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'There's Nothing Like A Good Joke!'

Comedy and Critical Thinking

'Oh yeah, well that was nothing like a good...' *sigh* a jibe I hear all the time in response to my puns.

Does the creation of comedy require critical thinking? I would answer yes. Why? To have a sense of what makes a sketch funny, a comedian or comic writer must understand their subject matter or topic, that is they must be able to identify the key aspects to bring to the fore in their scene that will make their audience laugh. The power of a send-up or satire lies in a clever play on a familiar fact, trope or character trait. It takes a careful selection of what is particularly relevant in a particular situation and how to showcase this, paying attention to language, timing, the choreographing of the scene, etc. This may be combined with an element of slapstick or some other form of comedy. Behind a comic moment of just two-five minutes lies an intricate process of analysis, selection, creation, planning, before the realisation we see and respond to even comes about.

One of the cleverest scenes from comedy ever written comes from the fifth-century BC, in the Frogs of Aristophanes. Dionysus god of drama goes to the Underworld and hosts a drama competition between tragic poets Aeschylus and Euripides. The poets interrupt each other’s recitals with witty send ups of features of their writing. Mocking a particular metrical rhythm that often appeared in Euripides’ prologues, Aeschylus drowns Euripides out with ‘lost his bottle of oil’ when Euripides reaches the relevant point. A dramatic, tragic line ends with the ridiculous ‘lost his bottle of oil’. The Greek can also be read as a euphemism. The scene is a stroke of genius from Aristophanes, and it shows how well he understood both poets in order to take the mickey so effectively. Those of you who read BloggusClassicus will know from the ‘Ancient Laughter’ section of the blog that I am a big fan of Roman comic poet Ovid. Some of Ovid’s cleverest send-ups are of traits or passages from epic poetry, usually by way of his explanation that he is NOT going to write an epic.

So, to the role of comedy in encouraging critical thinking among pupils. I have used it both in critical thinking sessions and in Classics lessons. First of all critical thinking.

1. Critical Thinking: In one session we examined the process of critical thinking and thought about how this applied in the creation of comedy. The discussion included some of the applications outlined above. They then had to come up with their own sketches. I wish I could remember them all, but one stood out. A sparky year 9 girl, knowing I was a Classicist, based her sketch on ‘Latin is a language as dead as dead can be…’. Her friend pretended to be a dead rat and she started speaking Latin. It was very amusing, and she rounded off by hailing ‘a dead language for a dead rat’. ‘Very funny’, I drawled slowly. A clever twist on the old rhyme. She also showed an awareness of her audience. Part of the laugh came from mock-offended response. Great.

2. Comedy, Critical Thinking, and Classics: this can be used with classes of all ages. The example I shall give here is of a revision activity I set two different sets of year 13s: one studying Tacitus, Annales XV (set text), and the other the old AQA Augustus and the Principate (great topic). The exercise was to create humorous Facebook profiles that captured key relevant facts or themes. So, why does this involve critical thinking? Surely, it’s just a recall test. But no, its not. They have to recall the details, then select which should go on the profile, and why. And why make it funny? It makes it memorable. They both yielded some fantastic results. Nero’s profile listed his ‘mummy’ as his biggest fan and Agrippina’s status read ‘incesto parata’ (just to clarify, Tacitus records a rumour that the ambitious Agrippina lured her drunken son into her bed on several occasions; and yes, the Latin does mean, ‘ready for incest’). In the Augustus lessons, one pupil listed Augustus’ number of friends as the estimated number of Roman citizens at the time, the point being Augustus saw himself as beloved benefactor of all Romans and was very arrogant. A very amusing news feed post was ‘Augustus deleted Marcus Agrippa’s post about Actium’, illustrating how Agrippa became something of an unsung hero, eclipsed, perhaps deliberately by Augustus.

But what they showed was that they all knew key relevant aspects of the work and topic. Other ways are creating memes, making cartoon strips of famous myths or historical events, and there are lots of others.

It is a wonderful way of encouraging critical thinking. In the words of Donald O’ Connor in ‘Singin’ in the Rain’:

‘Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh, don’t ya know all the world wants to


We may add the verse:

‘Make ‘em think, make ‘em think, laughter will make you critically think!’

Have a go, have fun, have a laugh!

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