Document Type


Date of Degree


Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Communication Studies

First Advisor

Gronbeck, Bruce

First Committee Member

Hingstman, David

Second Committee Member

Depew, David

Third Committee Member

Andrejevic, Mark

Fourth Committee Member

Nelson, John


This dissertation addresses the possibilities for humor to serve as political action. While humor has been studied since Aristotle, and many theories about its efficacy as a rhetorical form abound, most claim at best that humor produces a lesser effect than other, more serious forms of discourse. When audiences, institutions, contemporary scholars and even the comics themselves address humor, they tend to reify the theories of foundational scholars - theories that serve to circumscribe the place of humor as necessarily non-political and non-efficacious. Such modalities of humor span many theories, including intentional forms such as irony, parody and satire, spatializations such as the carnivalesque, effects based criteria such as pleasure and/or laughter (as opposed to pain and/or outrage). When taken up at an institutional level (whether by legal or economic institutions, or even by scholarly institutions), these pre-set modalities comprise sets of rules, or litige, that preempt the possibility for some of humor's most progressive functions. To reexamine humor, this project begins with the most marginalized of humorous forms, stand-up comedy. Beginning from a standpoint of critical rhetoric, routines by comics such as Lewis Black, Lenny Bruce, Dave Chappelle, Margaret Cho, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, Michael Richards and Sarah Silverman are used to display the limitations of contemporary theories, as well as to point out the possibility for stand-up comedy to enact critique. The primary finding is that humorous techniques create a separation between the stated and the inferred, which provides possibilities for audience judgment that is prudential in the sense of operating without pre-set models. The possibility of prudential judgment enables humor to enact détournement, the detour, diversion, hijacking, corruption or misappropriation of the spectacle.


Critical Rhetoric, humor, irony, carnivalesque, detournement, stand-up comedy


v, 170 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 158-170).


Copyright 2008 Nathan Andrew Wilson

Included in

Communication Commons