THFM 4850: American Film Comedy

Instructor: Zach Sands

Course Description:

This is an online course in which students explore the relationships between American film comedies (as cultural products) and the audiences that consume them. Throughout the semester, we will seek to understand why certain films resonated with mass audiences at particular moments in American history and what insights this offers toward a deeper understanding of our social fabric. We will also contextualize the political function of film comedy and examine how movies have used humor in order to address contentious issues that were circulating in the public discourse at the times of their production and exhibition. 


As this class is entirely online, most of our correspondences and interaction will take place either on Canvas or on the blog that I have set up specifically for this class:

Please note that as this blog is viewable by the public, it is additionally important that we maintain high standards in the accuracy and depth of the information we post. Think of it as an informational resource for not only yourself and the rest of the class, but also for other people throughout the world who are conducting research in this field or who just want to know more.


As an online course, there is a significant writing component in lieu of class discussions. Every week, students will have something that is due. Most will be assigned screening questions (everyone will be turning in twelve such responses through the semester), and each week, some students will be pre-assigned specific blog posts regarding one of the films being screened that week instead of having to answer a screening question. Blog posts will fall under one of the following categories: 

1.) Biography - assigned students will be required to research and post biographical information regarding a particular filmmaker or performer onto the class blog, including a select filmography. Who made this film, what else has this person done, and what expectations did audience members therefore have going into it? These should be between 600-1000 words. With this and the other two blog post assignments listed below, pictures and links are also encouraged. 

2.) Social/Historical Context - students are required to research and post information to the class blog that provides the social context necessary to better understand each assigned film. What major events were happening in U.S. history at the time that made this film particularly relevant? Why was this movie made when it was? These should be between 600-1000 words.

3.) Review of Reviews - students will be required to research and post a summary of each film’s critical reviews and box office statistics. What did critics think of this film and how did audiences respond? These should be between 600-1000 words.

I have made a chart that shows who is assigned what and on which week. Please note that this document may be subject to change as necessary. Every student will have to do two blog posts throughout the course of the semester, in addition to thirteen screening question responses. However, as only the twelve highest scores of these responses are factored into the final grade, students are allowed to miss one screening question without penalty. Beyond this, there are no exceptions. Late assignments are not accepted. 


The biography, social/historical context and review of reviews are to be uploaded to Canvas by 6:00 pm on Sunday at the beginning of the week that we are discussing those films, after which I will then post them on the class blog, along with a weekly post of my own (that essentially functions as a lecture) and the screening questions that everyone who is not assigned one of the blog posts is required to answer. The lectures that I write are meant to prompt further discussion and the class-written blog posts are meant to offer context for answering the screening questions. 

Screening questions are then due by the following Sunday at 6:00 pm. These must be posted on Canvas. If a student turns in a particularly thoughtful and well-written piece, with the student’s permission, I will post this to the blog and the student will receive 10 points of extra credit. This is the only extra credit that will be available throughout the semester, but students are eligible to be awarded bonus points more than once. The screening questions will relate to the film(s) and topic we are discussing that week. Responses to these questions will be graded as receiving either full points, half points or zero points, based on the amount of effort put into them. Please note that there are no wrong answers to these questions, but there are sometimes halfhearted attempts at answering them. These responses should be between 300-500 words.

At the end of the semester, students will also be required to complete a final project, which can be either A.) a 1200-1500 word research paper about one comedic filmmaker, either someone whose work we have discussed in class but not researched or whose films we may have overlooked, or B.) a short comedic video of your own creation that is between four and seven minutes long. Students may work in groups of up to four on the video project; however, any collaborations will require an additional 1-2 page paper to be turned in with the film in which each participant details his/her involvement with this project. 


Screening Questions 12 x 50 pts. = 600 points
Blog Post #1   1 x 100 pts. = 100 points
Blog Post #2   1 x 100 pts. = 100 points
Final Project 1 x 200 pts. = 200 points 
                                                    1000 points total


An “A” student will earn between 900 and 1000 points throughout the semester. This student’s work is well-researched, clearly written and demonstrates a mastery of the concepts that we have covered in class.

A “B” student will earn between 800 and 899 points throughout the semester. This student’s work shows a reasonable grasp of class concepts but may be lacking in clarity and/or depth. This student may also be missing an assignment or two. 

A “C” student will earn between 700 and 799 points throughout the semester. This student’s work is poorly written and/or researched and reflects a loose understanding of class concepts. This student may also have received zeroes on some of their assigned work.

A “D” student will earn between 600 and 699 points throughout the semester. This student’s work meets the most basic requirements of given assignments but fails to offer any significant contribution to the class, due to either the content or the form of the work. It is likely that this student also has several missing assignments.

