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  • The Punk Turn in Comedy: Masks of Anarchy by Krista Bonello Rutter Giappone
  • Joshua Louis Moss (bio)
The Punk Turn in Comedy: Masks of Anarchy. By Krista Bonello Rutter Giappone. Canterbury, UK: Palgrave MacMillan, 2018. 254 pp.

In over four decades since it first emerged as a rebellious, anarchic subculture in Britain and the United States, punk has been framed as a destabilizing nexus between reactionary politics, avant-garde art, theater, and pop music. Scholars working in fields as diverse as musicology, visual studies, cultural studies, art history, and political science have mined punk's political, generational, and class divisions, probing fields of power and sociopolitical resistance expressed in an often absurdist, Bakhtinian carnival style. Dick Hebdige's seminal 1979 exploration, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, offered one of the first examinations of the punk movement in 1970s Britain. In the early 2000s, film studies scholars such as Stacy Thompson and Nicholas Rombes traced the legacy and influence of punk in cinema by examining movements as diverse as Dogma 95 and cyberpunk films such as The Matrix (Wachowskis, 1999). Raymond A. Patton's 2018 cultural historiography Punk Crisis: The Global Punk Rock Revolution explores how punk aesthetics emerged as a transnational resistance framework reacting to geopolitical Cold War and post–Cold War crises.

Yet despite this extensive interdisciplinary archive, there is little scholarship on the critical role of humor in the punk movement. This absence is [End Page 216] even more striking given the centrality of satire, parody, and tricksterism in punk. Joey Ramone's peppy pop beat ironically undergirding the nihilistic lyrics in "I Wanna Be Sedated" (1978), for example, or a drunk Sid Vicious's mockingly crooning an off-key version of Frank Sinatra's "My Way" on his posthumous solo release "Sid Sings" (1979) deploy humor as sociopolitical critique. Even band names such as the Stooges (referencing the Three Stooges) or the self-mocking X-rated comic sensibility of names such as the Sex Pistols and Circle Jerks highlighted a rebellious prankster outlook in which sarcasm and irony were used to upend and mock established norms of traditional pop music form and style.

Krista Bonello Rutter Giappone's The Punk Turn in Comedy: Masks of Anarchy addresses this gap in the scholarship. In arguing for the centrality of humor within the punk mode of address, Giappone explores the development of the then concurrent British alt-comedy movement of the 1960s and early 1970s, a style of comedy that Giappone defines as "altcom." Across nine chapters, primarily organized by theoretical concepts rather than chronology or subject matter, Giappone argues that anarchic British alt-comedy performers of the 1960s, with their emphasis on "ambivalence," were a precursor to and influence on 1970s punk as it grew out of the class-based counterculture reaction to the conservativism of the Thatcher years (128). Linking boundary-pushing comedy to the nascent punk movement, Giappone demonstrates how comic performers informed not only the rebellious spirit of punk music and style but also how punk audiences understood themselves as active participants in "demystifying authority" rather than passive spectators supporting the status quo (243).

Giappone makes this intervention by exploring how both altcom and punk are paradoxically situated between high modernism and postmodernism, reveling in disruptive contranarratives resistant to cohesive chronology and established hierarchies (1, 54). Altcom established a transgressive performance mode that subsequently opened the door for the punk sensibility to emerge. The Sex Pistols' subversive mode of address, manifested in its self-consciously constructed image as a parody of costumed disco novelty acts like the Bay City Rollers, had been established in the fringe, experimental British comedy performances of the previous decade (54).

In the introduction, Giappone defines punk as a rebellious, often schizophrenic art, music, performance, and aesthetic sensibility that emerged in [End Page 217] both the United States and the United Kingdom between 1975 and 1978. Giappone primarily focuses on the UK (2-3). Chapters 2 and 3 outline the anarchic, boundary-pushing sensibility of influential British comedian Peter Cook (1937-95). Combining historical research with textual analysis, Giappone shows how Cook, Dudley Moore, and other members of the cast of the popular cabaret-style Beyond the Fringe stage...