On the surface, comedy clubs appear to occupy a relatively straightforward niche within nightlife entertainment: they are spaces where stand-up comics perform to a live audience, and where entertainment comes in the form of well-executed jokes. Through his ethnographic examination of a professional comedy club in the Midwest, however, James M. Thomas contends that there is much more to comedy clubs than simply getting a laugh.

Thomas sees the comedy club as a microcosm of the larger nightlife entertainment culture – a venue where diverse people come together to actively produce cultural arrangements that are in some ways specific to that space, but in other ways reflective of the broader culture it is located within. In the context of Thomas’ comedy club, a triad of unique social actors (the comics, the audience, and the staff) help to (re)create a desire-based hierarchy where specific people – namely those who are white, heterosexual, and attractive – are privileged.

For instance, Thomas reveals how even though the comedy club has open seating, staff members routinely arrange the audience so that the people in the first few rows are comprised of straight, white, affluent-looking couples. Given that these were the only rows visible from the stage, this seating arrangement influences the night’s stand-up routine in ways that reinforce the venue’s desire-based economy. Thomas explains that comics (most of whom were white men) pander to this visible portion of the crowd by applauding them for their attractiveness, or reciting racist and homophobic jokes that they assume will not offend them. Not all comics accepted these arrangements and norms, however. Some made jokes that actively challenged the crowd’s demographic uniformity, forcing a sense of uneasiness upon the audience as they reflected upon this reality.

Taken together, these examples illustrate how cultural meaning can be actively (re)produced (and in some cases dismantled), all within the confines of a comedy club.