“The gendered experience of sexist humour”- New research shows how audiences react to comic Lewis Schaffer

Lewis Schaffer: creating a cult

Lewis Schaffer – a sign of the Thames

London-based American comic Lewis Schaffer puts himself about a bit… Well, he puts himself about a LOT in London. The Independent newspaper recently called him a “London institution”.

Week in/week out, he has been performing five days every week for quite a while now.

Every Monday for the last five years, he has hosted his half hour Resonance FM show Nunhead American Radio with Lewis Schaffer.

Every Tuesday and Wednesday for almost five years, he has been performing his hour-long (or longer) Lewis Schaffer is Free Until Famous show (currently at the Rancho Grill in Mayfair).

Every Thursday, he turns up to perform a spot at the Monkey Business comedy club in Kentish Town.

And, every Sunday for almost two years, he has performed his hour-long Lewis Schaffer: American in London show at the Leicester Square Theatre.

Now he seems to be cornering the market in being analysed by university students.

Liam Lonergan meets a man with answers

Liam Lonergan got First in Schaffer Studies

In February, my blog carried extracts from academic Liam Lonergan’s interview with Lewis Schaffer for his (Liam’s) BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth

In April, Liam got a 1st for his thesis. I posted part of it.

Then, last Friday, Rose Ives got a 1st in her Sociology BA course at Goldsmiths College. She has been following Lewis around and observing audiences at his gigs for perhaps two years. Below, with her permission, is an extract from her academic piece which examines how audiences react to Lewis Schaffer’s performances.


Rose and Lewis Schaffer in Edinburgh yesterday afternoon

Rose reacts to Lewis Schaffer at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013

From the three pieces of ethnographic data I collected in the field, comparing and contrasting and thematically analysing the three methods of data collection, four key themes emerged.

AWARENESS

When watching the reactions to the six jokes selected, the women in the audience looked around at whoever they were with (this occurred in couples and non-couples) before they performed any of the gestures I had codes for on the Joke Sheet. This did not happen with the male members of the audience who mostly maintained eye contact throughout and laughed openly without looking around.

If the men did look around at other audience members it was whilst laughing or to signal an inside joke. The women looked around at other audience members with caution as though they were seeking approval. When asked about this in the ethnographic interviews, many were surprised that they had done such a thing. They did not deny that they had done it (not in the way they denied the gestures described in Denial of negative reactions) but they offered no explanation for their own actions, although some offered an almost psychological explanation for it, dissociating themselves from the action in the process.

One woman in her late twenties answered me when I asked her about why she looked around before not laughing at a joke about having sex with a transsexual: “I thought it was fucking hilarious but I’m not about to go making a fool of myself and have everyone think I’m some woman who loves dirty cock jokes.”

SEPARATING JOKE FROM COMEDIAN

Lewis Schaffer performing in London last night

Lewis Schaffer performing for no reason without his shirt on

The data from which this theme emerged were the ethnographic interviews I conducted after the show and during the intervals.

The men I spoke to, and this was across all ages and regardless of whether I interviewed them in a couple or as single, spoke about the joke and comedian as a “He” – the joke was “his joke”, their opinion on the show was “he is funny”, “he is crazy” – whilst the women at the show, again this was across all ages but particularly prevalent amongst women under 30 years old, spoke about the jokes, the material and the comedy as a whole as an “it.”

One woman who was in her early twenties and with a group of female friends of a similar age said: “It was certainly interesting. I’ve not seen much stand-up like this, it was funny. He’s sweet. (Referring to the comedian)” and this is a good representation of the shorter conversations I had as some people were eager to leave the venue after the show ended.

The men in the audience talked about the comedian as though he were a friend and therefore spoke about the jokes with forgiveness, as though it were friendly banter in the form of “Informal comedy”(Mulkay, 1988) whereas the women in interviews, many of which were couples with the men, were reluctant to engage personally with the comedian as if to do so would be condoning the sexist jokes.

Most women avoided critical engagement with the jokes when directly asked and used measured terms such as “perhaps you’re right” and “maybe it was because…” whilst the men interpreted my questions as an invitation to critique or praise the comedian in absolute terms – “He’s a pro (professional)”, “He’s a good guy” – which highlights a great contrast in the gendered experience of sexist humour.

DENIAL OF NEGATIVE REACTIONS

Lewis Schaffer on stage in London this week

Lewis Schaffer performing for no reason with his jacket on

If the Approval section was the first step in the process of reacting negatively to a joke, the second stage was the gestures that I had coded on the Joke Sheet.

When reacting to jokes concerning the comedian personally – self-deprecating jokes about the comedian’s age or appearance – the women in the audience covered their mouths whilst laughing (this is one of the symbols on the Joke Sheet) as though they didn’t want to be seen laughing at the comedian. This gesture doubled as embarrassment, especially when coupled with looking away from the stage (also a symbol on the Joke Sheet).

The most interesting aspect of the reaction patterns that came from the Joke Sheets were the explanations that followed in the ethnographic interviews.

When I repeated the jokes I saw them react negatively towards, they denied that they had reacted in such a way, brushing off any words such as “sexist”, “offensive” or “taboo” with laughter and changed the words to “dirty” or “naughty” to articulate their thoughts. This showed how they were both embarrassed and ashamed of the sexist material as well as being embarrassed and ashamed of their reaction to it. This also approves the results of the humour and context work by Gray and Ford (2012).

THE PERSONAL TOUCH

Lewis Schaffer, shoeless man

Comedian Lewis Schaffer, not performing, with his shoes off

Although the focus throughout this research has been the consumption not the production of the comedy, it would do the data an injustice not to discuss the patterns of techniques the comedian uses and their effect on how the women in the audience perform their gender roles.

As a known friend of the comedian, the main obstacle of the interview process was attempting to get the participants to stop asking me questions about Lewis Schaffer. Both men and women (although the majority were women) asked me if many of the jokes he had made about himself were true – if he really was living in a council flat, if he really was a divorcee etc.

“The ironist insincerely states something he does not mean, but through the manner of his statement, rather through its formulation or it’s delivery, or both, he is able to encode and counter proposition its real meaning, which may be interpreted by the attentive listener.” (Nash 1985:52) or, as the comedian Lewis Schaffer explained it, “All jokes are opinion with deniability. If people actually thought I had sex with a horse they wouldn’t be too happy about it. As it happens, I’m not allowed within 50ft of a stable or Camilla Parker-Bowles.”

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