Stand-up Comedy in Theory, or, Abjection in America

Stand-up Comedy in Theory, or, Abjection in America

New Americanists

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Book Pages: 160 Illustrations: Published: June 2000

Author: John Limon

American Studies, Cultural Studies, Theater and Performance > Performance Art

Stand-Up Comedy in Theory, or, Abjection in America is the first study of stand-up comedy as a form of art. John Limon appreciates and analyzes the specific practice of stand-up itself, moving beyond theories of the joke, of the comic, and of comedy in general to read stand-up through the lens of literary and cultural theory. Limon argues that stand-up is an artform best defined by its fascination with the abject, Julia Kristeva’s term for those aspects of oneself that are obnoxious to one’s sense of identity but that are nevertheless—like blood, feces, or urine—impossible to jettison once and for all. All of a comedian’s life, Limon asserts, is abject in this sense.
Limon begins with stand-up comics in the 1950s and 1960s—Lenny Bruce, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Mike Nichols, Elaine May—when the norm of the profession was the Jewish, male, heterosexual comedian. He then moves toward the present with analyses of David Letterman, Richard Pryor, Ellen DeGeneres, and Paula Poundstone. Limon incorporates feminist, race, and queer theories to argue that the “comedification” of America—stand-up comedy’s escape from its narrow origins—involves the repossession by black, female, queer, and Protestant comedians of what was black, female, queer, yet suburbanizing in Jewish, male, heterosexual comedy. Limon’s formal definition of stand-up as abject art thus hinges on his claim that the great American comedians of the 1950s and 1960s located their comedy at the place (which would have been conceived in 1960 as a location between New York City or Chicago and their suburbs) where body is thrown off for the mind and materiality is thrown off for abstraction—at the place, that is, where American abjection has always found its home.
As the first study of its kind, Stand-Up Comedy in Theory, or, Abjection in America will appeal to a wide audience including those interested in cultural studies, Jewish studies, gender and queer theory.


“In Stand-Up Comedy, scholars finally have a book-length work that approaches what Clifford Geertz might call the ‘deep play’ of stand-up comedy . . . . [T]he wide-ranging scope of texts that Limon brings to bear on stand-up comedy is both impressive and useful . . . .” — Richard W. Mitchell , TDR: The Drama Review

“In its rigorous, often brilliant theorizing of a popular cultural phenomenon, the book makes an important contribution to humor studies and to American studies as well.” — Jonna Mackin , Symploke

“Limon analyzes in depth comedians’ identification with and separation from the audience. . . . [T]hese insightful essays will interest students and scholars of comic theory. . . .” — D. Murdoch , Choice

“This book is a brilliant application of Julia Kristeva’s ‘Abjection Theory’ to the genre of Stand-Up Comedy . . . .[A] very impressive book.” — Don L. F. Nilsen , Humor

“John Limon’s book opens up exciting new possibilities in cultural studies. Stand-up comedy—manic, smutty, abusive, improvisatory—has up to now evaded academic critics, as if its pleasures were too volatile for examination. Limon carries off the feat—rarely achieved by analysts of humour—of taking comedy seriously without spoiling the jokes.” — Maud Ellmann, University of Cambridge

“Limon’s close readings of specific comic performances are masterful, making vivid and compelling his larger and more abstract arguments about the ways that comedy allows us to deal with the process of cultural abjection. Speaking as someone who has taught and written about the American comic tradition for more than a decade, I can honestly say I learned something significant about each of the performers he examines.” — Henry Jenkins, author of Classical Hollywood Comedy


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Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

John Limon is Professor of English at Williams College. He is the author of The Place of Fiction in the Time of Science and Writing after War.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Introduction: Approximations, Apologies, Acknowledgments

1. Inrage: A Lenny Bruce Joke and the Topography of Standup

2. Nectarines: Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks

3. Analytic of the Ridiculous: Mike Nichols and Elaine May

4. Journey to the End of the Night: David Letterman with Kristeva, Céline, Scorse

5. Scatology: Richard Pryor in Concert

6. Skirting, Kidding: Ellen DeGeneres and Paula Poundstone


Works Cited
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2546-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2509-3
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