That's funny. Why? Because it's funny. Sigh.
July 7, 2012 1:48 PM   Subscribe

I'm teaching a Language of Humour class to high school juniors and seniors. I need recommendations for things that are funny. And I need you to help me not fail.

I'm changing schools, and my new school is a "top 50 in America" type of school, where most students take multiple AP classes and go off to Ivy League colleges, or at least UC's.

I was given a new class (i.e. it's never been taught before) that lasts one semester and is open to any 11th-12th grader for English credit. Basically, instead of taking English 11/12, the kids pick four semester English electives that each have a different topical focus.

The class is built around this description:
The focus of the course is to look at humourous texts and learn what makes them humourous. We will study novels (Confederacy of Dunces), novellas (Candide), short stories (Twain's "Notorious Jumping Frogs..."), political texts (America: The Book), personal essays (Sedaris' Me Talk Pretty One Day and Dave Barry Turns 40), and stand-up routines (Cosby, Wright, Pryor, Gaffney, Chris Rock, etc.). We will supplement these texts with excerpts from humourous films and visual texts, such as cartoons from the New Yorker.

In addition to studying what make something funny, we will examine the purpose and function of humor today and in the past. We will examine humour as a reaction to setbacks, humour as a tool of power, humour as inspiration, and humour as criticism. Because what makes something funny if often a matter of taste, we will examine how culture, age, intelligence, and religion affect our tastes in humour.

There are also four process essays (research, personal essay, analysis of humour essay, compare/contrast theme in several works) and multiple timed writings to fit into the course.

Now, I haven't read Confederacy of Dunces or Candide, and I've only read half of Dave Barry Turns 40 (and I didn't like it). I do have freedom to not use them.

Ready for my actual question(s)?

1. I'm not sure how to make this class more than "Look, this is funny!" - I am aware of Wordsworth's quote about how you "murder to dissect" and that's my worry. I'm not sure how to approach that.

2. Can you help me find the Best of the Web humourous essays/videos/clips, etc. to supplement my course? Bonus points if it is British, as my humour tends to be more Charlie Brooker than Bill Cosby, and more David Mitchell than Richard Pryor.

3. I know I want to start with a research paper, but I am also aware that researching a comedian is not as interesting as I want it to be, and research humour/sub-types of humour are probably too difficult for high school students, even exceptional ones. It would be a 6-8 page research paper FWIW.

4. Convince me that I should spend the small amount of prep time I have this summer reading Confederacy of Dunces or Candide, and/or re-reading Dave Barry Turns 40. Or help me find similar works I could use (although I won't be able to have class sets).

5. I need to find some academic (yet appropriate reading level) works that talk about humour in technical language. Similar to when I teach film criticism and have them learn language like "production choice," I think they need to have some vocabulary in the criticism of humour.

I am SUPER excited about this class. But I am (equally) scared. I have to be careful, as I'm new to the school and don't have tenure, that I walk the line of appropriateness while also making this class as fun as it really should be.

Thanks for your help, Mefi.
posted by guster4lovers to Education (32 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
You could easily spend a class on the Wodehouse quote generator.

As for books, Confederacy of Dunces just utterly fails for me - I find it unreadably tedious - but Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams would both be good for short selections as examples of, respectively, satire and pure absurd British humor.
posted by restless_nomad at 1:51 PM on July 7, 2012

Social satire: The Anatomy of Melancholy

For New Yorker cartoons, each issue has a contest to write the caption for a blank cartoon. The magazine then publishes these entries on the web, which are then voted on. You can use this as a discussion of what and why some captions are funnier than others.
posted by rhizome at 1:59 PM on July 7, 2012

I took an "American Short Story" course in college and I will love that professor forever for having us read something out of George Saunders' book of essays, "The Braindead Megaphone". I read the rest of the book and thought it was hilarious (largely satirical). He writes about writing a lot, and while I'm not sure how I would work it in exactly (it's been a year or so since I last read it) if I were teaching the kind of class you describe I'd find a way.
posted by lovableiago at 2:01 PM on July 7, 2012

Can you see a way of using Adams that's not just reading Hitchhiker's Guide? I love the radio dramas (I actually have the original ones I think) and I love Last Chance to See, but those feel like the only one that would work in this context....
posted by guster4lovers at 2:03 PM on July 7, 2012

A Modest Proposal is surely still the very thing for satire. As an added bonus, an absolute assload of litcrit has been written about it so it lends itself to discussion and research papers.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:09 PM on July 7, 2012

