Spatiotemporal Management of Stand-Up Performance: Narration and Gestures.

Author:Lindfors, Antti

Two constants seen in narrative studies relate to the spatial and temporal aspects of narrative events. In invoking narrated story worlds and making sense of experiences more or less separated from the present moment of narration, narrators, by necessity, coordinate multiplicities of both spatial and temporal dimensions--here and there, now and then. Accordingly, an apparent requisite of a competent narrator is the ability to successfully manage the relations and communicate movements between various spatiotemporal frames (Haviland 2004, 15)--not to speak of competence in cultural and generic knowledge, linguistic skills, etc. While true for narration in all communicative media, the said problem has to be formulated anew with a keen eye on varying modes and contexts; for instance, by taking into account the constraints and affordances of co-present oral performance in which the story worlds invoked are frequently drawn into the immediate here-and-now through the visual signposts of gesture and movement.

My intention is to transport aspects of this problem onto the study of stand-up comedy, a contemporary form of oral performance characterized by its twin emphases on 1) immediacy of being together in place and time by way of direct interaction, and 2) authentic self-presence of performers who "play themselves". Although stand-up originally emerged in the Anglo-American popular cultures of the mid-20th century, it is currently gaining ground in most parts of the world, including parts of Asia and Africa. Elusive as an object of definitive criteria (see Brodie 2014), the genre can be characterized as a type of performance in which the (primary) aim of the solo performer lies in cultivating personal (or rather persona-derived) relatability by making her audience laugh. Indeed, most stand-up comics would emphasize that successful stand-up requires that something "connects", resonates, and relates across performer and audience, where this "something" can be designated as equally affective and moral as it is epistemic and cognitive. In the main, such intersubjective connections and affective resonances are achieved through various forms of metonymic exemplification or allegorization of personal experience, whether through conversational narrative, topical anecdote, small talk, diatribe, etc. In this regard, stand-up centers on the crafting and fashioning of oneself into a unique personality who is also widely relatable; that is, into an individual type character (Lindfors 2016; also 2017a; 2017b; forthcoming).

To highlight stand-up comedy as exclusively verbal art is, however, largely inadequate. We are, after all, speaking of a genre of embodied performance of self-presentation in which the bodily and visual co-presence of performers and audiences is paramount. Indeed, in a questionnaire organized for my dissertation (in possession of the author), the Finnish stand-up comic Joni Koivuniemi posits that the best comics "know how to breathe funny", suggesting furthermore that breathing can be even more important for stand-up comics than "material" itself. However, while certainly taken up as an object of academic interest within the past few decades (some recent monographs including Brodie 2014; Krefting 2014; Quirk 2015; Thomas 2015), closer work on stand-up performances from the perspective of embodied semiotic interaction still requires attention.

Drawing for the most part from linguistic anthropology, narrative and gesture studies, as well as my own disciplinary territory, performance-bent folklore studies, this article will aim at shedding light on the areas of interest outlined above. It will do this by developing a methodological framework adaptable for the study of stand-up interaction through the double-lens of narration and gestures--and for any co-present embodied interaction verging toward conversational narrative for that matter. I will argue that an adequate take on the narrative and spatiotemporal management of stand-up comedy is accomplished only via recourse to the semiotic modalities of gesture, bodily presence, and movement (see also Enfield 2009). It is in large part through visual signposts such as gestures, posture, and choreographic movement that comics manage their stage space and interaction, convey viewpoints into the story worlds narrated, and so on--all the while enhancing the expressive impact of their narratives (Caracciolo 2014).

In particular, the article lays out a conceptual framework with which to highlight how gestures and movement participate in juxtaposing and mediating conceptual spaces and narrative perspectives in oral performance to precise communicative and artistic effect. While the general observation of creative play between perspectives, contexts, and frames as a central technique and aesthetic of stand-up comedy certainly resurfaces time and again in the literature dealing with this genre (e.g. Glick 2007; Brodie 2014; Lindfors 2016; 2017b; forthcoming; Keisalo 2016; 2018), this article demonstrates that a careful look at the interplay between verbal and non-verbal sign modalities provides an analytically sophisticated entrance into the same terrain.

