Category Archives: Ethnography

The Social Construction of Laughter

Stand-Up Comedy

by Jamie Carroll

Comedians need to be sociological about their stand-up sets to have a successful performance.  They have to perceive how the crowd will react to their jokes and how the crowd will perceive them.  After performing ethnographic research at a New York City comedy club, I developed the following tips for comedians.  These tips are based on my observations of audience reactions and informal conversations with comedians and staff members at the comedy club.  They depict sociological tools comedians can use to support the social construction of laughter during a stand-up routine.

Tip #1: Begin with a self-deprecating joke about your personal appearance.


Most comedians begin their act with self-deprecating humor that deals with the comedian’s heritage or appearance.  One comedian, who is pale and lanky with glasses, always starts his set with, “I know what you’re thinking, ‘Can this guy fix my computer?’ ”  Another big, Italian comedian starts with, “Hey tourists, this is what New Yorkers look like.”  One bald comedian tells a joke about looking creepy when he takes his daughter to the playground, then points to any bald guy in the audience and says, “See you next Monday at the meeting.”

This self-deprecating humor sets the tone for the show.  First, it connects with the audience’s awkwardness.  Instead of ignoring the fact that they look like they belong on the Sopranos or they look like a computer geek, they put it out there themselves.  They let the audience know it’s okay to laugh at them.  Since many stand-up acts are about the comedian’s personal life, starting out by making fun of themselves shows the audience that  yes, you can laugh at me and with me.  Also, the comedian expresses to the audience that he (the majority of comedians I observed during my research were men) thinks like them.  He understands how he looks to the crowd and wants them to know he is similar to them. “A performer often engenders in his audience the belief that he is related to them in a more ideal way than is always the case,” according to Goffman (1959: 48).  By making any physical differences explicitly clear, a comedian shows the audience that they observe the world in a similar way.

Tip #2: Know your audience.

Knowing your Crowd

At some point during a comedy show, the audience is required to respond to a comedian’s crowd work (speaking directly with the audience).  The MC, or person who opens the show and introduces the comedians, warms up the crowd by asking questions, such as “Where are you from?” or “Who’s married?”  He is a kind of sociologist, trying to decipher the age of the crowd and what kinds of jokes they might like.  Although most comedians do not tailor their sets to specific audiences, they will change the order and emphasis of jokes if they are getting very little response. They can quickly change their minds about jokes by pulling in cues from the audience.  By asking questions, comedians get a feeling for the crowd and whom they are performing for.

Tip #3: Define the fourth wall.

This is how close comedians are to the audience at most clubs, and how close audience members are to each other.
This is how close comedians are to the audience at most clubs, and how close audience members are to each other.

In theater, “breaking the fourth wall” is when an actor speaks directly to the audience.  The actor is usually on a raised stage, peering down at the audience sitting in rows a few yards away from the stage.  In a comedy club, the comedian is alone on a tiny platform, standing in the center of tables less than a foot away.  While theater audiences are not supposed to respond directly, the comedy club audience is an integral character within a standup routine.  As one comedian put it during a slow, late Saturday show, “I think I’m feeding off your energy, which sucks.  The other crowds tonight have been awesome, so you’re going to have to laugh a lot harder if you want me to tell jokes.”  Comedians need audience members to play their role in a comedy club: a subordinate actor who is essential to the outcome of the show.

Goffman speaks of the subordinate role comedy club audience members must take: “Subordinate involvements are sustained and muted, modulated and intermittent in fashion, expressing in their style a continuous regard and deference for the dominating activity at hand”(1959: 44).  Audience members need to give themselves up to the performance and defer to the comedian as the dominant actor, responding when the comedian offers cues and remaining quiet at other times.  By using crowd work, comedians can define the fourth wall of the comedy club and control the audience responses.

An example of how a comedian uses crowd work is when they ask the crowd where they are from or what they do, and quickly turn their response into a joke.  The audience’s job is to respond when asked, but be quiet when the comedian moves on.  For example, one comedian asked audience members if they are from out of town and where they are from.  Then she makes a joke about how tourists always walk too slowly in New York.  Although she asked an audience member to participate earlier, she does not want a response after her joke, other than laughter.  By starting an act with these kinds of jokes, comedians train the audience to respond to cues and uphold the norms of stand-up routine.

Tip #4: The comedy style determines the style of laughter.


Comedians develop different styles of stand-up that affect the amount and timing of laughter.  According to Goffman, “The performer can rely upon his audience to accept minor cues as a sign of something important about his performance” (1959: 51).  Some comedians have well-defined “punchlines” to end each joke, and generally pause for a sip of their drink, to glance at their notes, or wait for the audience to stop laughing or clapping.  For comics, these cues tell the audience that it is a socially acceptable time to laugh.  This is when you are supposed to respond.  The laughter is thus unified in these acts.  While “punchline” comedians are not guaranteed to have a positive response during these pauses, the laughter they do receive is clumped together, making it seem loud.

Another style of stand-up comedy does not have these triggers imbedded within the sets, so the audience response is more spread out.  This kind of comedian is extremely high energy and says a splatter of jokes at once, speaking very quickly.  (Think Robin Williams.)  The comic will pause for a sip of a drink or to look at notes, but these pauses are not at the end of defined jokes.  One such comedian relies on very selective audience participation.  He starts a conversation with someone, makes fun of that person, refers to a past joke, and makes a new joke in almost one breath.  Throughout the entire exchange, members of the audience laugh and nod along, looking at each other to say, “this dude is crazy!”  The reactions are positive, but there is no specific cue for everyone to laugh at once, so the laughter seems lighter because it is more spread out.

