Sounds of Laughter: Musical Comedy in the United States

Sounds of Laughter: Musical Comedy in the United States

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This seminar is intended for first or second- year undergraduate students from all majors/backgrounds. It uses inquiry into U.S. musical comedy as a vehicle to develop academic conversation skills (i.e. conducting research that engages with existing scholarship) that are necessary for college success. It will focus on concepts relating to the political/artistic/cultural implications of U.S. musical comedy. Students will complete small, in-class assignments in preparation for their final project (academic paper, 2-3 pages) based on group discussions of conventions, performances, and concepts.


Weekly modules include the following elements: Academic Conversation Skill, Concept, and Time Period (note: the seminar moves in reverse chronological order, starting with contemporary, U.S. musical comedy and ending with pre-1950s forms). Each module contains an assignment relating to that week’s Academic Conversation Skill.

Week 1: Entering the Conversation/Incongruity/Contemporary

Week 2: Assumptions, Views, and Debates/Race and Ethnicity/2000s

Week 3: Quotations and Summaries/Feminism/1990s

Week 4: Addressing Sources/Postmodernism/1980s

Week 5: Signaling/Rockism and Funk/1970s

Week 6: Objections and Concessions/Counterculture/1960s

Week 7: Relevance and Importance/Camp/1950s (Rock and Roll)

Week 8: Transitions/Canon/1940s – 1950s (Jazz)

Week 9: Metacommentary/Subversion/pre-1950s

Week 10: Questions/Review/Summary

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Learning Objectives

By successfully completing this seminar, students will be able to:

  • Effectively use conventions of academic conversation in written and verbal communication
  • Enter a “conversation of ideas” (i.e. synthesizing the ideas of others and articulating one’s own ideas) relating to U.S. musical comedy
  • Develop analytical skills and conceptual vocabularies for use in future undergraduate studies


Students must earn 80 out of 100 possible points to earn credit. These 100 points are broken down into the following categories:

  • 30 possible points for attendance (3 points for each session)
  • 40 possible points for weekly assignments (4 points for each assignment)
  • 30 possible points for final project

Final Project

Choose from one of the following prompts:

  • What is the value of musical humor in (contemporary or historical) U.S. society, culture, politics, etc.? 
  • Why do certain audiences enjoy certain kinds of musical comedy? Why these audiences and not others?
  • In what ways does U.S. musical comedy respond to events, politics, trends, etc.?

Based on this prompt, write a 2-3 page paper that includes the ideas of others (“they say”) and your own ideas (“I say”). Your paper should include all conventions of academic conversation discussed in the seminar (e.g. introducing sources, stating relevance of claim, making transitions, etc.). It should be double-spaced, in 12-point Times New Roman font, and have 1″ margins.

Primary Texts

Course readings and content will be primarily drawn from the following texts:

Ellis, Iain. 2008. Rebels wit attitude: Subversive rock humorists. Berkeley, CA: Soft Skull Press.

Garrett, Charles Hiroshi. 2012.  “The Humor of Jazz.” In Jazz/not jazz: The music and its boundaries, eds. David Andrew Ake, Charles Hiroshi Garrett, and Daniel Goldmark, 49-69. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Graff, Gerald, and Cathy Birkenstein. 2006. They say/I say: The moves that matter in academic writing. New York: W.W. Norton.

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