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The Hurtline and the Colorline: Race and Racism in American Stand-up Comedy from Civil Rights to Color-Blindness

  • Author(s): Perez, Raul
  • Advisor(s): Frank, David J
  • Hironaka, Ann
  • et al.

In this dissertation, I examine race and racism in U.S. stand-up comedy, with particular attention to discursive and demographic shifts from the civil rights era to the present. I situate an examination of race-talk in stand-up comedy within the broader literature on post-civil rights racial discourse in the U.S., which contends that offensive public race-talk is on the decline. I argue comedians occupy a critical and central role in the matter of racial speech, but that sociologists have largely sidelined them in favor of more “serious” matters. Moreover, humor scholars have largely ignored the race question and today emphasize a celebratory rather than critical analysis of humor. I contend popular cultural industries like comedy are important yet understudied cultural-fields that bridge academic and public debates about the limits of offensive discourse in a free speech society. Here, I analyze how racial ridicule has been contested and regulated by organized publics and private entities during and after the civil rights movement, how racial/ethnic comedy has changed as a result of such contestation, how racial insults are now deployed strategically by humorists, as well as how the demographic trends of elite comedians have changed from the civil rights era to the present. I use case studies of performers and discourse analysis of performances, recordings, and oral histories to examine the shift between pre-civil rights and post-civil rights race based comedy. Using participant observation in a comedy school, I map the strategic nature of racial discourse in contemporary stand-up comedy. Finally, I examine the racial and gender demography of the Grammy Award for Comedy over the last 5 decades. One overarching conclusion of my dissertation is that the intersection of race and comedy offers a fertile field for sociological analysis.

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