Emerson students who like their comedy with a side of philosophy will have a new course offering this fall, thanks to a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant awarded to faculty member Ken Feil.
Feil, senior scholar-in-residence in the Department of Visual and Media Arts, will spend his summer developing Laughing At, Laughing With: How Does Comedy Unite and Divide?, a 300-level course in the new Comedic Arts major, but open to students in any major.
“Comedy is a wonderful lab to suss out what’s authentically interesting and insightful in terms of diversity questions and inclusion questions, and deepening the discussion instead of flattening it out and not encouraging people to think about it much,” Feil said.
The question of comedy uniting and dividing has come into sharp relief in recent years, most pointedly and tragically with the terrorist attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January 2015, Feil said. But debates over what is funny and who gets to decide are currently raging within the United States, he said.
“Amy Schumer is confrontational toward misogynists,” Feil said. “And so you can argue that’s divisive, yet there’s a progressive point to it.
“Whereas there are certain forms of comedy that I think target groups: women, LGBT folks,” Feil said, “I think of any number of jokes that have exploded over the past year or two about Caitlyn Jenner that are tossed off in the gesture of assuming that most people find transgender people either threatening or weird; so that’s uniting the audience, but excluding a group in a way that’s mean-spirited and perhaps on a deeper level, unethical.”
One of the stipulations of the NEH grant is that the professor designing the course has to push themselves outside their academic comfort zone.
For Feil, that means he’ll be spending his summer reading 200 to 300 books so he’ll be prepared to lead discussions on everything from Aristophanes to Huckleberry Finn to abolitionist melodrama to Chelsea Handler. The course will examine comedy in theater, literature, graphic novels, comic strips, and modernist art, as well as film, television, and standup.
“I think [the course] is going to open students’ minds in terms of different ways of thinking about comedy, in terms of social impact and ethics, and I think that’s really important as they look to find their comedic voices,” said Professor Martie Cook, creator and director of the Comedic Arts program. “Because it’s not just about going out and writing comedy and performing comedy, it’s about learning about these important issues.”
Cook said the grant is validation that comedy is an important art form, with a real ability to effect social change.
Feil said he sees so many comedians working today who are willing to be more introspective in terms of their own material. He cited as an example Handler, whose talk show, Chelsea Lately, trafficked in a lot of stereotypes, but whose new Netflix project, Chelsea Does, tackles difficult topics, such as racism, in an edgy, more sophisticated way.
“Diversity and inclusion are such huge subjects in comedy today, and I think the way comedians are addressing it is very, very interesting and complicated, and I think, inspiring, in many ways,” Feil said.