ARTS 616
Film Comedy

Ethan de Seife         

Course Ojectives

The principal goal of this course is to familiarize you with the historical and aesthetic traditions of motion-picture comedy. Along the way, we’ll consider various theories of comedy; national traditions of comedy, and how they compare to one another; and investigate several subgenres contained within comedy. We’ll also watch a bunch of funny movies: Hollywood comedy will receive particular emphasis, but we’ll look at certain European and Asian comic traditions, as well.

Required Text

• Jenkins, Henry, What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic 

This book has been placed on order at Broad Street Books in Middletown (45 Broad Street; 860-685-7323), but you should feel free to search around online for better deals. Good places to start are and

Most of the readings for this course can be found in the course reader, which is available at PIP Printers (179 Main St. Middletown; 344-9001). All readings from the course reader are marked with an asterisk (*).

Additionally, some articles are available online. In order to download them, you must access the Wesleyan proxy server: The readings themselves are at, where you can search by course or instructor name. All downloadable readings are marked with a dagger (†).

Course Requirements & Assignments
• Midterm paper  30%
• Final paper  50%
• Class participation  20%

Midterm paper
For your midterm assignment, due on Monday, October 30, you will write a short (8-10 pages) paper on one of several topics concerning the film One, Two, Three. For this paper, you will not need to do any outside research – you will be working strictly from the film itself. Further details on this assignment in the coming weeks.

Final paper
The major assignment (due on Monday, December 11 – the last day of class) for the course (half of your final grade) will be a research paper in which you advance an original argument about an individual film, a group of films, a director’s work, and/or historical or theoretical perspectives on any of the issues covered in the course. This is by no means the sum total of directions your paper might take; the field is wide open, and I will offer some further suggestions. If you wish to write about films not screened in class, that’s fine, but you’ll need to submit DVD copies of the films along with your paper.

I will require each of you to meet with me – or at least call or email me – so we can discuss your paper topic.

You should start thinking about possible paper topics right away. My suggestion is that, within the first 4-5 weeks of class, take special note of the topics, performers, films, etc., that are interesting to you, and start thinking about how you can turn your interests into a research paper.

I will give more details about the paper assignment soon.

Late Assignments

I will not accept late assignments. Please have all your work completed on time.


Please check your e-mail frequently. I will set up a class e-mail list, and will send you messages from time to time regarding course business.

Email is generally the best way to get in touch with me; use If you need to speak with me, try my cell first (914-434-1958), then my home (860-343-7253).

A Note on Class Meetings

Though the readings are extremely important, our primary texts for this class will be the films themselves. However, since we have only three hours per week devoted to course time, time is at a premium. Our meetings will generally be a mix of
screening(s), lecture, and discussion. I know you are all busy, and I will do my best to end the class meetings by 9pm; every now and then, however, we may run a little bit long.

Also, since 6-9pm is prime dinner time, feel free to bring food and drink to class, so long as it doesn’t get too distracting for you or your classmates.

Class Meetings
September 11

Introduction / Basics of Comedy Theory

- L’arroseur arrosé (Louis Lumière, 1895, France, 1 min.)                       
- His Wooden Wedding (Leo McCarey, 1925, US, 20 min.)

September 18

Chaplin and  Keaton

- Steve Seidman, The Comedian Comedy: Introduction; Chapters 1-3*
- Peter Kramer, “Derailing the Honeymoon Express: Comicality and Narrative Closure in Buster Keaton’s The Blacksmith”*
- William Paul, “Charlie Chaplin and the Annals of Anality”*

- The Idle Class (Charles Chaplin, 1921, US, 32 min.)
- The Blacksmith (Buster Keaton and Malcolm St. Clair, 1922, US, 25 min.)

September 25

Anarchistic Comedy

- Jenkins, What Made Pistachio Nuts?, Chapters 1-4; 7; 8; Conclusion

Duck Soup (Leo McCarey, 1933, US, 68 min.)

October 2

Sophisticated Comedy

- James Harvey, “Lubitsch: The Naughty Operetta” and “Lubitsch: Comedies without Music”*
- Kristin Thompson, “The Lubitsch Touch”*

The Marriage Circle (Ernst Lubitsch, 1924, US, 92 min.)

October 9

Screwball Comedy

- Steve Neale and Frank Krutnik, “The Comedy of the Sexes”*
- David R. Shumway, “Screwball Comedies: Constructing Romance, Mystifying Marriage”†

Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938, US, 102 min.)

October 16

Preston Sturges

- Manny Farber & W.S. Poster, “Preston Sturges: Success in the Movies”*

The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges, 1942, US, 88 min.)

October 23

Gags and the Comedians Who Tell Them

- Frank Capra, “The Gag Man”*
- Tom Gunning, “Crazy Machines in the Garden of Forking Paths: Mischief Gags and the Origins of American Film Comedy”*
- Donald Crafton, “Pie and Chase: Gag, Spectacle and Narrative in Slapstick Comedy”*
- Tom Gunning, “Response to ‘Pie and Chase’”*

Road to Morocco (David Butler, 1942, US, 82 min.)

October 30

Jerry Lewis and Frank Tashlin

- Ethan de Seife, “The Artist and His Model: Frank Tashlin and Jerry Lewis in the 1950s” and “Disorderly Conduct: Tashlin in the 1960s”†

The Disorderly Orderly (Frank Tashlin, 1964, US, 90 min.)

***Midterm Paper due***

November 6

Ozu: 1930s Japanese Comedy


I Was Born But..? (Yasujiro Ozu, 1932, Japan, 100 min.)

November 13

And Now for Something Completely Different


several episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus

November 20

Jacques Tati

- André Bazin, “An Interview with Jacques Tati”†

Mon Oncle (Jacques Tati, 1958, France, 110 min.)

November 27

Animation as Comedy

- Crafton, “The View from Termite Terrace: Caricature and Parody in Warner Bros. Animation”*

The Band Concert (Wilfred Jackson, US, 1935, 7 min.)
Donald and Pluto (Ben Sharpsteen, US, 1936, 7 min.)
I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You (Dave Fleischer, US, 1932, 7 min.)
Snow White (Dave Fleischer, US, 1933, 7 min.)
I Love to Singa (Tex Avery, US, 1936, 7 min.)
Porky’s Romance (Frank Tashlin, US, 1937, 7 min.)
Porky in Wackyland (Bob Clampett, US, 1938, 7 min.)
The Dover Boys at Pimento University (Chuck Jones, US, 1942, 7 min.)
The Great Piggy Bank Robbery (Bob Clampett, US, 1946, 7 min.)
What’s Opera, Doc? (Chuck Jones, US, 1957, 7 min.)

December 4

Hong Kong Comedy

- David Bordwell, “Formula, Form, and Norm”*

Mr. Vampire (Ricky Lau, 1985, Hong Kong, 96 min.)

December 11

The Fine Line Between Stupid and Clever


This Is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1984, US, 82 min.)

***Final Paper due***