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“Laugh or I’ll Die”: Facing Death on the Stand-up Comedy Stage

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  • Marianna Päivikki Keisalo
In this paper I explore stand-up comedy as a way of courting and repelling death through digression. The idioms of death are curiously present in stand-up comedy. When you do well, you ‘kill’, and when you fail you bomb, or as they say in Finland, you ‘die on stage’. This ‘kill or be killed’ ethos may be at odds with the idea that humor is supposed to be enjoyable, but stand-up comedy comes with risks for both performer and audience. What draws the comedian to keep trying, to face annihilation time after time? I suggest these high emotional stakes are part of the value of comedy, which may be at its most enjoyable when it provides a way to engage with fear and pain. Death is also a fairly common topic in comedy routines – death of a loved one, fear of death, etc. Thus, I present a view of stand-up comedy as facing death in both its off-stage and on-stage forms, in relation to the digressions inherent in comedy; it is an indirect form of communication, taking advantage of ‘non-linear associations’ that come back to punchlines, it relies on narrative leaps and requires the audience to follow. The ambiguity of comedy, the simultaneous presence of contrasting elements, creates and relies on semiotic excess. Comedic digression allows – even requires – us to find new perspectives on the imperatives of life, and a well-timed improvised digression can save a show going badly. The research is based on 20 months of field work in Finland, including becoming an amateur comedian myself.
Original languageEnglish
Publication year17 Aug 2017
Publication statusPublished - 17 Aug 2017
EventMEGA SEminar: The End - Sandbjerg
Duration: 16 Aug 201718 Aug 2017


ConferenceMEGA SEminar

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