Attempting to create an ethnographic piece on the local comedy scene proved more difficult than anticipated, as standard aspects of field research were stifled by the nature of the environment. The attendance at the comedy shows was not massive, with the biggest event hosting no more than forty audience members. To be actively listening, reacting, and writing would have proved difficult, and very noticeable to the performer. Most of my notes were compiled in-between sets, as I did not want to throw off the comedian by visibly taking notes during their act. Admittingly, this was also so as not to gain unwanted attention from the comedians, who may see the notebook as an opportunity to rag on the weird student writing things down during their set. The research was conducted on three separate occasions, while I was filming a documentary with another student on the same topic. One show was at an actual comedy club, another at a student bar, and the last at a sports pub.
I would like to begin this exercise by acknowledging the irony of writing about comedy in the context of an academic setting. The act of writing down punch lines immediately strips away their performative dimension, and removes the most important aspect of the jokes: the comedians themselves. I am writing this in an attempt to explore the relationship between comedians and the audience members. Live comedy requires an active participation in a way very separate from many performance-based mediums. I will not be analyzing comedians’ material, looking for issues. I view humour as subjective, and although there was material that somewhat offended me, I do not reserve the judgment to label an act as bigoted, or ethically wrong. Fieldwork requires one to make adjustments to their own gaze to better absorb the information present. I attempted to dampen my personal sparks of defensiveness to give a more honest look at the local Ottawa comedy scene (to mixed results). The first piece entitled “Comedic Reflex” looks at comedians through a self-reflexive tone, but also focuses on their relationship with the audience, as well as the performers’ own reflexivity. The second piece entitled Laughing Pains removes my personal experience and looks at the comedians’ habit of displaying their weakest or most vulnerable personal moments or traits. I removed multiple gendered based pronouns from the second work, as I feel it allows one to view the research more openly, removing oneself from preconceptions based on gender.
The comedians varied, however general topics seem prevalent throughout the three shows: marijuana use, Donald Trump, racism, and sex graced almost every comedian’s act. With Canada’s plan to legalize the substance within the next year, cannabis is currently at a fascinating stage of being illegal yet commonly accepted.
“You’re high, aren’t you,” The headliner of the student show accuses me from the stage.
I was not. However I was two pints in, and my longer-than-average hair with my skateboarding apparel set me up to be the perfect candidate for the brunt of a stoner joke. Although I felt singled out, I did not want to derail the performer’s momentum, so without missing a beat I retorted “As a kite, Sir!” to a response of mediocre laughs from the audience and comedians’ table. For a moment I was separate from the rest of the audience, joining in as part of the performance as not only a laughing stock, but also a responder. I silently questioned my participation in the performance, wondering if I so willingly should have stepped across the line of audience member to focal point of the performance, even for a brief moment. Now they really cannot see me take any notes!
“Closing with cum on the face…. What the fuck...” The Sports Bar headliner mumbles to me. I wonder if there was some unwritten rule concerning closing your act with a bit about ejaculating, and that the middling-act blatantly ignored it.
Once introduced by the Emcee, The headliner then proceeded to take the stage and courteously tells the audience, “Lets hear it for the opening acts ay? They were great. Did some stuff I didn’t like, but they were great.”
He then closes his 25-minute set with an intense analysis of the difference between male and female orgasms, to massive laughs and applause. The competitiveness of this medium shines through.
“We did a comedy show in your hometown once.” The opening act says to me after the show. I tense up. My hometown supports the arts in ways unlike many communities surrounding Ottawa. However, we are still a municipality of under 5000 people, and suffer from many problems small towns have, the most prevalent being the lack of racial and cultural diversity. It is what many would dismiss as a ‘White Town.’ Aware of the kind of late-night crowd the local pub draws, I had a gross feeling as to where this was heading.
“Yeah, we had a black comedian in the line-up, and during his set someone yelled from the back of the bar ‘Get off the Stage, N….!’ But he handled it very professionally.”
Despite having zero association to that incident, I still felt the urge to apologize on the racist commentators’ behalf, as events like this can really lead people to make conclusions about the entire area. I look at my hometown slightly different. Comedy has a profound effect of evoking self-reflection in ways more subtle ways than the hometown story. In “Partial truths,” James Clifford views ethnography as positioned in-between systems of meaning. That’s the way I felt trying to blend in as an audience member, while still keeping record, and still trying to make connections. I felt in-between the comedian and the audience, as a sort of informant who unimportantly insists on reporting. The comedian themselves are reflective by nature. So should the anthropologists.
