Questions of Queerness in Comedy

My thesis centers around how humor and issues of queerness interact within the medium of stand-up comedy. Rebecca Krefting’s book All Joking Aside aims to classify a type of stand-up comedy as “charged humor,” and places that type of humor within different concepts of identity (Krefting 3). The first chapter, for example, focuses on “cultural citizenship,” specifically how comedians with an immigrant background use comedy to either question or assert their own position within American culture. Another chapter analyzes how comedy addresses gender politics, while another focuses on a generational identity (that is, comedy after the year 2000). Her arguments center around posing contradictions. Krefting will introduce a concept, then provide two examples, a positive and a negative. She compares, for example, a straight comedian’s joke about “gay ghosts” redecorating a house, with a Mexican comedian’s joke about Mexican field workers taking revenge on white oppressors by inserting e. Coli into crops. She claims that while one comedian takes advantage of someone else’s stereotypes, the other one is a reappropriation of stereotypes for humor. She explains “charged humor” by defining it as more biting than satire, and more focused on carving a spot for disenfranchised people.

The Trouble with Normal Cover Art

The Trouble with Normal by Michael Warner is a study of queer theory as a whole, which questions how the LGBT movement functions. Although a lot has changed since the book’s publishing in 1999, many of the concepts introduced are integral to studying queer stand-up comedy. One of the major arguments of the book is that shame surrounding sex permeates our society, but is especially prevalent within the queer community. He argues that only when we accept shame (instead of trying to push away or pretend we don’t have shame) can the movement more forward. The other key argument of the book is that the attempt to normalize queerness is regressive. Warner specifically uses the fight for “gay marriage” as an example of a harmful attempt for “normalization.” The Trouble with Normal therefore primarily deals with how we as a society (and how queer communities) should talk about queerness. Each chapter begins with many specific examples of queer media (such as certain gay marriage protests and magazines like Hero), and close-reads comments surrounding those examples. The author then consolidates his analysis into critiques about the queer community obsession with normalcy. The book uses close-reading to study the politics of shame and queerness.

Both sources deal directly with how queerness should be discussed. All Joking Aside lays a framework for how stand-up throughout history has covered topics of identity. From satire, to “charged humor,” to bigoted belittling, to personalized storytelling, the book details the various methods by which identity can be covered. The Trouble with Normal argues how queerness specifically should be talked about. He argues that shame should not be ignored, but owned. Shame is often used as a punchline in stand-up comedy. Although All Joking Aside does not directly mentioned shame, politics of normalcy are confronted in many of the comedians exemplified in All Joking Aside (though specifically in a chapter discussing Hari Kondabolu comedy critiquing racial inequality in the United States). From both of these sources, it seems that comedy about shame (whether the jokes are meant to cause shame, hide shame, confront shame, etc) is a key feature in debates about queer comedy.

All Joking Aside argues that humor is a tool for social justice, but I want to focus more on why social justice is a tool for humor. In the same way that The Trouble with Normal criticizes certain topics (i.e. gay marriage) as regressive or unhelpful for queer movements, I want to study more about what aspects of queerness make stand-up funny, or how comedians use their queerness for humor. Instead of talking about how social justice is served by a humorous telling, I want to base my arguments in why my primary texts are funny. While texts such as All Joking Aside provide a history of “charged humor” and give excellent examples of comedians who have used social justice in their work, I want to read more about comedy theory in general. Then I’ll be able to incorporate the close analysis from queer studies texts like The Trouble with Normal, and write more effectively about how one discipline (queer studies) serves another (comedy).

 

Works Cited

Krefting, Rebecca. All Joking Aside : American Humor and Its Discontents. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

Warner, Michael. The Trouble with Normal : Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press, 2000., 2000.

3 thoughts on “Questions of Queerness in Comedy

  1. I really like your idea to interrogate precisely what it is in queer humor that is funny. I think it would be interesting if you looked at the differences between comedians who are straight using queer jokes, comedians who are queer using queer jokes, and queer comedians who refuse to use queer jokes. This final example comes to fruition in the Netflix special Nannette wherein comedian Hannah Gadsby inverts the confrontation of shame you spoke about and turns it onto the viewers. How are the viewers then implicated in laughing at something deeply personal and painful?

  2. I think this is a really interesting topic, and I’m curious to know which comedians you’ll be looking at. I strongly agree with the previous comment regarding the difference between straight comedians and queer comedians using or refusing to use queer jokes—that would be fascinating. I also like that you highlight Warner’s point that sex is still a taboo topic within the US, because I think this is a key part in understanding all the comedy surrounding it. I would suggest you watch Live at the Apollo, The Mash Report, and the Russell Howard Hour—I know they are all British, but they are all stand-up comedy shows focused on current events and often host queer comedians.

  3. I think your topic is very interesting. I am very excited to see where your paper goes. I think the concept of comedy is very complex and involves detailed analysis that the audience may not recognize. Furthermore, incorporating the element of queerness offers another level to this analysis. I would suggest looking at camp or “queer parody” to enhance your understanding of what makes comedy funny. I also think looking at who the comedian is and how they identify will be an important part of you analysis.

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