THE DANCE OF THE COMEDIANS: THE PEOPLE, THE PRESIDENT, AND THE PERFORMANCE OF POLITICAL STANDUP COMEDY IN AMERICA
This dissertation argues that the emergent performance of political standup comedy became a significant agent for mediating and complicating the relationship between the American people and the American presidency, particularly during the middle half of the twentieth century. The Dance of the Comedians examines standup comedy—particularly its ramifications for the presidency and Americans’ perceptions of that institution—as a uniquely compelling form of cultural performance. Part ceremonial ritual and part playful improvisation, the performance of political comedy in its diverse forms became a potent site of liminality that empowered all of its constituents—the comic, the audience, and the object of the joke—to reexamine and renegotiate the roles of all concerned. It is this tripartite bond of reciprocal and labile performance—and its rise to cultural prominence in American history—that comprises the heart of this study. Five chapters trace the development of political standup comedy with respect to the American presidency and analyze the ground-breaking performances by comedians on both sides of the footlights and both in and out of the Oval Office. During the early Republic, newspaper editor Charles Farrar Browne reinvented himself as Artemus Ward and pioneered the performative relationship between the emergent American humorist and the equally embryonic American audience. During the first third of the twentieth century, humorist Will Rogers masterfully exploited the liminality of stage and radio to insinuate himself between Americans and their elected leaders during a period of crisis and redefinition, and he permanently recast the roles of citizen and president alike. During the 1950s and early 1960s comedians such as Mort Sahl again cross-pollinated comedy and presidential politics, this time with the increasing acidity befitting postwar America. Impersonator Vaughn Meader and his phenomenally popular album, The First Family, consummated the marriage between entertainment culture and political culture, especially where Americans’ perceptions of the presidency were concerned. As for the presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy understood humor’s ability to reap political gain, and they too were cultural arbiters who prompted a more permanent shift in Americans’ attitudes toward the office and those who hold it.
School Location:USA - Ohio
Source Type:Master's Thesis
Keywords:humor political united states rogers will meader vaughn
Date of Publication:01/01/2006