This course is being offered in the Summer II 2013 session. The description has been approved by the instructior. Use description for general information only after Summer 2013.

Course Description

GLS 592: Laughing Matters: Contemporary American Humor

Instructor: Mike Wentworth

“Laugh, laugh, I thought I’d die / It seemed so funny to me.”  (So, okay, to set yourself apart from the “common herd,” name that song and, better yet, name the group.  You’ve got the whole course to work on this.  Feel free to collaborate.  Think of it as a shared learning experience and an exercise in solidarity.)

“Many native traditions held clowns and tricksters as essential to any contact with the sacred.  People could not pray until they had laughed, because laughter opens and frees from rigid preconception.  Humans had to have tricksters within the most sacred ceremonies lest they forget the sacred comes through upset, reversal, surprise.  The trickster in most native traditions is essential to creation, to birth.”  (Professor Byrd Gibbens, Professor of English, University of Arkansas at Little Rock [From a letter to George Carlin])

Or in other words,

“Wouldn’t it be great if you could make a guy’s head explode just by looking at him?”

“Sometime when you’re watching a street musician, walk over in the middle of a song and whisper to him that you don’t like his music.  Then take a dollar out of his cup and walk away.”

“If it’s true that our species is alone in the universe, then I’d have to say the universe aimed rather low and settled for very little.”

“You know the good part about all those executions in Texas?  Fewer Texans.”

“When you’re at someone else’s house, and they leave you alone in a room, do you look in the drawers?  I do.  I’m not trying to steal anything.  I just like to know where everything is.”

“Electricity is just organized lightning.”

“’Coming soon to a theater near you.’  Actually, there is no theater near you.  Look around your street.  Is there a theater near you?”

“I saw a sign that said, ‘Coming soon—a 24-Hour Restaurant.’  And I thought, Well that’s unusual.  Why would they open and close it so quickly?  At least try it for a week or two, and see if you can build a clientele.”

                George Carlin, “Short Takes” (Napalm and Silly Putty)

“Laughing Matters”

Regardless of the expression “laughing like a hyena,” laughter is supposedly unique to the human species.  So it would seem, if only in terms of the human condition, that “laughing matters.”  Come to think of it, we all enjoy a good laugh, whether the source of such voluble risibility is an off-color limerick, another befuddling day in the life of Homer Simpson, Cosmo Kramer’s latest “brilliant brain scheme,” the “funny papers,” or, in the case of our course, the manic adolescent escapades of Paul Feig and Jean Shepherd, George Carlin’s irreverent rants on everything under the sun (and moon, for that matter), the assorted true-life misadventures of David Sedaris and Beth Lisick, or Dave Barry’s reflections on the absolutely worst American pop song lyrics ever written—all of which should confirm beyond a doubt that, indeed, “laughter is the best medicine.”

Just to whet your appetite, here’s what reviewers have to say about a number of our featured texts:

“Written in side-splitting and often cringe-inducing detail, Paul Feig [in Kick Me: Adventures in Adolescence] takes you in a time machine to a world of bombardment by dodge balls, ill-fated prom dates, hellish school bus rides, and other aspects of public school life that will keep you laughing in recognition and occasionally sighing in relief that you aren’t him.  Kick Me is a nostalgic trip for the geek in all of us.”

“Welcome to the hilarious, strange, elegiac, outrageous world of David Sedaris.  In Naked, Sedaris turns the current mania for the memoir on its proverbial ear, mining the exceedingly rich terrain of his life, his family, and his unique worldview—a sensibility at once take-no prisoners sharp and deeply charitable.  A tart-tongued mother does dead-on imitations of her young son’s nervous tics, to the great amusement of his teachers; a stint of Kerouackian wandering is undertaken (of course!) with a quadriplegic companion; a family gathers for a wedding in the face of imminent death.  Through it all is Sedaris’s unmistakable voice, without doubt one of the freshest in American writing.”

