings, there isn’t a medium that hasn’t been used to deliver the laughs to an expectant audience. In addition race, gender and socio-economic status seem to have a relationship with comedy that begs for scholarly analysis. Each of these social classifications would offer an interesting viewpoint from which to analyze both comedy and the classification itself. However due to time constraints I will focus on race and use it to study one specific aspect of comedy; namely stand up.

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The name stand up itself perhaps implies a certain act of defiance or resistance. Could it be as effective and usually controversial if it was called sit-down comedy? I’ll leave that to our collective imaginations. Stand up comedy offers an interesting starting point for the study of comedy in general because it usually is the place where one’s career as a comedian (or comedienne) begins. The stand up circuit is usually a passing ground for entertainers that have grander ambition in film and television. The notion of paying ones dues is fairly prevelant on the circuit. So what better place to question and study humor that its beginnings. Many stand up comedians experiment with their material in order to appeal to a wide audience and become social critics or in the very least observers. Investigating the process would undoubtedly be a worthwhile project. Unfortunately the time limitations of a semester-long project will not allow for me to conduct such a study for this seminar.

Therefore I propose to do the next best thing and study the finished product; namely the routines of stand up comedians. Though going to comedy clubs around the city is the most appealing route to go, for matters of convenience and keeping in mind the tight schedule, I have opted to do my study on stand up comedy as it appears on cable television. The advantage to this approach is the accessibility of such programs and the relative ease with which the study can be conducted. The main drawback with this approach is the editing that is inherent to television shows, and the possible effects that would have on drawing conclusions about stand up comedy in general from only studying its cable TV component.

I will be using stand up comedy as a lens through which to view the concept of race in the US. Does the material that a white comedian use in front of a majority white audience vary significantly from a black comedian in front of majority black audience? Other variables will also be studied. What are the recurring themes being used by different comedians? Does the material used conform to what scholars say are the primary concerns of the black or mainstream audience? Or is comedy a form of escapism and therefore by definition different from the everyday reality?


I will be using the stand up comedy shows on Comedy Central and Black Entertainment Television (BET) as my main objects of analysis. The shows on these channels represent a wide cross section of stand up comedians of varying fame. I will conduct a detailed content analysis of the routines presented. Over the past few weeks I have been watching shows on a regular basis in preparing the topology that I will use for the content analysis. I am currently still developing the topology. The progress I have made so far is attached to the end of this proposal. I am also reading a few guidebooks on how to conduct content analysis, since this will be my first attempt at doing so. The challenge of constructing an objective, bias-free topology for studying something as subjective as humor is perhaps the largest obstacle I will be facing.

Presently I am planning to do my analysis on fifteen hours of comedy shows each on Comedy Central and BET. I propose to do this over a three-week period, with five hours per week. Currently there is about ten hours of stand up comedy scheduled on BET per week and around eight hours on Comedy Central.

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