The Anthropology of Comedy: Digression Doubled

First blog post by Marianna Keisalo. The idea of this joint blog is to provide a space to work through and comment on ideas regarding digressions. Some of these posts might be developed into longer publications, others may remain as digressions. In this post, I will discuss some ways I see digressions in anthropology and comedy.

2016.12.01 | Elena Sophia Kaarup-Christensen

I am a post-doctoral researcher at Aarhus University in Digressions: A cross-disciplinary study of the indirectness of human imagination. The aim of the project is to look at how the imagination works in nonlinear ways and whether digression is at the heart of human creativity. We will examine digressions in relation to contexts such as comedy, art, and literature, but it could also be said that human life, thought, and action are inherently digressive, despite all the efforts to be rational and linear. My subproject Digression Doubled: Stand-Up Comedy as Coordinated Trickery is an ethnographic study of digression as a creative force. I aim to explore how stand-up comedy interacts with its cultural and social contexts in efficacious and potentially transformative ways. My working definition of digression is close to detour: taking a turn in a new direction in relation to a planned route, resulting in a new orientation towards the planned route (and a possible new plan).

My analytic approach is mainly semiotic, drawing extensively on the work of anthropologist Roy Wagner to show how convention (established and shared culture) interacts with invention (the extension and adaptation of conventions in new ways) to create, sustain, and change the meaningful worlds we participate in. My aim is to dig into the processes that underlie comedy as a particularly complex – yet also intuitive and direct – form of semiosis that plays tricks on our ways of seeing and thinking about the world. I did my doctoral research on ritual clowning in Mexico, and my post-doctoral project is on stand-up comedy in Finland. Humor is a human universal, and exhibits interesting similarities across times and cultures, but as a form of action and communication it can be used for a variety of different ends from healing to hurting, philosophy to entertainment. The social contexts where humor is expected, allowed, or forbidden vary greatly. In my view, the inherent ambiguities of humor on different levels are what connect it to the concept of digression: comedy requires both performers and audiences to follow trains of thought into new directions and engage with doubled frames, contradictions, and paradoxes.

I am also interested in how the concepts of digression, invention, and convention relate to each other in particular semiotic systems. Is digression by definition more likely to be an invention, something spontaneous that happens according to how things happen to line up? Does planning a digression, using it as technique, like I claim below that ethnography and comedy do, make it conventional or is it a way of making invention possible? What is the relation to agency and efficacy – what consequences can digressions have, and how? As I begin the task of analyzing my data, collected in Finland from January 2015 to August 2016, I imagine the answers have to do with the creative potential of taking on new perspectives and offering them to others to look through. However, this requires consideration of what perspectives are possible and how – what are the (logical, actual, semiotic) limits of digression?

Joint-blog kick off

The idea of this joint blog is to provide a space to work through and comment on ideas regarding digressions. Some of these posts might be developed into longer publications, others may remain as digressions. In this post, I will discuss some ways I see digressions in anthropology and comedy. Both comedy and anthropology require the performer/ethnographer to combine a planned agenda with the ability to be flexible and adaptive, reacting to a changing situation. Performing stand-up and doing ethnography are both crafts that are inherently open to the world. While this openness is what feeds and gives meaning and significance to the efforts of comedy and ethnographic research, it also means that both endeavors are unpredictable and not fully within the control of the comedian or the ethnographer. Just as an ethnographer cannot know beforehand exactly what she or he will find in the field, the comedian cannot know how a performance will be received. Ethnography and comedy are also transformative experiences, likely to change the person. I will explore what being open to the digressions that present themselves in the meetings and junctures of ethnography and comedy might mean more specifically, and how planned digressions and an openness to unplanned ones are inherent in the methodologies and processes of these two genres, despite their obvious differences.

By using the terms ethnographic research and ethnographer rather than anthropology, I want to widen the implications to more than anthropology but also point to anthropology as a primarily ethnographic endeavor. My general point is about relating to an unpredictable, not fully knowable, yet shared world while trying to find footing within and make statements about it. I suggest that the flexibility of being open to various kinds of digressions is a central part of both comedy and ethnography.

Stand-up Comedy as (reverse) anthropology

At the risk of spoiling the joke through explaining it, I want to emphasize that the title of this post is intentionally chosen for its double meaning. I am an anthropologist, doing research on stand-up comedy; I do anthropology of comedy. However, after 20 months of participation-observation in the comedy scene of Finland, including 40+ open mic performances, I have started to see comedy as a sort of implicit, hidden, reverse anthropology in that comedians turn a sharp eye on their social surroundings and reflect their views back to us in intricate detail. In addition to being culture, comedy is metaculture, a reflexive commentary about culture, social life, and what it means to be human as seen from the perspective of the particular comedian in a particular time and place. Comedians draw parallels and analogies, pointing out patterns and relations that we might not have thought about, but recognize when they are shown to us.

