Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Analyzing American Comedy in the 20th & 21st Centuries: Home

Comedy can be utilized to study many political and social currents throughout U.S. history. This guide will introduce you to numerous topics in comedy, as well as offer tips in continuing your own research.

Welcome!

Studying the arts and popular culture can offer new insights into history and society. American Comedy from the 1900s to present exemplifies this, as comedy techniques and creations inform us on where national attention was placed at a given time. Instead of serving as a complete history, this LibGuide will present you with a multitude of sources and research tips to hopefully inspire future scholarship on this time period in the U.S. through the lens of comedy.

Perhaps you were raised on "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," or you watch "Saturday Night Live" each week. Or, maybe neither of these programs are familiar to you at all. No matter your reference point, I hope this guide will expand your knowledge and pique your interest.

Comedy as History

In honor of the 40th Anniversary of "Saturday Night Live" in 2015, the show aired a special including this political montage. Actor Jack Nicholson introduced a compilation tracking presidential history from Gerald Ford to Barack Obama. Viewed together, one sees the power of comedy as archival documents of both politics and the popular consciousness of those politics throughout American history. There are other elements represented in such primary materials, such as the shift from the acceptance of blackface when representing President Barack Obama to giving the role to Black cast members. 

Saturday Night Live. (2015, February 16). Politics - SNL 40th Anniversary Special. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oMCKaBku83U 

Audience

This guide was created for all students who are both beginning to write research papers, and are interested in studying comedy through such papers. Freshmen in an American Studies undergraduate program are particularly in mind, such as those within the Department of American Studies at The George Washington University. This department consists of ten core faculty members as well as 17 additional associated and affiliated faculty and includes a Bachelor of Arts in American Studies program, a minor in American Studies, a Masters of Arts program, as well as a PhD program. There are about 16 undergraduate courses offered each semester, five of which are introductory courses geared towards new undergraduates, which attract students from many different disciplines. 

A specialized skillset is needed to understand and excel in an American Studies. In courses ranging from the specific "Media Culture & COVID" to the broad "Critiquing Culture," students must be able to identify strong primary and secondary sources, analyze these sources independent of established research, and then synthesize this information into an original, evidence supported argument. This guide aims to introduce students to these research and writing skills while exemplifying the research they can pursue through comedy, ideally inspiring further scholarship.

Research Spotlight

Welcome to your first research spotlight! You will see this box on each page, full of specific advice as you conduct your research.

When beginning to work on a research paper it is important to consider first the assignment, and then your research question. First, review the prompt or rubric you have been given and take notes on different elements. Is there a guiding question, or a specific topic you should address? Are you studying a specific theory? What is the word or page limit? These guidelines will help you decide what topic might be appropriate.

Next it is helpful to develop a research question to guide your research. This question should include your topic, time period, and specific element you are interested in studying. Be sure to be open to this question changing as your get deeper into your research, as you are unsure what aspect you will find rich information on. 

For example, a research question within the topic of this guide could be: What was the role of women in the establishment of The Second City? Did their involvement translate to representation in later live shows or on "SCTV"?

For more information on developing a research question, the following LibGuide from GW Libraries might be helpful.

The George Washington University. (2020, September 22). Research: From selecting a topic to writing the bibliography. GW Libraries. https://libguides.gwu.edu/research/question

Comedy as Social Commentary

Key & Peele was a sketch comedy show that aired for five seasons from 2012 to 2015. The show was created by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, who also starred in the sketches. The above sketch was included in episode six of season two in 2012, and features Key and Peele fleeing zombies until they realize the zombies will not eat them because they are racist. This sketch presents a social commentary on suburban racism in America.

Comedy Central. (2012, October 24). Key & Peele - White Zombies [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4xyhVO-SWfM

Guide Sections

HomeThis section includes two videos exemplifying how comedy can reflect political and social realities, as well as three scholarly articles demonstrating how we can analyze comedy through different academic lenses. Hopefully this will inspire your research!

Secondary ResourcesThis section features four secondary sources which offer overviews of the history of comedy. These resources are a great place to start, but not finish, your research.

Primary SourcesThis section introduces a wide range of primary resources, particularly archival collections, which provide a wealth of information for original research.

Looking ForwardThis section lists offers more topical sources for a few sample topics, as well as introduces a few new comedy subjects and works where there is not preexisting research.

Scholarship Analyzing American Comedy

Comedy allows us a way in to understanding public consciousness at a given time. Here are a few examples of how we can study comedy in a few different disciplines.

Nixon, J. (2019) "You Think I'm Joking": Examining the weaponized comedy of President Obama's stand-up addresses at the White House correspondents' association dinner. Studies in American Humor, 5(1), 103-123. https://doi-org.ezproxy.simmons.edu/10.5325/studamerhumor.5.1.0103

  • This article uses the frame of philosophy to explore how comedy can be used to discuss political critiques. Nixon uses President Obama's stand-up during the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner to show how those in power can also use comedy to subvert the conversation surrounding them, such as birtherism. 

Cooper, S.K. What’s so funny? Audiences of women’s stand-up comedy and layered referential viewing: Exploring identity and power.Communication Review, 22(2), 91–116. https://doi-org.ezproxy.simmons.edu/10.1080/10714421.2019.1599666

  • Author S. Katherine Cooper utilizes research methods within communication to evaluate subjects' understanding of stand-up by popular female comedians, namely Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes, and Margaret Cho. By asking participants to identify the comedians, subjects of jokes, and intended audience Cooper analyzes how contemporary female comedians can laugh with or laugh at their subjects and audience.

Cooks, L. M., & Orbe, M. P. (1993). Beyond the satire: Selective exposure and selective perception in "In living color." Howard Journal of Communications, 4(3), 217–233. https://doi.org/10.1080/10646179309359778

  • "In Living Color" was a sketch show that aired for five seasons from 1990 to 1994. Creator Keenan Ivory Wayans implemented sketch comedy to discuss stereotypes about and within the African American community, with the help of cast members including members of the Wayans family as well as Jamie Foxx, Tommy Davidson, and Jim Carrey. In this study Leda M. Cooks & Mark P. Orbe surveyed subjects to test the psychological theories of selective exposure and selective perception as they watched episodes of the show.