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Reviewed by:
  • The Comedy Studies Reader ed. by Nick Marx and Matt Sienkiewicz
  • Steven S. Kapica (bio)
The Comedy Studies Reader. Edited By Nick Marx and Matt Sienkiewicz. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018. 310 pp.

Readers—collections comprised mainly of previously published scholarship—are by design a mixed bag. They stake out fields or topics established enough to merit targeted collections of foundational texts and attempt to be representative but not comprehensive. Their appeal is to accessibility—grounding the initiate and appeasing the seasoned scholar. To that end, most of us automatically assume that "readers" are for students. We look to them as a way to anchor an undergraduate survey course. Maybe we suggest one to a graduate student who needs a quick primer or refresher. For scholars, however, readers rarely provide more than casual strolls along well-worn paths. This is not the case, however, with Nick Marx and Matt Sienkiewicz's Comedy Studies Reader, an expertly conceived collection that proves both familiar and new.

Comedy studies is a patchwork field, composed of scholars from a range of disciplines, including (but certainly not limited to) literature, cultural studies, psychology, sociology, media studies, communications, rhetoric, and anthropology. It's a field born of nagging questions. Why do we laugh? Why do we laugh at things we probably shouldn't? A "comedy studies reader," then, might prove more valuable than a generic reader. A comedy studies reader might provide a useful snapshot of a multifarious field. It might serve as a mission statement or a foundational testament. It might even serve ontological necessity. Marx and Sienkiewicz's collection doesn't lay claim to any of these, exactly. Instead, it "serves as a call to expand both the scope of comedic media that scholars and students consider and the tools they use to do so" (13). The collection "offers an opportunity to consider comedy as both a theoretical concept and a commercial product, while illustrating the ways in which these things are inevitably intertwined" (6). These statements of purpose reveal the editors' disciplinary homes (media studies and communication) and evince the book's preoccupation with film and television comedy (each chapter begins with an epigraph formatted as a film or television [End Page 208] script). Although the text does, as its editors claim, probe "the history of Western thought about comedy, joking, and humor, in order to encourage its reexamination in the classroom," the focus on comedy's commercial aspects tips the collection's hat more toward media studies than any of the other disciplines under the comedy studies umbrella (14). That said, it would be a mistake for us to consign the collection to media studies.

The Comedy Studies Reader is expertly ordered. It consists of a clearly articulated (and accessibly written) introduction followed by eight chapters centered on key concepts. Each chapter has its own short introduction from the editors, excerpts from seminal authors, and essays that exemplify how "contemporary scholars have applied comedy theory to media texts" (15). Finally, each chapter includes a new essay that builds on the preceding materials. It is in these new essays that The Comedy Studies Reader achieves its most salient purpose. Students can take note of the scaffolding, how arguments are introduced, synthesized, and built; they can use the theoretical excerpts as foundations for further exploration, the representative and new essays serving as models. Scholars familiar with the theoretical frames, however, can find inspiration in the new essays. We can revisit old concepts in search of nuance and discover unexplored angles worth pursuing.

Marx and Sienkiewicz begin chapter 1 with an excerpt by Mikhail Bakhtin, "The Carnivalesque," which seems to suggest that the Russian philosopher and literary critic serves as an appropriate starting point for comedy studies theory. A contestable point, maybe. However, the Bakhtin excerpt is followed by Umberto Eco's "The Frames of Comic 'Freedom,'" which both complicates (dismantles) and extends Bakhtin's position. "From antiquity to Freud or Bergson," Eco writes, "every attempt to define comic seems to be jeopardized by the fact that this is an umbrella term … that gathers together a disturbing ensemble of diverse and not completely homogeneous phenomena, such as humor, comedy, grotesque, parody, satire...