Postmortem: Comedy and the Moving Image

An attempt to capture everything that was written on the chalkboard after class discussion in week 13 of the course. (I can’t promise that this isn’t a glimpse into madness.)

Ian here—

Grades for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Fall 2016 semester were due today, and I wanted to take the occasion to do a quick postmortem on “Comedy and the Moving Image,” which I consider to be the most successful course I taught this term—as well as one of my most fun and productive courses ever taught. I’ve posted several lesson plans from this course already throughout the past couple of months. Links to those will be provided below, as I sketch out a skeletal version of the course’s themes, and some of its most interesting surprises.

I put this visual presentation together for our final class meeting. You should feel free to follow along with it … although I admit that, as you can see from the above image, it gets increasingly messy as you click through.

Outline of the course’s arc

The first four weeks of the class, I guided students through a trio of classic philosophical texts on the theory of humor. Thomas Hobbes granted us the superiority theory of humor.[i] Immanuel Kant gave us a chance to talk about incongruity.[ii] We concluded with the longest and most involved text, Henri Bergson‘s writing on humor as a social shaming device for mechanical inelasticity.[iii]


I used Kant as a way to discuss how incongruity can work not only across time, but also across space. Kant’s examples tend toward verbal wit: spoken jokes that build up expectation, and then explode that expectation with their punchline. Given the prevalence given to expectation in Kant’s theory of humor, it seems like the version of incompatibility he offers is completely inseparable from temporal sequence. However, I tried to point out that, in visual humor, we have the opportunity ditch sequence in favor of simultaneity, by fully using the spatial dimensions of the frame. For instance, one of Noël Carroll’s categories of sight gags, “the mutual interference or interpenetration of two (or more) series of events (or scenarios)” can only really work if the incongruity between two competing interpretations is present to us visually in a simultaneous manner.[iv] If we’re discussing moving image comedy, then, Kant will need to be adapted accordingly.


My aim was to use Bergson as the jumping-off point to all sorts of theories of bodily humor. Looking back, I did not do this as effectively as possible. Don’t get me wrong: the class in which I used Bergson as a lens to view not only silent-era film comedians such as Chaplin and Keaton, but also videos of robots falling down, prompted some of the most productive discussions of any lessons in the course, and prompted students to make original contributions to course ideas in a way that class sessions up until then had not fully done. But I failed to wring every last drop of usefulness out of Bergson, I think, by ordering some things in a sub-optimal way.

I turned directly from Bergson to Noël Carroll’s writings on Buster Keaton, spending a week on The General.[v] This makes a lot of sense, as Carroll offers a sort of mirror-image theory of humor to that of Bergson, pointing out that we can laugh at feats of adaptive intelligence alongside demonstrations of mechanical inelasticity. This sort of “awe-based” humor can be connected to verbal wit, since both provide examples where we laugh at others’ cleverness, as opposed to others’ stupidity.

But I missed another opportunity here. In discussion board posts later in the class, students pointed out something I strongly agree with: that Sergei Eisenstein’s concept of the plasmatic in drawn animation can be profitably contrasted against Bergson, just as Carroll can.[vi] I separated our Bergson and Eisenstein by nine weeks in the course. If I were to teach this again, I wouldn’t do that. They deserve to be placed against each other: it holds the promise of being quite productive. I’ll note that now, and move on. I’ll get to plasmaticness again later.


Our final philosopher, Hobbes, cast the longest shadow in the course. Hobbes’ idea that we laugh at the misfortunes of others because they make us look better, comparatively, is an idea that is both provocative and difficult to stamp out. It reared its head whenever we talked about violence in the course, whether that took the form of people’s real-life pain, the performed pain of slapstick actors, or the cartoon violence of animation.


