Along with being just plain funny, stand-up comedy can be thought-provoking, subversive — even healing.
Yet stand-up remains largely "under-theorized and underappreciated" in academia, according to Professor Sheila Lintott, philosophy. To help advance the scholarly conversation about this performance form, Lintott worked with colleagues to develop a recent conference, the Ethics & Aesthetics of Stand-Up Comedy.
The event, held April 5-8 at Bucknell, brought together an eclectic mix of international scholars representing diverse disciplines and provided a stage for working comics. For some participants, including Lintott, the lines between educator, researcher and performer blurred or were eradicated entirely.
"The conference drew theorists, practitioners and critics together to talk about an art form they love," said Lintott, who teaches courses on the philosophy of humor and the art of stand-up comedy. She's also a regular participant at open mic nights in and around Lewisburg.
The conference's inclusive approach to studying comedy was reflected in the roster of presenters. Speakers included philosophy professors Noël Carroll of the CUNY Graduate Center and Cynthia Willett of Emory University; Jason Zinoman, comedy critic for The New York Times; David Misch, whose writing credits include Saturday Night Live; and Tom Cathcart and Danny Klein, authors of Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes.
"There's a mistaken perception that comedy is not to be taken seriously," Lintott explained. "But there are plenty of people, in and outside of the academy, who do take it seriously and recognize its power." Professor Jason Leddington, philosophy, agreed that comedy deserves academic scrutiny, just like the "high arts" of drama, music and dance.
"Apart from the fact that it's fun, laughter and comedy are central, important parts of the human experience," said Leddington, who served on the conference's organizing committee. "One of the things we do as philosophers is try to understand those things that are important to us."
Scholarship meets pop culture
The idea of comedy as a vital, potentially powerful tool was examined in panels that focused on topics such as the intersections of comedy and identity, the politics of comedy, and comedy and the media. Papers were presented by scholars who represented disciplines including, but not limited to, philosophy, gender studies, mass communication, African-American studies and art history. They demonstrated how traditional scholarship frequently collided with pop culture, as presenters invoked both Aristophanes and Aziz Ansari.
"One presenter discussed therapeutic uses of comedy," Lintott added. "She talked about how she's used humor to work through traumatic events." Lintott noted that the conference also explored the use of humor in the classroom. "Stand-up is very different from teaching, but also very similar," she said. "Humor helps students engage and feel comfortable."
Not surprisingly, even the most serious panels and workshops included humorous moments. Professor Mitch Alexander, who teaches philosophy at Australia's Monash University, punctuated his workshop — which explained how to use logical fallacies to craft jokes — with material from his dual career as a stand-up comic. His best advice for aspiring comedians? "Know that you will bomb."
The conference included an open-mic night and performances by political comic Hari Kondabolu and internationally known stand-up artist Paula Poundstone. Participants were also invited to attend "Frog Night," an evening of stand-up that allowed for immediate audience feedback.
Lintott hopes that, along with taking away fresh ideas and good jokes, attendees benefited from the opportunity to meet other scholars interested in exploring comedy as a serious academic topic. "I now know all of these people I never would've met if I hadn't organized this," she said. "I hope this starts some conversations."
Leddington also saw the potential for the conference to spark ongoing relationships among scholars and comics. "I hope the comedians learned from the scholars, and the scholars from the comedians. There's just so much to think about. It's such a rich topic."