English and drama

American Humour

Module code: Q3170
Level 4
15 credits in spring teaching
Teaching method: Lecture, Film, Seminar
Assessment modes: Coursework, Unseen examination

Humour is probably among the most approachable of ways to introduce first year students to core issues in American Studies, and one of the most telling. Jewish humour, for example, which clearly informs, say, the films of the Marx Brothers, Heller's Catch-22,or the TV comedy of Seinfeld, can teach us much about the history and culture of immigration and assimilation so integral to American identity. Likewise, African-American comedians from the 70s to the 90s exemplify a particular, 'signifying' tradition, in Henry Louis Gates' phrase, as well as providing comment on the politics of the day. Or we might view the relationship between American economy and culture - a grand narrative of the twentieth century - as dramatised in the Fordist dystopias of Chaplin, the Southern Gothic of Flannery O'Connor and the acceleration from post-war boom in Thomas Pynchon to the vision of Wall Street excess in Ellis' American Psycho. In all these cases, humour provides both spectator or readerly pleasure and a form in which a more covert critique takes place, making it an invaluable mode for you to experience and consider key cultural and historical questions.

Incorporating literature, film, TV, live performance and visual art, the module will thus address the social, political and philosophical issues each topic raises and the context from which it has sprung, from the 19th century 'Connecticut wits' to more recent 'gross-out' comedy. By way of materials, an on-line module reader will be made available to YOU composed of a number of readable essays on the theory of humour as well as selected essays more directly relating to each specific topic and/or work. Interdisciplinary in nature, the module will hence encourage you to investigate how ideas about humour can work with other texts to become forms of critical thinking: Bergson's notion of comedic automatism, for example, read alongside accounts of the factory system can illuminate Keaton or Chaplin's cinematic commentary on the fate of the American industrial worker. Through such connections, you will be introduced to influential writers like Bergson and Freud in an accesible fashion and find ways to apply and adapt their ideas in the wider cultural field.

Module learning outcomes

  • Evaluate primary texts/films/visual work in the light of cultural and critical theory
  • Read 'across' different media, seeing connections and differences between them
  • Contextualise artistic/cultural practices historically
  • Write essays interpreting theoretical, primary and secondary sources