Submit a Manuscript to the Journal

Comedy Studies

For a Special Issue on

The Comic Audience

Abstract deadline
07 June 2024

Manuscript deadline
14 November 2024

Cover image - Comedy Studies

Special Issue Editor(s)

Sarah Balkin, University of Melbourne
[email protected]

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The Comic Audience

How has the relationship between comedians and their audience changed? Mid-twentieth-century comedians such as Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor were counterculture figures who challenged what could be said on stage at the risk of censorship and arrest, though they also built audiences who expected this from them. In contrast, some contemporary comedians such as Judy Gold, Chris Rock, and Dave Chappelle see comic speech as silenced by left-wing morals-policing rather than the state. Other performers such as Hannah Gadsby and Zoe Coombs Marr have intervened in audience expectations that reinforce their social marginalization by changing their comic personae. Moreover, it is now common practice for high-profile comedians to lock audience members’ phones in pouches during shows, restricting audience behaviour to prevent filming and distraction. These generational shifts, polarized political contexts, and technological considerations raise questions about what audiences will accept in a genre that relies on what people share to make them laugh.

Changes to the production and reception of comedy raise further questions about the comedian’s contract with the audience. Late nineteenth and early twentieth-century vaudevillians established the stand-up convention of comedians communicating directly with an outwardly responsive audience. While performing to a live room is still the foundation of stand-up, more people encounter comedians on streaming platforms, on podcasts, as award show and comedy news hosts, and in social media memes and controversies. For example, Chappelle, whose late work has courted controversy with rejections of cancel culture and jokes about LGBTQ folk, appended a 23-minute Q&A epilogue to the Netflix release of Sticks and Stones (2019) in which he told the live audience, “I understand why I could hurt some people’s feelings, so tonight … I’m going to let you say whatever it is you need to say to my face.” The live audience were Chappelle fans and did not seem to have hurt feelings; Chappelle was anticipating and addressing an expanded, offended audience outside the room who could not say anything to his face.1 In this context, who is the audience and why does it matter?

This special section of Comedy Studies will focus on the comic audience, working from the premise that the audience is integral to the form and meaning of the comic event. The discipline of theatre and performance studies has developed robust if varied frameworks for studying audiences as performers and interpreters in their own right.2 Building on this scholarship (but welcoming approaches from other disciplines), this special section invites papers that examine specific rather than idealised comic audiences.

Topics might include (but are not limited to):

  • Historical, cultural, or generational shifts in the comic audience;
  • Live, mediatised, and/or digital audiences;
  • Majoritarian and/or minoritarian audiences;
  • Audience behaviour and/or sociality;
  • Conventions of comic spectatorship: laughter, applause, “clapter,” heckling, etc.;
  • Methodological reflections on researching the comic audience;
  • Challenges to traditional comic license, such as debates about cancel culture or freedom of speech;
  • Caring for the comic audience: for example, content warnings, accessibility, cultural safety, mental health.

[1] Balkin, Sarah. “On Quitting: Dave Chappelle’s The Closer and Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette.” TDR: The Drama Review, vol. 67, no. 1, Mar. 2023, pp. 149–66.

[2] See for example Bennett, Susan. Theatre Audiences: A Theory of Production and Reception. Routledge, 1997; Freshwater, Helen. Theatre & Audience. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009; Heim, Caroline. Audience as Performer: The Changing Role of Theatre Audiences in the Twenty-First Century. Routledge, 2016; Reason, Matthew. “Asking the Audience: Audience Research and the Experience of Theatre.” 2010. About Performance, no. 10, Centre for Performance Studies, 2010, pp. 15–34; Sedgman, Kirsty. “Audience Experience in an Anti-Expert Age: A Survey of Theatre Audience Research.” Theatre Research International, vol. 42, no. 3, Oct. 2017, pp. 307–22.

Submission Instructions

Please submit proposals (250-300 words) to Sarah Balkin by Friday 7 June 2024. Selected proposals will be invited to prepare articles of 6000-8000 words which will be due in November 2024 and will be peer reviewed.

Articles will be published on-line as they are accepted. The special section will be published as a set in an issue when complete. This is expected to take place in 2025.

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