English 180C

Comedy


Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
1 Fall 2019 Marno, David
TTh 12:30-2 102 Wheeler

Description

Tragedy has been deemed dead almost for almost as long as it has existed; for some, it gave up its soul when philosophy appeared in ancient Greece, for others, it's capitalism and action movies that killed it in the twentieth century. But while tragedy has been dying or dead, comedy has been alive and well: from Aristophanes to Always Sunny in Philadelphia and from Plautus to Crazy Rich Asians, the past two and a half millennia could easily be described as an age in which comedy has been ever more successful. It has been so successful and pervasive, in fact, that today when many are calling for comedy's reformation and some are declaring its end, it appears hard for us to imagine a world without it. What makes comedy such an exceptionally successful genre, and are we seeing the end of its success today?

In this class, we talk about these and related questions by looking at one specific device of comedy: the comedic anagnorisis, aka happy ending. For most modern conceptions of comedy, the key feature of the genre is that it generates laughter. The classical defniition of comedy, in turn, emphasizes that comedy is about people "worse than us" in a social or ethical sense, and often both. How does the third most conspicuous and widespread feature of comedy, that fact that it ought to end well, relate to these two? What is this device supposed to do, and how have writers and artists used it from ancient Greece to 21st-century America? We'll ponder these questions by looking at the works of comedians from Aristophanes and Plautus to Kleist and Wilde, as well as twentieth- and twenty-first-century comedies from Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night to Hannah Gadsby's Nanette.

Readings include a selection of both “old” and “new” comedies (from Aristophanes’s Lysistrata to Spike Lee’s Chiraq, and from Plautus’s Menaechmi to Beaumarchais’s The Marriage of Figaro), as well as a case study of how a classical Roman comedy, Plautus’s Amphitryon, was reimagined throughout the ages from the English Renaissance to German Romanticism by authors such as Heywood, Dryden, Molière, and Kleist. We’ll look at what standup has inherited from comedy and what it has added to the genre, and also read a small selection of theoretical texts from Aristotle to Sianne Ngai. Assignments include three short papers and a final-take home exam.


Back to Semester List