Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Arnold D. Payne, Ph.D.

Co-Major Professor

Elizabeth Bell, Ph.D.

Committee Member

John Barnshaw, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Mahuya Pal, Ph.D.


Change, Comedy, Culture, Humor, Performance, Rhetoric


From our earliest origins in every civilization across the globe, comic performances have fulfilled an important social function. Yet stand-up comedy has not attracted the serious academic inquiry one might expect. This dissertation argues that in the absence of public intellectuals stand-up comics are important to how we talk about and negotiate complicated issues like gender and race. These comic texts are sites of cultural critique, public discourse, tools for articulation, a means of persuasion, and serve to galvanize communities.

This dissertation argues that stand-up comedy performances are a vital part of modern American intellectual and social life and are heavily enmeshed in ongoing processes of progressive social change. In the absence of public intellectuals in what is generally an anti-intellectual modern America, Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, and Louis C. K. are currently three highly relevant stand-up comics who generate and contribute to discourses that galvanize or polarize publics and counterpublics. Their comic performances, recordings, and other artifacts (like internet memes) that live on after the live event circulate in the public sphere and our most quotidian exchanges. They contribute to discourses that move us toward progressive social change and also act as a barometer for where we are as a nation during any particular moment. Through the discourses generated by their performances, their involvement in social dramas, and their role they perform as public intellectuals, stand-up comics are capable of healing, reconciling, or otherwise mediating breaches in the social order.

This dissertation uses 1) a critical examination of the construction and performance of the comic persona, 2) a close analysis of the comic routine as an aesthetic text, and finally 3) an examination of social dramas and the discourses they generate to see where and how these comics possibly contribute to progressive social change.

This study finds Chris Rock to be a potent mediator, Sarah Silverman a transgressive instigator, and C. K. a subversive healer. This study makes contributions to a wide arrat: of stakeholders: Communication, Sociology, Performance Studies, and Postcolonialism. Finally, I offer new terms to discuss the interaction of comic and audience and directions for future research.