Topic: Both “comedy” and the “political” have broad general definitions, yet take on very specific meanings in different contexts as in a particular joke and its message. Write an essay applying these terms to a specific, limited joke from social media, such as twitter, instagram. The objective here is to “ruin” the joke by explaining it: describing the joke, pointing out why it’s funny and analyzing its political message.
Format: Essay, double-spaced, 12-point font (Times New Roman or similar), 1 inch margins. Cite the joke/any quoted sources, such as Freud’s On Jokes, in MLA or Chicago style.
The basic components of the paper are to a) describe it in detail (textual analysis of the joke), b) explain how functions to produce a laugh (ruining the humor of the joke by pointing out where it comes from) and c) argue and explain why it’s political. If you would like more guidance on how to proceed, read on for step-by-step instructions.
Locate the Joke: Find what you consider to be a political joke online. This should be something that you think is funny/that seems to be intended as humorous, and that you think has a political dimension. Be careful to distinguish something that’s just funny (e.g. a picture two cats in bowties) versus something that’s telling a joke (e.g. cats in bowties explaining that they’re in charge of the White House’s mouse inclusion task force). This assignment will work best with short jokes with identifiable structures (such as a setup and punchline) so that you can describe and analyze them in your short essay. They can be visual jokes (such as a short tik tok or instagram video) so long as you are able to describe and explain them, as well as make an argument for why they’re political and what in particular they are saying.
Example of a joke from twitter that, I would argue, has a political dimension:
Locate the “Funny”: Think carefully about your chosen joke and try to break it down using some of the same steps/tools Freud outlines in his chapter on the psychological process of jokes. Don’t assume that the “funny” is obvious to everyone. Consider why the joke is funny to you. How is it structured? Where does the laughter or amusement come from? Is it only funny to a certain audience? What is the tone or quality of the humor? Is it sarcastic? Silly? Profane? Gross? Absurd?
For example, if I were writing about the above joke I might jot down some of the following:Reese’s joke sets up an expectation in the first line, directing the reader’s attention so that we expect the answer to concern one thing (perhaps reassuring kids about the likelihood of infection or contagion) so that we’re surprised when the government answers by correcting the kids’ grammar. This is a form of word-association and there’s an absurdist quality to the way it jumps to the wrong conclusion based on the words “can” and “may.” Enjoying this joke might require that the audience know that school-age children in the U.S. are often taught the difference between “may” and “can” by being corrected when they ask permission (e.g. “can I borrow the car?” “sure you can, but you may not.”)
Locate the political: Think through the political aspects of the joke. Why do you consider this joke to be political? What is it doing that has a political dimension? What power relations does the joke invoke or allude to? Who/what is the subject of the joke? Who/what is being mocked or critiqued? Are their larger issues that the joke invokes or alludes to? What connections is it drawing? Why is this being done through humor as opposed to a direct statement of political opinion? Is the joke effective in conveying its political message? Remember: something can be “political” without directly commenting on government or political figures. The personal (gender, race, class, gender and/or sexual identity etc.) and the familial can be political when challenging or subverting dominant culture, structures of power, or mocking/critiquing particular viewpoints.
For example, in the example above, Reese is using the kids’ POV to question authority more generally, commenting on the push to reopen schools, mocking the government’s COVID response, and kids (the least powerful, most vulnerable group involved).
Outline: Using your notes from steps 1-3, outline your paper. The “thesis” or through-line around which the paper should be organized should pose or answer the question “why is this joke political?” or “why I consider this to be political humor.”
Suggested structure for writing the paper:
Intro Paragraph – Introduce the topic and the joke and end with a thesis statement that summarizes what the paper will argue: why the joke is political and what political message or critique it is conveying.
Humor Textual Analysis Paragraph(s): Describe the joke in detail, pointing out the different parts of the joke and why/when/how it is funny. If it’s a word-based joke, you may quote it word for word, but you must then also break the joke down into component parts to point out how it produces laughter/amusement. If it’s a visual joke or meme, you will also have to describe what happens therein/what the viewer sees. Note: this section should account for at least 1/3 of the paper, so if you’re not able to get to three pages, you may not be going into enough detail. Freud’s On Jokes can assist you with breaking down/pointing out parts of the joke.
Political Analysis Paragraph(s): Explain the political dimension and what critique is being made. This may require explaining political context. For example if it’s a joke about the push to reopen schools, you will want to explain the tensions around that issue and how/why it has been politicized (with different “sides” tied to political parties).
Conclusion Paragraph: Summarize your findings, avoiding redundancy, with a strong statement that gives a clear sense of what you have tried to show. End by connecting the insights from your paper to broader political or comedic trends or posing questions about how humor/jokes
Talk to Professor Hill! While this assignment likely won’t be too difficult once you understand what you’re being asked to do and you have found a joke to write about, it might seem tricky at first. When in doubt, consult Prof. Hill after class or set up a time to meet in office hours. I can talk through the assignment, help you decide what to write about, etc.
Make sure to number your pages!
Underline or put in italics all titles (TV shows, films, books, etc.); episode and article titles are put in quotes.
When referring to individuals, give the full name the first time they are mentioned, thereafter only the second name: e.g., “John Caldwell uses the term ‘televisuality’ to describe a paradigm shift in television aesthetics in the 1980s. Caldwell provides compelling evidence to support this alleged shift.”
When describing a video’s content, use the present tense: e.g., “the clown slips on the banana peel.”