Stand-Up Comedy and Addressivity: The Example of Joan Rivers

Stand-Up Comedy and Addressivity: The Example of Joan Rivers

Akin Adetunji (Emmanuel Alayande College of Education, Nigeria)
Copyright: © 2016 |Pages: 21
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0338-5.ch012
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This chapter highlights the linguistic value of addressivity in two Youtube downloads of Joan Rivers' stand-up comic performance, Live at the Apollo. Despite the devotion of the six articles of Comedy Studies 2(2) to analyses of the data, very little was said about the linguistic content and identity of the performance. Despite the givenness of a performer's deployment of linguistic resources in any kind of stage performance, the salience of some of the stand-up comedy-specific linguistic forms—repetition, disfluencies, formulaicity, paralanguage, timing, parenthetical expressions, figurative language, direct audience address—is foregrounded in Rivers' performance. These forms are located within and interpreted with Bakhtin's notion of ‘addressivity'. It is argued that her elaborate audience interaction and thematic preoccupation with social, biographical and autobiographical issues are one macro act of addressivity, foregrounding the complex intersection of speaker (comedian), listener (present audience) and third person/superaddressee (non-present audience/previous discourses).
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Although stand-up comedy has been subjected to a limited amount of academic research, especially when compared with other performance oral genres, its linguistics has been worse off. Coming from a linguistic pragmatic perspective, this study is focused on Joan Rivers’ significant deployment of linguistic features in her stand-up comic performance, with the intention of revealing how these engender and foreground comedian-audience interaction in the co-production of humour. It is argued that Rivers' act belongs in Bakhtin’s notion of ‘addressivity’ (an utterance is always addressed to someone and anticipates a response), a framing which confirms her comic style as dialogic and conversational (see Blackburn, 2013).

Stand-up comedy is conventionally conceptualised as an encounter between a single performer who stands in front of an audience and behaves comically and/or talks to them intentionally to amuse them or make them laugh (Double, 2014: 19; Mintz 1985: 71). But, more recently, attention has shifted to its major features. These, as outlined by Double (2014: pp. 19-20), include funniness, personality (at least a person in front of an audience), direct communication (between performer and audience) and present tense (live performance). Traditionally, stand-up comedy is realised as routines of canned jokes, which the comedian prefaces (or explicitly announces), rehearses (hears or creates before telling), and decontextualises (detaches from the context of the joke telling) (Attardo, 2001: 62). However, modern enactments have shown this type of comedy to be less structurally predictable, more dialogic, creative, contextual, spontaneous and dwelling on improvised material (Furukawa 2011; Gilbert 2004; Limon, 2000; Schwarz, 2010). As a type of performance, stand-up comedy subsists on certain conventions and presuppositions. These include, but are not limited to, solo performance, comic content, direct address, spontaneity in comedian-audience interaction, comedian's proximity to audience, audience’s expectation of to be amused and shocked, and audience's constant feedback (smile, nod, laughter, heckling, silence, clap) (Double, 2014; Furukawa, 2011; Gilbert, 2004; Peacock, 2011; Rutter, 1997; Yus, 2002).

Of these, comic content and audience feedback are probably the most salient. Linking both features as the major determinants of the success of a stand-up comic performance, Limon (2000) posits three theorems (which deictically locate 'you' as a second-person plural, the audience) as generic constituents of stand-up comedy: '[1] If you think something is funny, it is. [2] A joke is funny if and only if you laugh at it. [3] Your laughter is the single end of stand up' (pp. 11-12). Expatiating on Limon’s postulations, the first theorem claims that the funniness of a joke is determined not by individual assessments but through the reaction of the majority of the audience, the second theorem holds that a joke can only be regarded as funny when and if the audience reacts to it with laughter, and the third theorem, that audience’s laughter minimally marks the end of a joke. Apart from foregrounding the value of the audience in stand-up comedy, two of the theorems specify the salience of laughter. And as noted by Rutter (1997), laughter is quintessential to comedian-audience interaction, not as a response to a humorous stimulus, but rather as interactive and ordered. The audience (and its reaction) as such, crucially defines stand-up comedy, since it has to 'cooperate' with the comedian to make a joke funny. So, following Limon (2000), comedians and their audiences are hardly distinguishable, since it is the audience that makes a joke one. In sum, stand-up comedy greatly affords both comedian and audience the opportunity to respond to and engage each other in the mood and energy of performance in real time. One of the stand-up comedians who has (or had) a global reputation for deep-seated audience engagement is Joan Rivers.

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