This course explores the role of comedy in shaping and challenging racial, gender and sexual identities from the early 19thcentury to the present. From black face minstrelsy to the work of more recent stand-up comedians, the course will seek to answer some of the questions posed by comic performers. For example, does comedy more often reflect gender, ethnic, and racial stereotypes or challenge them? How do we account for the persistent emphasis upon racial and gender differences? Can comedy be “politically correct” and still be funny? How important is “in-group” laughter to comedy’s success and what should we make of the uncomfortable laughter of those not in the in-group? We will explore the work of comics from Bert Williams and Stepin Fetchit to Freddie Prinze, Sr., Margaret Cho and Chris Rock. We will investigate the work of these comics through the ideas of modern thinkers who have written on the cultural history of American humor and the social and personal aspects of jokes and comedy. Throughout the semester, we will explore the question of what makes comedy in the U.S. distinctly ‘American’ and return to the question, “Is this funny?” And if so, “Why?”
Over the course of the academic term, students will write critical reviews of an on- or off-campus humor-related event; five to seven brief reading responses; and a 7-8 pp. research project and final paper on a topic of their own choosing.