A few years after my retirement, I discovered that I missed teaching and I went back to work at a local university, but I struggled to find ways to connect with students whose life experiences bore little resemblance to mine. At first, I used Tim Delaney’s Seinology (2006) to enliven introduction to sociology. I discovered, however, that Jerry Seinfeld’s humor often missed the mark with 19- to 23-year olds. Not only did they not get the jokes, they failed to see how the themes of the episodes connected with sociological concepts. Much to my chagrin, I questioned how much I really knew about humor. Shortly after this, I retired again.
A few years later, the urge to teach returned. This time I taught in a program for elderly, mostly retired folks. Many were professionals, business people, and a few were retired professors. Courses offered included topics of local interest, music, foreign affairs, science, health, crafts, yoga, and Tai Chi, but no sociology. I was pretty sure that the curriculum committee responsible for choosing classes would not be interested in a sociology class. So, I came up with an idea. I combined my curiosity about why my young university students failed to appreciate Seinfeld with my desire to profess sociology. I decided that a course on humor would allow me to learn about laughter and humor and practice furtive sociology along the way.
The program, called Life Quest, offers eight-week sessions for senior adults with class meetings once a week for 50 minutes. I taught three classes of about 25 white seniors, an equal mix of men and women, most with upper middle-class incomes and college education. Over a two-year period, I taught classes called, respectively, “Why We Laugh: The Social Dimensions of Humor,” “More Laughter,” and “Still Laughing.”
While others have used humor to teach sociology (Hynes 1989, Bingham and Hernandez 2009) they did so in university classrooms. My students’ average age was in their early ‘70s. Their employment histories varied, and the subject of sociology was foreign, or a vague memory. I wanted to showcase the sociological imagination. Above all, however, I wanted to keep it funny! I remembered Mark Twain’s wisdom, “Explaining humor is a lot like dissecting a frog: you learn a lot in the process, but in the end, you kill it.”
To keep the frog alive, I integrated YouTube clips into my class presentations. Using simple keyword searches, I located clips that illustrated virtually all the points I wanted to make. I was ready to practice furtive sociology over the next eight weeks, armed with sociological insights and 29 YouTube clips of everything from I Love Lucy, to contemporary comedians John Fugelsang and Amy Schumer.
I joked, and they laughed as we covered scholarly explanations of humor and laughter including brain science, Peter Berger (2014), Murray Davis (1993) and Peter McGraw (2014). I discussed humor through the lens of race and ethnicity, illustrating how black humor reflects the social conditions of being black. I discussed women in comedy as mirroring the three waves of feminism in America; I described variations in humor by class and taste; and we dealt with humor about disabilities and mental illness. From slapstick to sarcasm, I introduced theories of societal, structural, and social change. For example, I linked alienation to the use of sarcasm in humor, and I illustrated with clips of comedian Dennis Miller debunking climate change, and Jerry Seinfeld’s routine about cell phones and intimacy.
I received compliments and criticisms from my students. In particular, seniors expressed a limited tolerance for what they regarded as the overuse of expletives by contemporary comedians. Our discussion about expletives was spirited, so much so that I spent a few minutes discussing a scholarly analysis of the use of expletives (Seizer 2011). Seizer suggests that obscene language functions as a timing and rhythm device in stand- up routines, allowing a comedian to establish rapport with young audiences. Although the analysis did little to change the attitudes of my students, they did learn that language reflects social change.
One of my students, a retired college English professor, told me that he had taught humor in literature many times, but always “killed the frog.” My frog, he said, lived. With the success of these classes I thought maybe I should go back to work. Then I thought: Life Quest students show up on time, listen and ask questions, there are no papers to grade and no excuses about late assignments — I’ll stick with Life Quest.
Berger, Peter L. 2014. Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience (2nd Ed.). Boston: De Gruyter.
Bingham, Shawn Chandler and Alexander A. Hernandez. 2009. “Laughing Matters: The Comedian as Social Observer, Teacher and Conduit of the Sociological Perspective.” Teaching Sociology 37: 335-352.
Davis, Murray S. 1993. What’s So Funny: The Comedic Conception of Society and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Delaney, Tim. 2006. Seinology: The Sociology of Seinfeld. New York: Prometheus Books.
Hynes, Eugene. 1989. “To See Yourselves and Others See Us: Using Humor to Teach Sociology.” Teaching Sociology 17: 476-479.
McGraw, Peter and Joel Warner. 2014. The Humor Code. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Seizer, Susan. 2011. “On the Uses of Obscenity in Live Stand-Up Comedy.” Anthropological Quarterly. 84: 209-234.