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HUMOUR-RESEARCH  1998

HUMOUR-RESEARCH 1998

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Subject:

Re: Standup Comedy and 'Otherness'

From:

"alicia b. dattner" <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

[log in to unmask]

Date:

Mon, 14 Sep 1998 12:54:22 -0400

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

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>Maybe the whole thing has to do with something like 'otherness overload'.
>If audiences still favour heterosexual white male comedians, then a
>non-heterosexual, non-white non-male comdedian will - as you say - be
>'marked', and that in itself causes them difficulty processing.
>   If this comedian incorprates her 'otherness' into her act (as Victoria
>Wood does when she talks about weight-problems in a way a male comedian
>wouln't), she will give the audience an opportunity to 'digest' this
>'otherness' and handle it, along the lines of "she is different, but
>that's part of the act, so it's o.k." This is not very nice, as it
>suggests that you can only be a successful 'other' comedian if you justify
>the 'otherness' through your performance. Yet it is not quite as negative
>as Jack Napier suggests in writing about "elaborate self put-downs",
>because justifying yourself is still better than putting yourself down.
>   If, on the other hand, said comedian just happens to differ from
>people's expectation without justifying herself, and goes straight into a
>daring, novel comedy routine, the audience will have to deal with 'double
>otherness', and - if not their perceptive capacities - their tolerance may
>break down.
>   This idea may be supported by aggression theory: Some researchers think
>that confronting an audience with difficult (i.e. unconventional,
>absurdist, fringe) humor is a potentially aggressive act in itself,
>irrespective of other kinds of aggression the routine may contain.
>Maybe audiences simply resent communicative aggression coming from 'other'
>comedians, like: "I'm not having a woman giving me this hard stuff!",
>whereas they accept this aggression from white male comedians.

This idea on 'otherness overload' is basically the exact theory that I've
been looking at to explain why the marked comics struggle (when they don't
address their Otherness).  I have found that when I come on stage and do
some material related to my appearence before going into any overly absurd
bits, the audience is much more receptive.  Do you believe there are
writings on this idea already in the humor field?

What I hadn't thought of before was the connection you drew to an
aggression theory (where can I find writing on this?); it makes a lot of
sense.  This is what I want to address in my paper, and I plan to cite
empirical evidence from performances by 'marked' comics which succeeded or
failed according to who they appeared to be, who their audience was, and
what their material was about.  I was unclear in what I meant when I said
'marked'; in a white audience, an African-American comic would be 'marked'
and vice versa (yet, in an audience comprised of men and women, a female
comic would still be the marked).

>But here in the Washington, D.C. area you'd have to go out of your way to
>find a white, male, status-quo preserving comic.
>In fact, when talking about American comedy in general, "marked" people
>have always done all right, whether we're
>talking about Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Roseanne Barr, etc.

It is entirely true that there are regions where being white (Washington,
D. C.) or being straight (West Hollywood in California) is not the norm,
and in those areas, the norms are altered so that marked becomes unmarked
and vice versa.  However (and I appologize for being unclear), I was
refering to the circut comics work which leads them to getting booked in
major clubs, getting sitcoms, roles in film, etc.  I acknowledge that there
are a number of successful comics (Pryor, Barr, Tenuta, Tomlin, Ulman,
Bruce, etc.) whose signifiers don't conform to the norm, yet I argue that
these are still exceptions.  I spent the past six months in San Francisco
(a city many consider to be very multicultural and egalitarian) hanging out
at the two major comedy clubs in town; nine out of ten comics getting
booked for shows were male and four out of five were white (and a lot of
these guys weren't that funny).  For example, a very funny comic friend of
mine who is Asian has spent ten or fifteen years on the circut.  When he
comes back to his home town (San Francisco) from being on tour, he still
features instead of headlining at the two big clubs.  It is easy to think
of a few exceptions to the paradigm; it is difficult to get booked if you
don't fit into the paradigm.

I look forward to hearing from anyone with further ideas.

Alicia




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