Not a Joke: Women's Work and Feminist Laughter in Stand-Up Comedy
Critical Comedy Studies , Stand-Up Comedy , Feminism , Gender Studies
Live feminist stand-up comedy, and the shared laughter it generates, is a potent form of popular cultural performance that has become increasingly politically relevant and commercially successful in contemporary North America. In this thesis, I take an interdisciplinary, mixed-method approach to studying the cultural and political work done by Ontario-based, women-identified stand-up comics and comedy producers. I engage with and extend the emerging field of critical comedy studies by drawing on a range of disciplines to analyze the affective politics of live feminist stand-up comedy. My position is informed by, and my writing integrates, the voices of contemporary and historical women-identified stand-up comics whom I have encountered through a variety of cultural texts, including: live and mediated performances, memoirs, interviews, histories, and anthologies. I interview a range of Ontario-based women-identified comics and critically reflect on performances I attended, recorded, and/or helped to produce. I focus in particular on explicitly feminist comedy events both produced and populated by women. These include: Yas Kween and SHADE, and those produced by the Hysterics Collective. I argue that in writing and performing live comedy, comics claim positions of epistemic authority and affective and discursive power. They position themselves as experts on their own lives and subject positions, and they claim to know what will (and how to) make an audience laugh. On stage, in these spaces of authority, comics maintain discursive control over how they present themselves and their experiences. This is a powerful position that counters processes of cultural and political abjection. In generating laughter, comics affect (and are affected by) their audiences. I theorize this circulation of affect as politically powerful and personally meaningful. I reject the notion that a joke could be objectively funny or a comic universally appealing, and instead problematize social constructions of women as unfunny. Through autoethnography and reception studies, I argue that “getting” the joke and finding it funny (or not) depends on our interpretive repertoires. Additionally, I show that generating laughter takes work—work that is at once alienating and affirming, and almost always precarious.