‘Picking People to Hate’: Reversible reversals in stand-up comedy
Generally speaking, ritual reversals mean switching to the opposite of what is considered ‘the normal order’. Such reversals can occur, for example, in terms of social hierarchies in rites of passage, in action in carnival, or in the framing of action as ritual or performance. For comedic figures such as clowns and tricksters, reversals are part of their semiotic technique. By ‘reversible reversals’ I refer to the characteristic ambiguity of comedic performance and the ability of comedic figures to play with, combine, or shift between opposite traits, actions, and perspectives. In this sense, comedy can be said to constitute a series of reversals. Jokes can also be reversible in the way their outcomes are indeterminate: they may have a number of interpretations and effects but none are guaranteed. To illustrate this, I will demonstrate how reversals figure in organizing jokes and performance in a bit called ‘Picking People to Hate’ by stand-up comedian Louis C.K. Looking at comedic performance as reversible reversals is a way to show how humor can be efficacious and meaningful both in spite and because of its characteristic ambiguity. This will illuminate how stand-up comedy creatively engages its cultural grounds and show how the study of comedic performance can offer insights into the semiotics of performance more broadly.
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