Parafictional Persona in the Comedian Comedy

Type: PhD Thesis

Supervisors: Dr Alexia Kannas & Dr Stayci Taylor

Abstract: This PhD draws on the concept of parafictional persona to examine the phenomenon of comedians playing themselves in fictional comedy television. Some of the most acclaimed and influential comedians of the last century have played themselves on screen, including George Burns and Gracie Allen in The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (1950–58), Garry Shandling in It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (1986–90), Jerry Seinfeld in Seinfeld (1989–98), and Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000–). In recent years there has been a pronounced increase in the prevalence of parafictional screen comedy, from comedians such as Tig Notaro in One Mississippi (2015–17), Maria Bamford in Lady Dynamite (2016–17), Cameron Esposito and River Butcher in Take My Wife (2016–18), Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington in On Cinema (2011–), and Nathan Fielder in Nathan for You (2013–17). Within the fictional diegesis of each of these media texts the comedian appears recognisably as themself, using their own name and making extensive reference to their established public persona and professional history as a comedian. Alignments and disjunctions between the fictional characterisation and their established persona are then exploited for the purposes of comedy, creating a complex and ambiguous discursive relationship between the fictional and the real.

Kate Warren suggests the term parafictional persona to describe the practice of artists exploiting their recognised public persona in fictional contexts, and my research takes a persona studies approach to investigate how the comedian’s public self is constructed, maintained, and presented across fictional, nonfictional, and parafictional media.1 I contend that parafictional persona is particularly common — and has an especially long history — in American television comedy, due to specific cultural, industrial, and technological factors associated with the birth of television in the mid-20th century, and the emergence of social and new media platforms in the new millennium. To investigate this pervasiveness, and to survey the contours of parafictional persona’s development within the context of comedy in the United States, this thesis considers five case studies selected from across American television history: The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, One Mississippi, On Cinema, and Nathan for You. Through close analysis of these shows, and of the lives and careers of the comedians at their centre, I examine the effects of parafiction on the meanings and affects that can be read in them. I also consider the broader implications of parafiction on concepts of self, stardom, authenticity, parody, and reality in comedy. Parafiction is a highly self-conscious form of persona construction, and the ascendance of parafictional persona coincides with an increasing elasticity of identity in society as media technologies reconfigure how people — including comedians — present themselves to the world. By examining these comedians and their parafictional self-presentations, this thesis posits new ways of understanding the practice of being a comedian and contributes to the growing body of scholarship on comic persona, performance, and reception.


  1. Kate Warren, “Double Trouble: Parafictional Personas and Contemporary Art,” Persona Studies 2, no. 1 (2016): 76.