- Working to Laugh: Assembling Difference in American Stand-Up Comedy Venues by James M. Thomas
In a field saturated with hermeneutical accounts of why stand-up comics do as they do, how their discourse functions, and the political efficacy of their work, James M. Thomas's Working to Laugh is a welcome re-training of the scholarly [End Page 142] lens. His focus on the behind-the-scenes contribution of the urban nightlife spaces that harbor comedians—bars, clubs, comedy shops, cafes—draws attention to the ways in which such places (and the personalities who manage, operate, and patronize them) affect which comics go on stage, the type of material performed, and how much laughter is elicited. In short, Thomas argues that venues for comedy tend to reproduce a heteronormative, racial, and gendered social order because of their relationship with capitalism. In order to sell leisure hour "good times," as he calls the pleasure of watching stand-up, venues arrange their entire experience—from the people who are allowed into the building and what they're wearing to the types of beer and advertisements around the bar—in such a way that desires are produced that can then be fulfilled through financial or social investment. Thomas's ethnographic work surveys two venues: a mainstream, well-known club and an alternative, subcultural dive bar. He argues that both structure aversion to subversive or contentious political comedy into their business operations.
Working to Laugh begins with an introduction to Thomas's project, and then describes the ins and outs of each venue in Chapter 2. Chapters 3 and 4 provide an analysis of affective labor in both sites. Chapter 5 discusses how order is shaped and maintained in the stand-up world; Chapter 6 reflects on how stand-up, urban nightlife, and affect production interweave. The final two chapters offer an alternative account of how a nightlife space can be produced, and of how we might better analyze and attend to such spaces.
Thomas's text, though occasionally repetitive, is well-written and describes his sociological study, methods, and results vividly. His forceful but tempered attention to social inequalities, which I suspect stems from his academic background in race and women's studies, is an ever-present companion in this book's scrutiny of American comedy. But it is his serious theoretical investment and interest in affect and assemblage theory that really makes this book unique. His discussions of how affect is produced, how it is translated as "good times," and how participants relate to it—particularly in Chapters 3, 5, and 6—sketch a way of understanding how the stand-up medium usually persists in reinforcing hegemonic norms, despite its critical and countercultural potential. In showing that commercial nightlife venues are affective economies (i.e., those that traffic on the production, consumption, and exchange of behavior-influencing impulses like desire), Thomas articulates the relationship between affective labor and environment in a way that renders the usually invisible at last visible. And his diligent adherence to Deleuze and Guattari's assemblage theory—which manifests in Thomas's [End Page 143] ethnographic elaborations of how spaces, people, ideologies, etc., all come together—provides readers with a useful way of understanding the terrain of affective-cultural assemblage that is the comedy venue and comic event. One of Thomas's introductory claims is that stand-up represents "a diverse encounter between heterogeneous logics, practices, and expressions that produces racial and heteronormative order, as well as the potential to upset them" (3, original emphasis); by the end of the book, not only is this claim thoroughly examined, but it also is difficult to deny.
In his focus on venues, Thomas has perhaps necessarily suspended the usual scholarly investigation into what he describes as comedy's interiority (i.e., the comic, his or her discourse, the material, its motivations) in order to put the comedy stage on stage. Nevertheless, reincorporating interiorities into Working to Laugh's assemblage would further nuance the study. When cited, Thomas's analyses of comic bits...