An “F” student will earn 599 points or less throughout the semester. This student’s work is most likely not turned in regularly and/or does not meet the requirements of the assignment, and any class contributions are negligible at best. 


On most weeks, students will have a choice between two or more movies. Although you are encouraged to watch all of them, you are only required to watch and answer screening questions on one film per week. The only exceptions are when you are assigned either a biography, social/historical context or review of reviews, in which case you are exempt from answering screening questions that week. However, if you are assigned one of the aforementioned blog posts as it relates to a particular film, you are required to watch that film.

Required Course Materials:

There are two books required for this class:

Funny: The Book - Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Comedy by David Misch
ISBN: 978-1557838292

Film Comedy by Geoff King
ISBN: 978-1903364352

On weeks indicated, select readings will be posted to Canvas.

Students will also need to be able to access the assigned films on their own, either through Netflix, iTunes, Amazon Prime, video rental, or some other means. As students will typically have options as to which movie they want to watch and write about each week, these choices may also be contingent on which film is available to them. Again, the exception to this is if you are assigned one of the blog post assignments on a given week, in which case you must watch the movie that you are writing about. If you are having difficulty finding a movie, let me know.

Course Schedule:

Week 1 (1/10-1/16): Taking Comedy Seriously (Comic Theory)  
Watch: Sullivan’s Travels
Read: Misch chapter 1-4 (pg. 1-31)

Week 2 (1/17-1/23): A Mirror and a Lens (Comedy and Culture) 
Watch: Idiocracy or Team America: World Police
Read: King introduction (pg. 1-18)

Week 3 (1/24-1/30): Laughter is the Cure for Depression (Comedy and History, Part I) 
Watch: She Done Him Wrong, Duck Soup or Modern Times
Read: King chapter 1, first half (pg. 19-50)

Week 4 (1/31-2/6): The Joke is on You (Comedy and Activism) 
Watch: The Yes Men or Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? 
Read: Misch chapter 5-7 (pg. 33-49)

Week 5 (2/7-2/13): Laughing at Power (Politics and Comedy) 
Watch: Wag the Dog, Election or Being There
Read: King chapter 3, first half (93-107) 

Week 6 (2/14-2/20): Genre Conventions, Deconstruction and Jokes (Parody) 
Watch: Hot Fuzz, Airplane! or I’m Gonna Git You Sucka
Read: King chapter 3, second half (107-128)

Week 7 (2/21-2/27): Movies about Movies (Self-Reflexive Comedy)  
Watch: Be Kind, Rewind, The Player or After the Fox
Read: Misch chapter 14-20 (83-126)

Week 8 (2/28-3/5): Boy Meets Girl, etc. (Romantic Comedy) 
Watch: When Harry Met Sally, Punchdrunk Love or Harold and Maude
Read: King chapter 1, second half (pg. 50-62)

Spring Break (3/6-3/12)
Make responsible decisions

Week 9 (3/13-3/19): Pull My Finger (Gross-out Comedy) 
Watch: Animal House, Borat or There’s Something About Mary
Read: King chapter 2, first half (63-77)

Week 10 (3/20-3/26): That’s Not Funny! (Pushing the Envelope) 
Watch: Citizen Ruth, World’s Greatest Dad or Hamlet 2
Read: King chapter 2, second half (77-92)

Week 11 (3/27-4/2): Comic Relief (Comedy and History, Part II) 
Watch: Dr. Strangelove 
Read: “History and Humor” by Joseph Boskin (on Canvas as pdf)

Week 12 (4/3-4/9): Patriarchy is No Malarkey (Gender and Comedy)  
Watch: 9 to 5 or Some Like It Hot
Read: King chapter 4, first half (129-143)

Week 13 (4/10-4/16): Human/Race (Race and Comedy)  
Watch: Harlem Nights, Up in Smoke or Blazing Saddles
Read: King chapter 4, second half (143-169) 

Week 14 (4/17-4/23): Be Somebody! (Class, Comedy and the American Dream)
Watch: The Jerk, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World or The Hudsucker Proxy
Read: “The Great American Joke” by Louis D. Rubin, Jr. (on Canvas as pdf)

Week 15 (4/24-4/30): The Last Laugh (Movies about Comedians) 
Watch: Lenny, Man on the Moon or Richard Pryor: Live in Concert
Read: “Standup Comedian as Anthropologist” by Stephanie Koziski (on Canvas as pdf)
Read: Misch chapter 27 (166-173)

Week 16 (5/1-5/7): Finals Week

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