Help Teach My Comedy Class
February 1, 2011 6:42 AM   Subscribe

Help create my Intro to Comedy Writing syllabus! I'm teaching a comedy writing class for teenagers this semester for the first time. What assignments/ readings/video/audio should I include?

I've worked as a comedy writer in the past, but I've never taught it before. I'm in the process of putting together the syllabus. I know I'm going to have the students keep a "humor journal" where they jot down things they find funny each day, to develop their own eye and ear.

I also know I'll break the class into units on sketch, improv, satire, and (probably) humorous personal essay writing (a la David Sedaris).

What might be some assignments (either writing or reading/viewing) that would be great to include?
posted by enzymatic to Education (25 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The Marx Brothers.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:46 AM on February 1, 2011

Some short David Foster Wallace excerpts (they do exist!)--for example, from Brief Interviews With Hideous Men.
posted by Beardman at 6:48 AM on February 1, 2011

Seinfeld. His TV show, his comedy specials, his documentary movie. All of them very good.
posted by ColdChef at 6:53 AM on February 1, 2011

Ken Levine's blog.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:01 AM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ernie Kovacs -- very ahead of his time, even if some of it seems cliche now.
posted by briank at 7:03 AM on February 1, 2011

The Seinfeld episode with the perfect comeback... ("The jerk store called - they're running out of YOU!") has a scene when everyone is trying to figure out a good comeback. I'm CONVINCED this scene is probably a verbatim transcript of what the writers went through writing the episode.

This is both a great episode in its own right, and a great episode for (arguably) throwing back the curtain and showing how people workshop ideas.

The This American Life episode that goes into the Onion's writer's room is good for this too.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 7:33 AM on February 1, 2011

Complimenting Comedians - joke reuse and repackaging: (Jeff Foxworthy and Jerry Clower)
Poop and sex - low brow humor always sells: (Andrew Dice Clay and Sam Kinnison)
Beating a dead horse - classic jokes: Red Skeleton, Groucho Marx
The Schtick - Rodney Dangerfield, Johnny Carson
Out There - George Carlin and (early) Steve Martin
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:33 AM on February 1, 2011

It's been a while since I've seen it but the documentary Comedian follows Seinfeld and sort of a "up and coming" comic and has a few insights into writing.
posted by starman at 7:36 AM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Aristocrats, if you can show it in your class...

Some of Woody Allen's early essays are sensational.

Any comedian who does one-liners (Stephen Wright, Mitch Hedberg, Henny Youngman) is great for joke structure.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 7:43 AM on February 1, 2011

Let me take this from a different angle. Maybe it's worth not only reading examples of comedy, but also some writing that's critically reflective about comedy. It could potentially frame the course, and help students to better understand the structure of jokes, and why comedy works.

There's no point in going overboard on this -- after all it's a comedy writing class -- so a lot of practice and examples are a good thing, better than reading a good deal of philosophy, psychology, and sociology. But maybe just one or two pieces might help give some structure to students who might be otherwise apt to flounder.

Two good places to go might be:

George Orwell "Funny but not Vulgar"
Simon Critchley "On Humour"


On the other side of things, one might read the 5 sections from Underworld where DeLillo channels Lenny Bruce (potentially alongside some work by Lenny himself?). It's funny in its own right, and it might also pair well with a good conversation about emulating styles.
posted by .kobayashi. at 7:57 AM on February 1, 2011

Bill Cosby would be great as part of a storytelling unit.
posted by cashman at 7:58 AM on February 1, 2011

There was a BBC show with Rowan Atkinson that discussed humor from a psychological perspective. The best part was Atkinson showing about 30 different humorous situations and joke types with just a garden hose and a little girl (humor of surprise = Atkinson looks down nozzle and little girl squirts him; humor of retaliation = Atkinson douses the little girl). I don't remember the name off hand, but Google should find it.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:03 AM on February 1, 2011

And Here's the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on their Craft is pretty informational AND inspirational.
posted by ColdChef at 8:19 AM on February 1, 2011

Bob and Ray. Even reading the scripts on a page nearly makes me pee my pants.

Maybe watch some SNL episodes over the years and figure out some categories of sketches -- political and/or other impersonations, sight gags, etc. Granted, you're aiming for more than just visual sketch comedy, and a lot of it depends on the performer, but you can break some of them down and compare various types of skits over time. Weekend Update is particularly notable for the writing as opposed to just the visuals.

Also, take a look at comedy in different cultures. Compare what you see on, say, Univision with British comedy (Benny Hill, Catherine Tate, Black Adder, Monty Python). That's why action movies are so popular overseas, not comedies: people have very different tastes. In a global society, that's worth mentioning.
posted by Madamina at 8:28 AM on February 1, 2011

Ask the students to create a collection of comedy pieces (textual, video, audio, what-have-you) that they find noteworthy or remarkable. They can segment the collection into thematic sections. And they can write an introductory preface to the collection explaining why they made the choices that they made, why they grouped them in the sections they grouped them in, and remarking on the connections between the pieces. I've done this in non-fiction writing courses and it worked out real good.
posted by Jagz-Mario at 9:03 AM on February 1, 2011

i think that the hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy is brilliant (the book, not the movie) writing.
posted by anya32 at 9:41 AM on February 1, 2011

Look at interviews or writings about Del Close. He had an enormous influence on sketch comedy. You can draw a straight line from Close to Second City to the Groundlings to Saturday Night Live.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:43 AM on February 1, 2011

I do a workshop called "You, Yes You, Can Do Standup Comedy" (notes, slides, more notes). Feel free to use!

For reading: Allison Silverman interview, possibly Steve Martin's Born Standing Up.
posted by brainwane at 10:02 AM on February 1, 2011

If possible, get some improv actors to come in (from theatre department) and have them read some of the people's bits...

they'd get a chance to see if what they actually wrote is funny when acted out...

on the same line, early in semester break students write a short story or scene as a "pitch"

Review them, then select top 4 or 5, break them into groups, then have them work together as a writing staff to refine scene. (you can have them turn something in from this too)

then as a final project, have them either get actors or act it out them selves on camera, and class can critique their performances.


it's out of print, but a good book on how to write funny. Great essays by dave barry, and others...
posted by fozzie33 at 11:10 AM on February 1, 2011

There was a BBC show with Rowan Atkinson that discussed humor from a psychological perspective

Not just psychological and not just him. It was called Funny Business, and his part was the best of the series. This clip gives you an idea. Well worth watching in its entirety if you can find it.

Peter Cook is worth reading.

Bruce Vilanch is not my sort of thing, but for your purposes his doco might be worth a look.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:20 PM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

It was called Funny Business

Ding, ding, ding. There's a winnah! Thanks. I never knew what it was called.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:24 PM on February 1, 2011

Wodehouse, of course, for use of language. Inimitable, unparalleled.

Don Marquis Archy and Mehitabel, which is not to be confused with the equally brilliant Krazy Kat
posted by IndigoJones at 2:36 PM on February 1, 2011

(More than welcome, of course. Great stuff, everyone should watch it.)
posted by IndigoJones at 2:38 PM on February 1, 2011

Response by poster: This is great-- keep 'em coming.

I love the Rowan Atkinson clip. And the idea of having students "curate" their own collection is a good one. Ernie Kovacs' "Aesop Broadcasting" is cheesily hilarious.
posted by enzymatic at 6:06 PM on February 1, 2011

« Older To Market, to Market (Do you have a public one?)   |   One of those, "but you don't look sick" situations... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.