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Taking Comedy Seriously

Stand-Up's Dissident Potential in Mass Culture

Jennalee Donian

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Sozialwissenschaften, Recht, Wirtschaft / Politikwissenschaft


This book explores stand-up comedy as a relevant sociological phenomenon from a contemporary perspective, as both a symptom of neoliberal capitalism and the locus specificus of socio-political critique in the era of Empire. It draws a feasible connection between the conspicuous rise in the art form’s popularity over the past number of years and the dehumanizing and fracturing processes of the current dispensation that are increasingly becoming the defining experience of life in the contemporary era, and to which, understood in terms of the traditional humor theory of relief (of which Sigmund Freud is key), comedy serves as an obvious palliative. More than this, Taking Comedy Seriously: Stand-Up’s Dissident Potential in Mass Culture, in the Context of the Neoliberal Domain of 'Empire' questions the possibility of a contemporary aesthetics of humor, given that much of the art form is disseminated and controlled by the mass media, and as such complicit in its work. In particular, it argues that the ideological situation of global capitalism poses an obvious predicament for the possibility of a socio-politically efficacious stand-up comedy in that ironic and skeptical distance is already characteristic of postmodern cynicism, incorporated into the social fabric itself, effectively rendering the comedic technique of satire (synonymous with so-called ‘political comedy’) altogether appropriated, or at least compromised, and subsequently impotent. From where then does a site of resistance emerge? Through an analysis of a range of contemporary televisual, digital and literary examples from the comedic routines of American comedian and talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres, South African satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys, and South African born (and now American comedic talk-show sensation) Trevor Noah, this book argues that a contemporary ‘political comedy’ is reliant on a structuring aesthetic logic built around dissent, disruption and difference.

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