May/June 2015 Issue • Volume 43 • Issue 4

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The Comedy of Sociology

Nate Dern, Columbia University;
Funny Or Die writer; author of
In Case Of Fire, Use Stairs

Nate Dern

My favorite sociologists always seem to end up having a good sense of humor, and my favorite comedians always seem to be pretty good amateur sociologists. I don’t think this is by chance. The Joan Rivers one-liner “No man will ever put his hand up your dress looking for a library card” could easily be an epigraph for a work on gender studies, and I have to imagine that Howie Becker had a grin on his face when he first handed in, “Becoming a Marihuana User” (1953).

Sociology lends itself to comedy, and, I believe, the reverse to be true as well. Given this, I feel lucky to be at the intersection of these modes of thought, as both a Columbia sociology doctoral student studying the New York City comedy scene as well as a writer for the comedy website “Funny Or Die.”

To see how comedy and sociology complement each other, let’s first start with the compliment “well observed.” Whether a remark about social life is a comedian’s punchline or a sociologist’s research conclusion, saying that it is “well observed” is one of the highest forms of praise in both fields. For something to feel “well observed,” it must say something that is simultaneously so true that everyone instantly recognizes it as such, yet somehow paradoxically still seems fresh and new. In many ways this is the ultimate goal of both sociologist and comedian alike.

It’s no accident that the genre of “observational” stand-up comedy (i.e., Seinfeld) is one of the most popular forms, and for many people the Platonic ideal of what a comedian does.

Perhaps future dissertation committees can take a note
from comedian nomen­clature and incorporate “hack” into their feedback. ‘So basically your argument is that social systems tend to reproduce themselves? Hmm, that’s a little hack,
don’t you think?’

Nothing New

At the opposite end of the spectrum of the “well observed” compliment are the many criticisms that you can lay against a comedian. While the general public might think the worst insults they could levy against a comic are “offensive,” or “stupid,” or even “not funny,” among comics none of these sting as much as the criticism that you aren’t doing anything new, that you’re material is “hack.” From the word “hackneyed,” it is the one thing that all the working comics I know today want to avoid more than anything else. Even if your act gets laughs, if other comedians think your tired old joke about a nagging girlfriend is hack, then your professional reputation is sunk.

Something similar is true in sociology, as I learned last year during my dissertation proposal process. Early on, my committee gave me feedback along the lines of:

In other words, original drafts of my proposal were hack. Perhaps future dissertation committees can take a note from comedian nomenclature and incorporate “hack” into their feedback. “So basically your argument is that social systems tend to reproduce themselves? Hmm, that’s a little hack, don’t you think?”

Societal Gadfly

Shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report have shown the important role that comedy can have in shaping discourse around important issues. More recently, John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight has taken this a step further by creating extensively researched pieces that even further demonstrate the fruitfulness of this union, by creating a sort of hybrid of investigative journalism, sociology, and comedy.

At their worst, comedy news hybrids were just preaching to the choir, such as calling Fox News dumb to an audience of people who already thought that but applauded anyway. But at their best, they made well observed remarks that showed us something about society that we nearly knew but needed someone to articulate.

Comedy sites like The Onion, CollegeHumor, and Funny Or Die are also at their best when they occupy a similar role of societal gadfly. It was in my capacity of writing for Funny Or Die that Footnotes Managing Editor Johanna Olexy reached out to me to write this article. She has seen a video that I co-wrote called “10 Hours of Walking In NYC as a Man.” The video received more than 6 million views online, was featured on ABC’s The View, and was nominated for a Webby Award for Best Writing. It was a parody of a video making its way around the blogosphere last fall, “10 Hours of Walking In NYC as a Woman,” which was meant to be a provocative demonstration of the frequency of catcalls a woman receives on a daily basis. We appreciated the goal of bringing attention to the issue of gendered street harassment and sought to amplify its message through parody. We showed a series of exaggerated instances of privilege being lavished upon a white man as he walked around the streets of New York “Hey buddy, want to network with me?”; “You look really desirable but I’m not going to do anything about it because I respect your privacy!”

In both sociology and comedy, we all strive for the deceptively simple and frustratingly difficult goal of saying something that is true yet not cliché. Let me be clear: our parody video is not the example par excellence of this goal of originality and truth-speaking. However, when Olexy relayed to me her suspicion that a sociologist might be behind the video, I felt honored and thought it was perhaps a sign that our video’s intention was at least aiming in the right direction.

I have a book of comedic essays and stories being published next year and hopefully my dissertation on the performance of gender in comedy is on the way (note to my adviser: it will definitely be coming out next year). Despite quite different intended audiences, I have the same lofty goal for each: that a reader accepts my writing as true. I will not achieve this goal. Not completely anyway. And, I might fail spectacularly. But as far as goals-to-fail-spectacularly-at go, it is one of the better ones that I have come across, and it’s my work in the intersection of sociology and comedy that has made this, for me, the ultimate (and enjoyable) goal to strive for.

Even if I haven’t convinced you how comedy contributes to sociology and vice-versa, I can at least leave you with this last observation about the connection. Here is a social fact based on personal experience, careful participant observation, and a log-linear analysis of categorical frequency: having a sense of humor about grad school and academia makes the whole endeavor of being a sociologist a lot more fun.


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