Set-Up and Punchline as Figure and Ground

Publikation: Working paperForskning

    Marianna Päivikki Keisalo
Set-ups and punchlines are the basic elements of stand-up comedy bits. Generally speaking, the set-up puts forth a situation or an idea, on which the punchline provides a new, sometimes radically altered, perspective. Ideally, this twist or reversal creates a dialectical relation of tension between the two that cannot be resolved by appeal to either set-up or punchline, but traps thought between them in an ‘epistemological problem’ as comedian Louis CK put it. For comedians, set-ups and punchlines are basic tools, practical and concrete ways to create and organize material. They are also familiar to humor theorists. One of the main theories of humor focuses on incongruity: jokes involve bringing together elements that don’t seem to belong together. However, incongruity by itself is not enough to make something funny; the elements need to be related in a more precise way so as to open up a range of imaginative possibilities between them, enabling reflexive digressions. In this paper, I offer an analysis of how a set-up and punchline relate to each other as a reversible figure-ground pair (in the sense of Roy Wagner). Through exploring the semiotic relations in specific examples of comedy bits I will show how incongruities can be evoked and calibrated, and discuss how the bit may be related further through figure-ground relations to other elements, such as the persona of the comedian, current events, or cultural conventions. The research is based on 20 months of ethnographic field work in Finland, including becoming an amateur comedian myself.
UdgiverOpen Anthropology Cooperative
StatusUdgivet - 19 mar. 2018

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