Angelena Escobar, Debora Gotta, Lilly Khatirnia, Talia Kazandjian
Comedy and laughter are often viewed as universal languages. It is said that comedians have the capacity to produce discourse about the darkest and most challenging aspects of life, all the while making us laugh. This meant nothing was really off the table for comedians in the 90’s and early 00’s. However, in the last five years especially, with the massive rise of social media and cancel culture, we have seen both celebrities and private citizens being reprimanded or heavily criticized for their current or past actions. Comedians, especially, who were appreciated for their dark and uncensored humor, are now having to rethink their entire routine. Keeping that in mind, is comedy still regarded as it once was or have societal values changed enough to transform the stand up comedy landscape?
Stand-up comedy is one of the major sources of entertainment. It began to hit the ground running in the early 50’s and 60’s, in which socially aware comedians made their way into the spotlight (Pulliam,1991, pg 164). However, stand-up comedy did not reach its peak until the 1970’s. The main purpose of comedy was to showcase current events, culture, and the personal lives of comedians (Zoglin, 2009, pg. 3). This essentially meant that a large amount of what was taking place during a certain point of history would be a focal point of comedic routines. Comedians also implemented their personal stories as a part of their jokes. While comedy has obviously been used for comedic purposes, it has been a factor in social change as well. In “Stand-up Comedy as a Tool for Social Change”, Manwell claims it is important to draw attention to negative stereotypes to be socially progressive. He emphasizes how humor that “draws criticism for being offensive and for perpetuating negative stereotypes” is, in actuality, progressive, because it pushes the boundaries of what is socially acceptable (Manwell, 2008, pg. 50). While Manwell piece was published too early to comment on the age of social media and social awareness, the implementation of stereotypes into comedians’ stand-up routines is crucial as it allows the audience to be more socially aware.
Although there has been some research done on the topic of comedians using language, there has not been research done focusing on how comedians use language to create a comedic effect. Stand-up can be succinctly described as an Anglo-American form of comedy where a solo performer aims at repeatedly making her co-present audience laugh, primarily through personal narrative. Comedians manipulate language and use comedic elements to generate humor.
Our project was consistently developing the more information we found; therefore, we continued to tweak and modify our research question. At the beginning of our analysis, we sent out an anonymous survey to our friends and family. We received a total of 62 responses from individuals aged 18-49. There were multiple questions in that survey that were not as helpful as we continued working on our project; however, one was very important. We asked our survey takers to name both male and female stand-up comedians, and as it is seen within the word cloud: Tiffany Haddish, Amy Schumer, Dave Chappelle, and Kevin Hart were the most popular ones. Seeing that Kevin Hart garnered 50% of the responses when asked for male comedians, it was a determinant in deciding which comedian to focus on and what kind of research we can do based on him.
After deciding that we would work on Kevin Hart, we started to explore his past shows and decided to focus mainly on Seriously Funny, I’m a Grown Little Man, and Zero F**ks Given. These shows span a period of eleven years where we are able to observe and analyze the evolution of Kevin Hart and how/if his comedy have been influenced by fast changing social norms and values.
For our work to become more organized, we also decided to divide the jokes we looked at into four categories. It starts with the jokes being self-centered or other-centered, then within that there is a range of it being based on experience or appearance. Self-centered experience jokes are about Kevin Hart’s own personal experiences; Self-centered appearance jokes are about Hart’s appearance or how he is perceived outwardly; Other-centered experience jokes are about other people’s or a group of people’s actions or experiences; Other-centered appearance jokes are about how they look when they behave or are about other outward appearance features. The chart below shows the different topics of jokes Kevin Hart discussed throughout his comedy shows.
Results and Analysis
The Use of Other-Centered and Community Based Jokes vs. Self-Centered
In I’m A Grown Little Man, Hart seemed to be more focused on community-based jokes. He used examples of the people he met and recreated scenarios with those individuals to portray how they acted in certain situations. One example is a specific scenario in which Hart imitates rappers and thugs to humor his audience– reflecting back to the theory of other-centered jokes. Hart made little jokes about his personal life because people weren’t as sensitive about certain topics/groups/stereotypes as they are now. Another example is the joke Hart made about a previous girlfriend of his that was White. He talked about her dad and turned it into a racial joke which the audience then took as humorous but would probably offend some people today. Hart acts out his jokes using code-switching and he indexes various communities by using alternate slang. He performs tone & slang differently when making jokes about the Black community compared to language used to connect with the White community.
In past comedy routines, Kevin Hart often used other-centered jokes in which he would use other communities as the primary focus of his jokes. While not all of Hart’s jokes were offensive, there were some that would not currently be socially acceptable. Hart has exhibited change in his most-recent stand-up, Zero F**ks Given, he tends to focus on himself and his family rather than making others the center of his joke. This not only depicts how Hart has evolved, but also showcases how the norms of what’s acceptable in comedy and society has been redefined. Considering the fact that this generation is more aware and sensitive to offensive topics, comedians are often pivoting and reconstructing their comedic routines in order to suit everyone. In the segment posted below, Hart uses intonation when telling the story about his daughter liking different guys every week. His voice rises and falls depending on what part of the story he is sharing. When name calling his daughter or son, he is relatively flat and speaking matter of factly and during other parts, he’s more animated and eccentric. Whereas before, the more offensive statements were other-centered, now the more “risque remarks “ are about him and his family. This is a significant sign of evolution in his routines reflecting social norm changes. The omission of teasing other people can stand as evidence that Hart has transformed his routines and has decided to become more adaptable to the times.
