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Teaching American Humor: What Should Be Taught?

November 6, 2012

Teaching American Humor: What Should Be Taught?

Here is your challenge: come up with a syllabus of material for a course on American Humor. Good luck with that.

First, count yourself lucky. In a parallel universe you could be asked to teach a course on American poetry before 1800 (here’s a hint as to how unpleasant that could be: “Day of Doom”). Unlike the poor soul who is stuck with Michael Wigglesworth and a handful of other dour Puritans, you have choices. In this universe, at least, you have the good fortune to teach humor. But you still have the formidable task of choosing from myriad possibilities. To even begin narrowing them down to a manageable body of work to fit into a course seems rather maddening in and of itself—Doom.

Where to begin? What to include? Why a duck?

I would like to take this forum to put together a working list of humorists, etc., and works that could be deemed essential. What I propose is an American Humor ……(wait for it)… Canon. If you are opposed to the rigid, standard-bearing, pomposity of the word, I understand. If you couldn’t care less and figure any guidance at all that may help you put together a class (or many classes) would be useful, then I greet you as a kindred soul.

This may start a fight. That is not what I am seeking, but I figure a discussion on anything but presidential politics may be welcome. I hope to stir interest and ultimately move toward building a broad and annotated database of sorts that could serve teachers and students alike. And serve American Humor. But there is no getting around the fact that such an enterprise forces limitations. I always tell students (in all courses) that I could easily put together multiple sections of the course without duplicating anything. That is not to intimidate them with the frightful power of my brain (that comes later); it is merely to confess up front that I am playing a bit of a shell game. Generally, they don’t mind. They embrace my “less is more” philosophy and often suggest an even more streamlined syllabus. Great kids, all around.

So, what should be taught?

I will serve up my neck with a few suggestions and wait for others to respond. I currently teach a course called “American Popular Humor,” and I am quite fond of it. I added the “popular” to be able to focus on works that have enduring and widespread appeal because, first, that interested me; second, it gave me some cover for leaving out works that I had never heard of. That statement has all the marks of a sound decision. I do not offer this as an ideal or even finished course; rather, I include it here simply to provide a reference point.

I divide the course into thirds: 1) prose and performance; 2) film comedy; and 3) situation comedy. Now, you can start being appalled at how much I have already left out simply by stating three general categories. It gets worse.

Here is my list of required material for prose and performance:

Washington Irving

Fanny Fern

Mark Twain

Charles Chesnutt

Dorothy Parker

Erma Bombeck

George Carlin

Richard Pryor

Eddie Murphy

Margaret Cho

(“Oh, my. That’s it?”)

(“Uh, yes. Actually, there is one person listed above that I never get to. Not telling which.”)

Here are the films I require students to watch:

Modern Times

Duck Soup

Animal Crackers

It Happened One Night

Raising Arizona (I cheat a little here by including this film. It did not enjoy mass popularity. I rest the case on the overall success of the Coen brothers. No apologies)

Here are the television situation comedies we cover:

I Love Lucy

The Beverly Hillbillies

All in the Family

The Cosby Show

(“Four?”)

(“Four. … I know. They watch five episodes from each. So that’s twenty, a larger number.”)

In each section, students can add material to discuss, and, of course, I make references throughout to other works within each category. The paltry lists above represent my tough choices, however. This task requires choices; it requires elevating some works and dismissing others. The list I am hoping for, though, can be much larger–and must be. I am curious to see if we can develop some kind of consensus with some thoughtful contention as well. I invite anyone to chime in whether you teach or not. My hunch is that we could develop a canon that is expansive without being amorphous and virtually useless. I have never seen an anthology that came close to what I would want as a resource for my students. And, of course, reading is only part of the material that must be considered.

I humbly suggest a few of my choices above. What are yours?

I wonder. Which writers and performers are of first rank among the vast and formidable history of American Humor? Who is essential, what works are definitive, and which forms of humorous expression best exemplify the tradition and texture of the funniest nation in the world?

Jeffrey Melton

University of Alabama

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. November 6, 2012 9:29 am

    HI there,

    Your list is pretty thorough, I might swap out some for the following:

    Prose and Performance:
    David Sedaris
    Chuck Palahnuik
    Bill Hicks!!!
    Chris Rock
    Steven Wright
    Jack Benny
    Don Rickles
    The Whitest Kids U’Know (doesn’t really belong under sitcom)
    Buster Keaton
    Late Night with David Letterman (NBC show, years 84-89)
    Louie CK (this is a must. the guy scraps his routine every year and works out a new one…every year. THAT is amazing)

    Films:
    The General
    Airplane!
    Best in Show
    Harold and Maude
    Blazing Saddles

    Sitcoms:
    Seinfeld
    The Honeymooners
    Family Guy
    Newhart (specifically the last episode of the series, brilliant conclusion to both series)
    Louie
    Arrested Development

    I also noticed you didn’t have sketch represented. Historically speaking, Saturday Night Live is important. But somehow, I’m not sure their brand of sketch should be taught (maybe, Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood) and not out of malice. I am of the opinion that when you take the entire SNL cannon, I think much of it falls very very short. Conversely, the WKUK had a self contained smart and edgy (I hate that word) show that was absurd, silly and intelligent, the holy trinity of comedy.

    I also noticed an improv vacancy. While I appreciate its skill, I think Improv is infinitely more formulaic and structured then we are led to believe. As such, it’s better to cover it as a subset of sketch, if you cover it at all.

    These are just some off the cuff thoughts. Your syllabus is good, although I would like satire to have more representation.

    Anyway, just some thoughts there.

    Cheers!
    Keith

    • Jeffrey Melton permalink
      November 8, 2012 11:53 am

      Keith: Thanks for your list, excellent choices all around. I agree with the exclamation points on Bill Hicks, by the way, but kept him off my list because he was unable to reach widespread acceptance (not his fault) for my course. But he is a must for a the broader list I want to put together. I also will need to add categories, especially skit comedy and animation. Please send more ideas when you have the time.

  2. Larry Gainor permalink
    February 19, 2013 11:22 am

    Just found this site looking for ideas for a Humor in American Lit (post Civil War) – Ambrose Bierce – The Parenticide Club and the Devil’s Dictionary. Steven Colbert / Jon Stewart.

  3. March 5, 2014 7:42 am

    Brilliant. Thank you so much for these posts. I’m teaching a “culture” course in France to engineering students and wanted a fun yet academic way to approach American culture. You’ve given me a lot of ideas and a great start.

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