The Linguistics of Stand-Up Comedy Project

Which linguistic techniques make for an exceptional stand-up comedy performance?

In order to arrive at an answer to this question, the goal for our research project is to identify the linguistic techniques that are employed in two of the most successful stand-up comedy performances of all-time, Dave Chappelle’s (2000) “Killin’ Them Softly” and Eddie Murphy’s (1983) “Delirious”. We will watch each of these performances and apply transcription conventions from discourse analysis to provide thoroughly annotated transcripts of these performances. After we transcribe each performance, we will analyze the transcripts for linguistic properties of interest, such as the use of wordplay, repetition, hyperbole, ridicule, paralanguage, and direct address to the audience during stand-up comedy performances. By doing this, we will contribute to linguistic and psychological research on stand-up comedy in at least two important ways: (1) we will provide the first professionally annotated transcripts for Dave Chappelle’s (2000) “Killin’ Them Softly” and Eddie Murphy’s (1983) “Delirious” (other transcripts exist, but they are for a general rather than scholarly audience and so are all missing the annotation techniques used by professional linguists), (2) we will identify and quantify the major linguistic techniques used in these top rated stand-up comedy performances, and thereby contribute to the general scientific understanding of which linguistic features contribute to exceptional stand-up comedy performances. The goal is to publish the results from our research project in a scholarly journal such as Humor: International Journal of Humor Research.

The doctoral dissertation from Jeannine Schwarz is very useful for the purposes of our project, so we will use section 17 to get familiar with transcript conventions and see her example of how to transcribe Jerry Seinfeld’s (1998) “I’m Telling You for the Last Time”. We will practice transcribing portions of Jerry Seinfeld’s (1998) performance first, before we transcribe Dave Chappelle’s and Eddie Murphy’s performances, to ensure that we are comfortable and consistent with our transcription techniques. After we have practiced and checked our transcription conventions on Seinfeld’s (1998) performance, we will move on to transcribe Dave Chappelle’s (2000) and Eddie Murphy’s (1983) performances. We will each transcribe our assigned performance on our own (AJ and JC will work on Dave Chappelle, and JT and KP will work on Eddie Murphy), then exchange transcriptions with your research partner for double-checking. Once our transcripts converge to a near-perfect agreement, I will prepare the finalized version of the transcripts for linguistic analyses. In her dissertation, Jeannine Schwarz mentions several features involved in verbal humor, so we can draw upon this work to look for specific features of interest in Dave Chappelle’s and Eddie Murphy’s performances. We will identify and quantify some of the most important features from Dave Chappelle’s and Eddie Murphy’s performances, and offer some discussion and focused analyses of several specific sections of their performances. Finally, we will draw upon psychological theories of humor to describe the mechanisms involved in several particularly funny moments in these comedic performances (for an introductory text on the psychology of humor, see below; Martin & Ford 2018).

The most time-consuming part of the project is learning the transcription conventions, practicing on Seinfeld’s (1998) performance until you feel comfortable, and then transcribing your assigned comedic performance. But since large sections of the performances have been roughly transcribed for us already, the amount of work is actually very manageable for a summer project. It might take you several full weekends to carefully transcribe a full 1 hour performance, but considering how much time is involved in other subject-based research projects, linguistics projects like this are relatively straightforward. The great thing is we don’t have to recruit participants, wait for IRB approval, and other inconveniences that are involved with subject-based studies, so how long this project takes to complete is very much up to us.

The minimum goal for this summer is to complete this transcription project for Dave Chappelle’s (2000) “Killin’ Them Softly” and Eddie Murphy’s (1983) “Delirious”. If we are productive enough to complete this well before the summer ends, we may have time to transcribe another stand-up comedy performance. Below I have provided links to the best rated stand-up comedy performances on IMDb, so moving forward we can study any of these successful performances for linguistic features of interest. Since the IMDb list of best rated specials mostly includes performances by men, below I have also provided an additional link to the best rated stand-up comedy performances by women.

In the excellent introductory book on the psychology of humor by Martin and Ford (2018), they explain how the psychology of humor is a young and rich area for psychological research. They also suggest that many future MA theses and PhD dissertations can be based on research of this kind. Our goal is to have fun and produce an nice piece of original scholarship by the end of the summer, but who knows this kind of research may also stimulate some good ideas for your future careers or graduate school.

Here are some resources that we will be using for our stand-up comedy project.