Humour Theory and the Subversion of Dialogue: The Art - and Craft - of the Stand-up Comic

By:
Dr. Phyllis M. Wrenn
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What does it take to be funny, alone on a stage, with only one's stage presence and one's verbal communication skills ? Some of the best-known one-man sketches owe their success precisely to the artist's intuitive grasp of the pragmatic structure of human speech acts, and of the co-operative principle of bona-fide communication (H.P. Grice, 1975). R. Longacre (1996) proposes a "grammar"of co-operative or successful dialogue, which he applies in an analysis of the structure of repartee, the notional structure underlying a dialogue, whose organisation, if all goes well, follows a predictible pattern. On the surface, the scenario of a dialogue-sketch is trite: for example, client enters café, orders coffee, etc, etc; but the disfunctional client is also disfunctional as a dialoguer, and the real message is the act of communication itself. The "communicative disfunction" has diverse manifestations, for example, a "speaker's" rejection of expected patterns of dominance and control in speaker roles, or his refusal to obey the norms of acceptable exchange patterns, or, frequently, the interrelationship of the two. The subversion of dialogue (through the progressive breakdown of its supposedly co-operative goal) conforms nicely to the principles of incongruity, of the sudden psychological shift (J. Morreall, 1983), and, à la rigueur, of a double script (V. Raskin, 1985). I analyse the discourse structure of such sketches to show precisely how the artist contravenes our expectations, and thereby makes us laugh. This analysis of a specific type of humorous text, and its performance, is one case study in a major research project, whose goal is to develop a linguistic typology of a particular type of comic performance – the humorous monologue – that is an important aspect of the French and Québécois theatrical traditions.


Keywords: Dialogue Structure, Discourse Grammar, Humour, One-Man Sketch
Stream: Language, Linguistics
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: Humour Theory and the Subversion of Dialogue


Dr. Phyllis M. Wrenn

Associate Professor of French Linguistics, Department of French, Simon Fraser University
Canada

Dr Wrenn has a longstanding scholarly (and personal) interest in the humorous monologue, and has published several linguistic and more recently textual (discourse) analyses of French examples of the genre. After serving in the Administration of Graduate Studies (as Associate Dean) at Simon Fraser University, she returned to full-time teaching in the Department of French, of which she is currently Chair; she has been Director of the Department's annual Field School in Tours, France, and is a Founding member of the Society of Translators and Interpreters of British Columbia.

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