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  • In Focus: What's So Funny about Comedy and Humor Studies?Introduction
  • Maggie Hennefeld (bio), Annie Berke (bio), and Michael Rennett (bio)

A guy walks into a bar. No, wait. Three guys walk into a bar. No. Let us start over. Twenty-some professors, graduate students, contingent lecturers, and independent scholars walk into a gray-toned hotel conference room, arrange the chairs into a makeshift semicircle, and energetically debate the future of comedy and humor studies as an academic field. It might not sound like the start of a promising joke, but if it's any consolation, it only gets funnier from there.

The essays that follow have been borne out of our annual meetings of the Comedy and Humor Studies Scholarly Interest Group at the Society of Cinema and Media Studies Conference.1 Across the essays in this section, our goal is to highlight the exciting scholarship in our field while also drawing attention to its limits and blind spots. We argue that comedy studies has been widely marginalized, deployed only to consider conventional genre comedies or identifiable comedic performers. Yet comedic issues have crucial bearing on nearly every aspect of contemporary life, media culture, and interdisciplinary humanities scholarship. Above all, this section is a springboard for exploring many of these untapped intersections of comedic modes, social politics, and critical media scholarship.

The Opposite of Comedy Is …

"Comedy" used to mean the opposite of "tragedy," but now laughter sprawls out everywhere. In an era when breaking-news headlines read like satirical Onion articles, social activism is fueled by pithy memes, and comedians [End Page 137] are often better equipped to explain current events than scholars or journalists, it is crucial to reconceptualize the genre's qualities, as well as its psychological dynamics and social politics.

Contemporary uncertainties about comedy's limits stem from broader cultural and institutional shifts. The utter ubiquity of comedy in twenty-first-century life dovetails with profound technological changes that have fundamentally altered our very notions of truth, knowledge, and the evidentiary status of the sign. For example, the indexicality debates, which questioned the material basis of the digital image, loomed large for film and media studies throughout the early 2000s.2 Comedy and humor scholars have approached these crises of mediation and belief primarily through notions of "fake news" and "truthiness," which are both variants of political satire.

The comedian Stephen Colbert famously defined "truthiness" in 2004 as "the fact that you don't think with your head but that you know with your heart." He elaborates: "Who's Britannica to tell me that the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I want to say it was 1941, that's my right."3 When emotion holds a higher purchase on knowledge than science or rational debate, laughter plays a vital civic function: to signify truth against the rampant spread of disinformation (e.g., climate-change denialism) and the digital media–precipitated crisis of the indexical sign and evidentiary image.

Since the rise of truthiness during the George W. Bush presidency, comedy scholars such as Jonathan Gray, Ethan Thompson, and Amber Day have argued that political laughter holds the power to reinvigorate civic discourse while renewing the capacity for media images to sustain belief in scientific evidence and fact-based knowledge.4 But it is doubtful that political satire can still defend democratic values in the age of "post-truth," election cyberhacking, and the appropriation of "fake news" as authoritarian disinformation.

In response to these dual crises of liberal democracy and liberating laughter, scholars in the field have questioned their earlier optimism about the genre while imagining new ways in which political laughter can continue to be globally consequential. Books, edited collections, and conference panels have proliferated, including Stand-Up Comedians as Public Intellectuals, "Political Laughter and Its Consequences," and Behind the Laughs: Community and Inequality in Comedy.5 Alongside this commitment to the contemporary, a rich array of archival studies have explored the historical formations of comedy's capacity to effect social change while defending the methodological value of archival documentation and exploring new approaches to humor historiography. [End Page 138]

The essays in this section continue that important work of framing the...


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