(Published - 24 April 2019)
Many a true word is spoken in jest. And when it comes to conveying tough truths, it’s often best to do it with a laugh, as Dr Idowu Jacob Adetomokun knows. He literally wrote the book – or at least the thesis – on comedians, earning a PhD from the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in the process.
“Stand-up comedy has gained considerable cultural prestige, attracting diverse audiences and encouraging a pool of talent who relish exposing the contradictions and/or ambiguities of their society,” he explains. “As such, I decided to examine the trajectories of semiotic ensembles from various contexts that stand-up comedians exploited for aesthetic and communicative purposes.”
His PhD thesis, Exploring Semiotic Remediation in Performances of Stand-up Comedians in Post-apartheid South Africa and Post-colonial Nigeria, focuses on South African performers Trevor Noah and Loyiso Gola, along with Nigerian comedians Ali Baba (Akpobome) and Basketmouth.
Why these particular comedians?
“These are very popular and influential comedians,” Dr Adetomokun says. “They have a coy way in which they tell something to their audiences and make something serious sound funny.”
His background also plays a role, naturally. Born in Egbe-Ekiti in Nigeria’s Ekiti State, he attended Obafemi Awolowo University for his Bachelor of Arts before coming to South Africa to obtain his Masters degree in Linguistics and now his PhD, both from UWC.
“The thesis focuses on a range of topics that compare comedy to people’s everyday lives – and I also trace the translation and interpretation of sociocultural and political materials by South African and Nigerian stand-up comedians’ performances,” he says. “The topic has never been researched before and what interested me is how they convey a message through to their audience using laughter.”
The study uses the notion of semiotic remediation to examine the personal lifestyle, religious, sociocultural and political materials these artists repurpose in their acts. The analyses focus on the trajectories of semiotic ensembles from various contexts that stand-up comedians exploited for aesthetic and communicative purposes.
“By applying the social semiotic theory of multimodality, and the notions of semiotic remediation (repurposing) and resemiotisation to selected audiovisual recordings of the comedians’ performances, the study showed how the comedians rework verbal language, images, socio-political discourses and other semiotic materials for new meanings.
It also found that even where the material is the same, the performances differed in terms of linguistic and non-linguistic choices, gestures, stance and movements – all of which are used to localise, represent and re-contextualise the material for a particular audience.
“All the spoken texts, all the non-linguistic modes: gestures, stance, movements, running on stage, postures, mimicking and others, perform vital roles in re-contextualising meanings in stand-up comedy performance,” notes Dr Adetomokun. “I also trace the translation and interpretation of sociocultural and political materials by South African and Nigerian stand-up comedians’ performances.”
Thus, the comedians utilised these modes to translate semiotic materials they draw from personal lifestyle, religious, political and social sources to communicate different meanings in the comedic contexts. They also categorically or artistically express their opinions and cross cultural taboos and boundaries with no backlash.
The study opens up a new avenue to study stand-up comedy, drama, opera and related literary works from a social semiotic approach to multimodality.
So what’s next for this comedic linguist?
“I’m going to be contributing to knowledge by teaching, researching and publishing articles,” says Dr Adetomokun. “I hope one day to attain a position of influence that will allow me to make a positive impact in the lives of many people.”