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.
So, this isn’t a proper lesson plan. It’s just a quick cheat sheet. When teaching PlayTime, I pair it with Kristin Thompson’s chapter “Play Time: Comedy n the Edge of Perception” in her book Breaking the Glass Armor. (I consider myself incredibly lucky that I can pair one of my favorite films with a piece of writing that I consider to be one of the more astute and persuasive pieces of academic film criticism ever written.) My lesson, therefore, largely revolves around the conclusions of Thompsons’ analysis: that “the comic and the non-comic become indistinguishable” in PlayTime, and that the way the film “forces us into new viewing procedures” holds the potential to “successfully transform our perception in general.”[i] To view PlayTime, in other words, is to encounter a new way of seeing the world, one that might persist beyond the theater.
How do you successfully persuade students that PlayTime requires specific viewing procedures from its audience, ones unlike those we use when viewing a more traditional narrative film? My tactic is pretty simple: I pull student attention to moments that reward close viewing. Thompson herself lists a bunch of these in her chapter. I like to point to additional, different ones, so that I can show students new, unexpected visual rewards—therefore making both me and Tati seem smarter than we otherwise would! Please feel free to steal these.
One of my primary reasons for designing my course “Comedy and the Moving Image” for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s first-year seminar sequence was to give myself an opportunity to expand my knowledge base on comedy beyond the research I had done for my article on comedic videogames. The class gave me an opportunity to teach a whole bunch of readings, films, video art pieces, and television episodes I had never taught before. By the twelfth week, though, the time had come to turn back to my particular hobbyhorse.
In the lead-up to this class, I had screened a few stunts from the Jackass franchise. This included “Paper Cuts” from Jackass: The Movie (Jeff Tremaine, 2002) and “Tee Ball” from Jackass 3D (Jeff Tremaine, 2010). The first half of class was organized around discussions of violence and sadism in physical humor, propped up not only by Jackass but also by Muriel Andrin’s chapter “Back to the ‘Slap’: Slapstick’s Hyberbolic Gesture and the Rhetoric of Violence” and Scott Richmond’s article “‘Dude, That’s Just Wrong‘: Mimesis, Identification, Jackass.” In the second half of the course, things segued into small group work as students played and discussed a group of comedic videogames.
Since November 9th, I’ve been coasting on lesson plan blog posts that I already had previously finished and scheduled. Now, here we are, with my first real “live” post since the 2016 election.
In the coming months, many peoples’ lives will be disrupted more than mine, and it is on me to make sure I contribute as much as possible to make those people feel welcome in this country, and to oppose the policies, appointment, and general behavior of our new president elect. I acknowledge that the disruption I will be facing is much lesser than the disruption many others will be facing. Nevertheless, my own life has been disrupted in its own small ways—as I’m sure many peoples’ has in this nation, even those who are not undocumented, or Latinx, or Muslim, or women, or disabled, or LGBTQIA, or, well, children (who, after all, will bare the brunt of Trump’s bullish climate denial). For me, the most immediate effects (as small as they may be, in the long run), were grappling with the syllabus I had created for my course “Comedy and the Moving Image” at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
This is another lesson plan from my “Comedy and the Moving Image” course. It’s from the week immediately following the previously-posted week on Bergson’s Laughter, and it follows up several of those ideas, merging with Bergson with the theories of Keaton’s humor forwarded by Noël Carroll in his book Comedy Incarnate: Buster Keaton, Physical Humor and Bodily Coping.
The following is a lesson plan for a day spent discussing Henri Bergson’s theory of humor in my course “Comedy and the Moving Image.”[i] It’s admittedly unusual, but I found it to be wonderfully productive.
The first third or so of this course was spent discussing some major philosophical theories of humor (Hobbes, Kant, Bergson) and watching silent slapstick comedy shorts. Knowing that devoting a solid block of class to silent cinema came with the danger of alienating students, I also spiced things up by showing a lot of contemporary YouTube videos in class, which kept them engaged. (The “fail video” genre makes a terrific pairing with Hobbes’ theory of humor!) You’ll see some of that back-and-forth in this lesson.