Letter to the editor: Comedy and recognizing speech acts

Letter to the Editor

Comedy spaces have always been collaborative spaces. This means that they rely on the full participation of all those involved. The stand-up space is no exception. Even though the audience does not quite ‘participate’ in the typical sense, the performer draws on their perceptions and feelings in order to display their own talent and unique perspectives. Following the #metoo movement and other campaigns for the freedoms of women and minorities, the context of some comedic spaces has been brought into question. Some comedians have been accused of drawing on perceptions that have negative historical significance in order to create a comedic space that some deem harmful to some members of society. 

Linguists say that when comedians perform their stand-up in front of a crowd, they are making a speech act. A ‘speech act’ is an utterance that exists as an action in itself. Speech acts depend on context of the speech, in this case, the comedic space (which has its own historical contexts and balances of power). Certain types of comedy draw on these contexts in ways that have implications for the here and now. For example, some reinforce stereotypes or (on the more extreme end) draw on historical cases of violence. The new wave of comedians who claim that they are ‘no longer allowed to make jokes anymore’ may be saying instead, that convention has restricted their speech by preventing them from drawing on certain aspects of human experience. 

Whether or not one believes that this restriction is justified or that it may lead to even more censorship, the recognition of a speech act in itself, especially in the socio-cultural space, is an important step for social development. It may be that the impact of certain comedic tropes may be minimal (causing only offence) or potentially harmful for members of society. Even though this may be unclear without deeper investigation, recognizing speech acts for what they are may be a helpful start. 

Wangechi Mwaura is a student at the University of Minnesota.

This letter to the editor has been lightly edited for style and clarity.