Comic Tradition: From Aristophanes to South Park

Spring 2019, Department of Classics, School of Arts and Sciences

Andreola Rossi

Future sections
Usually offered one semester per year

Course catalog pitch: “We analyze the genre of comedy from its carnival origin to the modern day. . . . Special emphasis is given to the carnival quality of comedy, the social context(s) in which the genre develops, the social function of comedy and satire, the structure of a comic plot, comic heroes, and comic types.”

On the syllabus: The first classes are dedicated to the psychology of laughter, drawing heavily from Freud, so students can begin to define what makes something funny. The course then goes back in time to trace the evolution of comedy, starting with Plato and Aristotle’s writings on the genre’s social function and continuing up through Saturday Night Live and cartoons. Areas of focus include the role of the trickster figure (in ancient Greece and Native American folktales) and invective poetry (in ancient Greece and contemporary rap music). Students work in groups to complete a final project or performance—the last time the course was offered, a drama student staged a parody of The Birds by Aristophanes, nodding to Hillary Clinton’s election loss.

Laughter Matters: “Are some comedians correct in arguing that political correctness and the environment in which we live today has killed comedy?” instructor Andreola Rossi asked. “Should comedy be a safe space for speech? Or are other comedians correct in saying that political correctness has in fact triggered an improvement in comedy, away from the regular stereotypes? That’s the point of the course: How do we judge comedy? Students come in thinking that comedy is fun and that watching a sitcom is a private matter done during your free time. They come out of the course understanding that comedy throughout history has had a totally different function because it’s connected to the carnival—a moment in every society in which there is a total freedom of action and subversion of societal roles.” 

Courtney Hollands

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