Syllabus: Comedy as Artistic Strategy

Submitted by Sara H. Rafferty (inactive) on Tuesday, 1/19/2010, at 4:11 PM

“Comedy as Artistic Strategy”


Spring 2010

Sara Greenberger Rafferty

Office/Studio: Fayerweather 303

Office hours: Tuesdays 11-1 and by appointment


Phone: 413-452-2187


This course is structured around the tropes of comedic aesthetics: stand-up, slapstick, situations, puns, pratfalls, and pity. Taking aesthetic and thematic cues from comedians and funny situations rather than from a specific artistic medium or technique, students will utilize video, audio, photographs, diagrams, performance, and sculptural props to create and document new artworks that are informed by the aesthetics and practices of humor.


Concurrent threads of pathos, performance, identity, and language will also be explored in examples of historical and contemporary artworks dealing with humor and, especially, examples of historical and contemporary comedic performance and broadcast. Weekly screenings and readings will be organized by type of comedic strategy or format (stand-up, slapstick, ensemble, wordplay, radio/audio recording, television, concrete comedy, skits/sketches, parody, impressions, etc.)  Projects will include self-directed and collaborative artworks, exercises, field recordings, and texts. In addition, there will be a class website which will serve as exhibition space and site of experimentation for the distribution and creation of these funny (or sad, as the case may be) artworks.



The primary objective of this class is to create artworks and a discourse around these artworks. In the service of this objective, we will read about, watch, and look at comedy and historical and contemporary artists using comedic tactics or tropes. The class is not media-specific, though we will be using video and media as a main component. This syllabus is a living document, and is a plan for the course of the semester. The class should be fun, experimental, and generative.


Note: The website and email/in class announcements will always supersede deadlines printed in this document.


Required, Weekly:

•Keep a sketchbook with notes on readings, comedians, and sketches for artworks, storyboards, etc.

In addition, there is one required sketchbook assignment: (“After” a comedian: Choose a comedian or troupe from the “List of Comedians” (or propose an alternative) and make a work based on the “aesthetics” of that comedian.)


•Participate on the class website, upload work and add links.


Staggered Assignment:

•Report on an artist: Choose an artist from the “List of Artists” (or propose an alternative) and present 10-20 images or 2-3 video clips along with a 1000 word “review” of the artist’s work. (Students will sign up for a presentation day, one each throughout the semester.)


Required Books:

•Sigmund Freud. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconcscious. (I don't have a preference for edition. This book exists as an e-book on the Amherst College library website as “Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious.” Given the difficulties of translation, and the strangeness of this text, it may actually be useful to have people in the class reading different translations. I will be using the newish The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious, published in 2002 by Penguin Classics, translated by Joyce Crick.)


•Ed. Jennifer Higgie. The Artist's Joke. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press: 2007 (TAJ)

Required Supplies:

•a sketchbook of your choice

•miscellaneous easily available art supplies: paper, pens, markers, paints, etc.

•at least 3 blank DV tapes



•a portable Firewire hard drive of at least 100 GB (these can be checked out for the semester, but if you have the means to acquire your own, it is highly recommended)

•access to a digital still camera





Week 1 (1/26, 1/28):

Introduction, drawings for props, storyboards, foundational reading


Readings (due 2/2):

•selected passages from Freud (Introduction, Technique, Tendencies, Motives)

•Henri Bergson. Chapter 1. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic.

•Mikhail Bakhtin. excerpt from Introduction, pp. 5-18. Rabelais and His World. Translated by Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1984.

•TAJ: Wagstaff



The Comedian (Serling), The King of Comedy (Scorsese)



•make at least 25 drawings/notational representations of props, scenarios, sets, scripts, characters, costumes (due 1/28)


Weeks 2 & 3 (2/2, 2/4)(2/9, NO CLASS THURSDAY):

Slapstick & Vaudeville

Buster Keaton, Max Linder, Harold Lloyd, Karl Valentin, Bas Jan Ader


Readings (due 2/2 and 2/9):

•Brian Dillon. "Another Fine Mess: Nine theses on slapstick." frieze October 2007

and Sally O'Reilly "Things Fall Apart" from same issue.

•Alan Dale. Chapters 1 and 7. Comedy is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

•James Agee. "Comedy's Greatest Era." LIFE. September 3 or 5, 1949.

•David Robbins. "The House of Deadpan." The Velvet Grind: Selected Essays, Interviews, Satires (1983-2005). Zurich: JRP Ringier and Dijon: Les Presses du réel, 2006.

•TAJ: Heiser/Ader



The Aristocrats

•selections from Buster Keaton

•selections from Harold Lloyd

•Kate Gilmore

The Way Things Go (Fischli & Weiss)

excerpt from The Conversation (Coppola)



•Find 3-5 examples of comic timing/slapstick in film, video, artwork, post to blog (due 2/4)

•Editing: Use timing in editing to make a comedic piece from found or produced footage (due 2/16)




Weeks 4 & 5 (2/16, NO CLASS THURSDAY)(2/23, 2/25):


Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, Andrea Fraser, Tim Lee, Cory Arcangel


Readings (due 2/23):

•Doris Witt. Chapter 5. Black Hunger. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

•Compiled by Don Steinberg/GQ. "The 100 Funniest Jokes of All Time." GQ, June 1999.

•John Limon. "Inrage: A Lenny Bruce Joke and the Topography of Stand-Up" and "Scatology: Richard Pryor in Concert." Stand-up Comedy in Theory, or, Abjection. Duke University Press, 2000.

