Parafictional persona in the comedian comedy

The primary aim of my PhD research project is to explore how the concept of parafictional persona can be used to understand the phenomenon of comedian- performers appearing as ‘themselves’ in fictional media texts. This phenomenon has a long history in comedy media — in television, for example, the 1980s sitcoms It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (1986–1990) and Seinfeld (1989-1998) are centred around the real-life comic personas of their creators and stars, Garry Shandling and Jerry Seinfeld respectively. In cinema, antecedents of the practice can be identified as far back as the 1960s, though it became more common in the 1990s and 2000s. This practice has continued to propagate across the American media landscape, and in recent years it has found increased application across a variety of media forms and genres. More recent examples include Seinfeld co-creator Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000–); Joaquin Phoenix in the mockumentary I’m Still Here (2010); Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip (2010–) television series and films; a plethora of performers including Seth Rogen, James Franco and Jonah Hill in This Is the End (2012); Zach Galifianakis and his guests on the talk show Between Two Ferns (2008–); and Kenya Barris in #blackAF (2020–), among many others. It can also be identified in other fictional or fictionalised media formats including improvised comedy podcasting (Scott Aukerman in Comedy Bang! Bang! [2009–]) and multiplatform web series (Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington in On Cinema [2011–]).

In each of the above examples, one or more of the main characters play ‘themselves’. Or, to be more precise, they play a fictionalised version of themselves, using their own real name, that draws from their real-life identity and professional history to inform their fictional characterisation. In Curb Your Enthusiasm, for example, Larry David (the character) closely mirrors David’s own professional history, with the in-universe continuity reflecting David’s status as co-creator of the popular sitcom Seinfeld, and the lavish show-business lifestyle its success affords him — including friendships and regular interactions with celebrities from the world of television, cinema and comedy (such as Richard Lewis, Wanda Sykes, and Ted Danson, each in turn playing lightly fictionalised versions of themselves). David’s fictional characterisation also reflects his real-life comic persona, with much of the show’s humour being derived from reference to his reputation as a prickly curmudgeon obsessed with minor social grievances. But although the character is closely modelled on the ’real’ Larry David, the individual stories and situations of each episode, and the narrative arc of the show overall, are primarily fiction. This interplay between real and fictional is the key distinguishing characteristic of parafictional persona in the comedian comedy. The self-character may be fictionalised to a greater or lesser degree, and the unity or disunity between the character and the real-life identity of the performer portraying that character is usually important to the mechanics of comedy production in the text.

Bradley J. Dixon
Bradley J. Dixon
PhD Candidate

My research focuses on persona and practice in comedy media.

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