Comedy plays an increasingly central role in British cultural life. Defying the recent economic downturn, it has grow n into a booming multi-million pound industry, both on TV and on the live circuit. Despite this, sociology has traditionally afforded comedy little scholarly attention. Indeed, the art form has been largely omitted from large-scale sociological studies of British cultural production and consumption. Even in the most comprehensive assessment of British cultural tastes, Bennett et als (2009) highly significant 'Culture, Class, Distinction', comedy was either ignored or defined problematically as a ‘middlebrow’ television sub-genre.
The central aim of this thesis is to plug this conspicuous gap in the literature. In particular, it aims to examine the patterning of contemporary British comedy taste and understand how this relates to general patterns o f socio-cultural division and inequality. Drawing on a large-scale survey and in-depth interview s collected at the 2009 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, it argues that comedy now represents an emerging field for younger generations of the culturally privileged to activate their cultural capital resources. Using the innovative m ethodological instrument of Multiple Correspondence Analysis (M CA), it shows that such individuals carefully select and reject forms of British comedy, favouring the most legitimate ‘highbrow’ items and deliberately snubbing the most ‘low brow’. However, unlike most studies of cultural capital and taste, the thesis finds that field-specific ‘comic cultural capital’ is mobilised less through taste for certain ‘objects’ of comedy and more through the expression of rarefied and largely ‘disinterested’ styles o f comic appreciation. In short, it is the embodied currency of possessing a ‘good’ sense of humour, rather than certain objectified comedy preferences, that most distinguishes the privileged in the field of comedy.
Such evidence of comedy taste functioning as cultural capital is significant because it challenges recent suggestions that the British are becoming increasingly culturally tolerant and omnivorous. Instead, in the case of comedy, this thesis finds that taste acts as a powerful marker of cultural and class identity. Eschewing the kind of openness described in other cultural areas, comedy audiences make a wide range of negative aesthetic, moral and political judgements on the basis of comedy taste, inferring that one’s sense of humour reveals deep-seated aspects of their personhood. Reflecting on this, the thesis argues that future analysis of popular cultural consumption must be willing to examine not just taste for specific items of culture, but also the accompanying styles of appreciation that frame consumption. It is here, in the specific way culture is consumed, that it is possible to discern how contemporary cultural forms are implicated in the redrawing of class boundaries and the pursuit of distinction.