Week 9 (Sounds of Laughter)

Week 9 (Sounds of Laughter)

Academic Conversation Skill: Metacommentary
Concept: Subversion
Time Period: pre-1950s

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Templates for Introducing Metacommentary:

Avoiding Misunderstandings

  • Essentially, I am arguing that _________.
  • What __________ really means is ____________________.

Elaborating on Previous Idea

  • In other words, ______________________.
  • To put it another way, _________________.

Providing Roadmap

  • Having just argued that _____________, let us now turn our attention to _____________.

Moving from General Claim to Specific

  • For example, _______________________.
  • _________, for instance, demonstrates _____________________.

Indicating Importance

  • Even more important, ______________________.
  • But above all, ____________________________.

Indicating Main Point

  • In sum, then, ________________.
  • My conclusion, then, is ________________________.  (adapted from Graff and Birkenstein 2006, 128-30)


“Invariably underestimated and underappreciated, humor is often conflated with the light and the trivial. Yet, many strains of humor carry serious purposes, with their intent to subvert various institutional status quos. Whether Oscar Wilde or Dorthy Parker, the Marx Brothers or Richard Pryor, Chuck Berry or Missy Elliot, people in Western civilization have often expressed their discontents and desires through subversive humor. Such humor wields both a carrot and a stick, magnetically drawing interested audiences while simultaneously educating them with hard, raw truths.” (Ellis 2008, 1)

“Subversives – like revolutionaries – are defined by their intents, not by their achievements. To be a subversive is to desire to subvert; through undermining, attention is called to circumstances, caution is proclaimed, admonishment is administered. Subversives recognize wrongs, though they may not have much to offer in the way of alternative ‘rights.'” (Ellis 2008, 9)

Performance Example (pre-1950s)

The Marx Brothers, A Night at the Opera” (1935)* [clip – “Il Trovatore”]

The Marx Brothers was a comedic troupe (comprised of actual brothers) that was popular during the early part of the 20th century. They made a number of films based on their original, Vaudeville shows. While the 3 primary brothers (Harpo, Chico, and Groucho) were all featured as musicians in the films (Harpo was a talented harpist, Chico a talented pianist), this scene features their more “subversive” humor – in which they mock the conventions of classical opera with their more vaudevillian antics.

*Apologies for using an external link, there were no good-quality clips on YouTube.

See Also:

The Marx Brothers, “A Night at the Opera” (1935)

Reading Questions

  • How does Ellis (2008) define subversion in musical humor?
  • Can you think of other examples of subversion from the performance examples discussed throughout the seminar?
  • What types of metacommentary [see above] could be added to these to excerpts to make Ellis’ main point(s) and claim(s) more clear?

Performance Questions

  • Are these performances subversive? (In other words, do you agree with Ellis?)
  • If so, how and why are they subversive? If not, why not?
  • Why do you think Ellis mentions the Marx Brothers in his opening paragraph? What influence did they have on subsequent “rock humorists”?


Choose three types of metacommentary from the templates above (e.g. avoiding misunderstandings, elaborating on previous idea). Compose three sentences for your final project, each conforming to one of the three metacommentary types (indicate type in parentheses after sentence). Post as Word file. (Due the Friday after class @ 5pm PST)

Other pre-1950s-Era Performers

YouTube Links

Frank Loesser

Mickey Katz

Spike Jones

Victor Borge*

*Not from U.S., but U.S.-based

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