The empirical section of the article, then, attempts a detailed application of this framework through an analysis of a sequence adopted from the full-length stand-up special Trying is Good (2008) by Josie Long. Long is a contemporary English comic working within the "alternative" strand of stand-up comedy, which is an integrative (as well as highly oppositional) category that subsumes various "indie" forms of the genre that are seen (or promoted by the advertisers and comics themselves) as deviating from mainstream norms of stand-up. The alternative qualities of her comedy are perhaps best illustrated by the fact that, in the present show Trying is Good, her props include hand-drawn diagrams on a big notebook, photos of various people and objects projected onto an onstage screen, a poster of the 14th Dalai Llama Tenzin Gyatso, and her own painted belly (on this particular bit, see also Quirk 2015, 30-35). Thematically she uses much of her stage time discussing her craft, her ideas and insecurities about comedy, about performing, and about herself--on seemingly stagnant self-reflection rather than on emanating a sense of pushing the show steadily forward with successive, clear-cut gags and routines. Further still, her performance style is poignantly conversational and structurally loose even by the standards of stand-up, meaning that she constantly engages with her audience one way or another--e.g. by rewarding "big laughers" and people "with a nice face" in the audience with satsumas--launches unexpectedly into brief narrative enactments, jumps whimsically from topic to another; basically, she digresses without end. One could say that she does not orient so much toward resolution or closure (in the form of set-ups leading to punchlines, most obviously), or plot for that matter. Indeed, one could describe her performance aesthetics through "anti-narrative digression" (see Frederick 2011), which, of course, only elevates her general sense of enthusiasm and spontaneity.

As also implicated by the above sketch of Long's style, the problematic of embodied narrative world-building is highly compelling with regard stand-up as a genre that constitutively plays with the porous boundaries of its form. Stand-up is strikingly characterized by its seemingly unmediated interactional form, where (prototypically speaking) the nodes of the author, narrator, and character are conflated onto a visibly present performer in the here-and-now (Peterson 1997; see also Genette 1980). As known, however, stand-up routines are typically scripted and (at least) mentally choreographed, honed in successions of previous performances. More broadly, stand-up performances are mediated and framed by the spatial and temporal boundaries and the textual and participatory organization of the event--whether taking place on a raised platform or in the corner of a bar (see Brodie 2014). Roughly put, 1) the spatial organization of participation that accords the performer her autonomy in the spotlights, 2) the continuous, extended holding of the floor afforded by electric amplification, as well as 3) temporal delimitation, are all material-discursive practices that participate in keying the event as a recognizable type of performance (Bauman 2012; Barad 2003).

Importantly, while explicitly marked by the infamous Western ideals labeled by Jacques Derrida (1976; also Nakassis 2018, 286; Taylor 1989) as "metaphysics of presence" and "desire for immediacy" stand-up also trades on their playful reappropriation and manipulation. Indeed, I suggest a fundamental trope of the genre can be identified in the playful thematization and reappropriation of precisely such self-mediation, where stand-up comics talk about themselves talking about themselves. How are perceptions, affects, and evaluations of immediacy and self-presence semiotically construed, then, in a markedly mediated and reflexive context such as stand-up comedy? And how does this all play out in interactional, narrative, and gestural detail?

Spatiotemporal Aspects of Narration and Gestures in Oral Performance

Stand-up shows commonly start from the shared interactional space of direct second-person contact, in the form of generic greetings, unsurprisingly. Although relatively open from the outset, alternative worlds begin to emerge the moment that comics opt for narrative speech genres: the shared interactional space becomes layered with separate storyworlds. (1) Even though subject to endless redefinition, narratives are here elementarily understood as representational artifacts that provide "cues to imagine a set of existents (characters, objects, and places) arranged in a temporal sequence of events and actions" (Caracciolo 2014, 23). These artifacts can be imaginary and fictitious, or nonfictional...

To continue reading