Who’s On First: Biographies of American Comedy

Moderators: Neil Novik and Richard Szlosek
Time: Mondays, 1:30-3:30 pm
Place: Smith College, Lilly Hall, Room 308, Northampton
Parking: You will be issued a Smith College campus parking permit

This seminar will examine the historical importance and influence of American Comedy by considering the life and times of the people who made us laugh.

Ever since the days of Mark Twain, American humorists have entertained, enlightened, inspired, angered, and distracted us through good times and bad. Minstrel shows gave way to vaudeville, vaudeville to movies and radio, then to nightclubs and TV.

We will examine the lives and historical contexts of some of the most important and influential performance comedians from about 1900 to 1980. By examining the lives of these performers and the times in which they lived, we will be looking at 20th Century American History through a unique lens: What we laughed at and why.

The seminar will look at the lives of two comedians (or teams) each week, chosen from a list drawn up by the moderators. The complete list will be available at the Preview, and will include such people as: Amos ‘n Andy, Fanny Brice, Will Rogers, Jack Benny, Bob Hope. Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, The Marx Brothers, Lucille Ball, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Lenny Bruce, Andy Kaufman, George Carlin, and many others. Participants will also be encouraged to augment their presentations with videos and recordings when available.

Format: Seminar

Role of participants: Each participant make a presentation on the life and times of one comedian or team, emphasizing not only the biography of their subject but the historical, political, and/or geographical influences on their humor. Participants will also be encouraged to supplement their presentations with recordings or videos when available.

Number of participants (including the moderators): 18

Resources: Books on American humor and comedians, as well as recordings are widely available at area libraries, and additional information, recordings and videos are available on the internet.

The moderators:  Neil and Rich have both been seminar leaders, and have recently co-moderated a seminar on the 1930’s. They are both pretty funny guys.