The last style of comedy is story telling.  These comedians tell long stories with small sarcastic jokes in between and a punchline at the very end, using a mix of high energy and punchline styles.  Most of the comedians I observed followed this style.  The laughter was scattered during the story and ended with the punchline.

Throughout my research, I could not ascertain whether one style of comedy was better than another, only that the style of laughter during the show changes according to the placement (or lack of placement) of punchlines.

Following these four steps will ensure that a comedian has trained the audience into the proper behavior in a comedy club.  The content of jokes, people in the crowd, and organization of the club also influence audience reactions, but these four steps are under the control of the comedian and can easily be adapted into any routine.

If Talk is Cheap, are Tweets Cheaper?

This post was authored by Megha Arora, a third-year undergraduate student majoring in Math who is also an aspiring sociologist, and co-authored by Eric Borja, a third-year graduate student in the Sociology Department. Eric was Megha’s mentor for the Intellectual Entrepreneurship program, and this post came out of their many discussions regarding social media as a data source.


According to the World Bank, there are nearly 2.5 billion Internet users worldwide[1], and according to Facebook’s Investor Relations site[2] there are more than a billion monthly active Facebook users. With more researchers mining social media for data, it is important to explore the scope of such a data source. On November 8, Dr. Shamus Khan of Columbia University visited the Ethnography Lab to deliver a talk on his co-authored article with Colin Jerolmack, entitled Talk is Cheap: Ethnography and the Attitudinal Fallacy.

The premise of the article is simple with important implications for the field of sociology: talk is cheap. Jerolmack and Khan demonstrate that “sociologists routinely proceed to draw conclusions about people’s behaviors based on what they tell us,” committing what Jerolmack and Khan call the attitudinal fallacy. Given the concept of the attitudinal fallacy, can social behavior be deduced from analyzing data pulled from the Internet, specifically social media? In other words, if talk is cheap, are tweets cheaper?

This post is divided into three parts, each answering one of three questions. First, what is social media as a source of data? It is important to think through what kind of data is pulled from social media – is it qualitative or quantitative in nature? Second, are methods utilized to analyze social media, even quantitatively, more like ethnography or demography? A large amount of data can be pulled from social media, but does that mean we must use quantitative methods when analyzing it? Finally, what can social researchers discern from data pulled from social media? Can social behavior be discerned from data pulled from social media?

What is social media as a source of data?

In an instant, a researcher can collect a large number of tweets through social analytic sites such as Topsy, then analyze the data utilizing statistical or computational models, such as agent-based modeling. A number of demographic characteristics can be pulled from public accounts. For instance, a person tweeting or posting a major life event can be recorded and then pulled. These methods can be used to see who is participating in social media, and how. With geocoding, the researcher can spatially understand social networks and trends by pinpointing the location of a specific tweet or hashtag.

Qualitative methods could be utilized to analyze a small subset of tweets. This could involve comparing tweets before and after a specific event to be analyzed, or observing discourse between users. Directly observing people and interactions between people is a form of qualitative research in a new field: the Internet.

Are methods utilized to analyze social media, even quantitatively, more like ethnography or demography?

These methods, though mixed with parts of quantitative and qualitative research, are more similar to ethnography than demography. Demography is used to reveal shifting trends of a given population by analyzing data collected through surveys and censuses. The gaze of the researchers is present whenever a respondent answers a question in a survey or census. In ethnography, people are examined over time in a field. Instead of taking a survey of a respondent’s answer at one point in time, the ethnographer has the advantage of placing what they say in the context of what they do. In the field, the ethnographer can see people “do things” over time and across a multiplicity of contexts. The Internet, then, is a new sort of field.

The Internet as a field, of course, is not physical; but, similar to an ethnographic site, the Internet – specifically its users – can be observed from many perspectives in many different contexts over time. The amount of time you are “in the field” is indefinite because when someone uses the Internet, either through tweeting or posting, this activity is recorded.

On the Internet, people can be observed for as little or as long as necessary, both retroactively and in real time. It is a field in which the observations of this data can be made at any time, and because of the technology now available, data is being collected faster than ever before. Collecting observations where people are not being prompted to answer surveys or interviews and are behaving without recognition of a researcher is much more similar to ethnography than demography. Essentially, the researcher can place what someone says (i.e. what they tweet or post) in the context of what they do. 

What can social researchers discern from data pulled from social media?

Within the field of the Internet, data is collected and behavior is observed with mixed methods. Aggregating a large number of tweets and analyzing them statistically uses quantitative methods; however, when observing real people, in whom attitudes and behaviors can differ, when the researcher analyzes and uses that data the methods are also qualitative. These observations of and between people express behaviors because attitudes are expressed when prompted but behaviors are observed. Using the Internet can allow researchers to observe people and interactions both in real time and passed time, within different contexts and from different perspectives, and use qualitative, ethnographical methods to extract behaviors from quantitatively collected and analyzed data.


In conclusion, we claim that social behavior can be deduced through Facebook posts and tweets because what people post/tweet is a close proxy of what they do. Because the users observed are not prompted to answer a series of questions and are instead observed from a relatively outside perspective, the collected data can allow the researcher to observe discrepancies between what people say and do, and provide a more holistic view of social behavior, one similar to ethnography.

Marcos Perez awarded NSF Dissertation grant

Congratulations to Marcos Perez on the award of a full year of NSF support for his dissertation research in Buenos Aires!


The grant will support Marcos’ research on the Piquetero movement in Argentina. His dissertation explores the processes that influence people’s experiences before, during, and after they are involved in collective action. In particular, he seeks to explain why some activists in the movement are able to overcome significant obstacles to participation (becoming, in their words, ‘iron fellows’), while others withdraw as soon as the relative costs and benefits of involvement change.

Kudos on your outstanding success in an extremely competitive grant competition!