September 19, 2013

Comedians and Sociological Questions

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By Karen Sternheimer

No matter what your comedic taste, most stand-up comedians have one thing in common: their jokes are based on observations of human behavior.

Their observations sometimes ring true, or at least entertain others by the conclusions they may draw. Because of the context, comedians can sometimes push the envelope regarding the rules of polite social behavior. Of course they may offend some—maybe a lot of people—in the process.

Comedians are interesting to think about sociologically; what topics do they focus on? What conclusions do they draw?

In many cases, comedians use their perceptions to provide their answers to larger sociological questions; part of the pleasure of comedy is getting these answers, albeit unscientifically.

Jerry Seinfeld was particularly successful at making these observations and using them as the basis for his 1990s hit show, Seinfeld. Called a “show about nothing,” Seinfeld built plots around everyday topics people regularly experience but seldom discuss: waiting for a table at a restaurant, bringing gifts for the host of a party, finding a parking spot, visiting aging relatives, and even masturbation.

More recently, his web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee features Seinfeld talking with other comedians over coffee, and invariably the conversation drifts towards their observations about everyday topics. He and David Letterman talked about having children later in life. Chris Rock also talked about parenting, but focused on things you might not tell your spouse when a child isn’t doing well at sports. (Rock also joked that “kids need bullying”.) Larry David made light of his divorce and his obsession with health; sociologists study all of these issues as well.

As Janis Prince Inniss blogged about a few years ago, comedians often discuss matters often not talked about openly: sexual behavior, racial and ethnic stereotypes, gender issues, religion, and relationships.  Comedians might joke about groups in which they are members—Jews may joke about Jews, African Americans about African Americans, and so on—as well as their own relationships with spouses and family members. It can seem less offensive if comedians refer to stereotypes about their own ethnic groups, rather than others. It may give audiences a pass to laugh at stereotypes they might not otherwise be comfortable admitting to hold themselves.

We can learn a lot from both the kinds of jokes comedians make and how audiences respond. What kinds of topics frequently populate jokes? How can we turn those into research questions?

Take gender-based relationship humor: jokes where comedians describe a scenario from their own romantic relationship. In one episode of the Comedy Central show Inside Amy Schumer, Schumer’s character (Amy Schumer) has just had a one-night-stand with a man she met the night before. The episode shows their parallel reactions: Amy thinks she has found “the one” and tells her friends about it over brunch. Cut to a shot of the man in his underwear playing video games. Amy texts him; he looks at the phone and says, “Who’s that?” and ignores the text. He later hangs out with his friends in front of the TV, and when they ask what he did last night he shrugs and says, “Nothing.”

Later, Amy goes to a bank to find out how to open a joint checking account, a church to pick out a site for their wedding, tastes cakes for the reception, and even chooses cemetery plots. She calls him from the cemetery to make plans for the night and he tells her he doesn’t want to see her again.

The joke here is that women can get carried away in romantic fantasies about relationships that mean nothing to men. We might have similar experiences (or friends who have these kinds of experiences) so  this notion seems to ring true. This joke can form the basis of a sociological question: do women romanticize relationships more than men?

Rather than simply asking people if they agree with this statement, sociologists would conduct more in-depth research, perhaps interviewing women and men about their experiences first meeting potential mates and their hopes and expectations at the beginning. The results might be different from the joke—but the humor itself tells us about how we tend to think about men and women and heterosexual pairings.

What comedians’ observations can you translate into sociological questions, and then research questions? Doing this makes sociology fun—and shouldn’t mean you should laugh any less when you find something funny.


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A lot issues that were handled in the show have an immediate sociological importance. The universes of observational comedy and social science are in some sense proximate enough to make the building of cool extensions conceivable

Sociology can make even stand-up comedy boring and banal.

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