Media and Communication Ph.D. Dissertations


Laughing at American Democracy: Citizenship and the Rhetoric of Stand-Up Satire

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Media and Communication

First Advisor

Gorsevski Ellen

Second Advisor

Butterworth Michael

Third Advisor

González Alberto (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Begum Khani (Committee Member)


With the increasing popularity of satirical television programs such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report, it is evident that satirical rhetoric has unique and significant influence on contemporary American culture. The appeal of satirical rhetoric, however, is not new to the American experience, but its preferred rhetorical form has changed over time. In this dissertation, I turn to the development of stand-up comedy in America as an example of an historical iteration of popular satire in order to better understand how the rhetoric of satire manifests in American culture and how such a rhetoric can affect the democratic nature of that culture. The contemporary form of stand-up comedy is, historically speaking, a relatively new phenomenon. Emerging from the post-war context of the late 1950s, the form established itself as an enduring force in American culture in part because it married the public’s desire for entertaining oratory and political satire. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a generation of standup comedians including Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, and Dick Gregory laid the foundation for contemporary stand-up comedy by satirizing politics, racism, and social taboos. The of generation of performers that followed in their wake, notably Richard Pryor and George Carlin, would further refine the form and reinforce the significance of its capacity to provide an outlet for satirical rhetoric. Drawing on examples from their satirical stand-up, I argue that the rhetorical nature of the form and its ability to serve as a vehicle for political satire provides what Kenneth Burke would call "equipment" for citizenship in a democratic society. Organized as a generic exploration of satirical stand-up comedy and an historical treatment of satirical rhetoric in American culture, this project demonstrates how satire and stand-up comedy offer alternative avenues of political expression and equipment for democratic citizenship.