Week 1 (Sounds of Laughter)

Academic Conversation Skill: Entering the Conversation
Concept: Incongruity
Time Period: Contemporary

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Entering the Conversation

The authors of “They Say/I Say” list their primary goal of “helping students ‘enter a conversation about ideas.’” (Graff and Birkenstein 2006, ix)

“Broadly speaking, academic writing is argumentative writing, and we believe you need to do more than assert your own ideas. You need to enter a conversation, saying what others say (or might say) as a launching pad or sounding board for your own ideas.” (Graff and Birkenstein 2006, 3)


Incongruity (Wiktionary)

“Philosophers have long debated the nature, purpose, and meaning of humor, and although no single theory has been universally accepted, three general theories of humor are broadly recognized today. The first centers on the notion of superiority, or what English philosopher Thomas Hobbes described as “our sudden glory when we realize that in some way we are superior to someone else.”*…The second theory, not commonly associated with Sigmund Freud, characterizes humor as a method for releasing internal tension that can bring pleasure and relief to a joke teller and an audience…The third theory, advanced by Immanuel Kant, and later Arthur Schopenhauer, ties humor to the concept of incongruity: humor occurs when a sense of anticipation is created, and then confounded by something unexpected.” (Garrett 2012, 53)

*See quote in Morreall 1987, 19

Performance Example (Contemporary)

This video is an excerpt from one of Jimmy Fallon’s many viral videos incorporating musical comedy (this is one of his earlier ones (late 2010), but in a format that he has utilized many times since). In addition to his performance (impersonating Neil Young while singing “Whip My Hair”), there are clips from the folk artist (singing “Heart of Gold”) and the original pop song (by Willow Smith) that are juxtaposed (in case you don’t get the references).

See Also:

Jimmy Fallon on YouTube

Reading Questions

  • How does Garrett enter an academic conversation? 
  • What ideas is he discussing?
  • How does he describe the ideas of others (what Graff and Birkenstein describe as “they say”)?

Performance Questions

  • How is this video an example of humorous incongruity? What anticipations does it create and/or confound?
  • Garrett later argues that musical humor is based primarily on the third theory of humor (i.e. incongruity) – do you feel that this video supports his claim? Can it be seen as form of superiority or release of tension?
  • Do you have any other theories of the origins of humor in this video? Why is it perceived as funny/humorous?


Brainstorm ideas for addressing one of the three prompts for the final project [see Main Page]. What issues and ideas might you consider? What artists and/or performances could you cite to support your claims? Post a Word file or legible picture of your notes. (Due the Friday after class @ 5pm PST)

Additional Sources for Incongruity

Huron, David Brian. 2006. Sweet anticipation: Music and the psychology of expectation. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Morreall, John. 1987. The Philosophy of laughter and humor. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Other Contemporary Performers

YouTube Links

Bo Burnham

Garfunkel & Oates

Igudesman & Joo*

Rhett & Link

Seth MacFarlane, “Music is Better than Words” (2011)

Stephen Lynch

Tim Minchin*

*Not U.S.-based

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