Written by Sara Cline
I’ll be forthright: I’m a stand-up comic. That means I’m absolutely biased in my argument that stand-up comedy should have a place in the literary canon, alongside the likes of prose, poetry, and drama. To my credit, I was a fiction-writer, poet, and English major before I ever stepped foot into an open mic, but the more that I’ve delved into standup, the more I’ve come to see its literary merit. Besides, the definition of literature has changed over time, expanding to include oral traditions like folklore and slam poetry, while other “literary adjacent” forms like film continue to make their way into English classes. Seeing how closely the techniques and goals of fiction-writing and joke-writing align, I’d argue that standup is one more oral tradition worth inducting into the literary canon.
First off, a lot of jokes simply are narrative fiction. Just take a look at the über-successful John Mulaney, with his long-form storytelling jokes. My personal favorite is “The Salt and Pepper Diner,” in which he details the best meal he’s ever had. (Not-so-spoiler spoiler: it involves 21 plays of Tom Jones’s “What’s New Pussycat?” queued up on a diner jukebox. C’mon, you know you want to watch the clip now.) Jokes like Mulaney’s are stories, so they follow many of the same conventions as fiction; most critically, there must be conflict. To understand why comedy needs conflict, it’s useful to first understand why fiction does. A primary function of conflict is creating stakes: the potential for loss. Whether it’s the threat of death or a missed bus, an uncertain outcome keeps the reader engaged. Conflict is also key for characterization, since we tend to define characters by how they act in the face of obstacles. Through conflict, characters are often forced to grow or change, creating their “arc” or “development.” Most notably, conflict elicits reader emotion—we root for or against the character, empathically invested in their trajectory. These same phenomena all apply to comedic stories. In the above Mulaney joke, we anxiously await the diner’s reaction to the jukebox debacle. Indeed, one definition of comedy is simply “tension and release;” you build audience discomfort and release it with the punchline, and they laugh with relief.
Another central tenet shared by fiction and comedy is character. Just as novelists must craft their characters with attention to their backgrounds, personalities, and motives, so, too, must comedians. Zach Galifianakis and Rory Scovel are two current examples of standups who play characters in their stand-up specials (if you want to see for yourself, “Zach Galifianakis Live at the Purple Onion” and “Rory Scovel Tries Stand-Up for the First Time” are both available on Netflix). One character that Scovel inhabits is that of a southern bro, reminiscent of many people he met while growing up in South Carolina. (For more on the origin story of this particular character, check out this Oxford American interview.) Characters like Scovel’s “southern guy” fit into the realm of “relatable comedy.” For example, a parody of an overprotective mom is funny because it’s something familiar—we all know a helicopter parent—yet still made strange by being hyperbolized to the point of absurdity. Of course, not every comedian is a character comedian or even an impressionist. And not all comics have a deep understanding of their characters—some characters are still hackneyed embodiments of tired stereotypes. But the most important character for any comic is themselves because the audience wants to hear their unique perspective. If a novel’s narrator isn’t compelling, we shut the book. If a comedian has no unique narrative voice, we shut our ears.
I find, too, that there’s an interesting overlap between foreshadowing and callbacks. In comedy, the callback is a useful tool in which the comic hearkens back to a prior joke or punchline from earlier in their set. It can have huge payoff, as it combines the funny memory of the original joke with the humor of the new application. Foreshadowing, on the other hand, is the fiction-writer’s (ideally) subtle trail of plot breadcrumbs that lead to the story’s conclusion. In this way, both types of writers are interacting with the audience’s memory. Callbacks are also linked to the “rule of threes,” which is a rule that persists in fiction, screenwriting, comedy, and other forms of writing. In screenwriting, the rule takes the form of “setup, reminder, payoff,” as explained by Dan Olson in his insightful video essay on the editing (or lack thereof) in Suicide Squad. This film device “rewards” the audience for remembering a certain piece of info, much like a callback does. But, really, our brains love the number three because three is the minimum number of elements needed to establish a pattern. Take, for instance, “The Three Little Pigs,” “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” or the three spirits that visit Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. In comedy, the rule of threes often takes form as setup, anticipation, punchline. Using a list or “comic triple” is a prime example: the comic sets up a pattern with the first two list items and then subverts it for comedic effect, as seen in the age-old “an Englishman, an Irishman, and a Scotsman” or “a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead” jokes. Really, any writer can benefit from getting to know the number three more intimately. Some examples in comedy include:
“When you die there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. When my father dies, he’ll see the light, make his way toward it, and then ﬂip it off to save electricity.” – Harland Williams
“I can’t think of anything worse after a night of drinking than waking up next to someone and not being able to remember their name, or how you met, or why they’re dead.” – Laura Kightlinger
I would include a third quote, but you know exactly why I didn’t. Subversion, baby.