•Andrea Fraser. "Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk" and "Official Welcome" Museum Highlights: The Writings of Andrea Fraser. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press: 2005.



•Lenny Bruce Performance Film

•Andrea Fraser Official Welcome

•Richard Pryor stand up

•plus a selections of comedy audio recordings



•Make 5-10 props to be used in a photographic series or video (due 2/23)

•Static video: Make a video keeping the camera fixed in one location on a tripod, consider set, props, framing, and beginning and ending (due 3/2)


Weeks 6 & 7 (3/2, 3/4) (3/9, 3/11):

Personas and Ordeal

Andy Kaufman, Alex Bag, Jonathan Winters, Ernie Kovacs, Rodney Graham, Kate Gilmore, Mike Smith, Tamy Ben-Tor, Kalup Linzy, Luis Gisbert, Nikki S. Lee


Readings (due 3/4 and 3/9):

•David Robbins. "Interview with Richard Prince," "Art After Entertainment," "Mr. Entertainment's Diary," "Untitled Exactly." The Velvet Grind: Selected Essays, Interviews, Satires (1983-2005). Zurich: JRP Ringier and Dijon: Les Presses du réel, 2006.

•Michael Nash. "Andy Kaufman's Last Laugh." Art Issues. No 10.

•Dike Blair. "Michael Smith's Bland Ambition." (

•Andrew Lampert. Interview with Ernie Kovacs. NDP#4. (

•Linda Yablonsky. "To Thine Own Selves Be True." ArtNews November 2003.

•TAJ: Cixous, Kruger, Dumas, Isaak, Munder



•I’m From Hollywood

•The Yes Men

•Alex Bag, Untitled, 1995

•Mike Smith videos

•Tamy Ben-Tor



•design a single persona and represent this character in any way you choose (a series of drawings, a video, a series of objects, costumes, a script, a series of photographs, etc.) (due 3/11)




Weeks 8 & 9 (3/23, 3/25) (3/30, 4/1):

Comedy and photographic document / Concrete comedy and sculptural object

Adrian Piper, William Wegman, Joseph Beuys, Erwin Wurm, Gillian Wearing, Kelly Mark, Olaf Breuning, Mika Rottenberg, Susan Smith-Pinelo, Jeanne Dunning, John Bock, Claes Oldenburg, Maurizio Cattelan, Rachel Harrison, Tom Friedman, Cary Leibowitz


Readings (due 3/25):

•Kenneth Hayes. "A Romance with Liquids: The Milk Splash in California Pop Art." Milk and Melancholy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008.

•Craig Owens. "William Wegman's Psychoanalytic Vaudeville." Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, Culture. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992.

•David Robbins. "A Comic Object." Art Issues No. 8.

•TAJ: Simon/Nauman, Lucas, Horodner, Heiser/Ström, Morton/Cattelan



•William Wegman videos

•Mika Rotenberg videos



•Photo series or concrete sculpture: Make a photo series or video slideshow where the last image or coda causes the preceding images to be read in a new and humorous way OR create an object of concrete comedy (due 3/23)


•Chroma-key: Make a video utilizing the chroma-key process. (Collaborative) (due 4/6)


Weeks 10 & 11 (4/6, 4/8) (4/13, 4/15):


Kay Rosen, Ed Ruscha, George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Richard Prince, David Shrigley, Bruce Nauman


Readings (due 4/8):

•Francis Picabia. Translated by Marc Lowenthal. "Manifesto of the Dada Movement" (p. 199) "Chimney Sperm" (p. 202) "The Refrain, of What?" (p. 211) "Philisophical Dada" (214) "The Cacodylic Eye" (p. 277) "Handout" (p. 279), "Thank you Francis!" (299) and an excerpt from Chi-lo-sa pp. 384-399. I am a Beautiful Monster: Poetry, Prose, Provocation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press: 2007

•Cornelia H. Butler. "The Forest for the Trees." (exhibition catalogue):

•Judith Russi Kirshner. "Read Read Rosens." Artforum December 1990:

•TAJ: Stark, Farquharson, Zizek, Fox



•George Carlin

•Bruce Nauman videos

•Andrea Fraser



•Make a 1-3 minute audio piece for broadcast or podcast (Collaborative) (due 4/15)


Weeks 12 & 13 (4/20, 4/22) (4/27, 4/29):

Final Projects



•Simon Critchley. Chapters 1, 2, 7. On Humour (Thinking in Action). New York: Routledge,

2002. (due 4/22)

•Paolo Virno.  from Part 2: Jokes and Innovative Action: For a Logic of Change: "Prologue,"

"From the Third Person Intruder to the Public Sphere," and "The Logic of Jokes." Multitude

between Innovation and Negation. Semiotext(e)/Foreign Agents, 2008.  (due 4/29)




•Student presentations





Week 14 (5/4, 5/6):


Week 15 (5/11): Portfolios due into Department office by 4 pm


Secondary Topics:

•Comedy and magic, Comedy and clowns (Steve Martin, Jamie Isenstein, Cindy Sherman, Miguel Calderon)

•Ensembles / partners (Abbot & Costello, Harry Dodge & Stanya Kahn)

•Comedy and identity (“The Office,” Richard Pryor)

•Parody (Spinal Tap)

•Humor and abjection (Linda Benglis)

•Comedy and food (Fischli and Weiss, John Bock)

Pranks (Jackass, Re/Search PRANKS, Earles & Jensen, Aaron Young)

•The Loser (Jerry Lewis, Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers)

Television (Mike Smith, SNL, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, Pee Wee’s Playhouse)