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  • A Philosophy of Comedy on Stage and Screen: You Have to Be There by Shaun May
  • Rachel E. Blackburn
A Philosophy of Comedy on Stage and Screen: You Have to Be There. By Shaun May. London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2016. Paper $32.99. 218 pages.

Shaun May's A Philosophy of Comedy on Stage and Screen: You Have to Be There, is a strong exploration of how the philosophical writing of Martin Heidegger and others may be interwoven with our interpretation of comic performances. The result effectively illuminates comic engagement, Heidegger's writing in particular, and ultimately, how jokes and laughter may be thought of as intrinsic to what makes us human. More specifically, May uses Heidegger's concept of "Dasein," an ontological concern with those experiences that are particular to human beings, toward illustrating the hermeneutic conditions of humor. May states, "I consider myself to be raising questions about the fundamental grounds of comic intelligibility" (4) and asks, "What makes us the kind of beings that can 'get' the joke?" (7). May has constructed his book in two parts: two chapters which focus on the theoretical foundations his work relies upon, and four chapters devoted to the phenomenological exploration of dysfunctional objects, anthropic objects, anthropic animals, and physical impairment.

May's work is unique within a recent crop of books released in humor studies, in that it explores the philosophical conditions that ground us in how we relate to humor. Recent works, such as Rebecca Krefting's All Joking Aside: American Humor and its Discontents, Rick DesRocher's The Comic Offense From Vaudeville to Contemporary Comedy: Larry David, Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, and Dave Chappelle, Sophie Quirk's Why Stand-Up Matters, and Off the Mic: The World's Best Stand-Up Comedians Get Serious About Comedy by Deborah Frances-White and Marsha Shandur, all ground themselves in developing both previous and new theoretical applications to (mostly) current stand-up comedy. May's work further departs from these works by including case studies that represent a fuller cross-section of performances spanning genre: everything from the stand-up comedy of Dylan Moran and Stewart Lee, to the cinematic work of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, to theatre productions such as Beckett's Endgame and The Table, a 2012 production by UK-based puppetry company, Blind Summit. By including such an array of performance styles, May convincingly demonstrates the broad implications of Heidegger's "Dasein" to more thoroughly unpack specific comedic moments, genre aside. This is but one of several great strengths of May's book.

Additionally, while May tussles with developing the hermeneutic conditions of humor intrinsically bound to humans, he does so in a clear, straightforward manner. May's language adeptly fosters accessibility, without sacrificing the complexity of his subject. This book is impressive in its ability to deepen many subjects which are perhaps more casually taken for granted by scholars of humor studies, including but not limited to puppetry, wordplay, and even television shows already cemented in the pantheon of comic television history, such as Fawlty Towers [End Page 155] and The Inbetweeners. I also commend May on the occasional use of his own dry humor, which sparingly peppers his writing and is a welcome inclusion in a work about the nature of comedy. One could even argue that the subtitle of his book, You Have to Be There, is a prime example of such an occasion. "You had to be there," was a frequent catchphrase suggesting that one had to be present for the original construction of a joke in order for the comic value to be meaningful for an audience when later recalled in conversation. Used here, however, it is May's clever reinterpretation to encapsulate the central notion of his book, which is that you, i.e. the human reader, must be present within a conscious mode of being for not only receiving the joke, but in order to construct humor whatsoever. Descartes might have described this mode of consciousness as "I joke, therefore I am." In May's own words, "We need to understand that we only develop the capacity to make jokes once we have developed experientially—once we are...


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pp. 155-156
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