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Politics and the Tradition of American Humor: Ben Franklin to Stephen Colbert

This course is expected to run but has not yet been scheduled.

Course Description

Starting with satirical writing from the 18th century and continuing to the late-night television satire of today, this course examines how humor has been used to explore the political and social issues of the time. Jon Stewart's "fake news" uses irony and sarcasm to blur the divide between "real" and "fake" news, while Stephen Colbert's concept of "truthiness," demonstrates the absurdity of a "truth," or that which masquerades as truth. These programs are popular because they intend to collapse the divisions between entertainment and edification. We will explore the tradition of American humor, a tradition born in the founding of our country for the purpose of enacting social change. Humor is perhaps the only genre to have been popular with both our founding fathers and to remain popular today. As scholars of American Studies have noted, understanding the tradition of American humor allows us to understand the archetypal American figures of our collective consciousness.

We will consider how humor operates; how what is considered humorous changes across historical periods and what this tells us about these periods. We will analyze the humorist, the intended audience, the form, and the content of the text to gain insight into the social climate of the age.

By studying the works of Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, Burt Williams, the Marx Brothers, Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce and the television shows I Love Lucy, Looney Toons, Saturday Night Live, Seinfeld, The Chapelle Show, The Office, Modern Family, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report we will engage in the social debates concerning race relations, gender roles, and divisions in socio-economic class in America. Ancillary material will be drawn from contemporary American Studies scholarship as well as historical documents and contextualizing material.

Students will be able to close read and analyze different mediums, including the short-story, the essay, the cartoon, the sit-com, short film, and stand-up comedy. They will also gain a knowledge of pivotal moments in American cultural history from the 18th-century through today. Students will have the opportunity to improve their close reading and critical writing skills through assigned short response papers and formal essays.