Comedy as Critique
"Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot." — Charlie Chaplin
Readings & Media

** Note: none of the items listed as “further reading” are required, but might be helpful if you want to keep thinking about the topic they are listed under for your individual projects. The day that you sign up to do your presentation, you will choose one of the “further reading” items to report on to the class to help support our discussion.


** The articles listed under “further reading” are in our Google Drive folder


Wed. September 6 — PLEASE WATCH:

Key & Peele — “Obama’s Anger Translator”


          ^ Discussion Q: What is the function of laughter for the human animal? What is the nature of the physical response?


Further Reading — not required:


Mon. September 11 — PLEASE WATCH:


The Daily Show, “Wrongnado” (The segment is split into two clips)

^ Discussion Q: What’s different about comedic argument from other kinds of argument? 


Further Reading — 

  • Day, Amber. “Ironic Authenticity.” Satire and Dissent: Interventions in Contemporary Public Debate, Indiana UP, 2011, pp. 24-42.
  • Meddaugh, Priscilla. “Bakhtin, Colbert, and the Center of Discourse: Is there No ‘Truthiness’ in Humor?” Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol. 27, no. 4, October 2010.
  • Nabi, Robin, Emily Moyer-Guse, and Sahara Byrne. “All Joking Aside: A Serious Investigation into the Persuasive Effect of Funny Social Issue Messages.” Communications Monographs, vol. 74, no. 1, March 2007.
  • Smith, Stephen. “Humor as Rhetoric and Cultural Argument.” Journal of American Culture, vol. 16, no. 2, June 1993.


Mon. September 25 — PLEASE WATCH:


Saturday Night Live, “Chippendales Audition”



 ^Discussion Q: What are the social functions of laughter?

Further Reading: 


Mon. October 2 — PLEASE READ & WATCH: 

John Morreall,  “No Laughing Matter” . Comic Relief, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, pp. 1-26.



         ^ Discussion Q: How do people produce comedy? What are its mechanisms?


Further Reading — ** NOTE — this week I’m doing something different with the “further reading” section. I think the above chapter gives a fine overview of the prevailing theories of comedy, and you can definitely investigate ITS sources if you want to know more.

What I’m going to do here is present a long list of widely varying academic articles that deal with Charlie Chaplin. The point here is to show the extreme difference in analysis that you get when you use different types of academic lenses. The articles below come from different fields, and have entirely different perspectives, goals, and methods, but they are all looking at the same comedian. Hopefully, by looking at these titles or skimming a few of the pieces themselves, you will get a sense of how completely original academic arguments can be produced simply by taking a known lens and a known object but combining them for the first time in a surprising way. 


  • Caron, James. “Silent Slapstick Film as Ritualized Clowning: The Example of Charlie Chaplin.” Studies in American Humor, vol. 3, no. 14, 2006, pp. 5-22.
  • Golec, Michael. “Motionmindedness: The Transportation of Movement from Factory to Home in Chaplin’s Modern Times.” Home Cultures, vol. 7, no. 3, 2010, pp. 287-312.
  • Howe, Lawrence. “Charlie Chaplin in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: Reflexive Ambiguity in Modern Times.” College Literature, vol. 40, no. 1, Winter 2013, pp. 45-65.
  • Jackson, Kathy. “Mickey and the Tramp: Walt Disney’s Debt to Charlie Chaplin.” The Journal of American Culture, vol. 26, no. 4, 2003, pp. 439-44.
  • King, Rob. “Retheorizing Comedic and Political Discourse, or What Do Jon Stewart and Charlie Chaplin Have in Common?” Discourse, vol. 34, no. 2-3, Spring/Fall 2012, pp. 263-289. JSTOR
  • Korte, Barbara. “New World Poor through an Old World Lens: Charlie Chaplin’s Engagement with Poverty.” Amerikastudien/American Studies, vol. 55, no. 1, 2010, pp. 123-141. JSTOR
  • Kuriyama, Constance Brown. “Chaplin’s Impure Comedy: The Art of Survival.” Film Quarterly, vol. 45, no. 3, Spring 1992, pp. 26-38. JSTOR
  • Potter, George. “The Tramp & the Culture Industry: Adorno, Chaplin, and the Possibility of Progressive Comedy.” Arizona Quarterly, vol. 69, no. 1, Spring 2013, pp. 73-90.
  • Skott-Myhre, Hans and Jan Frijters. “Tramps and Nomads: Figures of Youth in Flight in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times.” Young, vol. 15, no. 2, 2007, pp. 115-28.
  • Ward, Richard. “Even a Tramp Can Dream: An Examination of the Clash between ‘High Art’ and ‘Low Art’ in the Films of Charlie Chaplin.” Studies in Popular Culture, vol. 32, no. 1, Fall 2009, pp. 103-116. JSTOR
  • Woal, Michael and Linda Kowall Woal. “Chaplin and the Comedy of Melodrama.” Journal of Film and Video, vol. 46, no. 3, Fall 1994, pp. 3-15. JSTOR