I taught a class just like that at the university level but pitched a little low as a general elective. Texts that talk about humor from a technical point of view tend to be extremely dry, e.g. Critchley. There are practical guides that are vastly more usable, such as Johnstone's Impro, and otherwise I recommend selecting things that are diverse in form so you can teach it as an ordinary comparative lit / rhetorical practices class without having to address the 'essence' of humor ever, because that'd be dreadful. Also, show lots of movies and TV that's well off the beaten path. I can probably dig up old syllabi and say what worked if that's helpful. But you're going to have a blast if you pick things you've really loved. I recommend not using anything at all just because it's supposedly important--that never worked for me at least.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 2:11 PM on July 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

5. I've done satire vs. parody with students. Maybe look into that? You might also find Freud's The Joke and Its Relation to The Unconscious useful. There's a good overview of his ideas at Wikipedia.
posted by CCCC at 2:11 PM on July 7, 2012

I should have added that I'll be using A Modest Proposal and doing a satire unit. Thanks for all the suggestions in that area!

Monsieur Caution, I'd love to see what you could dig up - that'd be really helpful. This is basically a college-freshman level class by most standards anyway.

Also, the other teacher (he actually came up with the course and will be teaching it this semester too) had his AP kids send in captions to the NY cartoon every week. He plans to do that again this year...I haven't decided if I'll incorporate that or not. I like the idea of discussing why some are/aren't funny though, so thanks rhizome!

Great answers, all.
posted by guster4lovers at 2:17 PM on July 7, 2012

I was thinking of using a shorter segment as an in-class reading rather than just giving them the whole Guide. The way the series structured, the various guide segments, maybe the Milliways scene, the Golgafrincham ship and reveal would all make good short bits to pick apart.
posted by restless_nomad at 2:21 PM on July 7, 2012

One thing I'd like to throw out there is to use the fact that you aren't finding Dave Barry funny. Maybe use it as a gateway to talking about different kinds of humor and how a book can be well-executed but not funny to some people.

I also see that there is, apparently a International Journal of Humor Research that may have some leads. Good luck!
posted by itsamermaid at 2:22 PM on July 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

Here is a FiveBooks Interview on comic writing with Larry Doyle, a writer for the Simpsons, with books he recommends. I can't personally attest to any of them, other than 'Alice in Wonderland.'

I think the first question you posed could be a great class discussion on if/why comedic or humor writing is consider a 'lesser' art form than other genres. Does it distort the art to deconstruct it? Is comedy less illuminating than other genres? Is truth essential to comedy and humor?

I believe there are better satires than Candide, but to each their own.

I advocate for Kurt Vonnegut as an author in black humor.
posted by edgybelle27 at 2:24 PM on July 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

This episode of This American Life includes a segment about writers for The Onion workshopping their headlines and arguing over which are funny and why. It's a fun piece and could tie in to the New Yorker cartoon caption thing.
posted by milk white peacock at 2:24 PM on July 7, 2012 [8 favorites]

Have you considered doing a little international funny? Say, Monsieur Hulot's Holiday?

Consider also funny that does not hold up over time.

Finally, Rowan Atkinson did a magnificent doco on the subject, Laughing Matters.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:43 PM on July 7, 2012

Confederacy of Dunces is one of my favorite novels.

But, seriously, unless your students have a HUGE capacity for reading vast reams of text (or you're going to spend a huge chunk of the semester on it), I wouldn't assign it. My copy is ~400 pages, and while it's funny enough, I suppose, there are probably shorter and quicker examples of comic novels out there.

It's also a little rough to get into. It's written very much in the context of the cold war, the McCarthy Era, the Jim Crow south, and pre-stonewall ideas about gay culture. On top of that, the protagonist might be hard for modern day teenagers to sympathize with. Which isn't to say that high school students shouldn't read those things, or that unsympathetic protagonists are bad, but that's a lot of context to wade through on top of the subject matter of the class and the fact that it's on the long and inscrutable side for a humorous novel.

Hitchhiker's Guide is probably low hanging fruit for advanced high school students.

What about some Vonnegut?

This is a little out there, but one of my high school English classes read The Rape of the Lock, which is a comedic epic poem from Georgian Britain. Reading it (and to a lesser extent the already mentioned A Modest Proposal) was the first time I understood that "serious" and/or old-fashioned literature could be funny. Before that I sort of figured that the joke had been invented by Woody Allen circa 1960.

They probably will have already had Modest Proposal -- it's one of those stock high school lit assignments, like The Scarlet Letter and Catcher in the Rye. I'm pretty sure it's on the AP English Lit syllabus, for example.

Comic theatre ideas: Lysistrata, assuming you're allowed to talk about sex? Shakespeare's comedies? Oscar Wilde?

