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

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

In this section you will find resources that cover large sections of American comedy. These sources are especially helpful to offer context to a particular comedian or creation, or to look for inspiration of figures or events that would be interesting to research further.

Research Spotlight

Secondary sources hold an important place in a research paper, offering background and context on topic. If you do choose to research a topic in comedy, be sure to implement these sources as background information while focusing the bulk of your research on primary sources, such as those featured on the next tab. This ensures that your research and argument are original, extending beyond these introductory texts.

The University of Western Australia. (2020, July 28). Sources for historical research: Secondary sources. University Library. https://guides.library.uwa.edu.au/primary_sources/secondary#s-lg-box-wrapper-7808377

Google Scholar Search

Google Scholar or your library search page (https://library.gwu.edu/) are excellent places to begin searching for secondary sources or an overview of a topic. 

This sample search features the search terms "history, comedy" The use of the comma means that only resources with both terms will be identified, which will help narrow your search. Try using the comma with your own research topic, such as "women, The Second City"

Improvisational Comedy

In Improv Nation historian Sam Wasson presents the history of improvisation as an American art form. Wasson focuses on telling the history of improv through significant figures, philosophies, and groups. This history is broken into three periods: 1940 - 1968, 1969 - 1984, and 1984 - present. Wasson attempts to write this history in an unbiased way, including a large section of notes and references at the end of the book.

Wasson, S. (2017). Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Women in Comedy

This collections of essays features prominent academics from fields including history and gender studies writing on a variety of women in comedy. The timeframe of these subjects is particularly vast in this collection, spanning from 1920s and 1930s star Mae West to the complex work of Lena Dunham focused on representing the millennial generation. This scope translates to a collection that offers a variety of perspectives and models of what it means to be a woman in comedy, avoiding minimizing or simplifying its subjects.

Mizejewski, L., & Sturtevant, V. (Eds.). Hysterical!: Women in American comedy. University of Texas Press.

Stand-Up Comedy

This history seeks to give a snapshot of the nascent stand-up comedy scene in Los Angeles, California in the mid-1970s. The book takes a narrative format, telling this history through both people and places. Significance is lended by the author, as William Knoedelseder was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times during this period and attended many of the events documented in the book. Since the 1970s Knoedelseder has become a prominent reporter on the entertainment industry as a whole, adding to his unique perspective on the events documented.

Knoedelseder, W.K. (2017). I'm Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and high times in stand-up comedy's golden era. PublicAffairs.

The Comedian as Celebrity

Kliph Nesteroff, a historian focused on comedy, writes this narrative history of comedy beginning with vaudeville, variety comedy shows prevalent during the early 1900s, and resulting in contemporary celebrity comedians. This scope enables Nesteroff to touch on a multitude of comedy styles and communities throughout this 100 year period, offering a largely anecdotal history. 

Nesteroff, K. (2015). The Comedians: Drunks, thieves, scoundrels, and the history of American comedy. Grove/Atlantic, Incorporated.