Saturday, September 20, 2008

once upon a time

I signed up for a class on classic movie comedy. The class was at the university where I was doing a semester abroad, and I knew nothing about it except what was in the course description book. It promised a semester of Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers, and I could transfer the credit to slot in my major.

When I showed up for my first day of class, the prof turned out to be one of the most obnoxious jerks you can imagine. He liked offending people. He liked getting in your face. He wasn't going to put up with anyone in his class who wouldn't just swallow whatever he wanted to dish out. He also had about twice as many people signed up for his class as he wanted in it--the university refused to classify the course as a seminar and cap enrollment at 15 . . . so his method of dealing with this was to drive away as many of his students as possible in the first week while they could still re-jigger their schedule. I was one of the students he succeeded in driving away. While disliked letting such tactics "work" on me, and letting the prof succeed in his ugly little game, I also decided that anyone who would use such methods was not someone I probably wanted to study under.

Despite all that, there are still days when I regret not sticking to it with that course. The little bit of content we got on that first day was hilarious--and fascinating. I have the NT's classic instinct of wanting to take everything apart and see the insides of why it works. And while I know that some people think that humor is ruined by such analysis, I really don't agree. (For a great, ongoing discussion on this topic, see Jane Espenson's blog.) What makes a joke work? Why did that one fail? Can we name different humor types as we do personality types? Can we make actual technical distinction between nasty humor and clean? Smart and dumb? And how does character play into all this? Our expectations? What does it take for us to be able to make a joke . . . and take one?

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