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PWR 2EH: Seriously Funny: Understanding the Rhetoric of Humor

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Catalog Number: PWR 2EH

Instructor:  Elizabeth Hille

Units: 4

Grade option: Letter (ABCD/NP) 

Prerequisite: PWR 1, ESF, ITALIC 95W, or equivalent

Course Feature: WR-2 requirement


We’ve all experienced the pleasure of an ironic meme, a satirical TikTok, or a TV show that parodies components of our society. The Daily Show and The Onion have been using satire and parody  to skewer the hypocrisy found in US and international politics for over twenty years. But why do you find something humorous, and what purpose does that humor serve? 

Humor–a communication strategy–has been around as long as people have been speaking and composing texts. So long in fact that ancient Greek comedies used humor to reveal the absurdity of human behavior, point out the ridiculousness of societal norms, or criticize politicians. In our course we’ll continue the tradition began by Aristotle and Quintilian, both of whom took humor pretty seriously, to analyze why certain comedic strategies work for certain audiences–and not others–and what these strategies communicate about our society. To be sure, there are compelling arguments as to why long-running tv shows like South Park, The Office, and the Simpsons are still popular with audiences and why the Distracted boyfriend meme has been making people laugh since 2017.  Together, we’ll focus our critical gaze on past and contemporary genres of humor to uncover the rhetorical moves made in 21st century memes, comedy, and videos. Everyone loves a good laugh, but what are the social consequences–positive or negative–to comedic strategies? 

Examples of Research Topics

For your quarter long research project, you may choose a topic connected to the intersection of humor and media. For instance, you can focus on how humor strategies work in ironic political memes or on websites like The Onion or McSweeney’s; how and why health and wellness influencers are satirized; investigate the popularity of sardonic social platforms like Fizz; or analyze the success of tiktok videos that parody make-up tutorials or celebrities.

PWR 2 Assignment Sequence

Research Proposal 

(5-minute live oral presentation; written text of 900-1200 words; reflective memo of 250 words): You’ll propose a research project that explores a humor strategy and analyze how that functions in a specific media setting. This could be researching how parody functions in specific TikTok or Youtube videos, or, how irony, hyperbole, or satire  appeal to audiences on X/former twittersphere or on social media apps. 

Written Research-Based Argument 

(3000-3600 words; 10-12 pages; reflective memo of 250 words): You’ll write a nuanced essay based on your research that synthesizes a range of sources. To accomplish this, you’ll use secondary research and possibly primary research, which might include interviews, surveys, etc.  

Delivery of Research

(10 minutes of live oral presentation with multimedia support): You’ll translate your research-based argument about humor into a live oral presentation (with Q&A) using multimedia support.

Genre/Modes assignment 

You’ll translate your findings into a digital media example–meme, infographic, brochure, etc–of the humor strategy and topic you’ve researched.