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The cultural currency of a ‘good’ sense of humour: British comedy and new forms of distinction

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email: sam@festmag.co.uk

Abstract

Traditionally considered lowbrow art par excellence, British comedy has grown steadily in legitimacy since the ‘Alternative Comedy Movement’ of the early 1980s. Yet while there might be evidence of a transformation in British comic production, there is little understanding of how this has been reflected in patterns of consumption. Indeed, there is a remarkable absence of studies probing comedy taste in British cultural sociology, most notably in Bennett et al's (2009) recent and otherwise exhaustive mapping of cultural taste and participation. This paper aims to plug this gap in the literature by examining contemporary comedy taste cultures in Britain. Drawing on a large-scale survey and in-depth interviews carried out at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, it argues that comedy now represents an emerging field for the culturally privileged to activate their cultural capital resources. However, unlike previous studies on cultural capital and taste, this research finds that field-specific ‘comic cultural capital’ is mobilized less through taste for certain legitimate ‘objects’ of comedy and more through the expression of rarefied and somewhat ‘disinterested’styles of comic appreciation. In short, it is ‘embodied’ rather than ‘objectified’ forms of cultural capital that largely distinguish the privileged in the field of comedy.

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