A Vulgar Art: A New Approach to Stand-Up Comedy by Ian Brodie. Jackson (review)
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A Vulgar Art: A New Approach to Stand-Up Comedy. By Ian Brodie. Jackson. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014. 255 pages. Hardcover, $60.00.

Folklorists are often tasked with making sense of nonsense, breaking down the nuances of everyday life and parsing through interpersonal, artistic, and performative communications to reveal the depth and meaning behind vernacular expression and the contexts from which they derive. Talk is, of course, a foundational component of human interaction, and humor can serve as a rich and complex dimension of talk. However, while folklore scholars have traditionally prioritized orally transmitted phenomena over those which are technologically or mass mediated, few folkloristic works have managed to employ a more holistic approach that extends beyond mere textual analyses of humorous talk; they have neglected the multifaceted, layered dimensions of cultural exchange at play. In A Vulgar Art, author Ian Brodie ventures where others have not, shining new light into how stand-up comedy serves as a powerful locus of folkloric communication couched in vernacular talk, identity politics, tensions of performance and reception, cultivation and construction of material culture, as well as the curation and preservation of content in broadcast, analog, and Internet media.

The book's title, A Vulgar Art, is culled from a quote by legendary stand-up comedian George Carlin, who reveled in the etymological origins of the word vulgar, noting its original meaning: "of the people." It is here, with this connotation in mind, that Brodie demonstrates how a folkloristic approach to the study of stand-up is so fitting. He begins by addressing the scattered scholarly literature on the topic of stand-up comedy, while informing readers about what folklore is, what folklorists do, and what constitutes a folkloristic approach to the study of his subject, before charting a course through a variety of both popular and less-heralded comedians' repertoires and the historical backdrops that led to the emergence of the stand-up comedy genre in the 1950s and 1960s. Brodie convincingly argues that stand-up comedy is a dialogic form in which performers talk with—and, importantly, not just to—their audiences; he diligently works to [End Page 393] lay the theoretical framework upon which the book rests, underlining the reconciliation of intimacy, distance, and shifting social contexts that comprise the cultural scene where stand-up comedy takes place. His emphasis on the dynamics of vernacular talk, supported by assiduous transcriptions and analytical annotations of joke routines, will undoubtedly meet with appreciation from oral historians. Moreover, Brodie's measured awareness of his readers is evident in the great care he takes to reiterate his methodological approaches and folkloristic background throughout the volume without obfuscating his subject matter; he moves seamlessly from considerations of live performance to the folk processes at work in broadcast and recording iterations of stand-up comedy, including its commercial distribution.

The book is laced with acerbic wit and meticulous analysis, giving readers a front-row view of how comedians use the stage and microphone to bridge sociocultural distance between themselves and their audiences, recreating the intimacy of face-to-face encounters in order to allow for vernacular talk to emerge. The book analyzes routines from a variety of performers to underscore the performative and identity delineations stand-up comedians forge, with close examinations of numerous routines from the likes of Lenny Bruce, Eddie Murphy, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, and Bill Cosby, as well as a series of revelatory interviews with Canadian comic Ron James. Brodie himself acknowledges that one of the weaknesses of previous studies of stand-up comedy has been the curious absence of interviews with actual comedians or their fans. Fittingly, his conversations with James, which are coupled with extensive background information on the comedian and chronicle everything from how he dressed and marketed himself to the different receptions that the same comedy routine garnered in different geographic areas, provide a unique oral history of the life of a stand-up comedian in all of its complex glory.

Although somewhat dense at times, and likely best suited for graduate students and academic audiences, A Vulgar Art represents an important and timely study of the stand-up comedy...


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