The transgression of humor: Towards a rhetoric of comedy



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ABSTRACT JASON PARKER THE TRANSGRESSION OF HUMOR: TOWARDS A RHETORIC OF COMEDY MAY 2023 In this dissertation, I discuss the elements of comedy that are grounded in rhetoric. I explore how comedy is rhetorical and how it can be used to critique, challenge, persuade, argue and unite discourse participants. Because I view comedy as essentially rhetorical, I make connections to two types of rhetoric. One is the ancient rhetoric of the Greeks, a rhetoric that is based in the dialectic, the enthymeme, and the art of argument and persuasion. The other is New Rhetoric, a rhetoric of the twenty-first century that seeks understanding and identification. I also make connections to studies in hermeneutics, as this is the study of how we make emotional interpretations as well as those based in reason, with a particular emphasis on Frederic Jameson’s “Metacommentary” (1971). The challenge is in understanding how comedy is both a beneficial and potentially regrettable part of communication. I examine how comedy embodies both the agonistic qualities of the ancient art of persuasion as well as the potential to unite and liberate people through better communication and understanding. I look at the cult television show Mystery Science Theater 3000 and examine how it deconstructs ideas through comedy and interpretation of old movies. I look at Hannah Gadsby’s deconstruction of comedy, gender, and culture in her stand-up special, Nannette (2018). I also look at black comedians like Richard Pryor and Jackie “Moms” Mabley to see how comedic honesty can critique racism and social injustice and connect people. iii However, I must also protest the view that comedy and rhetoric are entirely liberatory. By looking at the ancient roots of comedy and rhetoric we can see that they have their origins in invective and personal attack. Both comedy and rhetoric can be used in a negative manner and even when used positively, in service of some liberatory action or politically progressive goal, it often does so with invective and ridicule. In order to have a complete understanding of how they function, we must understand both to be subject to positive and negative uses depending on the user. In this way, I attempt to make preliminary sketches of a rhetoric of comedy and theorize how comedy and rhetoric can be liberatory, as long as we understand how and when they are not.



Rhetoric and Comedy