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"Pushing the Edge": Challenging Racism and Sexism in American Stand-up Comedy

  • Author(s): Antoine, Katja Elisabet
  • Advisor(s): Brodkin, Karen
  • Cattelino, Jessica R
  • et al.

In this dissertation I examine how stand-up comedians challenge racism and sexism in their performances. Stand-up comedy is among the least socially proscribed forms of public expression in contemporary US, and comedians often talk about “sensitive” topics (including race and gender) in direct and humorous ways. Some offer a social critique of hegemonic discourses; they “push the edge.” I argue that by looking at “edges” of hegemonic discourses of race and gender, and how comedians push them, we can deepen our understanding of how racism-white supremacy, sexism, and heteronormativity presently operate in the US, and how to challenge them.

I focus on comedians who challenge racism and sexism through joke material and in their affective and performative work on stage. Key ways they do so include: performing slavery as anti-racist critique; targeting genocide and colonialism; challenging the “terrorist label” and racialized masculinities, and through female embodiment.

I conducted 18 months of ethnographic research in Los Angeles (LA and New York are the largest US sites for stand-up), focusing on male and female comedians of color, but also producers and managers. I attended over 130 shows and saw more than 550 comics perform live (including 30 core participants, whom I also interviewed).

In this text, I first show the discourses on race and gender that circulate in the comedy world and the US more broadly. With this, I also set up what comedians push against. I then introduce “the edge” and “pushing the edge” as concepts, using energy/affect, authenticity/sincerity, and performativity as analytical tools, before I show how comedians push the edges of race and gender discourses. I also discuss performances that “implode” and expose the core of hegemony.

These comedians’ work becomes part of broader anti-racist discourses through social media, film, and television. Their work shows that we need to pay more attention to affect and performativity in how we assess what challenges to hegemonic discourses look like and their impact. Stand-up comedy, then, provides useful analytical tools for making the often-invisible aspects of everyday anti-racist and anti-sexist resistance visible, and for attuning us to the subtlety of hegemonic violence.

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