Wed. October 11 — 8am class only —  PLEASE WATCH:

Louis C.K.


Wanda Sykes


          ^Discussion Q: How does comedy invite people in? How does it exclude? 


Further Reading — 

  • Friedman, Sam and Giselinde Kuipers. “The Divisive Power of Humour: Comedy, Taste, and Symbolic Boundaries.” Cultural Sociology, vol. 7, no. 2, 2013, pp. 179-95.
  • Kessel, Martina. “Landscapes of Humour: The History and Politics of the Comical in the Twentieth Century.” Laughter, Inclusion and Exclusion in the Twentieth Century, U of Toronto Press, 2012, pp. 3-21.
  • Klages, Stephanie and James Wirth. “Excluded by Laughter: Laughing until It Hurts Someone Else.” The Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 154, 2014, pp. 8-13.
  • St. George, Zach. “Identity is an Inside Joke: Why You Laugh with your Friends.” Nautilus, no. 30, 26 Nov. 2015,
  • Terrion, Jenepher Lennox and Blake Ashforth. “From ‘I’ to ‘We’:  The Role of Putdown Humor and Identity in the Development of a Temporary Group.” Human Relations, vol. 55, no. 1, 2002, pp. 55-88.


Wed. October 18 — PLEASE READ:

Please read the following works, but do not expect or necessarily even attempt to understand everything that’s happening in them. What we want to do this week is see what we can figure out about this historical period based on the humor its writers are presenting. Specifically, we’re going to look at some jokes about the period’s new fashion trend: the hoop petticoat. Even if you don’t “get” the jokes, what do you notice about them? How are petticoats described? How are the women who wear them described? Do you spot any incongruities? Any suggestions of superiority? Etc?

Our goal is modest: can we figure out SOMETHING about the social dynamics surrounding the petticoat? Why is everyone making jokes about it? 


“In this the Master-strokes of Art behold,

Great the Invention, as the Work is bold!

Should now Good natur’d Nymphs (which Heav’n forfend!)

To Grant too early Favours condescend;

See here, the happy means propos’d to shun;

The Fatal Danger, when the Fault is done.

Had CHLOE’s Self, — but let none hence infer,

That Virtue so severe as her’s could err!

Had she, in Need, devis’d this rare Machine,

Untouch’d, as now, her Chastity had been:

Let no Coy Nymphs of Remedy despair,

Contrivance is the Province of the Fair.

Secure from Censure, let each dauntless Maid,

Rush to the Field, and find a ready Aid;

Let no vain Fears of future Ills detain,

The Lovesick Virgin from the Longing Swain,

Scandal no more shall blast the Damsel’s Name,

Safe in this Covert, shall remain her Fame,

And Yield or not, forever be the Fame.

Unharm’d by Love, each Nymph shall now appear,

Nor Shame henceforth restrain the Willing Fair.

Sure, first, some Grateful Youth, to ease the Dame,

That kindly Yielded, to Reward his Flame,

In happy Hour, this Lucky Hint supply’d:

Or Bridegroom, pitying his too bashful Bride,

Devis’d this Whim, the Fair One to allure,

That, sooth’d with hopes of such a seeming Cure,

Fearless, she might the dang’rous Bliss endure.”

— Book II of “The Petticoat: An Heroi-Comical Poem” by Francis Chute [penname Joseph Gay]



“The Trial of the Petticoat”” by Joseph Addison (ONLY that piece — scroll down to p. 3!!)



