How to do things with jokes: Speech acts in standup comedy

Debra Aarons, Marc Mierowsky


How to do things with jokes: Speech acts in standup comedy

In How to Do Things with Words (1962), the philosopher John Austin claimed that we use words to do things in the world, not merely to express a state of affairs. This proposal introduced speech acts, and essentially initiated the study of linguistic pragmatics. Speech acts in everyday communication include persuading, apologizing, criticizing, humiliating, complimenting and a host of other intended behaviours. Austin accentuated the idea of speaker intention, on one hand, and hearer’s response to that intention if successfully conveyed, on the other. We consider some of the speech acts used in the work of selected standup comedians to analyse the way they determine the relationship of performer and audience. We argue that there is a reciprocal relationship between the licensing of certain speech acts in standup comedy, and the success of these speech acts in shaping the social lives of the audience. We show that this relationship is at the forefront of standup comedy’s social impact and that it can generate heightened consciousness of the social and political environment of the time.  Finally, we consider the question of whether socially critical standup can have any noticeable effect on the attitudes or behaviour of both live and digitally mediated audiences.


comedian; persona; play frame; performance; standup; speech act

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