Beginning in the 1950s and 60s, pioneers of comedy such as Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory tackled issues of civil rights and liberties, opening the door for future generations of comics to criticize society and oppressive government policies. By the 1970s, George Carlin and Richard Pryor turned stand-up comedy into one of the most subversive forms of popular rhetoric. Now, late night monologues and “fake” news shows increasingly shape public understanding of world events and political figures.
This course examines how comedians use humor to advocate positions in public controversies, to construct notions of group identity, and to criticize public figures – essentially, how they use humor to persuade. If laughter is a sign of persuasion (a question we will explore together), we will think through why audiences do or don’t laugh, are or are not persuaded by a text. We will think and write critically about what makes comic performances compelling, focusing closely on the relationship between performers and their audiences. We will track how the purpose and message of texts changes as jokes move across media and venue in the digital age, looking at a wide range of sources – from comedy albums to HBO specials, from YouTube to Twitter. Fundamentally, we’ll be asking whether these performances encourage audiences to re-think their ideological and political values, or if humor simply reinforces the beliefs that audiences already hold: when are we laughing with, and when are we laughing at, and, most importantly, (how) can we know the difference?