An oft overlooked literary aspect of standup is its poetics. Indeed, Kevin Cummings writes, “Humor and poetry often make use of the same literary techniques, except that humor doesn’t know how to behave for company.” As Cummings further points out in his article “Words That Sound Funny,” words with hard consonants, especially the K-sound, are more likely to elicit laughs. This “comedy K” has actually long been part of comedy lore, though comedians may also haphazardly discover it on their own through trial and error at open mics. Besides diction, poetic techniques like assonance, consonance, and even rhyme—in the form of phrases like “itty-bitty” or “rinky-dink”—are all part of the comedian’s toolkit. Another shared priority between poets and comics is word economy: a joke improves as you “trim the fat,” making it concise and more to the point. As a poet myself, it’s no wonder that my jokes often come in the pithiest form: one-liners. In similar fashion, comedians pay close attention to rhythm and pauses, much as a poet does with line breaks and syllable counting. In fact, Jerry Seinfeld admitted that he counts syllables in his jokes. (For more info about his scrupulous writing process, watch his 2012 New York Times interview here.) Like a slam poet, comedians choreograph pauses into their routine, allowing the audience to digest the words, visualize the scene, and feel the tension, before a quickly-delivered surprise punchline. And then we pause for laughs, too. TLDR: comedians are essentially poets.
Another literary aspect of standup is its use of figurative language. A major example is irony, which boils down to incongruity—whether that’s incongruity between expectations and what actually happens (situational irony), or incongruity between surface meaning and underlying meaning (verbal irony). Irony is the backbone of comedy, since humor derives largely from subversion of expectations and/or defamiliarization of the familiar. Indeed, in their article about style in standup and literature, Luis Boaventura and Ernani Cesar de Freitas examine how comedians like Seinfeld defamiliarize mundane situations—“such as a trip to the supermarket” or “taking a shower”—and how defamiliarization is a “feature of literariness.” Another figurative device that comedians use to highlight incongruities is simile or analogy. Take these two quotes, for example:
“Sex when you’re married is like going to a 7-Eleven. There’s not much variety, but at three in the morning, it’s always there.” – Carol Leifer
“Dogs are forever in the pushup position.” – Mitch Hedberg
The first example is more overt, but Hedberg’s example works just as well at creating an incongruous, funny comparison. You can’t help but imagine both a human on all fours and a dog doing a pushup. And, of course, like most other literary forms, comedy uses wordplay, puns, double entendres, etc. We can also be very scatological, but hey, so was The Dunciad by Alexander Pope, and he’s widely regarded as one of the greatest English poets.
Closely tied to irony is the literary genre of satire. Satire is everywhere in comedy. In fact, if we examine the history of standup in the United States (as described by Caty Borum Chattoo in this online pamphlet about comedy’s power for change), we find that standup evolved out of lighthearted and frivolous Vaudeville, but the first “influential breakout household names” were social commentators like George Carlin and Lenny Bruce, “known for taking on taboo topics directly and challenging the status quo perspective on social issues.” It makes perfect sense, too, that social norms are the butt of many a joke, since comedy is all about subverting audience assumptions. Meanwhile, obvious, overdone jokes are referred to as “hacky”—clichés, essentially. Relatedly, mindful comedians know the difference between “punching up” and “punching down.” As Sascha Cohen explains, the difference is “where the cultural power of a joke is weighted”—i.e., are you “punching down” at marginalized people, or “punching up” at privileged ones? Cohen writes, “The idea that humor should ‘afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted’ has been a sort of moral directive for comedians for some time.” Thus, satirical standup is just as literary as a novel à la Mark Twain. In fact, I’d argue that stand-up comedy is the more ideal form for social change because laughing is fun. Laughing at your own biases and faulty logic is way more enjoyable than getting into political debates with strangers on Facebook.
But can comedy actually lead to change, in practice? Yes. In their study comparing a comedic documentary on global issues (“Stand Up Planet” featuring Hasan Minhaj) to a somber one, Caty Borum Chattoo and Lauren Feldman found that the comedic documentary made viewers feel more “positive affect and a connection to the characters and storyline” than the somber one, which in turn led to greater “awareness, knowledge, and intended action” in engaging with the issue of global poverty. Chattoo has also stated that not only do people pay better attention to complex information when delivered comedically, they also feel “hope and optimism on issues usually portrayed as hopeless – emotions that help to motivate behaviour change.” Moreover, Erika Soto Lamb (from Comedy Central) argues that comedy is ideal for our short attention spans and can highlight the absurdity of situations, like the difficulties women face trying to obtain birth control, as seen in this Inside Amy Schumer sketch. Finally, standup is a great medium for social change because it’s a conversation. As Ian Brodie Cape writes in his article “Stand-up Comedy as a Genre of Intimacy,” standup “is a form of talk,” allowing for “reaction, participation, and engagement” from the audience. Cape’s interpretation rings true, since standup is performed in vernacular, i.e., the way we speak to our friends and familiars, as opposed to the high diction found in most fiction, poetry, news articles, etc. This uninflated language makes standup (and its social messages) more accessible to the common man, rather than simply the educated. Simply stated, we want viewers to be “in” on the joke. Thus, standup may earn not only more laughs than more conventional literary forms, but also more positive social change.
I suppose that most people would agree that joke-writing is creative writing or storytelling. So, it would make sense that comics use the same tools as fiction-writers and even poets—conflict, character, the rule of threes, figurative language, diction, etc. Still, you might hesitate before referring to standup as “literature.” And that’s fair. One definition of literature (as popped out by Google) is “written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit.” And given the amount of writer’s craft involved and the great potential to create lasting positive social change, I think standup is shaping up to fit that definition. Maybe it’s not literature, but it certainly is literary.