Comedy as a form of entertainment developed in the age of the Ancient Greeks and was first defined by Aristotle as an imitation of those worse than the average (Hoy). Comedy has evolved since antiquity, but remains as the use of humor to captivate and cheer an audience. Integral to comedy’s success is vocality: how a comedian implements their voice in order to storytell and instill an audience with laughter. The comedic voice is a collection of individual, unique comedians who contribute their experiences and thoughts about the world around them in an amusing fashion. However, many comedians receive backlash for targeting sensitive topics as the basis for their jokes. In this context, voices are given a negative connotation but the reality is quite the opposite. Comedians utilize their influential voices to bring light to taboo topics which are not typically acceptable to speak about in today’s political climate. Thus, the comedic voice is important since it represents a challenge to moral righteousness in pursuit of an unfettered space to discuss previously illicit issues.
The comedic voice’s role as a social vice is first seen in the works of Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor; comedians that had a provocative style, pushing the boundaries of social morality. The voices of Bruce and Pryor are impassioned, aggravating, yet incisive, qualities that can intimidate an audience member. The irate material quality of their voices and derogatory subject matter can incite negative first impressions. This phenomenon occurs since “whenever we speak, our voices convey information about us as individuals” (Karpf). The unsuspecting listener may observe the angry qualities of these voices and immediately dismay the comedian as controversial or distasteful. However, with more examination and exposure to the voice the true importance and influence of the comedian is revealed.
Voice is revelatory of our identities, an actuality that comedians rely on in order to distinguish themselves within the the collective comedic voice. Richard Pryor built a reputation for a salacious and politically-incorrect style of comedy, targeting the police, social injustice, whites, and much more as topics for his jokes. However, under the surface, this controversial style was a way to shed light on the problems plaguing society of the time through the use of his expressive voice. Voice is not just a conduit for language, it is “our personal and social glue, helping to create bonds between individuals and groups” (Kreiman and Sidtis). Comedians target sensitive topics in order to resonate with audience members who may have undergone similar experiences and are unable to voice their opinions and feelings. Since the beginning of its history, comedy’s purpose has been “to hold a mirror up to society to reflect its follies and vices” (Hoy). Therefore, comedy provides a platform for an individual to speak upon taboo topics in society which otherwise remain unscathed. Thus, although comedic voices may display a vulgar facade, they are in fact a medium to connect an audience and call into question delicate social ideals.
The comedic voice constructs a culture; initial attempts to lambaste moral righteousness have paved the way for future comedians to tackle contemporary ills of society. The comedic audacity of Bruce, Pryor, and equivalents gave rise to brilliant comedic voices of women and people of color. The sexual candor of early comedians coupled with the women’s liberation movement allowed modern female comedians such as Amy Schumer and Sarah Silverman to speak freely about their bodies and sexuality (Cohen). Societal boundaries once in place were obliterated by comedy’s frank nature, giving women the platform to use their voices to call into question gender discrepancies in society. This multi-generational and multi-vocal authenticity has helped to normalize issues that were once considered taboo. Dave Chapelle, Jordan Peele, W. Kamau Bell, and other black comedians were able to follow the lead of Pryor and use their influential voices to further discussions on race, social injustice, and masculinity (Cohen). Orality in comedy is thereby meant to place societal issues on a pedestal, opening a humorous dialogue to diminish their condemning status.
Comedians will always utilize their voice to dispute topics considered out of bounds for moral society. In calling out what society deems as prohibited, comedians use vocality to create a collective bonded together by humor and shared experiences. However, the comedian’s role goes far beyond laughter. Inflammatory humor is a vehicle of tackling societal constraints by unrestricting dialogue, exposing hypocrisy, and empowering those without a voice. The comedic voice epitomizes the notion that our voices are revelatory of our identity, thereby providing us individuality and the power to impact the world around us.
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