A sketch comedy of errors: Chappelle's show, stereotypes, and viewers
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Celebrities such as Halle Berry, Dave Chappelle, Kathy Griffin, and Don Imus have recently evoked public ire for making what some people have seen as tasteless jokes. Their notorious humorous communication shares two notable qualities: the discourse was mass mediated and the “jokes” were all premised on stereotypes. This two-part dissertation addresses the complicated subject of understanding the meanings viewers co-create with humorous mediated communication that is premised on racial stereotypes. I focus on Chappelle’s Show as my primary text of analysis, but the findings here have applicability to the wider genre of humorous mediated communication that is premised on stereotypes. In the first part of the dissertation I survey humor theory and humor criticism, noting weaknesses in the ways that communication scholars have previously studied humorous mediated texts. I then suggest that humor scholarship can be improved through two principal methods: 1. humor scholars of various academic disciplines need to use a unified set of terms that refer to the humor stimulus, humor motivation, and the possible effects of the humor, and 2. critics of humorous mediated texts need to approach them as a unique genre, with a critical lens that accounts for the polysemy inherent in many humorous texts. In the next part of the dissertation, I model a multi-methodological approach to mining the mélange of meanings in Chappelle’s Show. My in-depth case study of racial stereotype-based humor in Chappelle’s Show incorporates textual analysis of a dozen sketches, qualitative analysis of viewer opinions about the show, and a quantitative analysis of viewing behaviors as well as the relationship between viewing the show and prejudice. This multi-methodological approach helps better mine the polysemic meanings of the text because it explores the spectrum of the communication model from stimulus to receiver. I conclude that Chappelle’s Show can both encourage and reduce prejudice. While inconclusive conclusions are an anomaly in media criticism, I advocate the pursuit of such conclusions in humor criticism. Stereotype-based mediated comedic texts demand an exploration of their multiple meanings, not a definitive statement about how they should be interpreted or how they affect an audience.