Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session


None. Students should view the following two videos prior to taking this class:

Course Description

What's so funny?

“Comedy always comes second, late, after the fact,” as Walter Kerr suggests. And we will follow his suggestion. This course is designed around analyzing what’s so funny and why is it that we laugh when we do. How is comedy characterized on the fictional page, the screen, and the stage? And what might the comic teach us about the self and culture(s), especially when we come to understand its patterns of transgression as confounding social norms through jokes and laughter? Tracking a history of comedy, beginning with the first Greek humorists, Aristophanes and Plautus, we will traverse genres, periods and cultures to reflect on various types of humor: satire, farce, slapstick, love, tragedy, parody, and screwball. Taking physical comedy as our central theme, this class investigates what happens to the body in the comic moment when it must transform into something physically superior or, dare I say, something physically inferior? Essentially, in this course, you will read for laughter, but also, you will read for how that laughter informs cultural ideologies and constructs social identities. How does comedy—with a focus on gender and the body—comment on politics, philosophy, and other socio-cultural topics?

Reflecting upon a sampling of a wide range of comedy—that is, beginning with its origin and tracking its transformations through time and cultures to contemporary forms—we will partake in an investigation that addresses the following: Where did comedy originate? What is its relation to tragedy? Is comedy thus universal and timeless or is it culture-gender-experience-specific? What does comedy tell us about the culture from which it arises? What exactly is comedy’s purpose? Does comedy have its own language, rules, or system? Does comedy happen or is it constructed? Why do we laugh and what do we laugh at? Does laughter thus define comedy and is the person laughing hold as much agency as the comedian? How did your sense of humor become yours? Are you a creator of comedy or the consumer? Who are the central figures, characters, and peoples in the history of comedy?

HASS-CI-H  As in other communications-intensive classes, students produce 20 pages of writing in three assignments, plus required revisions. They have substantial opportunities for oral expression, through student-led discussion and in-class reports. The class has a low enrollment to ensure maximum attention to student writing and oral presentation.


Writing - There are three essays assigned in the course, and ten smaller writing assignments. The smaller essays intend to hone your writing and reading skills, and each will help you arrive at thoughtful questioning around a specific topic, in addition to translating critical thinking onto the page. Here you will learn methodology for the longer essays, when I ask that you make “interesting use of the texts [secondary sources] you read in the essays you write,” as Joseph Harris tells us. Through evidence of library research (such as reading beyond the assigned texts, citations etc.,) and the gradual process of outlining, rewriting, and revising, you will produce the required 20 pages for the CI-H subject. At the end of the semester, you will submit a statement of reflection on your experience as a writer and development in the course.

Reading - Reading is very important to your success in the class. Please be prepared to contribute to class discussion. (Think of the close reading assignments as part of preparing you to say something during class discussion.)

Annotation Studio - Using Annotation Studio, MIT students were asked to provide online posts as part of their participation grade. The collaborative web-based annotation tool is free. Posts included thoughtful reflections that examined and/or explored connections between ideas in the course, individual ideas, and ideas fellow classmates posed. MIT students were asked to visit the online text of that week at least a few times in order to post two comments: one response to another student, and one response that is a close reading analyses.

Participation - Based on the idea of a semester-long conversation, each session will lead us to many other topics within the genre. Of particular interest is our approach to the comedic by actually writing about its representation on and off the page. The class can only succeed if each of us commits to reading and engaging in conversations online and in the classroom—that is, to listening and valuing the unique perspective that each of us brings—and to this end, attendance is mandatory.

Project / Presentation - Presentations should be fun but also smart. Treat it as a creative project that informs and illuminates the subject of comedy for the class. Teach us something that excites you, even if the project/presentation might require additional research. A significant component of grading (beyond your demonstration of research and analysis) will be your ability to engage the class: find a unique way to bring the material to life. Maybe you’ll draw the first ten pages of your own graphic novel. By daring, what it is that I mean to say is use creative methods—maybe you’re a photographer, or into designing video games, or perhaps you’re a comedian, just feel the liberty to turn to other genres. The point should always be to bounce off of the class theme to take us somewhere new, but then bring us back to the text we’ve been reading. MIT students scheduled conference dates with the instructor to discuss the project and their 8-minute presentations. Conferences were mandatory.


Close Readings (total of ten) 10%
Essay 1 15%
Essay 2 15%
Essay 3 30%
Project / Presentation 20%
Participation and Annotation Studio 10%