Laughter and consequence : rhetoric and the trouble with intention in humor and identity politics



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At the turn of the 21st Century, comedians such as Sacha Baron Cohen and Dave Chappelle, as well as the theater group Speak Theater Arts (figures analyzed in the following chapters), use humor to critique contemporary notions of identity in terms of race, gender, and sexuality. As we increasingly see humor used to address issues of identity, we must strive to understand the implications and effects of laughing at/through/with (our) communities. When and how do performers and audiences perceive humor as the means to disrupt harmful cultural stereotypes? And when, conversely, does humor reinforce negative ideologies, preserving racism and homophobia, chauvinism and bigotry? By thinking through individual relationships to various topics and to the structural modes of presentation, we might move a step closer to understanding humor’s positive potentials and its destructive forces -- how they veer in one direction or another, how it can be used as a tool of liberation and oppression, and how this depends fundamentally on the subjects it touches (upon). Read across texts of cultural and linguistic theorists of the past fifty years, the works of many contemporary comedians question the possibility of stable contexts and fixed meanings, as well as the very notion of group or self-identity. The humor we see emerging from the chasm that the civil rights and political correctness movements sought to bridge operates within and relies upon instabilities: challenging the notions of what a humorist can get away with and what an audience will (or should) accept. Within the system of identity politics, these humorists act as double agents: often gaining authority from the notion of a group identity while simultaneously breaking that notion apart. They highlight the totalizing effects of identity politics: the claim that one voice may speak for the many (with or without their consent) on the basis of a shared identity. And they do it with a smile. Laughter and Consequence analyzes the relationship between humor and identity politics, how we tend to read laughter and intention in relation to the body, and how language, violence, and power come together in comic performances.