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  • Reader in Comedy: An Anthology of Theory and Criticism ed. by Magda Romanska and Alan Ackerman
  • Tracy Wuster (bio)
Reader in Comedy: An Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Edited by Magda Romanska and Alan Ackerman. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016. 392 pp.

I awaited the arrival of Magda Romanska and Alan Ackerman's edited collection with eagerness. There has been a need for an anthology of writing on comedy/humor that stretches from Plato to the present, especially for teaching purposes. This need was last addressed with Paul Lauter's Theories of Comedy (1964). While the selections are largely well chosen, the introduction and framing of the pieces are lacking and limit the book's usefulness as a teaching tool.

The book begins with a general truisim in its general introduction: "Comedy is difficult to define" (1). The editors then seem to get stuck between two impulses—the first is an urge to generalize across the diversity of examples ranging from ancient Greek comedies to 30 Rock, while the second is a [End Page 205] desire to pose "resistance to definition" (1). Unfortunately, instead of successfully balancing the dialectic goal of defining key characteristics of comedy while at the same time acknowledging the theoretical, generic, and historical contingency of those characteristics, the introduction largely misses the mark.

The major issue, to my mind, is the failure to define the central critical terms of the field, a stated goal of the introduction (1). Comedy is thus discussed both as a mode of theatrical performance and as an umbrella term for all instances of humorous performance, collapsing generic differences between stage performances across time with sitcoms, stand-up comedy, and more. This definitional confusion is compounded with the addition of other terms. Most frustratingly, the authors do not even attempt to disentangle or historicize the difference between comedy and humor, introducing the anthology by explaining that it will "offer a wide range of theories of comedy and humour and how they are interrelated" (3). But the editors then provide no further discussion of this difference beyond the next sentence: "Comedy and humour change from one period or culture to another." By not acknowledging the scholarly and critical biases involved in privileging comedy over humor as the central topic, the editors do a disservice to the history of debates between theorists over time and on different continents.

On the following pages, other key terms are glossed over or incompletely defined. Satire and parody are defined together in one sentence with no differentiation, and wit is given one sentence. On a related note, the Index features only names of writers and scholars, so if a student were interested in specific pages that discussed the difference between satire and parody or further discussed the importance of wit, they would be out of luck. This lack of clear definitions of terms and how they are used severely limits the usefulness of the introduction.

The tension between the desire to define and the resistance to definition also manifests in the tension between editorial pronouncements and a focus on critical conversations. The introduction makes several ahistorical pronouncements that beg counterexamples. For example, in one paragraph we get: "Comedy touches on big subjects ranging from ethics and education to how we know what's 'true' about ourselves and the world around us" (3). But after that large pronouncement, the next paragraph makes the obvious point that there is not one singular theory of comedy and follows with this statement: [End Page 206] "Comedy is about this world, here-and-now, erotic pleasures, money, and politics, not metaphysics or the hereafter" (13). The introduction would have been better served if it had made the debate over the meaning of comedy/humor and its historical contingency central to the framing of the material.

At times, the editors frame subjects not as pronouncements but as conversations that have played out over time and in different historical circumstances. For instance, the subject of whether comedy is conservative and/or progressive is nicely framed as a series of questions that authors have addressed in various ways. Unfortunately, the editors only mention one of the pieces they include—and they do so without providing...