Engl e-185: Wit and Humor

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English S-185: Wit & Humor /

ENGL E-185: Wit and Humor

Harvard University Extension School, fall 2012

Wed. 5:30-7:30, Emerson 210

Leo Damrosch: Widener Library 772 (top floor), by appointment.

damrosch@fas.harvard.edu / leodamrosch.com

TA: Leonard Neidorf, neidorf@fas.harvard.edu

REQUIRED TEXTS, at the Harvard Coop (ISBN numbers included in case you want to order in advance from amazon.com)
Allen, The Insanity Defense (Random House 978-08129-7811-7)

Benchley, The Benchley Roundup (U. of Chicago 0-226-04218-9)

Freud, The Joke and its Relation to the Unconscious (Penguin 978-0-14-243744-5)

Sedaris, Naked (Little Brown 0-316-77773-0)

Thurber, Writings and Drawings (Library of America 1-883011-22-1)

Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays (Oxford 0-19-953597-3)

Wodehouse, Bertie Wooster Sees It Through (Simon & Schuster 0-7432-0361-5)
COURSEBOOK: available for purchase online at www.universityreaders.com (click on the “Students Buy Now” button at upper right).
This is the latest version of a course that has gone through repeated versions during the past ten years, building on a lot of input from students, particularly in Extension where the wide variety of interests and experience is a great asset. It’s intended to be a broadly-based investigation into the psychological, sociological, and literary func­tions of laughter and humor. Socrates notor­iously never got around to explaining how comedy and tragedy are actually two versions of the same thing (like the crab in Alice in Wonderland who “taught Laughing and Grief”), Aristotle’s comic sequel to the Poetics is lost, and literary criticism has always been more comfortable with high-minded theories of tragedy than with trying to explain comedy.

Yet if anything, it’s tragedy whose existence is all too easy to explain – suffering needs to be borne, and our yearning to find explanations is all too understandable – whereas it’s laughter that seems myster­ious. Why do we do it? Social laughter starts very early, during the first year of life: children learn the tune before they know the words. And while formal tragedy is specialized and rare, jokes and comedy and farce are ubiquitous in every culture. Why is it generally believed that humorless people are defective and that laughter is somehow life-affirming? Thomas Hobbes saw laughter as aggressive “sudden glory” at someone else’s expense, and that aspect of it should certainly be acknowledged, but more recent theories have described laughter as compensatory or even liberating: some that will be considered are Freud’s influential hypothesis of the release of taboos, Bergson’s theory of the humor of the mechanical, and Bakhtin’s account of the carni­val­esque. In addition, essays in the Coursebook – by psychologists, anthro­pologists, and sociol­ogists – provide valuable tools for analysis.

The course thus aims to bring a wide range of approaches to bear both on literature and on other forms: films, TV, standup comedy, magazine car­toons, and so on (there will be lots of cartoons and film clips in class). And a wide range of topics and issues will be considered, many of them more than once since they will come up repeatedly as we consider specific texts and films. Examples of these are:
the phenomenon of laughing;

jokes and joking;

differences between verbal wit and visual humor;

satire and irony;

humor in performance, especially standup comedy;

obstacles that confront female humorists;

sexual humor and taboo;

religious humor (is nothing sacred?);

ethnic humor, especially Jewish;

parody and nonsense;

humor and comedy as a refusal of the tragic
Because humor evokes subjective responses, and because individual respon­ses are often very different, in-class discussion will play an essential role. Please bring the text assigned for the day to class. (Note that for two assignments, Sept. 12 and Oct. 3, the texts are posted on the course website; in case you’re interested, you’ll also find there a list of recommended books on various aspects of humor.)
Four full-length films are also assigned for extended discussion (Oct. 17 and Dec. 12). Please rent or download these in advance if at all possible.

Midterm exam (Oct. 24) and final exam (Dec. 19). These will be thematic/conceptual questions that allow you to choose your own examples to discuss. There will not be short-answer or identification questions. Students taking the course for graduate credit will also write a term paper, due no later than Dec. 17.
5 Introductory class.
12 on the course website: bergson.text – Henri Bergson, excerpts from Laughter
19 Freud, The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious, the following sections:

II: The Technique of the Joke, pp. 9-13 and 49-54

III: The Tendencies of the Joke (pp. 85-111)

V: The Motives for Jokes (pp. 135-51)

VII: The Joke and the Varieties of the Comic, sections D-G (214-226)
26 in the Coursebook: essays by Oring, Sacks, Wickberg, Dundes, and Cohen
3 on the course website: twain.text – humor pieces by Mark Twain; plus swift.text, Swift’s classic A Modest Proposal
10 Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest; and in the Coursebook: Berger
17 [to watch before class] Dr. Strangelove and Richard Pryor Live in Concert (his 1979 Long Beach show); and in the Coursebook: essay by the Fishers
31 Wodehouse, Bertie Wooster Sees It Through
7 Benchley, The Benchley Roundup:

Take the Witness (p. 1)

From Nine to Five (26)

Christmas Afternoon (36)

Family Life in America (41)

Do Insects Think? (44)

How to Understand International Finance (59)

Uncle Edith’s Ghost Story (67) [CONTINUED]

French for Americans (71)

Paul Revere’s Ride (98)

Carnival Week in Sunny Las Los (138)

Another Uncle Edith Christmas Story (143)

If These Old Walls Could Talk (149)

Can We Believe Our Eyes? (160)

One Minute Please! (169)

Contributors to This Issue (249)

Mysteries from the Sky (253)

Do Dreams Go by Opposites? (257)

Artist’s Model Succumbs (268)
14 Thurber, Writings and Drawings, the following selections:

The Nature of the American Male (3)

Cartoons (59-84)

Preface to a Life (137)

The Night the Bed Fell (141)

The Night the Ghost Got In (163)

The Dog That Bit People (181)

University Days (188)

Draft Board Nights (196)

The Funniest Man You Ever Saw (262)

Sex ex Machina (352)

The Little Girl and the Wolf (449)

The Moth and the Star (459)

The Scotty Who Knew Too Much (467)

The Green Isle in the Sea (477)

The Unicorn in the Garden (493)

The Rabbits Who Caused All the Trouble (495)

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (545)

The Letters of James Thurber (571)

Cartoons (587-612)

The Princess and the Tin Box (655)

The Lady on the Bookcase (657)

A Visit from St. Nicholas (945)

Tom the Young Kidnapper, or, Pay Up and Live (948)

I Break Everything I Touch (968)


28 Allen, The Insanity Defense, the following selections:

The Metterling Lists (3)

A Look at Organized Crime (11)

The Schmeed Memoirs (17)

Yes, But Can the Steam Engine Do This? (30)

Hassidic Tales (42)

Conversations with Helmholtz (82)

Viva Vargas! (90)

The Discovery and Use of the Fake Ink Blot (99)

Mr. Big (102)

Selections from the Allen Notebooks (113)

The Scrolls (135)

The Whore of Mensa (141)

If the Impressionists Had Been Dentists (184)

The UFO Menace (230)

The Kugelmass Episode (245)

My Speech to the Graduates (261)
5 Sedaris, Naked

A Plague of Tics (7)

Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out (23)

True Detective (61)

Dinah, The Christmas Whore (106)

C.O.G. (153)

Ashes (234)

Naked (251)

Online: Sedaris’ 2006 graduation speech at Princeton (no, he didn’t go there):


12 [to watch before class] Annie Hall and Office Space


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