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

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.

Introduction

Now that you have explored a few secondary and primary sources about the history of comedy, as well as learned about finding and using these sources, hopefully a particular topic has captured your interest. On this page you will find a few more resources on sample topics, as well as examples of contemporary comedy that has yet to be studied. Our final "Research Spotlight" section also features ideas for future research.

Topical Resources

Here you will find a broad selection of sources, both primary and secondary, about specific topics within the history of comedy.

Spolin, V. (1963). Improvisation for the Theater: A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques. Northwestern University Press.

  • This handbook was written by Viola Spolin, considered the originator of improvisational theater. As discussed in Improv Nation, Spolin created improvisational games to inspire creativity in her students. Spolin's son Paul Sills later developed these techniques into founding The Second City, arguably the first comedy team and theater dedicated to improvisation. 

Scott, S. (2019, September 4). A Very Brief History Of Black Women On 'Saturday Night Live'. Essence. https://www.essence.com/entertainment/a-very-brief-history-of-black-women-on-saturday-night-live/

  • In this article, Sydney Scott offers a brief overview of Black female cast members on "Saturday Night Live". This overview conveys the ongoing problem with diversity at SNL, because as of Season 46 there have only been seven Black female cast members. The article also links to further reading on the work of each woman, linking additional articles and statements.

Hoglund, A. (2018, December 13). Ellen Cleghorne on Breaking Down Saturday Night Live’s Racial Barriers, and the Ones That Remain. Slate. https://slate.com/culture/2018/12/ellen-cleghorne-saturday-night-lives-race-problem.html

  • This interview with Ellen Cleghorne, who the above article notes was the first Black female cast member to stay on the series for more than one season, explores the legacy of Black women on SNL with more depth. Cleghorne discusses her predecessors as well as her own experience on the show and the effects it held on her life and career. 

Greenbaum, J., Marmor, R., & Leggett, C. (Producers), & Greenbaum (Director). (2017). Too Funny to Fail [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.hulu.com/movie/too-funny-to-fail-the-life-death-of-the-dana-carvey-show-c6c29995-0c40-4442-aed6-156bd11e2d9e

  • This documentary follows the eight episode lifespan of "The Dana Carvey Show," a sketch show that aired in 1996. The documentary focuses on how the show was arguably a failure, despite staring "it" comedian Dana Carvey and airing during primetime on NBC. As most comedy history focuses on the projects that have endured the test of time, becoming successes, this documentary does convey that not all aspects of comedy history are recounted.

Berry, B., Dapolito, D., Goldsmith, M., & Tumminia, J. (Producers), & Dapolito (Director). (2018). Love, Gilda [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.lovegilda.com/

  • "Love, Gilda" follows the comedy career of Gilda Radner, a prominent figure in comedy from 1975 until her death in 1989. The documentary tells this narrative through her diary entries, as ready by contemporary comedy figures and those present in her life, as well as a wide range of photographs and video clips. 

Research Spotlight - Further Research

Another rich resource for writing about the history of comedy are biographies and autobiographies. It is important to remember that both of these types of sources can hold bias, such as a biography written by a relative of a deceased comedian attempting to convey a positive legacy. 

Pressbooks. Degree of Bias. Ohio State Pressbooks. https://ohiostate.pressbooks.pub/choosingsources/chapter/degree-of-bias/

  • This section on bias is part of a resource on "Choosing & Using Sources" for academic research created by The Ohio State University. The chapter discusses why bias impacts the integrity of sources, and explains specific clues of bias.

Keeping potential bias in mind, there are many books to select. At the link below you will find a list of 90 such books, spanning from contemporary autobiographies to show-specific histories and comedy inspired works of fiction.

Boone, B. & Nelson, J. 90 Books Every Comedy Fan Should Read. New York Magazine. https://www.vulture.com/article/funny-comedy-books.html

Contemporary Comedy

The contemporary comedy world features diverse voices that have long been underrepresented. Here are a few examples to explore further, and perhaps begin the academic conversation about.

  • A Black Lady Sketch Show
    • Rae, I. (Executive Producer), & Davis, D. (Director). A Black Lady Sketch Show [Television Broadcast]. HBO Entertainment.
  • At Home with Amy Sedaris
    • Sedaris, A., Dinello, P., Caponera, C., Levy, A., Lee, J., & Chatman, V. (Executive Producers). At Home with Amy Sedaris [Television Broadcast]. PFFR, A24, & Buck Tooth Productions.
  • Netflix Presents: The Characters
    • Gaynord, A. (Director). Netflix Presents: The Characters [Television Broadcast]. Jax Media.