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Open Mic, Open Minds

Open Mic, Open Minds

Graduate Student / Harrington School-Wide / Writing & Rhetoric

Jillian Belanger, a doctoral student in Writing and Rhetoric, was only a casual fan of comedy before an offhand comment from Professor Jeremiah Dyehouse would completely change the way she perceived humor communications:  “Comedians are true rhetoricians.”  This powerful idea was the seed that would eventually bloom into Open Mic, Open Minds: Exploring Social Issues in Standup.

This yearlong inquiry in humor aims to celebrate, critique, and craft comedy, as well as analyze how comedy discusses social issues in its material. The inquiry consists of a variety of comedy workshops, events, and guest comedians to perform and speak about the craft. The latest event was Think Like a Comic, a comedy workshop in which participants were given the opportunity to craft short comedy routines with the help of Nathan Hartswick, professional comedian and instructor of SparkArts Entertainment.

“Think Like a Comic was a low-stakes way to get your feet wet in comedy,” said Belanger, the organizer of the event. “Students benefit from having a friendly framework to support the process of comedy writing and practice their material.”

Participants of the workshop took part in activities that were meant to generate ideas for comedic material, break the ice, and become more comfortable with the idea of using their own life experiences and observations for a standup routine. At the end of the workshop, the participants performed their material at the 193 Coffeehouse in front of a small audience. The experience, Belanger said, was meant to give the workshop attendees a supportive environment in which they could deliver their routines.

“Stand-up comedy can be intimidating, especially since a lot of people rate public speaking as their number one fear. There’s a lot of pressure to be funny,” Belanger said. “Jerry Seinfeld once said that in order to be a successful comedian, you need to make your audience laugh every twelve seconds or they write you off as a failure.”

Considering that many successful comedians, such as Bill CosbyEllen DeGeneres and Chris Rock, not only succeed in making their audience laugh, but also manage to talk about racial, social and gender-related issues in society, the role of a comic is more intricate than one might assume. Successful comedians are not only entertainers, but are, as Dyehouse stated before, true rhetoricians.

“After Jeremiah told me that comedians are true rhetoricians, I became fixated on the idea for quite a while,” Belanger said. “I was fascinated by the fact that comedians can say whatever they want because the public doesn’t take them as seriously.”

According to Belanger, the comedian’s role as an entertainer allows them to “sneak these radical, forward-thinking messages into their material, which is just like what a rhetorician does.” Stand-up comedians are also part of a small group of people who regularly speak in front of audiences at a regular basis. This unique blend of circumstances gives comedians both the platform and the potential to deliver messages that are ahead of the curve to large groups of people.

The power to discuss societal issues in radical ways makes the study of humor communications incredibly important, according to Belanger. There has been tremendous advancement in every social issue through comedy, said Belanger, but despite this, humor communications is still an understudied field. Zeroing in on one subject matter in particular, race, Belanger pointed to stand-up comedian Richard Pryor, and how his stand-up routines broke barriers.

Richard Pryor was the first African-American man to get on a stage and make fun of a white person,” Belanger said. “For his time, that was huge. People don’t pay as much attention to this as, for example, Jackie Robinson — who is rightly considered a hero— but Richard Pryor isn’t given that same esteem because of his position as a comic. I want this inquiry to show why he should be given that esteem.

One of the main issues Belanger hopes to talk about throughout the inquiry is about the truths that arise in humorous ways, and how that may change people’s perceptions. Quoting a TED Talk given by Chris Bliss, a professional juggler, Belanger noted that if two people are discussing an issue with traditional rhetoric, they may be less likely to open their minds to different ideas than if they used comedy as a medium to exchange views on the issue.

“When people use traditional rhetoric, adrenaline races through both parties because they anticipate disagreement and conflict,” Belanger said. “But when comedy is used, endorphins are run through both parties instead, because they’re laughing and having a good time. In this way, ideas that you normally would have put a wall up against end up sneaking in through the back door. You become more open-minded to differing ideas when you encounter them through comedy.”

“Exploring humor through a focus on standup comedy demonstrates the value of interdisciplinary inquiry across the fields of communication and media,” said Renee Hobbs, Professor and Founding Director of the Harrington School of Communication and Media. “Many disciplines, such as film, anthropology, sociology and psychology, all have different ideas in regards to humor. We have much to learn from thinking about the art, practice and social functions of comedy from a variety of perspectives and academic disciplines.”

By: Kimberly DeLande