Theses Doctoral

Improvising Humor: An Ethnography of Comedy Theater

Dern, Nathan James

This dissertation is a qualitative sociological account of how adults involved in the play of improvisational comedy theatre use gender in their performance. I take play seriously as an important frame of social life where culture is actively maintained, created and put on display. My approach is a micro-interactional one analyzing moments of humor dealing with social categories via video recordings. As my case study I use performances of improvisational comedy theatre at the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) Theatre in New York City, one of the world’s premier improv comedy theatres, to observe adults actively engaging in play with each other, a space where men find disproportionate institutional success. Building on the frame theory of Cecilia Ridgeway, I look at when gender stereotypes are invoked in creating spontaneous scenes of human interaction, and in so doing, to what extent performers are able to work through “straitjackets” of social conventions, focusing on the distinction between scenes making fun of sexism verse scenes that are merely sexist. I look at the ways that though people occupy a role, there is room for them to improvise within that role, adopting different strategies for comedic success. To this end, I conclude by comparing Shamus Khan’s range of masculine expressional opportunities theory, as presented in his work Privilege, with Robb Willer’s account of the masculine overcompensation thesis, arguing that the way in which male presenting improvisers are able to adopt the comedic strategies of minority groups under the guise of irony, thereby securing that the number of expressional opportunities available to them is greater than other groups, ensures the continuation of their dominance.


  • thumnail for Dern_columbia_0054D_14575.pdf Dern_columbia_0054D_14575.pdf application/pdf 11.6 MB Download File

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Khan, Shamus
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 14, 2018