Re the paper, why not leave it a little more open and have them choose a person, media property, movement or theme within comedy? They could choose topics like importance of the the duo in British comedy, the history of stand-up, how Richard Pryor paved the way for Chris Rock, or the influence of SNL and the Second City style.

I went to one of those "top 50 in the US" sort of high schools, and we stopped being assigned A Paper About This Important Noun after about tenth grade. Especially for something that's only meant to be 6-8 pages. Even our history class research papers had to have a thesis. Let Me Tell You About Carl Reiner would not have flown at all in 11th or 12th grade. It was also unusual to write research papers for English classes, by then. The usual plan was that we'd get a handout with four or five questions and had to choose one as a jumping off point for our thesis. We could write about something else if we already had an idea we wanted to explore, but it had to be "answering a question" or "analyzing a theme", regardless.
posted by Sara C. at 2:56 PM on July 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hey, it sounds to me like you could use some philosophy!

There's a ton of theory out there about what exactly humor is. Some of it (okay.. maybe a lot of it) is really dry. But, if you do some preliminary research over the summer, you may be able to find some good pieces that go into the theory of what, exactly, humor is. Here's a start: The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on humor. Even if you can't find something that would be appropriate for high school students to read, you'll at least get some great ideas about what sort of issues you can raise.

I can't offer advice about any particular articles that may be of interest to you, but I rather like Noel Carroll's article "Humor and Horror," in which he dissects the relationship between humor and horror. It's available through JSTOR, if you have access.
posted by meese at 3:26 PM on July 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

For stand-up, Marc Maron's WTF podcast might help you out (plus you can listen to it when you're not able to read).

A lot of his conversations with comedians go into why they create the kind of comedy they do, and he seems to prefer the stuff that's more intensely personal, even when it limits the audience, which might be an interesting angle to hit on.
posted by roobot at 3:38 PM on July 7, 2012

This is why I love Metafilter. Every time I'm out of my depth, Metafilter comes to the rescue.

For the research assignment, here's what my colleague will be using:
Find a stand-up comedian whose work you enjoy and research him/her. Write a 3-5 page retrospective that might be published about that comedian on his/her 80th birthday. What were his/her influences, defining traits, and controversies?

I agree with you, Sara C., that Research About Important Noun is not the direction I want to go in with this (and that's sort of how the above assignment is designed). I like your ideas about leaving it more open with some guiding questions.
posted by guster4lovers at 3:45 PM on July 7, 2012

Have you ever taken a comedy class? Second City? UCB? iO? From a strict pedagogy angle, Second City is your best bet, but you can learn a lot about comedy from classes just about anywhere.

I don't mean how to DO comedy, even though that's ostensibly what those classes are for. I have a sketch background, and while the classes I took certainly helped me refine my comedic voice, what I *really* learned was how to think about, talk about, and diagnose comedy. For example: Do you sometimes feel like scenes on SNL don't have an ending, they just kind of stop? Cool, sometimes I think the same thing. Except when I see it, what I see is that progressive heightening didn't lead to an active transformation, so there was no resolution. (This is usually but not always the culprit.) The first thing I learned at Second City was a breakdown of the ten typical kinds of sketches. Not every single sketch in the world fits these types, but jeeze louise, most of them do, and having a vocabulary for that ("oh, this is just a town hall meeting scene" or "haha, center and eccentrics! my fave!") meant all the things I had a holistic understanding of I now had a more "official" understanding of, too. What is it about The Three Stooges that I never really cared for? Oh: Simple But Impossible Task is just not my genre.

Sketch format isn't the only way to think about comedy, but it sure is the easiest and clearest way to break things down. And once you have those tools, it's much easier to analyze classic (or even classical) works of humor. This also handily lends itself to an irony of similarity/irony of difference English paper, ie, two works you think should be the same are really different, or two works you think are really different are actually the same. (This Kids in the Hall sketch is a lot like this scene in A Midsummer Night's Dream, or Louis CK and Sarah Silverman both use shocking frankness onstage, but one tends to move from abstract to concrete ideas while the other starts with normal behavior and then extrapolates that to the point of absurdity.)

Also, not for nothing, it looks like the curriculum you've been handed doesn't include any works by women.
posted by Charity Garfein at 3:53 PM on July 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

OK, you asked for it. The theme of the course I taught was a little more comparative and anthropological, and based on the discussions and projects I recall students doing, these texts worked:

Selections from Shoshone Tales, though they're a bit salty for high school.
Selections from Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel (which is strange and amazing and full of things to talk about).
Selections from Mark Leyner, Tetherballs of Bougainville (the language is likely inappropriate for your purposes).
A handout I wrote on Oulipian wit, which I can email to you if you memail an address, but the linked work has tons of examples full of surprising humor.
Selections from Andy Warhol (and/or ghost writer Bob Colacello), The Philosophy of Andy Warhol.
Selections from Nicholson Baker, The Mezzanine.
P.G. Wodehouse, Code of the Woosters (don't settle for the TV version).
Tom Holt, The Walled Orchard (first half, a.k.a. Goatsong).

