Deadpan has a long history in comedy. Robbie Duschinsky and Emma Wilson describe deadpan, in their article on the work of Lauren Berlant, as “a non-display of feelings” and “a mode of rhetorical delivery which solidified in the 1920s.” (185). Deadpan delivery is a subversion of the typical delivery of a joke, and the humor lies in that subversion. This connects with alternative modes of expression used by marginalized people to subvert cultural norms.
Flat affect is a concept that Lauren Berlant uses for cultural analysis, but it originates from psychiatry. Shared between different types of neurodivergence, such as autism and schizophrenia, “flat affect within this psychiatric discourse refers to an expressionless presentation.” (Duschinsky and Wilson, 185). Autistic and schizophrenic people may react differently to stimuli than their neurotypical peers, and this different reaction may be muted or subtle. This, along with the concept of a muted deadpan delivery, connects with Berlant’s cultural definition of flat affect, which is “the possibility of resisting dominant genres of sense and feeling.” (Duschinsky and Wilson, 185). Traditional modes of expression are thrown out the window and a new form is built with the few pieces left. In this way, many marginalized groups relate to this resistance of the dominant and subversion of expectations. This analysis shows why marginalized people like autistic and LGBT individuals would gravitate toward deadpan comedy, both in performance and in entertainment.
In 1944 when Hans Asperger was writing about autistic people, he defined one of the characteristics of autistic people as “the absence of a sense of humour. They do not ‘understand jokes’, especially if the joke is on them. [They] never achieve that particular wisdom and deep intuitive human understanding that underlie genuine humour.” (May, 436). Though this definition is incorrect, outdated and written by a eugenicist, it informs stereotypes that still exist today. Shaun May’s article, “Autism and Comedy: Using Theatre Workshops to Explore Humour with Adolescents on the Spectrum” details the difference between not finding the same things funny and not having any sense of humor at all. “By contrast, several people with autism themselves suggest that they simply have a different sense of humour.” (May, 437) May gives an example in the “satirical ‘Institute for the Study of the Neurologically Typical’ website developed by an autistic person called Muskie in 1998.” (438) The website subverts the cultural norm that allistic (or non-autistic) people are the default and their behaviors make sense in comparison to autistic behaviors.
Subversion of cultural norms is something that connects LGBT people across different genders and orientations, so it makes sense that this style of comedy would also appeal to LGBT individuals. Duschinsky and Wilson describe that flat affect “is poles apart from any concept of the absence of sense and feeling. Instead, it allows sense and feeling a degree of protection from their translation and depletion into established genres for interpreting the world.” Alternative modes of expression keep the ability to immediately read, understand and erase at bay. Gender non-conforming people know this well; expressing your gender in ways that are not the traditional or expected keeps people from forcing you into cisheteronormative boxes.
Overall, deadpan as a mode of delivery comes from a tradition of alternative expression. Whether alternative to neurologically typical, cishetero-patriarchal, or otherwise normative modes of expression, there is a history there.