Our ability to laugh at people’s real pain seemed to provide the strongest evidence for Hobbes’ position, and it’s something we grappled with several times throughout the quarter. I showed a YouTube compilation of popular “fail videos” during our very last class, and much later in the semester we turned to Jackass to ask what, precisely, the comedic draw of watching others’ pain was.

prezi_screenshot-comedy_postmortem-05Watching performed pain is nominally less morally fraught than watching real pain, but throughout the course we found ways to complicate the idea we only laugh at performed pain because it is performed. Louise Peacock, for instance, insists that we can only laugh at slapstick because our knowledge of it as performance presents a sort of moral buffer for us.[vii] As much as this idea persuasively tickles our sense of morality, our laughter at fail videos and Jackass contradict it. It also can’t account for some complicated gray areas. For instance, many audiences today know that Buster Keaton actually did suffer numerous injuries throughout his lifetime in show business (including, famously, fracturing one of his vertebra during the shooting of Sherlock, Jr.) … but that doesn’t mean we necessarily stop laughing at his films out of a sense of moral outrage.[viii]


Finally, there’s the issue of cartoon violence. Originally, I had just wanted to spice up the lesson plan I originally put together on Eisenstein’s theory of plasmaticness for my Intro to Film Course, by veering ever-so-slightly into the question of whether cartoon physics allows us to laugh at violence by removing its consequences. However, students surprised me: they wanted to be much more ambitious. They ran right past my beginning examples of anvils dropping on heads, and instead attempted an elaborate cross-cultural analysis, asking how different attitudes toward violence had produced a comic-magical version of plasmaticness in American animation, versus a body-horror plasmaticness in Japanese anime.


I have to admit that this was completely unforeseen by me. Whenever I’ve thought about plasmaticness before, I’ve always thought about it in relation to freedom from formfreedom from finitude, and freedom from mortality. As Donald Crafton puts it, summing up my thoughts better than I could, “[Toon bodies] remain locked within the limits of their photomechanical or digital media. Proximally live though they may be, there’s no alchemy that will give them real life. In compensation, toons can’t die.”[ix]

But my students had me here! They were right. Sometimes plasmaticness is horrific. And it is interesting to poke at the reasons why different cultures of animation have gravitated towards different affective uses of the same visual trope. (Even if, I must say, we weren’t really properly prepared by course readings to draw any real conclusions about this during in-class discussion.)


So: Plasmaticness can be kinda gross sometimes. When mapping out this possibility, this reminded me that we hadn’t discussed the issue of disgust in relation to Jackass: since I had primarily focused on stunts that foregrounded physical pain, I had neglected to bring the class’ attention to the role of gross-out humor in the franchise. This oversight will definitely be rectified if I teach this course in the future. Whenever possible, disgust should be discussed!

If we’re talking about negative affect that can produce humor, we should add embarrassment to disgust, and add cringe comedy to gross-out humor. This is another area that was under-served in the course. I showed an episode of Louie that was uncomfortable, but, as one of my students persuasively argued, Louis C.K.’s comic persona is too self-conscious to really count as an avatar of cringe comedy. Planning for the future, though, cringe comedy might make a good hinge point between Hobbes and Bergson: it connects Hobbes’ superiority theory of humor with Bergson’s idea that the social purpose of humor is to shame those who fail to adapt to situations due to unawareness.


Three open questions

Around weeks 12 and 13, students started to ask some very “big picture” questions, sometimes challenging the class to provide an adequate answer. I’d say that, by the conclusion of the semester, these are things that were never entirely resolved. And that’s great! It gave students fodder for their final papers.

Two of these were unforeseen by me (and therefore really wonderful to encounter). One is one that I was aiming at, but that a student put in his own words (words I quite like, and will probably use in the future!).

1) Violent humor, gross-out humor, cringe humor … why is so much humor based on the pain and humiliation of others? Is there any sort of moving-image humor that isn’t based around some sort of hostile impulse toward others?

This one was like a charge set off in the room. I expected Hobbes’ superiority theory of humor to be fodder for conversation, but I wasn’t expecting a blanket statement such as this one.

For my own part, I was hoping that Jacques Tati’s PlayTime (which we didn’t get to until later, during week 15) would provide some sort of answer to this, demonstrating that sometimes moving-image humor can provide you with nothing more (or less) than a new and funny way of looking at the world. My students, though, stepped in with the possible counter-example of William Wegman, whose videos had been a hit among the students in the middle of the semester, when I showed some comedic strains of avant-garde film and video art. Exactly what was funny about Wegman remained elusive to students (is it the aloofness? the weird timing, where the anticlimax of the gag is the gag itself?), but one student did step in here and insist that Wegman’s humor didn’t rely on pain or humiliation of anyone. (Even if it was the only thing we had watched up until that point that didn’t!) And, honestly, I think the sketch embedded below got the biggest laughs out of anything I showed all semester:

2) Is “random humor” the same thing as incongruity? Or does “incongruity” presuppose a baseline of normal expectation that random humor denies?