“To fifty chosen sylphs, of special note,

We trust th’important charge, the Petticoat:

Oft have we known that seven-fold fence to fail,

Tho’ stiff with hoops, and arm’d with ribs of whale;

Form a strong line about the silver bound,

And guard the wide circumference around.”

— Canto II of “The Rape of the Lock” by Alexander Pope


^Discussion Q: What can comedy tell us about its contexts, historical and otherwise?


Further Reading — 

  • Atkinson, Elizabeth. “Petticoats and Fashion.” Audio blog post. History of the Eighteenth Century in Ten Poems. University of Oxford, 16 Sep. 2013,
  • Chrisman, Kimberly. “Unhoop the Fair Sex: The Campaign Against the Hoop Petticoat in Eighteenth-Century England.” Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 30, no. 1, Fall 1996, PP. 5-23. JSTOR


Mon. October 23 — PLEASE TAKE A LOOK:



Art Young, “Jesus Christ Wanted” (1917)

Paul Noth (2016)


Lecctr (2016)

^Discussion Q: Is comedic argument open or closed?


Further Reading — 

  • Diack, Heather. “The Gravity of Levity: Humour as Conceptual Critique.” RACAR, vol. 37, no. 1, 2012, pp. 75-86.
  • Lockyer, Sharon and Michael Pickering. “Dear Shit-Shovellers: Humour, Censure, and the Discourse of Complaint.” Discourse and Society, vol. 12, no. 5, 2001, pp. 631-55.
  • Waisanen, Don. “An Alternative Sense of Humor: The Problems with Crossing Comedy and Politics in Public Discourse.” Venemous Speech: Problems with American Political Discourse on the Right and Left, Volume Two, edited by Clarke Rountree, Praeger, 2013, pp. 299-315.


Mon. October 30 — PLEASE READ:

e. e. cummings

“next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?”

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water.

          ^Discussion Q: Is comedy fundamentally aggressive?


Further Reading — 

  • Billig, Michael. “Embarrassment, Humor, and the Social Order.” Laughter and Ridicule: Towards a Social Critique of Humour. Sage, 2005, pp. 180-212.
  • Billig, Michael. “Humour and Hatred: The Racist Jokes of the Ku Klux Klan.” Discourse and Society, vol. 12, no. 3, 2001, pp. 267-89.
  • McCauley, Clark, Kathryn Woods, Christopher Coolidge, and William Kulick. “More Aggressive Cartoons are Funnier.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 44, no. 4, 1983, pp. 817-23.
  • Shuster, Sam. “The Evolution of Humor from Male Aggression.” Psychology Research and Behavior Management, vol. 5, 2012, pp. 19-23.


Mon. November 6 — PLEASE WATCH:

** NOTE: The below videos include some pretty off-color humor, so you may opt out of viewing them if you feel you need to. The first one, particularly, may be an issue for some people in its “defense” of domestic violence. We are thinking about why this form of humor chooses to push boundaries that seem not to need pushing.


Daniel Tosh “Sounds Like a Challenge”



Divine in Pink Flamingos:

 The following video is more to contextualize the above video from Pink Flamingos

“Realness” Scene from Paris is Burning:

        ^Discussion Q: To what extent should comedy be “responsible” in the way other kinds of discourse are expected to be responsible? 

Further Reading — 

  • Basu, Sammy. “Dialogic Ethics and the Virtue of Humor.” The Journal of Political Philosophy, vol. 7, no. 4, 1999, pp. 378-403.
  • “Episode 23.” Totally Biased with Kamau Bell. FX, 2012. Dailymotion,
  • Ford, Thomas and Mark Ferguson. “Social Consequences of Disparagement Humor: A Prejudiced Norm Theory.” Personality and Social Psychology Review, vol. 8, no. 1, 2004, pp. 79-94.
  • Gaut, Berys. “Just Joking: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Humor.” Philosophy and Literature, vol. 22, no. 1, 1998. Project Muse,
  • Kramer, Elise. “The Playful Is Political: The Metapragmatics of Internet Rape-Joke Arguments.” Language in Society, vol. 40, no. 2, 2011, pp. 137-68.
  • Smuts, Aaron. “The Ethics of Humor: Can your Sense of Humor be Wrong?” Ethic Theory Moral Practice, vol. 13, 2010, pp. 333-47.


