Stand-up Comedy after Abjection: New Left Hegemony and ‘Millennial’ Humour

Monday, 16 July 2018: 10:30
Oral Presentation
Daniel SMITH, Anglia Ruskin University, United Kingdom
British stand-up comedy, since the Alternative Comedy movement c.1979-1985, revolutionised stand-up by jettisoning traditional ‘gag-driven’ performance in favour of humour derived from an incongruity between ‘the self’ meeting ‘society’. This revolution was an appropriation of Jewish-American stand-up, one whose humour arose from the cultural performance of abjection (Limon): an inability to assimilate to social and cultural values and expectations. British Alternative Comedy used the language of abjection for their New Left political rhetoric which opposed, politically and culturally, the dominant ‘gag-driven’ humour of mainstream British stand-up. This New Left sensibility has since been incorporated as the dominant representational mode of stand-up. Stand-up comedy, after abjection, is the performance of New Left hegemony: anti-racism, sexism, homophobia, green lifestyle politics alongside a ‘checking’ of material privileges. However, the demographic information on contemporary stand-up comedians shows them to be overwhelmingly young, white, male, middle-class and straight. At a time of rising material inequalities, demographic rifts and volatile identity politics, what does the humour of ‘millennial men’ tells us about the power their humour speaks to? Through an analysis of two ‘millennial male’ stand-up comedians and one double-act, this paper provides a sociology of the comedy art-work. The analysis is taken from, Comedy & Critique: Stand-up comedy and the professional ethos of laughter, a short book which seeks to provide a sociological theory of the stand-up as well as an analysis of comedic routines. The paper draws upon the literary theory of the Yale School and Russian Formalists as well as Maussian anthropology and Durkheimian sociology to provide an alternative sociological theory of art, culture and power in contemporary society. Through this lens one is able to historicise ‘millennial humour’ and decipher its peculiar mobilisation of cultural symbols and myths which transform their hegemonic subject positions into the art of evasion.