“Beth Lisick started out as a homecoming princess with a Crisco-aided tan and bad perm.  And then everything changed.  How exactly did this suburban girl next door end up as one of San Francisco’s foremost chroniclers of alternative culture, touring as the only straight woman with a band of punk rock lesbian poets and living in illegal warehouses—all while she managed to get married, buy a house, and have a baby?  Lisick explains it all in her hilarious, irreverent memoir Everybody into the Pool.  Among Lisick’s true tales are “My Way or the Bi-Way,” in which a series of girl-on-girl fiascos from UC Santa Cruz confirm her suspicions that she’s just a straight girl with a positive attitude who’d give anything the old college try; “The Lowly Hustle,” in which she takes on a litany of odd jobs to make ends meet (‘I was a college student designing my own minimum-wage job’); and the endearing story of her ‘courtship’ with her now husband Eli, who impresses her with a spastic rendition of a song called ‘The Wack-Ass Caucasian Two Step Chicken’ and invites her to his Mission District warehouse space—a world of feral raccoons and exploding sewage pipes.  (It’s clear to Lisick that he’s ‘The one’).”

“When funnyman Dave Barry asked readers about their least favorite tunes, he thought he was penning just another installment of his weekly syndicated humor column.  But the witty writer was flabbergasted by the response.  ‘I have never written a column that got a bigger response than the one announcing the Bad Song survey,’ Barry wrote.  ‘More than ten thousand readers voted, and the cards are still coming in.’ Based on the results from Dave Barry’s monumental survey, Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs is a compilation of some of the worst songs every written, including such special categories as Teen Death Songs, Songs That People Always Get Wrong, Songs Women Hate, and, of course, Weenie Music.  As always, Dave Barry fans will relish this comic writer’s quirky take on whatever subject he approaches.  Music buffs, too, will appreciate this humorous stroll through the world‘s worst lyrics.  In fact, the only thing wrong with this book is that readers will find themselves unable to stop mentally singing the greatest hits of Garry Puckett.”

One final observation.  Don’t let the title of our course mislead you.  We’re talking serous business here—everything from such sobering realities as growing up absurd, growing up throwing up, sexual mis(s)-orientation, “lower education,” parenting,  gainless employment, and, no less seriously, “neat freaks,” morning and evening people, throwing things out, tipping, New Year’s resolutions, school  bullies, sadistic gym teachers, prom night, “dog moments,’ and standing (and standing and standing and standing) in line.  So crank up your “risometer” and let’s get started.

Required Texts

Dave Barry, Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs

Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail

George Carlin, Napalm and Silly Putty

Paul Feig, Kick Me: Adventures in Adolescence

Beth Lisick, Everybody into the Pool: True Tales

David Sedaris, Naked

Jean Shepherd, Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories” and Other Disasters

Written Requirements

In addition to a take-home final, which will constitute 25% of your final grade, you will be expected to produce ten pages of writing, which will constitute 75% of your final grade and which will be weighted proportionally based on the page length of your submitted essays.  The focus/occasion for such essays may be critical and/or creative in nature.  In the case of critical-analytical options, you might want to focus upon one of our featured humorists, in relation to whose work you might want to examine such aspects as topical focus and range (and what such a focus and range reveals about the author), recurring themes, style, tone, attitude, and self-fashioning (the author’s self-conscious shaping/creation of a distinctive persona).  Should you choose to write an extended analysis of a particular humorist, you will no doubt want to draw upon additional unassigned selections by that humorist.  Commendatory book-jacket “blurbs” might also provide you with a possible angle on your examination of a particular humorist.  Or you might want to provide a comparative analysis of selections by two or more humorists dealing with a related topic—for example, Paul Feig’s and Jean Shepherd’s respective accounts of their high school proms, sexual awakening in selected essays by David Sedaris, Paul Feig, and Beth Lisick, or the role of family in relevant selections by various humorists.  Or again, you might want to explore various connections between one our featured humorists and an unassigned humorist—for example, George Carlin and Chris Rock or Richard Pryor; or to explore connections between one of  our assigned selections and a humorous film dealing with the same subject—for example, Jean Shepherd’s “Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss” and National Lampoon’s Summer Vacation.  On the other hand, you might want to explore a personal connection with one or more of the assigned selections.  For example, you might want to revisit a memorable family vacation of your own (for better or worse) in relation to Jean Shepherd’s “Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss,” recall a personal dating fiasco in relation to Beth Lisick’s “Didn’t I Almost Have It All?”, compile and measure your own inventory of “bad songs” against Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs, or provide your own personal “reactive-experiential take” on any of the topics addressed by George Carlin in Napalm and Silly Putty (for example, cats and dogs, supermarket shopping, cars and driving, airline travel, advertising, and “euphemistic bullshit”).  Aside from exploratory personal connections with various of our assigned selections, you might want to write a humorous essay of your own—a particularly attractive option since we could, perhaps, compile a class anthology of original humor.

Last Update: April 24, 2013


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