Mon. November 13 — PLEASE READ: 

Margaret Atwood: “Bad News,” “There was Once,” “Unpopular Gals”


^Discussion Q: Is comedy more like art or more like argument? 

Further Reading — 

  • Kallen, Horace. “The Aesthetic Principle in Comedy.” The American Journal of Psychology, vol. 22, no. 2, 1911, pp. 137-57.
  • O’Sullivan, Simon. “The Aesthetics of Affect: Thinking Art beyond Representation.” Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, vol. 6, no. 3, 2001, pp. 125-35.
  • Smith, Murray. “Film Art, Argument, and Ambiguity.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 64, no. 1, 2006, pp. 33-42.


Mon. November 27 — PLEASE WATCH:

Rick & Morty, “Meeseeks and Destroy,” Season 1, Episode 5


** NOTE: You will have to pay to watch this episode if you can’t find a place to stream it for free. It’s $1.99 to watch in SD, $2.99 to watch in HD. It’s also available on iTunes.

****ALSO, this episode contains a scene some may choose not to watch, as it depicts an attempted sexual assault. You may opt out of this episode for that reason if you want.


          ^Discussion Q: What is the function of “shock” humor? Of “black” or “dark” humor? 


Further Reading — 

  • Gournelos, Ted and Viveca Greene. “Introduction: Popular Culture and Post-9/11 Politics.” A Decade of Dark Humor: How Comedy, Irony, and Satire Shaped Post-9/11 America, eds. Ted Gournelos and Viveca Greene. University Press of Mississippi, 2011, pp. xi-xxxv.
  • Holm, Nicholas. “Humour as Edge-Work: Aesthetics, Joke-Work and Tendentiousness in Tosh.0 (or Daniel Tosh and the Mystery of the Missing Joke-Work.” Comedy Studies, 2016.
  • Tatsumi, Kakayuki. “Race and Black Humor: From a Planetary Perspective.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, vol. 21, no. 3, 2010, pp. 439-54.
  • Willinger, Ulrike, et al. “Cognitive and Emotional Demands of Black Humour Processing: The Role of Intelligence, Aggressiveness and Mood.” Cognitive Processing, vol. 18, pp. 159-67.


Wed. December 6 — PLEASE WATCH:

“Douche & Turd,” Season 8, Episode 8 — HuluAmazon — ** same note as above


^Discussion Q: What is the function of physical/slapstick humor? What is the function of “toilet” humor?

Further Reading — 

  • Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Introduction.” Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky. Midland, 1984, pp. 1-58.
  • Ngai, Sianne. “The Zany Science.” Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, Harvard UP, 2012, pp. 174-232.
  • Peacock, Louise. “Comedy and Pain.” Slapstick and Comic Performance, Palgrave MacMillan, 2014, pp. 62-80.
  • —. “What is Slapstick?” Slapstick and Comic Performance, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, pp. 15-39.
  • Praeger, Dave and Paul Provenza. “Brown Comedy: Humor, Satire, and the Carnivalesque.” Poop Culture: How America is Shaped by Its Grossest National Product, Feral House, 2007, pp. 164-76.


Mon. December 11 — comedy TBD

Discussion Q: What is the role of comedians in society? What do they do? Who are they?
Further Reading — 
  • Brodie, Ian. “Stand-up Comedy as a Genre of Intimacy.” Ethnologies, vol. 30, no. 2, 2008, pp. 153-80.
  • Hornback, Robert. “Introduction — Unearthing Yoricks: Literary Archeology and the Ideologies of Early English Clowning.” The English Clown Tradition from the Middle Ages to Shakespeare, Boydell & Brewer, 2009, pp. 1-23.
  • Limon, John. “Introduction: Approximations, Apologies, Acknowledgments.” Stand-up Comedy in Theory, or, Abjection in America, Duke UP, 2000, pp. 1-9.
  • Mintz, Lawrence. “Standup Comedy as Social and Cultural Mediation.” American Quarterly, vol. 37, no. 1, 1985, pp. 71-80.
  • Zucker, Wolfgang. “The Image of the Clown.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 12, no. 3, 1954, pp. 310-17. JSTOR
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