Skip to content
Home » Blog (hidden) » “Comedy in the Archives”

“Comedy in the Archives”

[Photo Credit: Mike Lovett/Brandeis University]

by Michael Prentice

In my fall course, “Language in American Life,” we explored a range of topics focusing on linguistic authority, from playground politics to law school lectures, from monoglot standards to media neutrality. For the students’ mid-term essay, I wanted them to think through some new empirical material. By some twist of fate, as I was walking through the Brandeis University Library, I came across an exhibit at the university’s archives on the comedian Lenny Bruce whose personal archives were recently acquired in 2014 by Brandeis from his daughter, Kitty Bruce. The exhibit chronicled Bruce’s personal life, his rise to fame, as well as his litany of arrests and court cases covered in the news. The controversies made me realize that a project on Bruce would be a perfect topic for the students to grapple with intersecting authorities in mid-century America. (And it turned out many of the students had been learning about Bruce through the hit TV show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.)

Bruce is nostalgically remembered today as an iconoclast comedian and First Amendment hero, jailed repeated times for obscenity, before his early death in 1963. His influence on other “shock” comics like Richard Pryor and George Carlin has cemented his position as a forerunner of the modern era of the stand-up comic as cultural provocateur. Bruce publicly played with norms over American “unmentionables,” including in court. However, he also had bits that would make many of today’s comedians pale: an unabashed masculine persona, cross-ethnic impersonations, and heavily ironic use of ethnic slurs.

For the mid-term, I asked students to consider whether Bruce was really challenging social norms or simply drawing on various kinds of licensed authorities as a male social commentator. This dovetailed well with readings we had covered on crimes of “slighting” (personal slander) in 17thcentury Puritan America from historian Jane Kamensky, dynamics of playground banter from Marjorie Goodwin, and what is considered “legitimate” ethnic humor from Elaine Chun.

I asked students to spend at least an hour in the exhibit or in the archive before writing. This made them confront Bruce’s more controversial writings on their own and develop their own perspectives. Students wrote insightful papers that acknowledged how certain social roles are given more leeway in offering personal or social critiques. One student described the race-washing of his legacy, discussing how he is remembered for self-directed Yiddish humor bits, with less acknowledgement of his use of cross-racial tropes. Another student noticed how Bruce gradually became consumed by his own media persona and public battles over obscenity, repeatedly self-citing his own public image as a vulgar comedian, producing “dirt for dirt’s sake.” These all point to the need to distinguish discourses of humor as unmediated social criticism, linguistic images recognizable to mainstream audiences, and the ways comedians situate themselves in historical dynamics.

We didn’t have as much time to stick with the archive or the evolution of mainstream US comedy. It would have been fun to place Bruce next to Susan Seizer’s work on how a “transgressive register” is now expected of American stand-up comics as well as Laura Miller’s work on subversive humor genres cross-culturally. However, this upcoming semester a small group of students from the class and I will be returning to the archive to look more closely at his unseen materials and think about a group-authored research paper on humor, vulgarity, and ideas of reference and addressivity in an historical perspective.

Michael Prentice is a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Brandeis University.

Works mentioned:
-Chun, Elaine W. 2004. “Ideologies of legitimate mockery: Margaret Cho’s Revoicings of Mock Asian.”  Pragmatics 14 (2):263-289.
-Fleming, Luke, and Michael Lempert. 2011. “Introduction: Beyond bad words.” Anthropological Quarterly 84 (1):5-13.
-Goodwin, Marjorie H. 1990. He-said-she-said: Talk as social organization among black children. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
-Kamensky, Jane. 1996. “Talk like a man: Speech, power, and masculinity in early New England.” Gender & History 8 (1):22-47.
-Miller, Laura. 2004. “Those Naughty Teenage Girls: Japanese Kogals, Slang, and Media Assessments.”  Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 14 (2):225-247.
-Seizer, Susan. 2011. “On the uses of obscenity in live stand-up comedy.”  Anthropological Quarterly 84 (1):209-234.

From JLA:

The co-editors-in-chief (Das and LaDousa) of the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology are proud to feature three outstanding articles contributing to the analysis of comedy, including Managan’s 2012 article on Kréyòl language use and stereotypes in Guadeloupean comedy sketches, Carmichael and Dajko’s 2016 article on the New Orleans-based characters in a Bunny Matthew’s classic comic strip, and Lindfors’ upcoming 2019 article on modes of footing in the Finnish stand-up comedy scene.

-Managan, Kathe. 2012. Words to Make you Laugh? Performing the Public in Guadeloupean Comedy Sketches. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 22(2): E83-E104.
-Carmichael, Katie and Nathalie Dajko. 2016. Ain’t Dere No More: New Orleans Language and Local Nostalgia in Vic & Nat’ly Comics. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 26(3): 234-258.
-Antti, Lindfors. 2019. Cultivating Participation and the Varieties of Reflexivity in Stand-Up Comedy. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology. Coming soon.