Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Communication Studies

First Advisor

Pensoneau-Conway, Sandra


Stand-up comedy represents a particularly potent form of rhetorical and performative criticism because of its potential duality. On the surface, a comedy set can look breezy and entertaining while containing a sharper, more critical message underneath. Like a fluffy, besprinkled cupcake hiding a potent antibiotic, stand-up comedy offers potentially healing insight under the cover of whimsy. Comedians have always utilized their performances to skewer those in power, but an increasing number have taken to the stage recently to address a particularly insidious social and cultural malady. The stigma associated with mental illness continues to limit the opportunities of those living with mental disorders, meaning comedians utilizing their performances to push back against this stigma represent a significant form of anti-mental-illness-stigma advocacy. In this dissertation, I argue that stand-up comedy is a uniquely subversive and resistant communicative act that enables performers to combat the stigma associated with mental illness. Grounding my discussion in literature about mental illness and two of the most common disorders, anxiety and depression, I construct an original performance criticism evaluative framework derived from three anti-stigma-advocacy techniques: protest, educate, and contact. While these techniques offer guidance for any kind of anti-stigma advocacy, I draw them into the realm of anti-mental-illness-stigma advocacy by utilizing my framework in a performance criticism of stand-up performances by Aparna Nancherla, Maria Bamford, Bo Burnham, and Chris Gethard—four comics known for discussing their mental health onstage. Moreover, I weave autoethnographic responses to each performance throughout my analysis to showcase the power of these cases of comedic anti-mental-illness-stigma advocacy to alter my perspective on my own anxiety.Ultimately, this dissertation demonstrates the potential of stand-up comedy as anti-mental-illness-stigma advocacy by chronicling my own growth in response to the work of these comedians. It also identifies aspects of stand-up that may be potentially useful to other kinds of anti-stigma advocacy. Additionally, the framework created and used in this dissertation provides both a rubric for future anti-stigma performance criticism and a blueprint for creating anti-stigma performance. Stand-up comedy is a significant performance genre and stand-up comedians can launch biting critiques that cultivate greater cultural citizenship for the marginalized and disenfranchised. A significant number of people will undoubtedly continue to spot the silly facade of stand-up comedy and look past the deeper insight, even though it can educate an audience, protest misinformation, and provide opportunities for contact between otherwise unfamiliar demographics. My effort here is to value stand-up comedy as a powerful communicative act because it has changed my life and will continue to incite change for many others. And that’s no joke.




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