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Sam Friedman, Comedy and distinction. The cultural currency of a ‘good’ sense of humour

Samuel Coavoux
Comedy and Distinction
Sam Friedman, Comedy and Distinction. The Cultural Currency of a 'Good' Sense of Humour, London, Routledge, 2015, 228 p., ISBN : 9781138125902.
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1The contemporary debates over cultural consumption tend to leave a few disciplines aside and to focus, especially, on music, fine arts, and mass culture. Comedy is one of those ignored items. Despite the richness of works on the sociology of humour, it is very rarely studied as a cultural object. In Comedy and distinction, Sam Friedman applies a cultural consumption framework to the field of British comedy, grounded in the empirical study of comedy audience at a festival. The book has two principal merits. First, it provides a detailed picture of the consumption and reception of comedy, defining ‘styles of comic appreciation’ that differ widely from one social class to the other. Second, it contributes to contemporary debates over the actuality of the Distinction model. Friedman especially shows that omnivorism is not, in that field, a dominant attitude.

2The history of comedy in Britain (chap. 2) really began in the mid-19th century, with the liberalisation of theatre and the concomitant birth of the music-hall, a place of popular entertainment, distinct from classical theatres. This tradition of popular comedy has been transmitted under various forms to today’s Britain. In the 1960s and 1970s, it gave birth to stand-up shows – where a single comedian entertains a live audience with jokes – and television sitcom, two genres that were quickly industrialized. In the 1980s, the ‘alternative comedy’ movement introduced a highbrow, more legitimate version of stand-up, borrowing from the comedy of classical theatre, and characterized by its rejection of traditional humour and by its critical political stance.

3Today’s British field of comedy inherited from this history. The book is empirically grounded on a mixed-method study of the audience of Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival, carried out in 2009. The largest festival in the world, it takes place every year in august, and attracts a large audience as well as a lot of professionals. In 2012, it showed 970 comedies. While it has the reputation of being very open to experimental, alternative comedies, both historical traditions are represented. The methods included a survey of 901 audience members attending a comedy show, and 24 interviews with some of the survey respondents. Being primarily interested in the social differentiation of comedy tastes, the author relies on independent variables such as socio-demographic properties (gender, age, education level) and a composite measure of cultural capital (composed of education level, occupation, and social origin). With this last indicator, he divides the population into three categories: high cultural capital (hereafter HCC; professionals from a privileged background and a higher education), mixed cultural capital (MCC; professionals or intermediate professions, often with a higher education but with working class origins), and low cultural capital (LCC).

  • 1 Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: a social critique of the judgment of taste, Cambridge, Harvard Univer (...)
  • 2 Richard A. Peterson et Roger M. Kern, « Changing highbrow taste: from snob to omnivore », American (...)

4The survey primarily applies a four-point scale (likes / dislikes / neutral / don’t know) to questions about preferences for a range of comedians and television comedy shows. The multiple correspondence analysis of these variables maps a social space of comedy tastes (chapter 4). A cluster of ‘comedy snobs’ clearly appears, where tastes for highbrow – i.e. critically consecrated – comedians are associated with distastes for lowbrow comedians and television shows. Keeping one’s distance with respect to ‘bad taste’, as Bourdieu showed1, is still important in comedy, although the omnivore thesis2 states that tolerance is now the norm in the upper-middle classes. It is opposed to two other clusters, one characterized by taste for lowbrow comedians and shows and few distastes, and one characterized mostly by an ignorance of most comedians. One’s position within this space depends on one’s age and cultural capital. Younger and more educated audience members lean towards the snob cluster; older and less educated ones towards the traditional comedy cluster. Finally, people with mixed cultural capital are in-between, and declare tastes for both high- and lowbrow comedy.

5Friedman then uses interviews with audience members to qualify the various styles of comic appreciation that he found in the multiple correspondence analysis. He first analyses the main opposition between high and low cultural capital audience members. On the one hand, the HCC respondents emphasize cleverness and difficulty. A good comedy should be hard to understand: you need to be ‘working for your laughter’ (chapter 5). Such work is rewarded by what is learned from a comedy. Humour might be dark, and even painful. It does not, however, have to make one laugh. The amount of laughter, the physiological manifestation of comedy, is not a criterion used to assess the quality of a show, and might even be thought of as vulgar, as the most physical forms of humour. Finally, among HCC respondents, political humour should be progressive.

6On the other hand, a popular style of appreciation held by LCC respondents equates comedy to laughter, pleasure, and relaxation. Comedy must be funny, and the audience wants to get their money worth of laughs. Observational humour, reflection on daily life and ordinary situations, funny faces, and physical humour, are the most appreciated. Moreover, comedians have a ‘comic licence’: they should not be held politically accountable for what they say, and they especially should be free to transgress political correctness. This gives rise to jokes that may be thought of as racist, sexist, or homophobic, but are acceptable as long as they are part of a comedy show.

