When I ask AP English Literature and Composition teachers to name the one work they would teach if it were the only work they were allowed to teach, the answers are not too surprising: Hamlet, Heart of Darkness, Death of a Salesman, All the King's Men, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Wuthering Heights, Jude the Obscure, Crime and Punishment, Othello, Macbeth. These are but a few of the choices, but the list in general evokes nods of approval and sighs of satisfaction upon hearing that others agree with our choices. However, when one looks at such a list more closely, a heavy pall descends upon the audience as we realize how serious such works are and how our students are justified in asking, "Can't we read something fun?"--translated to mean, "These books are depressing!"
Shakespeare certainly knew the power of comedic relief when he wrote his tragedies. He understood that his audiences needed a break after the death of King Duncan or before the funeral of Ophelia. Death and dying, nobody does it better than the classics! I would argue that it is time to lighten up and laugh more with our students as we journey into the world of literary greats. Cynthia Maddox's "Comedy Web Guide" provides a great place to start for those interested in bringing the study of comedy into the classroom. I have found that my own students are more willing to take on the next work with less hesitation when they know we will be laughing along the way. I am sure you will, too.
-- Deborah Shepard, College Board Advisor for AP English Literature and Composition
Intriguing Complexities and Teaching Opportunities
What's the best way to approach comedy in the classroom? By dissecting why we laugh, by defining the nature of comedy, or by categorizing its forms and its themes and listing its characteristics? Each implies a different emphasis, and each emphasis urges a different approach. The very astute humorist E. B. White eventually threw up his hands: "Humor is a complete mystery." Theories of comedy and laughter tend to stress purposes that trump, or even contradict, other theories. Those perplexities -- combined with the uneasy grain of truth in the adage that analyzing what's funny kills it -- might explain, in part, why comedy and humor suffer from neglect in the classroom. There is no universal definition; there are only approaches. Comedy's elusiveness is part of its complexity.
Here's an effort at a general truth about comedy: it is a social mode. It is (almost) always about groups of people solving problems and working out differences, either learning to live with the ways of the world or registering a noisy protest against them. The intriguing complexities of comedy offer unique opportunities for students to refine their analytical and critical thinking skills. Comedy is expansive, unpredictable, intricate, subversive, penetrating, and explosive. What could be more pertinent and appealing to students, more challenging to teachers?
The sites listed in this guide were selected for the support they offer in planning a curriculum unit on comedy, for gathering background on comedy in different historical periods, for aspects such as satire and irony. Because a few writers are so central to the study of comedy and humor -- Shakespeare, Molière, Twain -- I have included a few resources that go directly to their distinctive brands of comedy. For obvious omissions, like Oscar Wilde, check the reviews on AP Central:
This guide privileges dramatic comedy, but there's plenty on AP Central to help teachers discover the comic dimensions of Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor or to learn more about the serious comedy of humorists from Woody Allen to David Sedaris.
Celia Maddox (Ph.D., Columbia University) teaches Shakespeare and courses in writing and literature in Connecticut. She writes for a variety of publications.