“Oh, I'd do all the Sex Jokes": Stand-Up Comics and the Negotiation of Humor, Gender, and Accountability
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Gender inequality is deeply embedded within the traditional and normative practices of joke-telling, yet rarely has research addressed the experiences, identities, and perceptions of the individuals responsible for creating and performing stand-up comedy. Using data collected from 20 in-depth interviews with men and women stand-up comics, I situate my research within West and Zimmerman’s (1987) “doing gender” and Deutsch’s (2007) “undoing gender” frameworks to empirically examine if, how, and why stand-up comedians use humor to construct and perform gender identities in ways that either perpetuate or mitigate gender disparities. Stand-up comedy is a situation that, on its face, lacks distinct sex categorization. Yet, my examination of men and women stand-up comics indicates various ways in which comics use humor to “do gender.” The comics internalized the attitudes and behaviors expected of their respective sex categories, and most aligned their actions with such expectations to avoid censure (West and Zimmerman 1987). But, some comics seemed to engage in “undoing gender” by using comedy as a tool to transgress traditional gender expectations and destabilize normative power relations (Deutsch 2007). The findings of this research illustrate the ways humor can be used to both perpetuate and challenge traditional gender arrangements. In addition, it has implications for studies at the intersection of gender, humor, and inequality, and it provides further utility of the “doing” and “undoing gender” frameworks in relation to how men and women stand-up comedians make meaning of their own experiences living and performing comedy.