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Humanism of Humor

What does comedy say about society? That’s what students explore through English 011: Comedy, led by English Literature Professor Nora Johnson. A Swarthmore mainstay—“How long have I taught it? Oh, a scandalously long time,” Johnson quips—the class dives into comedic works ranging from ancient Roman plays to contemporary Hollywood rom-coms, engaging in a criticism on witticisms.

Why did you develop this course?

Comedy is something that seems like it hasn’t changed since the classical period, yet it’s a sensitive register of cultures and historical moments.

What topics do you cover?

We follow how comedy works in different periods and cultures. For example, Plautus’s The Brothers Menaechmus, a mistaken-identity plot, serves as the source of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors—which is the basis of a 19th-century American blackface minstrel parody. So we’re able to study the same plot over three wildly different contexts.

We also look at Oscar Wilde; we read Caryl Churchill’s play Cloud 9, a gender-bending, rule-breaking critique of colonialism; and we look at TV—going back to I Love Lucy to see how its plot techniques continue on into new media. Plus, we study a series of comedic films on remarriage—and ask why that genre has popped up in the 20th and 21st centuries.

How has comedy evolved?

If the typical, eternal comic plot is “boy meets girl” and “boy gets girl,” that changes dramatically as ideas about men and women and marriage evolve. Things like divorce, queer studies, and feminism have changed the way comedy gets presented now. It’s much less often a static story about a man winning the girl of his dreams.

What comic themes are eternal?

Mistaken identity. People losing control—like bodily functions—always seems funny. Pretension and misuse of power can always be mocked: It’s the way they’re laughed at that differs, and whom they’re associated with.

What do you find funny?

I really love verbal wit. There are works that I find funny sometimes and appalling other times. Funny is a loaded thing, right? It’s enjoyable. It can be about communal bonds, and it can be about communal differences, too. I may be wrong, but I think nothing is ever purely funny. It’s always funny in relationship to anxiety.

How will today’s comedy be studied in the future?

It’s a period of intense historical change, with uncertainties about the ethics of laughing at “risky” humor that pushes the limits of being offensive. What are the social boundaries? What ties us together? How does comedy fit into that? It’s ambiguous politically. And it’s interesting, because comedy can seem really liberating, but it can also be an incredible disguise for deeply reactionary ways of thinking—about women, about people of color, etc.

Why’s comedy crucial to humanity?

It provides a finely adapted way of talking about who we are in this moment, and who we fear that we might be—what we think might be out of control, whether we think our societies are flexible enough to make us happy, whether we think happiness is possible, how we see our individual desires being gratified, or not, by the world around us. It allows us to talk about big questions.