I usually included works by Aristophanes and Plautus, and they were OK and offered piles and piles of things to talk about to put them in context.

I have a much longer list of failures, and I'd include Candide and A Confederacy of Dunces on that list, because I read them to investigate using them and decided not to, because they bored me to tears. I did use Monsieur Hulot's Holiday, and the students were bored by it. Some Lake Wobegon stuff found a few admirers and might work for you. Some shorter stuff by David Foster Wallace and Donald Barthelme worked, but didn't inspire any students to do something based on them.

Movies and TV were generally crowd-pleasers and did inspire some good work:

Fawlty Towers, "The Germans"
Blackadder III, "Ink and Incapability"
The Young Ones, "Bambi"
Howard Stern, Private Parts (for an autobiography unit; there are a lot of reasons not to use this in a high school class, where I might have used David Sedaris to make the same points)
A Chinese Odyssey I (to go with a trickster unit; I'd choose a different Stephen Chow movie otherwise)
Harold of Orange (another trickster story)
Tampopo (this is amazing and a hit with smart students at a top 20 school, but it has a small amount of nudity)
Chachi 420 (one of my students wrote a great 'key' to its cultural references)

A lot of films and TV shows were failures too. The anime show Ping Pong Club comes to mind. A video version of The Importance of Being Earnest was bland. An episode of MST3K only worked for a small portion of the class. I tried to get Nigerian comedies from a local Nigerian video store, and the question perplexed the proprietors--their suggestions confused me as well, creating serious doubts in my mind about whether we had communicated successfully.

Oh, I occasionally tried some comics / graphic novels. The Flaming Carrot was only successful with a few students. Yotsuba might have worked, but I didn't know about it then.

So, the context was a little different for me, and in your shoes, I'd definitely use selections or ideas from Keith Johnstone for an improv unit. The New Yorker comic idea is great--I used MST3K and some Dysfunctional Family Circus cartoons as a lesson in d├ętournement, and a lot of students used that as the basic technique for their projects.

Student projects were all supposed to be pastiches / imitations of some work or technique we talked about in class, and they were supposed to adapt it to be about some subject matter familiar to them on a personal level. But to be honest, anything that showed meaningful effort OR made me laugh a lot got a good grade.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 4:06 PM on July 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

Yes, I also wanted to note that no women are included. What about Elaine May, Nora Ephron, Tina Fey, Kristen Schaal, Diane Keaton, etc etc etc.?

Your current list is way too one sided.
posted by ocherdraco at 4:07 PM on July 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I hadn't noticed the "lack of women" thing either - I looked back to the full course description (it has about 10 more long works that were "approved" but not purchased) and they're all male authors too.

I really like Nora Ephron and Tina Fey, and with those exceptions, I haven't read/seen many consistently funny women comedians. But I would love suggestions - and it is a great discussion question for my kids: Why are there so few women counted amoung the "greats of comedy"?

Monsieur Caution, I am astounded by your list (and my email is my username at gmail if you're so inclined to send me anything else you have). You've given me a lot to think over.

I love MST3K, Blackadder, and Fawlty Towers, and I'd add Red Dwarf and Outnumbered (one of the funniest sitcoms on TV on Hulu!). Here's the other thing I'm afraid of - I could do a YEAR of awesome TV comedy. But I get the sense that, as far as the school is concerned, the majority of the work needs to be in print of some form.
posted by guster4lovers at 4:15 PM on July 7, 2012

Also surprised that there are no females included. Women's Humor and American Culture might be a helpful book to introduce some writers like Dorothy Parker and Marietta Holley (who was frequently compared to Mark Twain). Also Helen Fielding, who wrote Bridget Jones' Diary.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:17 PM on July 7, 2012

I took a class like this in high school, which is where I learned to love Damon Runyon. We also had to write our own satire or humorous story for the class, which where I discovered I have a satirical sense of humor.

