Comedy and Cruelty

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Course DatesLengthMeeting TimesStatusFormatInstructor(s)CRN
June 28, 2021 - July 14, 20216/28 - 7/142 WeeksOnlineWaitlistedOnlineFabrizio Ciccone

Course Description

Is comedy possible in the twenty-first century? Ours is an age of disappointment, plagued by unprecedented violence and crisis, and the familiar tools of satire (insult and shame chief among them) have all but lost their edge in the face of daily life. But does this necessarily mean that ours is a tragic age? This course will give us an opportunity to investigate the conditions that allow a tragic situation to become a comedic one.

We will consider a body of work that finds in comedy a form uniquely capable of responding to the traumas of life in the twenty-first century. Of special interest will be works that seek to unsettle the line separating comedy from tragedy and, more specifically, comedy from horror. 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? Is comedy necessarily anti-social, or can comedy provide the tools for revolt? It is my hope that by the end of this course it will be clear that, despite all appearances to the contrary, our current political moment (whatever future generations may call it) is, perhaps, a time for laughter. 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), and Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite (2019). We will thus devote some of our time to discussing the theory and practice of film analysis in order to understand how films think. 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 what their differing approaches to similar problems reveal about their competing visions of modernity. While film will play a central role in this course, we will (briefly) look to television to see how the discourses being placed under scrutiny by the films mentioned above play out on a smaller scale in episodes of Key and Peele (2012-2015), BoJack Horseman (2014-2020), Fleabag (2016-2019), Search Party (2016-present), and Atlanta (2016-present). 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, Frantz Fanon, 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? 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, a number of short written assignments organized around close reading will be assigned. The generic diversity that characterizes this course will allow students to familiarize themselves with the various ways of reading texts and images. As we will be dealing with works of non-fiction (primarily examples of criticism and theory) in addition to fiction, students will also immerse themselves in the many ways of thinking about the ideas driving this course. The work we will do during our time together will therefore prepare students for the kind of analytical work expected of them throughout their undergraduate careers.

As a result of completing this course, students will be able to think critically about a variety of genres (i.e. film, television, theory, criticism, and visual art/media) and express these thoughts within a recognizable academic framework. Special attention will be paid to forming arguments, intervening in pre-existing debates, and writing briefly and coherently about complex texts.

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

Course Information

  • Course Code: CEEL0807

Program Information


Brown’s Pre-College Program in the liberal arts and sciences for students completing grades 9-12 by June 2021.

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