Objectivity and subjectivity figure in both comedy and anthropology, but these are somewhat inverted in the two. The ethnographer strives to gather objective data – not necessarily in the sense of being neutral or factual independently of the observer, but as objects found in collaboration with others, ideas, forms, or practices in some way shared and established in objectified forms. For the comedian his or her subjective persona and perspective is the main product. Yet the comedian needs to present – through a multimodal expression of body, being, and language – a view objectified into signs the audiences can understand, believe, and appreciate, and for the ethnographer, his or her subjective persona and perspective are the frame and tools of research, regardless of the requirements and definitions of being truthful within the interpretive community. The ethnographer aims to understand and present something objective through their subjectivity, the comedian aims to present and make understandable a subjectivity in reference to something objective. Both endeavors rely on and evoke convention and invention to do this. In evoking these dualities, I don’t mean to imply that things are easily divided into these categories, but rather to see them as ideal poles in relation to which action is meaningful.

Comparison: three phases of work

Both ethnography and comedy can be separated roughly into three phases: collecting material, analyzing and organizing it, and presenting it, usually in verbal form. A common misconception about comedy is that the material is just made up in performance, that it’s all or mostly improvised, or that it is quickly written. It is common for comedians to get requests from clients to come up with a half hour of new, specially tailored material for the corporation’s Christmas party within a few weeks or even days. There are, of course, different methods and ways of doing comedy, but most of the comedians I know put in a lot of work in thinking about material for bits, working on the material, and refining their performance. I would say that writing one bit is comparable to writing an abstract for a paper, 5-10 minutes of new material is comparable to a full paper, and an hour’s show is like writing a monograph.

The ethnographer’s work is planned in relation to scholarship – the formulation of research plans and questions is expected to make sense in following the conventions closely enough so as to satisfy the requirements of the scientific community, but to depart (digress!) from previous research enough so as to justify the study in that it brings something new and valuable to the conversation. It might appear that the comedian is more free in that he or she may use anything as material and say and do whatever they want on the stage. On the other hand, this freedom comes with expectations of being original and unique in a way that digresses enough from “normal” ways of communicating and even the genre of stand-up so as to make people laugh. In a way, stand-up comedy requires each performer to create his or her own conventions by cultivating a personal style that is both unique and interesting as well as intelligible and relatable. Just as the research question affects the kind of materials an ethnographer will collect, the personal style will guide the observations of a comedian collecting ideas. I’ve also known comedians to come up with a joke they feel is not suitable to their own style or persona, and offer it as a gift to another comedian. However, both ethnographers and comedians tend to make note of things beyond what seems immediately useful, as these things may turn out to be important later. This is one way both are open to digressions, to following trails that present themselves.

The first digression: collecting material

Going into ethnographic field work could be seen as a digression in the sense of going away from everyday life into something else. This may involve airplanes and new languages as my first field work in Mexico did, or mostly an awareness and alertness, as the field work in my home city of Helsinki did. Even now, settled in my office in Aarhus, I feel like I am dipping in and out of the field, as I participate in discussions on Facebook or “like” a comedian’s blog post. A comedian’s everyday digression in search of material is more of the latter kind – one develops a sense for the possibilities of bits, noticing odd juxtapositions, playing with possible relations between elements.

Ethnographers and comedians learn to combine observation with participation: while you need to go places and do things to get material, you also learn to watch for it, always asking, is this material? What is this related to? Is this small detail the thing that will hold the key to blowing the bank or just another insignificant detail? Which difference will make a difference? Better make a note of it, as you can never be sure. In both ethnography and comedy, you cannot completely define the material to be collected beforehand. Digressions have the potential to present material. Ethnographers and comedians carry notebooks, take pictures, write down things they notice or that occur to them. Books and courses suggest techniques for comedians, like doing something they have never done before, making lists of words that have several meanings, looking at one’s surroundings and imagining new relations between elements. Ethnographers are professional snoops, talking to whoever will talk to them, accepting (almost) all invitations that come their way, tagging along to try things they have not tried before, using their ignorance as a research tool. Emotions and affect figure in this phase for both comedians and ethnographers: if you have a strong reaction to something, chances are you should pay attention to it.

The planned digression, then, of both ethnography and comedy often requires specific actions as well as a state of openness, where everything is considered through the lens of looking for material. This involves following the unplanned digressions that present themselves while moving around in the world.

The second digression: analysis and development

After one has collected data, it needs to be analyzed. Which jotted down observations are selected for further development, and why? Is it funny? Can it be made funny(ier) and how? Is it representative of something important, meaningful to others, too? What does it tell us? If according to Freud jokes seem to emerge from the subconscious fully formed, this is not the case for stand-up comedians. The occasional serendipitous gift of a sudden revelation notwithstanding, writing bits and crafting a set is a painstaking process. Likewise, the ethnographic material from the field is not necessarily clear or obvious as to what it means – regardless of language, it needs to be understood, translated for the intended audiences, and related to previous discussions.