On the way out, an audience member shakes the headliners hand while he’s having a cigarette.
“Great set bro. The cum on the face joke man…. I’ll never get that out of my head,’’ he says as he walked away from the bar.
“Yeah that wasn’t me,” replies the sports bar headliner as he looks away, taking another drag of his cigarette. The audience member, visibly inebriated, misses the comedian’s retort and continues his exit saying nothing.
When I talked to comedians about my research, the question often thrown back to me was ‘How is this anthropology’? I would respond by assuring them that whether they realize it or not, they are actively contributing to a unique sub-culture of Ottawa. While conducting the research however, my focus began shifting towards the comedic device of self-deprecation and how it is utilized to cope and benefit from threatening situations.
“What’s the matter, West 49, late for your shift, are we?”
The comedian who took the stage was moving sporadically. Speaking with what many would consider an Ottawa-valley accent, a local twang that has recently gained broader recognition, with the rising popularity of the comedy show Letterkenny. The audience, small in size and not very responsive to the previous acts, were then subjected to the comedian’s crowd work. The crowd lit up, as though breaking the forth-wall was an extraordinary happening. Crowd work occurs when the comedian makes off-the-cuff jokes about the audience. While some comedians consider it ‘hacky’ to break the wall of perception by interacting with the audience, it is a trick that every time witnessed, it necessitated a sizable positive response. Even with the comedians making moot observations like pointing out which table is laughing harder would still earn a reaction. This is maybe because it is an inclusive means of interaction that feels very improvised. Although they maybe singling a person or group out, the reaction from the rest of the crowd seemed to always pay off. Insulting the audience earned the greatest laughs.
“Nobody who gets into comedy is in a good place.” Said one comic after the show. The generalization was interesting. It plays into the comedic stereotype of the “Sad Clown,” making people laugh yet unable to do so themselves.
“I’m the groundskeeper at a grave site, ‘cause you know, I have a degree in Social Science…”
“That’s the future,” said the emcee from the audience quietly.
The bleakness of life creeps in through the comedians’ self-deprecation. The performers would be the first to point out their weight, gawkiness, their meager sex life, their family problems, or their personal issues. Instead of hiding what many would consider their insecurities, comedians hold them high, and proudly.
Only a single comedian was performing at more than one of the shows attended. Their act was very similar to the set the previous month. The same jokes about Ottawa, not being a kid anymore, and parenthood. Accept for about the last five minutes of material. As the closer, they explained how for the past week they had been confined to the hospital for having a perforated ulcer.
“If I was tough, I wouldn’t have gone to the hospital. Thank god I’m a pussy, or else I would have definitely died,” which is said to a response of laughter.
The comedian was skinnier than their performance last month. The comedian never led on to the severity of the illness when we emailed, or when we briefly talked before the show. Instead, they reflected upon it on stage and attempted to translate the pain into laughter from the audience.
It seemed to be a constant within the comedy shows attended: Cutting away at themselves, or revealing preexisting wounds to earn a reaction from the audience. Many comics talked about how awful they were in bed, or just as a person. The act of exposing these wounds takes a level of bravery that many people do not wield on a day-to-day basis, so to hear someone say negative or reveling things about themselves outright, presented as truths earns a greater response. The act of taking personal injury, both physical and mental, and translating it into laughter was done by every comic. This in many ways drew comparisons to Ralph’s ethnography of a marginalized community within Chicago. The members of that community took personal injury, both incapacitating and environmental, and attempted to translate it into a source of strength. In many ways, the stage was the comedian’s recording studio; attempting to put down that one track (in their case set) that propels their career into the next level. Unlike the efforts made by many Chicagoans to better the community, Comedians seem to use their platform as a means of personal healing. They use it as a form of homeopathy that helps them deal with their surroundings, and given situation.
While initially attempting to focus on the Ottawa comedy scene in general, I became far more enthralled in the self-reflection of the comedians, and also the subtle ways they can turn the mirror on the audience. The comedians are in many ways auto-ethnographers, taking the time to observe and then share what they have seen and what they can deduce from it, and what it tells them about themselves. The comedians present partial truths regarding their own lives, and it is to the audience to decipher what they mean. They take an outsiders view and offer it to the audience. Like residence of the Chicago community, they take injury and translate into something else.