Students were curious as to the continued relevance of someone like Kant in the era of Family Guy‘s “manatee gags.” Can there still be “incongruity” any more, once all sense of normalcy has been stripped away, and humor has flown completely into the realm of the absurd and unhinged? Or does everything converge at the same level of chaos?

I had absolutely no answer for this, but it’s something worth pursuing in the future, as students these days have been completely brought up on the “random humor” (exemplified by the likes of Family Guy, Adult Swim’s programming bock, and now-foundational YouTube hits like Salad Fingers). My week on Dadaist humor was pretty weak, so perhaps I should seek out some criticism that connects the thread between absurdism in the historical avant-garde to absurdism in today’s television comedy.

3) With the rise of computer-generated animation techniques, are we seeing the emergence of a comedic animated visual style distinct from Eisentsein’s tradition of “plasmaticness”?

This is one of the core questions that I’ve investigated whenever I’ve taught Eisenstein on animation—you can see it already, for instance, in my lesson plan from my 2015 Intro to Film course. But I especially like the way that one of my students re-phrased the issue, when he proposed that, with computer-generated animation, we are moving a way from the mode of complete transformation that categorizes Eisenstein’s descriptions of Disney cartoons, toward a mode of macro-level transformation that is based on a micro-level rigidity.

The Lego Movie (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, 2014), which we watched clips of in class, makes an obvious case for this new mode of comic transformative potential that has emerged. But we also see examples of it in things like the “microbots” in Big Hero 6 (Don Hall and Chris Williams, 2014). Between bricks, microbots, and the “mobile contour + rigid skeleton” character design of Baymax in Big Hero 6, computer-generated animation in recent years seems to be moving toward a hybrid style, one that retains some of the possibility of plasmaticness as described by Eisenstein, while at the same time incorporating the distinct possibilities of 3D computer animation as a medium.


Course materials

That’s it for my written postmortem. As an addendum, I’d just like to collect everything in one place. (The lesson plans are linked to in the paragraphs above, but I’ll put them in list form here.)

The syllabus is here.

Lesson plans and other pedagogical notes:

Here’s to a productive next term!

[i]. Hobbes, Thomas. Human Nature, as reprinted in The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury. Edited by William Molesworth. Aalen, Germany: Scientia, 1966. Vol. IV. (Chapters VII, VIII, and IX out of this formed my assigned reading.)

[ii]. Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgement. Translated by James Creed Meredith. Revised, edited, and introduced by Nicholas Walker. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. (The brief §54, entitled simply “Remark,” was the assigned reading from this.)

[iii]. Bergson, Henri. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Translated by Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell. Los Angeles, CA: Green Integer, 1999. (My assigned reading from this was parts II, IV, and V of Chapter I, as well as parts IV and V of Chapter III.)

[iv]. Carroll, Noël. “Notes on the Sight Gag.” In Theorizing the Moving Image. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. (This was assigned reading, paired with the Kant.)

[v]. Carroll, Noël. Comedy Incarnate: Buster Keaton, Physical Humor and Bodily Coping. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2007. (I assigned some pages from the chapter “Themes of the General” in this as course reading.)

[vi]. Eisenstein, Sergei. “On Disney.” In The Eisenstein Collection. Edited by Richard Taylor. New York: Seagull Books, 2006. (I assigned pp 93–109 of this edition of the material as class reading.)

[vii]. Peacock,Louise. Slapstick and Comic Performance: Comedy and Pain. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. (I did not assign this as reading for the course, but that was due to accidental circumstances outside of my control—it was out of the library when I needed to scan it. However, if I taught a version of this comedy course again, it absolutely would be on the syllabus. I have come to the conclusion that it is required reading when discussing the relationship of slapstick to thinks like Jackass and fail videos.)

[viii]. I mentioned these biographical details in class, but I didn’t use any course reading to corroborate my stories. I think, in the future, I’d be likely to include some of Keaton’s memoir My Wonderful World of Slapstick (New York: Doubleday, 1960) as background reading.

[ix]. Crafton, Donald. Shadow of a Mouse: Performance, Belief, and World-Making in Animation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013. Pg 253. (This wasn’t reading for the course.)

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