7Finally, chapter 6 is devoted to MCC audience members. Their consumption pattern appears to be omnivorous: they enjoy critically consecrated comedians and shows as well as popular ones. However, Friedman demonstrates that ‘cultural homelessness’ is a better way to describe this style. Most people in this category have been socially mobile, and the variety of their taste is a product of various socializations. Most have inherited from a working-class origin a taste for popular comedy, and have gone on to acquire a high-cultural capital style of comic appreciation at university, at their workplace, or among their friends. But they rarely benefit from such a wide repertoire; both styles are deeply anchored in one social setting. On the contrary, mentioning popular tastes may harm them in their network of friends and colleagues, and they may appear as snobs if they share their taste for alternative comedy with their family.

  • 3 Wesley Shrum, « Critics and publics: cultural mediation in highbrow and popular performing arts », (...)

8The last part of the book takes a brief look at the production side of comedy. Chapter 8 examines the repertoires of evaluation used by critics, through a content analysis of a sample of press reviews. It mostly confirms than the partition between two styles of appreciation is deeply rooted in British culture. Most critics apply the HCC perspective on comedy, valuing innovation and complexity over tradition. Friedman also defends the idea that comedy reviews matter to individual choices of attendance, but this thesis lacks backing. Admittedly, the interview respondents declare they take reviews into account, but it is often quite difficult to distinguish justification from actual causes when looking at cultural consumption. The author quickly discards Wesley Shrum’s conclusions on the effect of reviews on cultural choices3, a study that took the same Fringe Festival as its fieldwork in the 1990s even though Shrum’s methodology is, on this point, more robust.

9The last chapter provides interesting insights into the work of comedy industry talent scouts. We especially learn how talent scouts use images of the audiences, representations that include social classes and cultural capital, to select shows and comedians. However, this chapter feels quite disconnected from the rest of the research which is focused on the audience, and appears to be a preview of further research on the production side of comedy.

10Overall, Comedy and distinction is a strong, well-articulated piece of research that provides important elements for contemporary debates on cultural consumption. It should be read by sociologists of culture at large, and not only by specialists of humour. Friedman highlights the importance of ‘embodied cultural capital’: cultural capital is not only made of educational degrees, but is inscribed in behaviours and dispositions, in abilities to enjoy various kinds of cultural objects. Especially important here is the idea that, if what really matters in the stratification of cultural tastes is the ‘styles of appreciation’, then the mixing of genres, and omnivore behaviours may not be enough to undermine the Distinction model of cultural consumption.

11If the book’s argument is carefully defended, there remain two unaccounted elements that may nuance some of the inferences drawn from the Fringe audience to the general British population. In particular, one might wonder whether the description of an HCC style of comic appreciation would fit all HCC people. Firstly, there is the question of involvement. The Fringe is a festival; some audience members travel long distances to Edinburgh just to see comedy shows. Friedman’s respondents are, it seems, quite involved in, if not passionate about, comedy. But all highly-educated professionals with privileged origin are not. What could we expect from those who do not attend comedy clubs, but sometimes watch comedians on television? A second limit of the study of HCC respondents lies in the lack of professional diversity in the interview sample. HCC respondents are all students or professionals of the creative industries. This is not surprising, as the cultural capital scale used to classify them values, above all, the cultural skills related to occupation, rather than simply its prestige. However, we do not see any members of the economically dominant fraction of the upper-middle and upper classes. Where would engineers, corporate lawyers, and higher managers be in the social space of comedy taste? This seems all the more important given that some aspects of the HCC style, like progressive politics, may not be dominant in the elite.

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1 Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: a social critique of the judgment of taste, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1984.

2 Richard A. Peterson et Roger M. Kern, « Changing highbrow taste: from snob to omnivore », American sociological review, vol. 61, n° 5, 1996, p. 900‑907; Tony Bennett, Culture, class, distinction, London, Taylor & Francis, 2009.

3 Wesley Shrum, « Critics and publics: cultural mediation in highbrow and popular performing arts », American journal of sociology, vol. 97, n° 2, 1991, p. 347‑375.

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Samuel Coavoux, « Sam Friedman, Comedy and distinction. The cultural currency of a ‘good’ sense of humour », Lectures [En ligne], Les comptes rendus, 2016, mis en ligne le 05 janvier 2016, consulté le 25 août 2019. URL :

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Samuel Coavoux

PhD student in sociology, École normale supérieure de Lyon, Centre Max Weber. Member of Lectures’ editorial Board.

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