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Northwestern University

Uncommon Thinking: What's Funny?

Comedy as a genre reflects us back to ourselves, warts and all. It’s also a way of getting some distance.

There’s something very cathartic about laughing at something very painful and taking away some of the hurt.

Shakespeare’s Henry plays, for example, deal significantly with the horror and pain of war. The great comic figure Falstaff both complicates and offers some relief from the pain of so much violence. For instance, he keeps a bottle of sack (wine) in his pistol holster instead of a gun, and hilariously plays dead during a battle to get out of fighting.

Rebecca L. Fall, Ph.D.'16

Visiting assistant professor of English and teacher of classes such as “Comedy from Shakespeare to South Park” and “Bad Girls in Renaissance Drama”

I find spell-check typos very funny.

I make a deal with my classes: If there’s not a single spell-check typo in any paper handed in, I’ll buy pizza for the entire class. I’ve never had to buy a pizza.

Sometimes the typos are silly. In a paper about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the student wrote that the slave Jim ran away down the river with his friend “Hulk.” Sometimes they have a weird grain of truth. In Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, conjoined twins are going to fight a duel, and the student misspelled the word duel as “dual”— and in a way, the opposing character did fight a “dual.”

These errors are amusing because they break up the monotony of grading, but they’re also a problem because they can undercut your argument. My line is that spell-check was invented by the devil to make you look stupid. A typo is not the end of the world, but it does make you look less smart than you are.

Bill Savage

Associate professor of instruction, Department of English

When it comes to the question of what’s funny, I often recall a scene I witnessed on a bus in Berlin.

The automated voice had just announced the next stop: Hallesches Tor. Two young children on the bus started repeating the sounds of the stop’s name, “Halleschesschesschesschesschesschessches Tor,” over and over, cracking up like it was the funniest thing they had ever heard.

What struck me was how they were using the words as material to be played with, taken out of — and positioned against — their context. I think this gets [close to] the essence of why we find things funny: We make things that don’t make sense according to the sense we know, and in doing so realize that the sense we know is always already a sense of our own making.

Erica Weitzman

Assistant professor, Department of German

One thing I learned while working on my anthropology thesis at Northwestern is that humor is subjective.

I think my standup resonates most with people in the United Kingdom. British and Scottish crowds like the dark, dry stuff more than Americans do — it seems that since they have bodies buried under their cities and a longer history of performance art, they have a darker, more mature sensibility. Topics like rape, abortion or cancer might seem taboo in the U.S., mostly because people tend to focus on the “hot-button word” rather than the content of the actual joke, but those topics don’t immediately make audiences in the U.K. tune out. A lot of my material stems from what I’m afraid of. If I can make something scary funny, I feel less alone in my fears and I have power over them.

Jena Friedman ’05

Touring stand-up comic and former field producer for The Daily Show

Comedy is an upheaval of expectations or a perceived threat rendered harmless.

What’s especially funny for me is when arrogance or ceremony is undercut. Someone is posed at the top of a beautiful stairway in a mansion, and then they trip down the stairs. The scene starts off on such an extravagant note, but when that person falls down, their inflated ego is deeply bruised. I don’t know, it just makes me laugh.

Chloe Cole ’13

Co-founder of Northwestern Comedy Forum and former staff writer at Dorkly

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