Also covered in class - Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
The movie LadyHawke dunno why
A comedic play but I honestly don't remember which one. Maybe Harvey?
posted by fiercekitten at 4:30 PM on July 7, 2012

Oh yeah, we also read Dorothy Parker, which for a girl with a satirical sense of humor was like crack.
posted by fiercekitten at 4:33 PM on July 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Um, left off Amy Sedaris, who I meant to add after seeing her brother on your list.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:48 PM on July 7, 2012

So... I haven't thought too much about this, but you should be able to get mileage out of the endless different iterations of the Hitchhiker's Guide. Each of them is consciously slightly different (with the possible exception of the television series) and (presumably) the humour functions differently in different media. The text adventure is even playable online.
posted by hoyland at 5:22 PM on July 7, 2012

Speaking of women.... what about Erma Bombeck?
posted by luckynerd at 8:01 PM on July 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Some Saki?
posted by Prof Iterole at 12:21 AM on July 8, 2012

So when I was in HS we did a unit on satire DIRECTLY after we had to do these stupid essays for the district about how to solve the problem of graffiti in schools and, like, half the class (this is 10th grade Honors, pre-AP) wrote sarcastic, hilarious essays about the topic. I particularly remember a classmate who wrote about how we could solve the problem by hiring more school administrators and secretaries. I'm not sure if the teacher decided to do satire right after that because we all were writing satire without knowing its principles or if that was just a lucky coincidence, but it was pretty great.

The other humor-related lesson from high school that really stuck with me was my drama teacher going through and ACTUALLY EXPLAINING a couple of Shakespearian monologues. With all of the dirty jokes. The one I remember was the monologue on Ophelia's death with the flowers which "liberal peasants call a different name/but our cold maids do 'dead men's fingers' call them". The "liberal peasants" were calling them penis-flowers, basically. But yeah: Shakespeare can be hilarious, but sometimes it takes some work to get the humor.

If you're doing Vonnegut, I highly recommend doing Breakfast of Champions. If you don't want to do a whole book, excerpts from A Man Without A Country could work excellently with other political writing; I could see a unit going from "Modest Proposal" to Man Without A Country to The Daily Show to maybe some of Twain's political stuff and come out awesome.

You might consider some of the segments from "Target Women" if you want to do modern social commentary; Haskins is hilarious and female. There's been a lot of writing about Dan Harmon making sure half the writer's room on Community is/was female; if you're doing a unit on women in comedy that might be worth looking at. The feminist blogosphere also wrote a lot about this with the Daily Show; I'm pretty sure there are some articles on that available. Other women in comedy worth looking at could be Margaret Cho and Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation). There are also a handful of great women comedians (Whoopi Goldberg comes to mind) and a ton of great comedic actresses.

Also: I took a satire class in college. I loved it. We were allowed, if we wished, to write a satire OR a research paper for each segment. It's the only time I ever voluntarily wrote poetry in college. It was super fun; we all got to read our satires if we wanted to. One of the things I really liked about it was the ability to try on different voices: stuff like "A Modest Proposal" and the Daily Show all achieve good comedic and satirical effect by taking a standard format and twisting it to make it like something else. (This is why America: The Book's discussion questions at the end of each chapter are so hilarious, I think.) I had a ton of fun writing a satirical United Nations resolution. There's lots of voices that are adoptable for this: school newsletters, five paragraph essays, news broadcasts, travel brochures, etc. So if you're looking for a creative assignment in the satire unit, I think doing a satirical piece that adopted the voice and peculiarities of a particular medium could be a really fun one (and one that would be fun to do presentations of).
posted by NoraReed at 12:53 AM on July 8, 2012

Not new but you might find some options re women in The Penguin Book of Women's Humor.

For film humor, you might show a scene or two from one of the greatest of the screwball comedies - Bringing Up Baby. Here's one example and here's another.

The great comic strip Calvin and Hobbes is a favorite that has inspired a lot of analysis and you can probably find something to mine for class material. Random example.
posted by gudrun at 8:05 AM on July 8, 2012

Because what makes something funny if often a matter of taste, we will examine how culture, age, intelligence, and religion affect our tastes in humour.

Ask students to see same movie in different theatres, with different audiences. Do different punch lines get different laughs based on demographics of the audience?

It might not be appropriate for high schoolers, but bourdiues Distinction talks about how people alert others to their class status by liking or disliking stuff. Laughing is one way to do this.
posted by Jagz-Mario at 1:32 PM on July 14, 2012

Wow. So many great ideas here. I love the idea of doing short units with focus pieces and having students do a research paper OR an alike-style/satire (even in video form, rather than just writing) for every unit.

Political humour is pretty easy for me to compile/get ready. Now wading through all the rest before school!

Thanks Mefi. You guys are awesome. Big thanks to anyone who shared their stuff through email too. So awesome.
posted by guster4lovers at 12:05 PM on August 2, 2012

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