What is comedy? Seriously.  Is it more than laughter and humor? How is comedy related to other artistic genres, and how is it expressed in different languages, literatures, and art forms?  Is comedy specific to culture, or are some forms of comedy universal? How does comedy undermine or reinforce our attitudes towards race, gender, religion, class and ethnicity? Does what makes us laugh reveal our deep social norms and taboos?  What can biology and the social sciences tell us about what laughter means? Philosophers and literary theorists have argued that comedy is a structure of feeling built on biological patterns and the seasonal promise of new life.  Can these theories help us to explore a phenomenon we think we know so well?

Comedy, Seriously,” the Annual Humanities Theme for 2012-13, is a year-long, campus-wide initiative designed to foster interdisciplinary discussion and collaboration.  Through course work, performances, lectures, film series, exhibits and collegial conversation, Colby faculty, staff and students celebrate the richness of the comic tradition and the vibrant place of comedy in our contemporary world.

Annual Humanities Themes »
Contact: Lydia Moland

Related Coursework


Science as Culture, Culture as Play
STS    Professor James Fleming

Science, technology, and society can be hilarious, and the voice of irony fits STS very well. What would the history and sociology of science and technology look like if not cast in the heroic mode? How about environmental literature that is not tragic or declensionist? One objective of the course is to develop sensitivity to and an awareness of the pervasive influences of science and technology on our lives and in the world around us. We will do this by juxtaposing the serious and the absurd in a wide variety of situations drawn from science, technology, and society past and present. Additional objectives include developing skills in discussion, analysis, research, writing, and presentation in this interdisciplinary field – and sharpening our humor!

Philosophical Issues: On Being Human
Philosophy    Assistant Professor Lydia Moland

Is laughter or a sense of humor unique to being human? What does humor say about human self- consciousness and our relation to social norms? In this course’s unit on humor, we will read various philosophers’ views on what laughter tells us about human nature, then apply these theories to two cases: Theater and Dance’s production of Lysistrata and Colby professor Jennifer Finney Boylan’s autobiographical work about sexual identity, She’s Not There.

Comedy Across Cultures
German and Russian    Professor Julie de Sherbinin

Much humor is specific to language and culture. A subversive force, comedy relates to culturally specific configurations of authority. The history, customs, language, and gestures of a given culture — be it a national, ethnic, diasporic, or gendered identity — create ‘rules of engagement’ for producing and understanding humor. Lectures and presentations by more than a dozen faculty will lead students to a foundational understanding of a variety of cultural comedic codes, and may address the genres of theatre, prose, film, stand-up comedy, print satire, graphic caricature/cartoons, and joke or anecdote.

Comedy Italian Style: The Golden Age of Italian Film Comedy
French and Italian    Faculty Fellow Brendan Hennessey

Traces the evolution of the film comedy across three decades of Italian cinematic life through the lens of the “commedia all’italiana” (Italian-style comedy,1950s-1970s). Beyond their ability to entertain, these popular comedies also served as a crucial means for exploring via humor the social and political upheaval unfolding throughout Italy during this historical period. Skills of critical analysis will be honed through readings on the history and theory of cinema and screenings of films by such celebrated directors as Fellini, De Sica, Monicelli, Germi, Wertmüller, and others.

Applied Production: Lysistrata
Theater and Dance    Associate Professor Lynne Conner

In this course, students will be exploring the dramaturgical and performative components of Greek Old Comedy through the performance laboratory process. The affiliated performance of Lysistrata will take place in Strider Theater November 8-10, 2012.

Representing and Rethinking Women in the Public Sphere
English    Assistant Professor Emily Kugler

How did women of the 18th century negotiate having public identities–as actresses, activists, authors, and even occasionally, soldiers–at a time when they lacked many of the political and legal statuses we now see as basic human rights? Their goals differed: some sought individual freedom, many wanted political change (e.g., animal rights, abolition, educational reform, political revolution), and a few just seemed to want to entertain others. We will focus in particular on the use of comedy in their self-representations as well as to what extent their work fits into current definitions of feminist activism and theory.

Apuleius: Africa’s Naughty Genius
Classics    Associate Professor Kerill O’Neill

Apuleius’ life is as fascinating as his writing. His origins in Africa and his post-classical dates have left him on the margins of the classical canon, but his ribald wit, his narrative flair, and his inventive genius make him well worth reading. We shall read his account of the Festival of Laughter from The Golden Ass, paying special attention to his debt to Satire and Aristophanic Comedy.

Limits of Laughter
English    Assistant Professor Sarah Keller

The course Limits of Laughter is a writing intensive course that examines the coexistence of and tension between extreme, contradictory impulses in the formation of comedy within a range of narrative genres (fiction, drama, and film). Students will consider how these tensions (i.e., laughter/tears, humor/tragedy, etc.) compare across these forms, as well as how comedy plays an important role in the dynamics of race, gender, and class. The class takes up texts across a range of historical, cultural, and aesthetic contexts (from Shakespeare to South Park) and will use theories of comedy within the Humanities—particularly in psychological, cinematic, literary, and philosophical arenas—in order to grapple with the course’s thematic questions. Several types of writing assignments and a final project will allow students to hone their writing, researching, and presentation skills.


Performance History I and II
Theater and Dance    Associate Professor Lynne Conner

Performance History I and II are global surveys of performance from ancient cultures to 1970. Both courses explore the form and content of comedic performance forms and how they function as socio- cultural products.


