English 43 - Winter, 2018

Introductory Topics in Drama


Class Information

Instructor: Shershow, Scott
CRN: 74378
Time: TR 10:30-11:50
Location: 6 Olson


ENL 43: Popular Comedy

This course attempts the impossible: a brief introduction to the theory and practice of comedy. We’ll consider comedy both as an ancient tradition and a vital instance of contemporary popular culture, and think about fundamental questions that have always been asked and never really answered, such as: what is a joke? why do people laugh? what makes something funny? We’ll also try to think about comedy as a fundamental genre of theater and performance.

Specifically, we'll read and discuss a variety of comic plays from Shakespeare to Shaw, one film (Sullivan’s Travels, 1941), and several examples of television comedy, including an episode of Seinfeld. We’ll also study a few brief highlights of the long history of comic theory from Aristotle to Freud. Finally, we’ll consider the history and practice of so-called “stand-up comedy.” Our main examples will be the filmed performances of George Carlin (whom we will discuss alongside the Supreme Court’s landmark 1978 case FCC v. Pacifica, which upheld the power of the state to prohibit “dirty words” on television) and Richard Pryor; but we’ll conclude by discussing one more recent comedian to be chosen by vote of the class.


Evaluation will be based on two papers, a midterm examination, and a final exam.


Course Reader