Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in English



First Advisor

Renee Hobbs


Stand-up comedians are rhetors who use humor as a rhetorical tool to inform and persuade mass audiences in the classical rhetorical tradition. In this dissertation, I work to recover the rhetorical motives of stand-up comedy, just as rhetoric and composition scholars before me have reread and recovered the legacy of the Sophists. To that end, I align stand-up comedians first with the historical heritage of Sophists and jesters, and then with the more contemporary tradition of public intellectuals and social activists. Using excerpts from stand-up comedy performances, I demonstrate how stand-up comedians are able to persuade and educate with humor. Moreover, I argue that stand-up comedians represent a shift in access to messages, away from the prerequisite of formal education required by many forms of rhetoric and toward a more innately compelling method of information sharing, available to wide, diverse audiences.

I ask the overarching question: What kinds of messages are stand-up comedians sharing - about what, to whom, and how? To answer, I’ve used two data sources as evidence: (1) analysis of stand-up performances, and (2) interviews, both recorded interviews I’ve studied as well as those I’ve conducted myself. I’ve anchored my arguments about the important role of stand-up comedians to an evolutionary theory of humor recently advanced by scholars who believe humor is a computational tool humans have developed in order to detect and correct errors in their thinking. With that explanation in mind, the work of stand-up comedians starts looking less like jokes for joking’s sake and more like an intentional, effective, and enjoyable form of rhetorical persuasion.