Comedy and Cruelty

Course Description

We will consider a body of work that finds in comedy a form uniquely capable of responding to the traumas of contemporary life. Although there is much about the forms and logic of comedy worth questioning, our primary preoccupation will be to attend to the cultural work of comedy and the role cruelty plays therein. As anyone who has ever been on the wrong end of a joke can attest, there is an uneasy proximity between comedy and cruelty. If one pleasure particular to comedy consists in laughing at the pain of others, can comedy be mobilized for responsible ends? Can comedy sustain social life?

The core of our reading will come from a selection of recent films: Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (2018), Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019), Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite (2019), and Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman (2020). We will place these films in dialogue with representative examples from early Hollywood cinema (films by Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, Ernst Lubitsch, and Preston Sturges) and in doing so concentrate on their differing approaches to similar problems reveal about their competing visions of modernity.

In order to help us develop a critical vocabulary to think and write seriously about comedy, over the course of our time together, we will turn to selections from political, psychoanalytic, philosophical, and literary writings on humor and violence by Sigmund Freud, Stanley Cavell, Sianne Ngai, and Lauren Berlant, among others. Although readings will take us from the early twentieth century to the present, our overriding question will remain the same—why, exactly, are we laughing?

The learning outcomes for this course are as follows:

• You will gain greater fluency in critical analysis. This will extend beyond their written work to include how they engage their instructor as well as their peers.
•You will be introduced to foundational readings and ideas in the history and theory of the western comedic tradition, as well as more recent texts that position themselves as heir to that tradition.
• You will develop a nuanced understanding of how comedy has been theorized in the past, and how it is being theorized presently.

Everyone knows what comedy is—we all have our working definitions. We will, in the service of developing a rigorous method of engaging our topic, work together to unlearn what we think we know.

This course is designed to be, in part, an introduction to close reading, a critical practice that remains central to the task of thinking across the humanities. To that end, there will be periodic short written assignments organized around close reading. The work we will do during our time together will therefore prepare you for the kind of analytical work expected of them throughout your undergraduate career.


This course is designed for high school students of any level. The only true prerequisite is that anyone interested in enrolling in this course keeps an open mind as we will be dealing with texts that ask a great deal of us as readers and thinkers.


Two Sections Available to Choose From:

Online sections of Pre-College courses are offered in one of the following modalities: Asynchronous, Mostly asynchronous, or Blended. Please review full information regarding the experience here.

Dates: July 11, 2022 - July 22, 2022
Duration: 2 Weeks
Meeting Times: Online - Mostly Asynchronous
Status: Closed
Format: Online
Instructor(s): Fabrizio Ciccone
Course Number: 10230

Dates: July 25, 2022 - July 29, 2022
Duration: 1 Weeks
Meeting Times: M-F 12:15P-3:05P
Status: Closed
Format: On-Campus
Instructor(s): Fabrizio Ciccone
Course Number: 10043