The Delivery of Jokes: No Filter vs. Socially Aware
This section of analysis focuses on Seriously Funny, Hart’s second recorded show in the touring part of his career. In this stage, he had a nonchalant attitude towards his jokes: no prevalent social awareness, no expected repercussions–and seemingly no filter–joking about any topic. Later, he defended these offensive jokes by saying “funny is funny”. To an extent, he’s correct as jokes now deemed offensive were successfully funny back then, in terms of success being measured by the intensity-and-length-of audience laughter. The change in the jokes he said is a great example of how societal norms/values have changed over time. What was accepted then, isn’t accepted now, what was funny then is now offensive. The following video is a segment from Seriously Funny. Hart’s joke is successfully delivered, and he effectively creates comedic effect through his use of intonation (the audible changes in his voice for emphasis), indexicality (personifying other people), and body gestures (for visualization of the story). When he jokes about his son’s first gay moment, he clearly impersonates his son, the other child, and the woman who intervenes. Though his voice does not change much, unlike other segments he has done, his acting is very clear and he is able to distinctively act like the characters in his story through body motions. When he behaves like his son, he taps into how he described his son earlier in the show. He had claimed his son was, “a dumb kid that doesn’t really know what he’s doing” and shows this by waving his arms in all directions with no real or distinct rhythm. When he talks about the women who interferes, he becomes very calm and speaks in a standard tone of voice suggesting that there was no apparent problem between the two children. Lastly when he indexes his-self in that moment, he returns to an angry defensive tone and body language. Though this joke was comically effective back in 2010, this joke in particular has led to backlash–ultimately leading to Hart stepping down from being the 2019 Oscars Host.
Watch the video and determine whether or not a joke like this would fly in current times: Kevin Hart – “My Son’s First Gay Moment” Seriously Funny (2010)
Contrastingly, in his latest comedy special, which aired in 2020 after his Oscar scandal, Kevin Hart is much more careful and aware of what he says and the types of jokes that he makes. Whereas before, the jokes were just delivered, now he actually uses self-repair in order to correct what he says or “soften the blow”. In the following video, there is an instance when he is about to make a joke on greeters, he pauses himself and makes a premise that he “… has nothing against greeters…” He makes it clear that he understands that it is an important and useful job, but it is something he does not have to or want to do. By making these comments, he’s able to go on with the joke, having established the foundation that he respects the occupation and does not see it as a bad thing. This can stand as an example of disaligning responses where Hart is able to “… revise or back down from… prior actions in order to permit preferred responses to be produced instead” (Whitehead, 2015, pg 4). In a time where there is heavy criticism to any kind of offensive remarks, making those preemptive comments or jokes about “cancelling” itself may make it so that those viewing the show don’t take it to heart as an offensive statement but rather a simple joke. He is mindful and concerned with how the wider/mainstream audience will interpret his joke. He is more socially aware of potentially offensive comments in his jokes. He is self-censoring which initiates self-repair. He does this by using specifically the use of intonation and indexicality to defer between the times that he is speaking as himself and the “persona” of those that may be after him post this joke. For example, when he impersonates the lady that is filming him as he eats his burger in front of McDonalds, he acts aggressive, angry, and accusatory. His hand is in front of him as if he is holding a phone and filming and his eyes are wide open (kind of as if he were crazy). When he is back to being himself he just describes what he did in a more relaxed tone and continues with the joke.
To further demonstrate what we mean, here are two segments from his latest comedy show attached below, where Kevin Hart makes the extra effort to communicate that he is not being offensive or seriously making a statement.
Our research aim was to understand whether societal norms have changed in the past 10 years by investigating one of comedy’s biggest stars, Kevin Hart. Starting from Seriously Funny to Zero F*cks Given, we observed an evolution in Hart’s shows–leading to conclude that societal norms and values have indeed changed. What was once received as humorous and funny may now be unacceptable by the mainstream. This generation is much more vocal about the types of jokes and statements one can make about a community. We came to this conclusion by analyzing the language used by Hart. By using different communication tools, both verbal and nonverbal, (code switching, indexicality, intonation, self-repair) we gained a greater understanding of societal value changes and impacts on systems within society, like entertainment. Despite his controversial past, Kevin Hart remains incredibly popular (as was evidenced by our survey and his record breaking show attendances). As we conclude this post, we wonder: Would you also agree with our conclusion? Where do you think the relationship with comedy and risqué remarks is headed in the future?
Manwell, C. F. (2008). STAND-UP COMEDY AS A TOOL FOR SOCIAL CHANGE. https://lsa.umich.edu/content/dam/english-assets/migrated/honors_files/Manwell%20Colleen-Stand-Up%20Comedy%20as%20a%20Tool%20For%20Social%20Change.pdf.
Pulliam, G. (1991). Stock Lines, Boat-Acts, and Dickjokes: A Brief Annotated Glossary of Standup Comedy Jargon. American Speech, 66(2), 164-170. doi:10.2307/455884
Whitehead, K. (2015). Everyday Antiracism in Action: Preference Organization in Responses to Racism. JOURNAL OF LANGUAGE AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY, 34(4), 374-389. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0261927X15586433 Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/7767x91b
Zoglin, R. (2009). Comedy at the edge: how stand-up in the 1970s changed America. Bloomsbury USA.