'Working the Crowd': Enacting Cultural Citizenship Through Charged Humor

Thumbnail Image


Publication or External Link






Like many cultural practices, comic performance is one of a host of weapons in the arsenal of tactics, strategies, and offensive maneuverings available to individuals and communities seeking to redress inequitable distributions of wealth, power, rights, and cultural visibility. This dissertation examines contemporary jesters opting to use humor to develop community, instruct and mobilize audience members, and lobby for political and cultural inclusion. It is a kind of humor that illumines one's position in a specific socio-political, historical matrix; it is humor that creates community and conversely demonstrates the ways in which one does not belong. An examination of the economy--the production, exchange, and consumption--of this humor reveals how and why comics produce charged humor or humor that illumines one's status as second-class citizen and how this kind of humor is consumed in the US. I employ a mixed-methods qualitative approach using ethnography, archival research, and critical discourse analysis to investigate comic performances: stand-up comedy, sketch comedy, and one-woman shows. Throughout, I draw from dozens of contemporary comics performing in the US, but take as case studies: Robin Tyler, a Jewish lesbian comic and activist who is currently spearheading the marriage equality movement in California; Micia Mosely, a Brooklyn-based, Black, queer woman whose one-woman show, Where My Girls At?: A Comedic Look at Black Lesbians, is touring the country; and a group of young people (eighteen and under) participating in Comedy Academy programs (a non-profit arts education organization in Maryland), allowing them to author and perform sketch comedy. My sources for this project include popular culture ephemera such as print and electronic media, public commentary, documentaries about stand-up comedy, interviews with comics and industry entrepreneurs, performance and program evaluations, comic material (jokes), and performance texts. Drawing from nation and citizenship theories, cultural studies, performance studies, and a number of identity-based disciplines, I argue that humor intervenes on behalf of minoritarian subjects and it is part of our task to read these performances for the tactics and approaches they supply for being fully incorporated in the national polity.