Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Laurel D. Graham, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Shawn C. Bingham, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Robert D. Benford, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Kim Golombisky, Ph.D.


audience reception, comedy, culture, media, symbolic interactionism


Despite the long history of stand-up comedy as a distinct form of popular entertainment, there has been little sociological attention given to its cultural significance. Comedians have arguably become legitimate and visible voices in many public conversations about social issues and social justice. This dissertation explores the cultural work of women’s comedy in popular culture. Specifically, I examine narrative representation and audience reception of women’s stand-up comedy through multi-method qualitative inquiry.

First, I analyze stand-up performances by popular U.S. comedians Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes, and Margaret Cho. Through narrative analysis, I focus on the ironic performativity of Schumer and the charged styles of Sykes and Cho, and I discuss how these women use humor (in different but overlapping ways) to challenge dominant cultural narratives pertaining to gender, race, and sexuality. Second, I conduct an audience reception analysis using focus groups in order to better understand how people consume and interpret stand-up comedy. Due to the polysemic nature of comedy and satire, audiences decode these texts in a myriad of ways. My analysis shows how different audiences perceive the comedian as unpacking social “truths” in comedy. I elaborate these audience decoding positions, discuss the layers of interpretation (i.e., intersectional positionality and interpretive frameworks), and discuss how participants negotiate symbolic boundaries around what is deemed funny or topically appropriate for comics to say. My findings further highlight the importance of identity in critical referential viewing by incorporating standpoint epistemologies. In particular, audience members of marginalized social groups experience a “bifurcated consciousness” (Smith 1974) in their interpretations compared to those from dominant identity groups, and women and minority audience members are more likely to interpret these performances as counterhegemonic texts.

Included in

Sociology Commons