Schtick and Sympathy: Jewish Humor from the Bible to the Present
Religion    Visiting Instructor Rachel Isaacs

A survey of the history of Jewish humor from the biblical era until the present. We will explore the cultural and historical factors that have shaped Jewish humor, and how it has contributed uniquely to wider world of comedy. From the the Book of Esther to Curb Your Enthusiasm, we will examine the ways that Jewish theology, linguistics, geography, ethnicity, trauma, and wit have been refracted through the lens of humor. This course will include explorations of critical theory, classical texts, short stories, movie screenings, and performances.

World at Play
Anthropology    Suzanne Menair

World at Play explores play as a field of activity that both refracts and constitutes cultural values as well as social and political relations. Through sociocultural and linguistic analyses of joking, pranking, and other playful acts in our own and other cultures, we will illuminate how others make sense of the world and consider the possibilities of play to incite or hinder social change.


French Theater Workshop
French and Italian    Assistant Professor Audrey Brunetaux

In this course, students will be introduced to French theater by performing “Art” by Yasmina Reza, a comedy about the power dynamics of friendship. Conducted entirely in French. A performance of the play will take place at the end of the semester.

Dying to Laugh: Censorship and Contemporary Spanish Film
Spanish    Assistant Professor Dean Allbritton

This course explores the themes of censorship and comedy in Spain from the early stages of the dictatorship to the contemporary present. While official governmental censorship ends with dictator Francisco Franco’s death and the transition to democracy, actual censorship of thought and speech inevitably persists in many subtle forms. What are the ways that comedy is taken up to combat such censorship? How does comedy express something inexpressible, and how do we come to think of something as comedic anyway? This course analyzes censorship and comedy as discrete phenomena while also exploring how they may exist in tandem, often working through the other, and even when censorship is seen as wholly unamusing. In setting itself up as censorship’s remainder, comedy can at once become a place of resistance and respite for a citizenship embedded in silence. In the particular case of Spain, this means that comedy gives freedom in oppression and a voice that breaks decades of imposed silence.

The Philosophy of Comedy and Humor
Philosophy    Professor Daniel H. Cohen

What makes something funny? Do jokes have their own peculiar logic? Is there a common element shared by puns, slapstick, satire, and all the other different kinds of humor that defines the category? Does the claim, “It’s only a joke” excuse the stereotyping in ethnic jokes? Why (not)? Is a sense of humor a moral virtue? Is humor a proper subject for philosophical analysis? The premise of this course is that one thing these questions clearly establish is that the answer to last one is, “Most definitely, yes.” Mindful of E. B. White’s observation that analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog in that few people are really interested and the frog dies, we will nonetheless examine what philosophers have had to say about laughter, comedy, humor, and related phenomena. We will begin by surveying the history of philosophical approaches to humor in order to prepare ourselves to engage with contemporary theorists and their debates about the logic, ethics, and aesthetics of humor and its cognitive and social functions.

Women in American Popular Comedy
American Studies    Associate Professor Margaret McFadden

An interdisciplinary examination of the ways that female comedians have used various comic genres to advance powerful and influential critiques of American culture and politics. Focusing on the period from 1970 to the present, students will develop a basic understanding of particular moments in American cultural history, so as to be able to understand and appreciate the humor in context. Students will also learn to analyze the formal aspects of comedic performances, and will explore a variety of genres, including stand-up, character comedy, comedy/variety shows, and sitcoms. We will also address the particular constraints that gender norms and ideologies place on women participating in a male-dominated form of entertainment, and attend to the ways that female comedians’ work tracks ever-shifting and contested notions of gender roles and relations. Comedians and programs to be studied include Carol Burnett, Lily Tomlin, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, Joan Rivers, Saturday Night Live, Roseanne Barr, Whoopi Goldberg, Sandra Bernhard, Sarah Silverman, Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho, Tracy Ullman, Janeane Garofalo, and Tina Fey.

The Politics of Satire and Humor in Modern China
East Asian Studies    Associate Professor Hong Zhang

This course explores the evolving role of satire, jokes, and comics in modern China from the Republican Period (1912-1948) to Maoist China (1949-1978) and the current reform-era China (1978-present). Particular attention will be paid to the new and historical forms and targets of Chinese political humor and social satire as a way to understand changing state-society relations in China. Questions to be addressed are whether the proliferation of political humor in post-Mao China via internet should be seen as a sign of new political openness, or a part of “everyday forms of resistance”, or a surrogate venue through which the Chinese people could air political dissent under authoritarian rule and even subject the Chinese Party-State to public scrutiny.

Cross-Dressing in Literature and Film
English    Professor Laurie Osborne

Examines a wide range of comic texts and films from Early Modern texts by Jonson, Shakespeare, and others which use crossdressing to eighteenth century novellas like Henry Fielding’s The Female Husband and autobiographies to nineteenth-century novels to twentieth-century plays like M. Butterfly to films including Tootsie, Victor/Victoria, and The Crying Game. We will explore the way crossdressing and disguise function within culture and literature to challenge and possibly reinforce gender boundaries.

Comedy in Theory and Practice
German and Russian    Associate Professor Arne Koch

What spawns laughter on German-speaking stages? This course explores the genre of comedy through major dramatists from the 17th to 20th century, including Lessing, Tieck, Kleist, Zuckmayer, Brecht, and Jelinek. Students will study forms, techniques, and theories of comedy and drama and relate each play to its broader cultural and political contexts. Weekly response papers, short critical essays, and a semester research paper. A part of the students’ final projects consists of a performance of a one-act play or of a scene from one of the plays. Conducted in German.