Again, techniques exist. There are exercises in books, like “x is strange, because… x is scary, because… etc.” described in Judy Carter’s Comedy Bible. A comedian writes and rewrites, looks for set-up-and-punchline structures (a digressive relation par excellence), searches for just the right words. Part of the process is testing bits at open mics, gradually introducing new material into the set, usually bookended by tried-and-true bits. One of the interesting and challenging things about comedy is that it cannot really be rehearsed – both specific bits as well as the comedians craft as performer need to be learned on stage.

The ethnographer also analyses his or her material, depending on the specific theoretical and analytical lens, writes and rewrites, and may test the material in seminars, conference presentations, or perhaps blogs. In my own experience, a bit of a digression from the study between field work and analysis may be helpful for getting a new perspective on the material.

Although writing is often a lonely effort, both comedians and ethnographers usually discuss their ideas with peers and get insight and feedback when they begin to present their ideas. While in terms of digression the phase of analysis might be the one least susceptible, an openness to see what there is in the material is required. My own style of writing could be described as digressive in the sense that I first write down everything, following every thought and later go back to cut things out, maybe moving something aside for a possible new path to take elsewhere. Perhaps the back and forth of different perspectives, ones found in theory and in the ethnographic material, or the comedian’s and imagined audiences’, could be seen as digressive, in that this oscillation is hoped to lead to new discoveries. 

The final digression: audiences’ interpretation and evaluation

I now turn to the final part, communicating, performing, and presenting the product to audiences. This is where things take yet more turns, as the interpretations of the ethnographer/comedian are now put into the hands of others, whose engagement and interpretations are indispensable. I have to say, although it can sting when the response is not favorable, the immediate feedback of stand-up is often a joy and relief in comparison to the sometimes months that go by after a submission and commentary, or the when a conference presentation or a publication passes with only a polite “interesting stuff.”

In terms of truth values, the ethnographer and the comedian are held to different standards, but it is not a simple distinction of objective truth and subjective fictions. In fact, I would claim both are expected to “speak the truth” but in different ways – and both may engage with the paradoxes and absurdities of ideas of what is true and what truth is. Both comedians and ethnographers can be openly challenged by their audiences – a sharp comment from a colleague may derail a performance just as a shouted comment from a drunk heckler can, or these may nudge the performer onto a new path.

Most comedians live and perform in the same social worlds as their audiences, although there is a surprising amount of international touring given that humor would seem to be so embedded in local linguistic and cultural contexts. Distances have also closed between ethnographers and their research sites. It is no longer the case that the research subjects of the ethnographer are expected to be excluded from his or her audiences. I also find some interesting similarities in the relations between the comedian and the audience to that between the ethnographer and those being written about. These relations can take the form of a friendly collaboration, yet both entail an ambiguously one sided but potentially shifting power dynamic between one and many, although the ethnographer is trying to influence his or her subjects to offer up their views, while the comedian’s main goal is to influence the audience by presenting them with his or her own. The comedian might only be “there” for a few minutes, while the ethnographer may be “there” for years. Yet both have to put themselves out there publicly and learn a culture in front of the people. And both are involved fully, body, person, and soul in interaction with others. Both want to create rapport and connection, yet have their own personal agenda in doing so. Both will inevitably make mistakes, because neither ethnography nor comedy can – or even aims to – maintain a neat separation between front and backstage. This opens the way for more digressions. The interpretive communities of comedy and research audiences are expected and hoped to comment on the performances and products, which might take new directions as a result.

Conclusions: ethnography, comedy, and digression as frames for action and kinds of action

I will now come to the second part of my title and how I see the digressions of comedy and ethnography as doubled, meaning that these digressions take place on different, interacting levels. Ethnography and comedy can be seen as both a frames for action and kinds of action. Frames create contexts within which we expect certain things to happen and we use those framings to evaluate and make sense of what happens within it. Kinds of actions in combination with kinds of frames are expected to produce certain kinds of results – but making room for digressions opens up the possibility for unexpected results. Comedy and anthropology bring together different perspectives, which can allow us to see in new ways.

Stand-up comedy is first a digression from everyday life into a performance situation where the actions and expectations of comedians and audiences are calibrated on and geared towards laughter. The situation is of course very different for the comedian and the audience, yet both are implicated in the unfolding of the event. Once this frame is in place, another layer of digression is possible – even necessary – in order to reach the shared goal of laughter in a satisfying and effective way, whether by providing new perspectives on social life to question accepted notions, or by deviating from the conventions of the genre itself to renew comedy. An ethnographer finds him or herself a field to digress into and learn a new world and then brings the gained insight into relation with the frameworks of a discipline. These conventional frames make the digressions within them and from them meaningful. Digressions from these frames may even provoke a transformation in the frame itself.

Ethnography and comedy share the need to open oneself to the world, straddling subjectivity and objectivity, the particular and the universal, the linking of actual individual experiences to more general patterns and shared ways of making sense. Perhaps the inherent digressiveness is the reason it is quite difficult to teach stand up and ethnographic methodology – yet both are taught in classes and courses which are certainly helpful. In the end, however, both require an individual learning process of how doing stand-up works for a specific comedian and how an ethnography of a particular situation unfolds.

Knowledge exchange