American Studies 430
American Humor
M - Th:  3:30 - 4:50
GHH 108
Roger Williams University
Fall Semester, 2010
Michael R. H. Swanson, Ph. D.
Office:  GHH 215
Hours: M, T, W, Th, F:  11:00 - 12:00
Or By Appointment
Phone:  254 - 3230
The General (1927)
Starring Buster Keaton
Click the poster to see the whole film.
Somtheing's behind this.  What????????
Above you see a picture of  Buster Keaton who became knwn as "the great stone face," a short excerpt of a famous film in which he starred, The General, and a link to the full length version of the same.  If technology doesn’t fail us, we’ll look at the excerpt together.  Then I want you to look at the longer version of the film before our next class meeting.  I want you to answer five questions about this film:
Books for the course:

Rourke, Constance,
American Humor: a Study of the National Character
NYRB Classics, 2004

Boskin, Joseph, et al.
The Humor Prism in 20th Century America
Wayne St. University Press, 1997

Baker, Russell
Russell Baker’s Book of American Humor
W. W. Norton, 1993

Watkins, Mel
African American Humor
Lawrence Hill Books, 2002

I taught an American Humor course many years ago–before the internet existed.   Lot of other things either didn’t exist or were in their infancy.  Personal Computers were in the future.  People didn’t word process: they typed.  I thought it would be fun to offer the course again as a special topic, but this time capitalizing as much as possible on the new tools available to us.  So be warned, you’ll be asked to spend a considerable amount of time on the Internet, and you’ll be using a variety of computer based devices to submit your work for this course. 

Be warned as well, that this course is likely to evolve in the course of offering it.  It won’t be particularly linear, and there will be a variety of changes or digressions in midstream–those of you who have taken other courses from me in the past are familiar with this characteristic of the courses I offer.  There are other American Studies courses available to you if you’re more comfortable with more structure.
When I taught this course last, it focused almost entirely on written humor, and most of what we investigated was historical.  That had to be the case, given the tools and materials at we had available to ourselves at that time.  It will still focus primarily on the written word, and still have a healthy dose of history at its core.   Among the reasons for this are these: first, I like language-based humor, and second, I thought it important to introduce you to persons and ideas you were less likely to know.  You’re probably much more expert on Family Guy or South Park than I am:   But have you heard of Widow Bedott or Mr. Dooley?

This is not to say that we’ll ignore visual humor or materials from contemporary America.  Through miracles of the information age we have access to incredible amounts of material.  Every week, the online syllabus will contain a clip from some film or presentation by someone who made (or is making) a contribution to American Humor.  There will be links to many sources as well.  In some cases following these links will be required–pay close attention to that.  I’m hoping that requiring a click-through is hardly necessary, and that most of the members of this class will do it out of curiosity and because they expect something enjoyable to appear when they do.
How do we study humor?

The subjects of humor aren’t “funny” or “trivial”.  Here’s a riddle:
Q.  How can you tell the difference between a skunk hit by a car and a banker hit by a car? 
A.  There are skid marks where the skunk was hit.
So what are we laughing (or not laughing) at here?  Death.  Who is likely not to find this joke particularly amusing?  Besides, skunks?  Hint:  Naughty word caution...don't click on "hint".  (Well, did you click?).
The Comedian Jackie Mason was often called an Equal Opportunity Offender. 

We’ll look at racial and ethnic humor, at sexual humor, at political humor, at lots of other types of humor.   Humor has been called an “equal-opportunity offender” I wonder if 10,000,000 people would laugh at the story behind this link?  Which 10,000,000 might or might not?    In short, we’ll use laughter to explore differences between Americans individually and Americans as member of groups.  We’ll look at humor as a weapon and at humor as a shield.

We’ll also look at humor as a historical marker.  Some things which might have caused massive laughter two centuries ago (or two years ago) might very well lead to snores today.  If we had a wayback machine we could test the reverse (are the accents in the clip below offensive?).  They weren't considered so by the majority culture when Rocky and Bullwinkle first graced television screens.
What makes us ROFL today that might have caused Ben Franklin to consider us nuts?
Work for the course

Two of the books for this course (Rourke and Boskin) are primarily analytical. 
The best way for me to assess what you’ve learned through reading them is through
take-home examinations. 

These will be short, based on the five questions at the top of the syllabus.  These are not to
be considered finished works–(I’m not evaluating them on style and grammatical perfection,
but on faithfulness to the task and to the spirit of the task).

The other two books for this course, (Baker and Watkins) are books of readings, and they
will form the primary materials for the reflective writing.  Additional sources representing
other media will also be assigned, and these will also be included in your reflective writing
as well.

Rules and Regs.

This guy in this flick said that 90% of success is based on showing up. 
The other 25% (I’m a history guy, not a math guy) is showing up prepared.  Video flashes so be prepared tor that, too.
I take attendance by passing around a sign-up sheet, and while I do not deduct eleventy points per absence, too many times missing suggests to me that you’re not taking humor seriously, and that you’re also not aware of how much your colleagues in this class need you.  Absences become excused through notifying me of the reasons–in advance, except in state of emergency.
Statement on Plagiarism.  Do NOT take this guy’s advice.  

Enough said: if you need to read more, you can do that here.