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The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor
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For Teachers

For Teachers

Lesson Two: The Font of Funniness

Politics and public figures have long provided humorists with a rich and seemingly endless supply of material. Will Rogers once noted, "I don't make jokes, I just watch the Government and report the facts;" Mark Twain took many a jab at the government, especially the Congress, once saying, "Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can." Equally fertile sources are our social institutions and bureaucracies. Late night comedians rub their hands with glee when a General Accounting Office report reveals some outrageous expenditure at the Pentagon — that's material for the next evening's monologue. Many humorists today derive their material from current events and the rules and regulations of our public institutions. Others draw from their personal experiences, and some use a combination of current events and "autobiographical" material. Andy Rooney of Sixty Minutes has developed many a Sunday evening monologue around the hassles of daily life — cell phones, traffic, and a neighbor down the street. Comedian and writer Dave Barry speaks of the joy of family outdoor outings, offering the opinion that "camping is nature's way of promoting the motel business."

Teaching Activities:

  1. In a general discussion, ask students to name their favorite humorist. Have them share with their classmates why they think that entertainer is particularly funny. Give out copies of the Glossary to students. Continue the discussion, encouraging the class to match the style of their favorite humorists with the elements of humor discussed there.

  2. Have each student choose a contemporary humorist so they can conduct research to analyze that entertainer's material. (They might consider the work of Dave Barry, Bill Cosby, Whoopi Goldberg, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Dennis Miller, Bob Newhart, Jerry Seinfeld, Lily Tomlin, Robin Williams, or Jonathan Winters.) As an alternative, students may choose instead to analyze the material presented on television programs such as Saturday Night Live and Comedy Central. If possible, give students lead-time for this assignment so they can gather video material for the project.

  3. After students have made a selection, ask each of them to complete these steps:
    • Select samples of a humorist's work, depending on the form: for example, 2 or 3 pieces of writing; a couple of stand-up routines if the material is on video; or 2 sketches from separate broadcasts of a comedy variety show.
    • Analyze the samples by:
      • Identifying the source and emphasis of the humorist's material — strictly politics; all current events; social issues; personal experience; or a mixture?
      • Including an example of each source/emphasis;
      • Matching the samples to the humor elements described in the Glossary;
      • Describing the degree to which the material is "American."

  4. If time permits, ask students to report their findings to the class. When possible, encourage them to use the style of the humorist they studied in their presentations. For example, Bob Newhart often delivers his humor through a one-way telephone conversation; the Saturday Night Live sketches may be in a news format. For students who don't feel comfortable as comedians, ask them to share a short video clip, or a reading that they think most epitomizes their humorist's work.

  5. After presentations, conduct a follow up discussion:
    • Invite students to discuss ways the humorists that they researched presented "American" humor. As a way of approaching this topic, ask students: "Is it possible that some of the comic material that you analyzed would not be understood or appreciated by people of another culture? Why do you think that is true?"
    • Ask students to consider whether the kinds of humor popular in America would be permitted in other countries. Remind students that although some comedians in the United States use profanity, discuss sexual topics, deride our institutions, and berate people of all races, ethnic backgrounds, and religions, these opinions are nevertheless a form of speech protected by the First Amendment. Have students explain how the First Amendment safeguard affects the "humor environment" in this country.
    • Remind students that the same First Amendment right of free speech has existed since the founding of the United States, yet humorists of earlier eras did not use explicit sexual information, profanity, or other forms of strong language in their work. Ask them to consider what they think accounts for this change. Have them name other forms of artistic and personal expression that are permissible today but were not acceptable in the past. Ask them what they believe this says about American society. Invite their opinions as to whether they consider this a positive or a negative.
    • Ask students to consider in what ways the right of comedians to say what they wish can be restrained in the United States. For example, was there any portion of their humorists' videotapes or writings that would not have been suitable in a school setting?

Extended Activities - Mostly for Laughs

  1. Joke Jam
    Invite students to participate in a Joke Jam. Each student should bring in, and deliver his/her best joke. Consider giving prizes for certain categories: the corniest, the one requiring the greatest intelligence to "get"; the best homework joke; the best "getting out of chores" joke, etc. After the Joke Jam, conduct a not-too-serious discussion, asking students what elements make jokes funny. See the bibliography in the Resources area for Leo Rosten's Giant Book of Laughter. Look at the postscript: "How Not to Tell a Joke." The students will enjoy that very much.

  2. Parody
    Have students read the parody of Romeo and Juliet. This is the story of star-crossed lovers: a confection falls in love with a vegetable — she's celery, if you're curious.

    Invite interested students to write a parody of a short story, a sitcom, a TV advertisement, or the evening news. Have them share these with the class. In a not-too-serious discussion ask students to list what characteristics from the original piece have been incorporated into the parody. Elicit students' opinions regarding the value of parody within our society.

  3. Funny Papers
    You may have some budding stand-up comics in your class, but perhaps there are artists on the rise as well. Invite such students to develop their own comic strip character, based on familiar elements of their community. Remind them that under "cartoons" in the Glossary, there might be a useful Web site listed. Encourage the artists to develop a story line for their character(s) and have them draw the first few frames. In a not-too-serious follow—up discussion, invite students to think about what makes certain comic strip characters memorable. Finally, ask students to discuss their ideas about how technology is changing the cartooner's art.

  4. You'll Never Believe This
    On a gloomy day, when students need a lift of spirits, invite them to tell the class the funniest thing that ever happened to them. In a not-too-serious discussion, ask students what comic devices the storytellers used quite naturally to get their listeners engaged. (Some students might say exaggeration, gesticulation or descriptive detail.

    Many students will enjoy this assignment. Without getting too serious, ask them why it is that we all feel more comfortable with subjects that reflect our own family or community environment. Have students name great storytellers in literature, and ask them whether those writers drew heavily on their life-experiences for subjects or themes.