This seminar explores the role of comedy in shaping and challenging racial, immigrant, gender and sexual identities from the late 19th century 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 social questions posed by these 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 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.
This course is not a survey of comedy in the U.S. and cannot cover the entire history of major comedians and genres of comedy. Neither does it deal significantly with literary humor. However, we will use Constance Rourke’s American Humor (1931) — a core text in American Studies—as a model that links humor and comedy to the concept of identity, specifically, a sense of “American-ness.” We will try to answer the question, “What makes comedy in the U.S. distinctly ‘American’?” Can it be explained by the emphasis that comics and their audiences place upon cultural difference and diversity in modern American humor? How do we account for the recent popularity of relatively new comedic identities, such as “redneck”, “blue collar” and “lesbian” comedians/humorists? Throughout the semester, as we view and read this comic material, we will continue to ask ourselves, “Is this funny?” And if so, “Why?”
Students are required to write biweekly reading responses; submit one 3-5 page review of a comedy event of their own choosing; and pursue individual research resulting in a 8-10 page research paper. We will focus upon honing the student’s critical thinking and reading skills, developing analytical tools that will help students investigate a variety of cultural forms, and improving critical writing skills. The writing assignments will require students to make critical use of lecture material and course readings.
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