American stand-up comedy is experiencing yet another boom, following the rise of the chitlin’ circuit and Borscht Belt performers of the 1930s and 1940s, the “sick” or “cerebral” comedians of the 1960s, and the comedy-club set of the 1980s. As a result, the craft has been the subject of several recent cinematic, televised, and streaming documentaries.
So why have comedians taken up this style to tell their stories? Does the documentary, which aims for honesty and authenticity, really offer more “truth” than what the comic delivers onstage? After all, as Billy Crystal puts it, for stand-ups “getting a laugh and getting at the truth are the same.”
This course will consider these questions and more by looking closely at traditional documentary forms like film and television (variety programs, cable stand-up specials, reality TV) as well as newer modes of non-fiction storytelling (podcasts, web series, social media). Moreover, through our engagement with the documentary and all the challenges that come with that (subjectivity, ethics, mediated reality), we will learn about not only the history of American stand-up comedy, but also the politics, distinctly American sensibilities, persistent personal struggles, and unspoken “rules” about race, gender, and sexuality therein. Classes will consist of lectures, screenings, and discussion.