Play and Purpose: Teaching Humor in Introductory Literature Courses

When I am asked to teach a new course, I often revert back to my coaching days. I approach its purpose and structure with all the seriousness and lofty intentions of an English Premier League (EPL) manager.  As in soccer, I feel the pressure and necessity of a solid performance. Prior to kickoff, I spent many a late night watching films, meeting with those who held superior knowledge of the game, reviewing formation and dependable goal scorers. All in all, I thought I created a well-researched, slam-dunk course. (Please pardon my mixed sports metaphor – this is my first post – and I am currently suffering from a case of the recently diagnosed DB – dissertation brain.) This semester, as head of an introduction to literary genres team, with humor as my reliable captain, I wanted my students and my course not only to be good, but great. Ryan Giggs great. Or, for those of you less-than-enthusiastic fans, Cristiano Ronaldo great.

Pedagogically, I wanted to build an historical context and contemporary appreciation for my freshman students through an introduction to various types of humor, including farce, satire, dark comedy, parody, slapstick and screwball humor. In our first few meetings, I lectured a bit, and we watched various YouTube videos, SNL skits, and The Daily Show segments, which afforded them comical examples and repartees.

Classic Three Stooges video

Huffington Post’s List of 25 Best SNL Commercial Parodies of All Time

 and’s 10 Best Segments from Stewart and Colbert:

We read articles on humor, its theories, and laughter’s physiological benefits  (see Wilkins and Eisenbraum’s abstract). I was trying to convince my students of humor’s merit, of its historical purpose and value in our modern daily lives. For many reasons, I felt protective of humor, and I wanted them to take the study of it seriously.

In order to accomplish this goal, as well as my course objectives, I stacked my team. My strikers right out of the gate were Swift and Twain. Behind them were O’Henry, O’Connor, Thurber, and Stewart. Two newcomers, Gionfriddo and Alexie, provided necessary depth to my defense. I believed that with the right combination of gentle guidance and direct instruction, my students would grasp the dichotomous nature of my course: play and purpose. While I wanted to set a mutually understood context for laughter, (necessary, I believe, for them to ‘get’ the jokes), I deeply desired for them to see the author’s purpose behind the chuckle: to question and critique social structures and ideology imbedded into America’s framework, as well as their own lives. For the first two weeks of the course, my game plan failed. I had spent so much time trying to force them to understand the legitimacy of humor that I had overlooked the aspect of playing with the language, the situations posed to us by various readings.

During my third week of classes, I entered my assigned classroom at 8 a.m. with a heavy heart. Swift and Twain’s satire had mostly failed to make an impression, and I imagined O’Henry’s short piece “The Duplicity of Hargraves” would be met with similar equivocality. It was during a surprisingly fruitful debate on American values that I happened upon an important realization: I had forgotten the multifaceted nature of humor myself.

In O’Henry’s story, Hopkins Hargraves fools Miss Lydia and her father, Major Pendleton Talbot, a pillar of old Southern tradition, into accepting money by impersonating a family friend. It is O’Henry’s sudden reveal, his beautifully crafted ‘surprise’ ending, which gave me pause:

“There is something else I wanted you to know. I guess you’d better not tell Major Talbot. I was anxious to make him some amends for the great help he was to me in studying the part, and for the bad humor he was in about it. He refused to let me, so I did it anyhow. I could easily spare the three hundred.

Sincerely yours, H. Hopkins Hargraves

P.S. How did I play Uncle Mose?”

I was so narrowly resolved in my quest to illuminate the validity of humor’s purpose that I had lost the opportunity to play in those moments of reveal, of biting satire, of a sly look between characters, or a surprise ending. My students chuckled as they detailed personal moments of wit similar to those of Hargraves found in O’Henry’s work. They disputed the intention and rationale behind such a guise. They both laughed and argued. They played but with purpose.

The joke, as they say, was on me. I was so vehemently validating humor that I realized I was more like the referee of a game, defending the strict rules until the final whistle. While I want my students to one day revel in Swift’s austerity, to validate the purpose of many parts of humor, I am learning not to take myself so seriously.

© 2014 Tara Friedman

Tara E. Friedman currently teaches English and Professional Writing at Widener University in the outskirts of Philadelphia. She is ABD at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and hopes to complete her dissertation on female resistance and agency in select late nineteenth and twentieth century American novels and graduate in 2014 with her PhD in Literature and Criticism. While she has presented on critical thinking and writing center theory and pedagogy at the CCCC, her other research interests include nineteenth century British novels, the sixties in America, and American humor.

2 responses

  1. Excellent. Humor is a means to the end of teaching difficult concepts. it is easy to get a joke. It is difficult to understand what makes a given passage humorous.

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