A Lesson on Self-Humor
by Carly Nicholson
- Grades: 9–12
Human gods naturally made heaven a pleasantly familiar place. The Greeks felt at home in it. They knew just what the divine inhabitants did there, what they ate and drank and where they banqueted and how they amused themselves. Of course they were to be feared; they were very powerful and very dangerous when angry. Still, with proper care a man could be quite fairly at ease with them. He was even perfectly free to laugh at them. Laughter in the presence of an Egyptian sphinx or an Assyrian bird-beast was inconceivable; but it was perfectly natural in Olympus, and it made the gods companionable.
--Edith Hamilton, Mythology
Introduction: Edith Hamilton explains the Greeks’ mythology as the first major world religion to visualize gods in human form. Zeus, a god who had trouble staying faithful in his marriage, often got himself in trouble with Hera, his stereotypically jealous wife. Being exaggerated stories of everyday human drama, these myths allowed the Greeks to laugh at themselves.
I often ask my students who their favorite comic is. Teaching abroad this year, I was especially interested in whom my Turkish students favor. In the United States and in Turkey, I’ve noticed a universal need for a comic to allow people to laugh at their own culture. Many of my students this year adore Cem Yilmaz, a stand-up comic as well as a comic actor, who they say can identify and paint with humor aspects of their Turkish culture. For example, Yilmaz has a bit making light of his military service, an experience Turkish men can all relate to. In American culture, Jerry Seinfeld similarly invites us to laugh at our own daily lives, our quirks. He points out the comedy in the nonsensical, for example our funny habit of checking the ingredients of a prescription bottle without the understanding of what we’re reading. These comics are successful because they create an image a certain culture can identify with, they make themselves “companionable,” just as the Greek gods were to the Greeks. And in order to receive a laughter response to their jokes, they ask their audience for a healthy dose of self-humor.
High school is one of the least-conducive environments to self-humor. More typically, students focus their comic energy towards finding faults in others, resulting in a superiority relationship, an interaction that cheaply produces laughter from other students. Rarely do high school students use humor to achieve a confidence over their own qualities that others might consider to be flaws, which is what this lesson aims to do.
This lesson can fit into a variety of places within a yearly plan. It can be used as a creative writing lesson, introducing the development of a universal character for comedy writing. It can be used as a drama lesson, writing a scene or as the background for an improvisation exercise. Or this lesson can even be used as an introduction to a lesson on Greek and Roman mythology, later exploring each of the major gods’ role in ancient cultures. The activities below can be condensed into a single day’s lesson, or stretched into several days’ worth of exploration into one’s sense of self-humor, the healthiest form of superiority theory, the ability to raise oneself above any self-trait another person might consider to be a flaw.
Teaching Self-Humor: I like to begin the lesson with a whole-class discussion on the students’ favorite comics, eventually guiding their discussion to explore those comics that make us laugh at ourselves.
1. Ask students to think about their favorite comics, comedy writers, comedy actors, talkshow hosts, etc.
2. Discuss what makes the comic funny.
3. If it hasn’t been mentioned already, ask students to name a comic who makes them laugh at themselves.
4. Explore through discussion how exactly this happens, what content the comic uses, why it’s funny, the comic’s delivery (their voice style, their timing, their body language), and the context this comic works within (their major works, their fan base, their public appearances, etc.).
5. Explain the activity. The students will be creating and performing a character meant to invite the students in the class to laugh at themselves.
6. Firstly, the students will be writing individually, searching their selves. Have the students spend time locating a personal quality of theirs that could be considered by another person as a fault. List examples: jealousy, vanity, over-attention to detail, laziness, aggressiveness, hypersensitivity, clumsiness, ditziness, etc.
7. Students should write at least two examples of situations in which they felt they demonstrated this quality. Encourage students to use situations other students could relate to, such as incidents related to school. Jenna M. does a great job working with content teens can connect with in her “Just Face It,” a humorous memoir on getting an after school job and the dream to buy a car. “All Because of a Cough” by Desmond C. uses the often-dreaded experience of detention to get laughs from a wide audience. These pieces can be used as model topics for this step.
8. After the students finish their personal reflection, they next work to make their written experience a shared experience. Put the students into groups of four, trying not to have groups with repeated qualities. Have the students share only their quality (not their situations). The other three students in the group must then write down on a scrap of paper one situation in which they felt they themselves demonstrated this quality. Again ask the students to use relatable content. Check out Wicy W.’s “Gym Rocks,” a student’s hilarious account of her frustrations with gym class.
9. The students then go around the group and do the same for each and hand in the scraps of paper to the student working on that particular trait.
10. Next the students work independently again, creating a character based on the five experiences they should have collected by then. They should spend this time writing a character description, an outline of the character’s personality and position in life, using their original reflection as well as their classmates’ contributions. The students can name their character, a great distancing technique that sometimes produces better, and not dangerously personal, results. Read “A Mean Old Queen” by Shayan A., a great title for her well-exaggerated character. Encourage the students to use exaggeration as a comic technique to over-emphasize the trait they’ve chosen, having their character exemplify this quality about ten times more than the student or their classmates remembered. If the students have trouble here, remind them of the comics they offered as their favorites. For example, Mike Myers always cashes in on exaggeration when building his characters, as we see with Austin Powers. Mathew S.’s “Mr. Know-it-all” is a perfect example of an exaggerated character; notice how he brings his character to life through daily scenarios.
11. As the students finish their character outlines, put them into pairs, again preferably with students writing on different topics. Students share their work in pairs, and together they write a one-scene, comic dialogue, an exchange between their two characters.
12. The students perform their scenes to the class.
13. After the students’ performance, they will need time for reflection. Have the students write about their performance:
a. How did it go?
b. Did you get many laughs?
c. Which part produced the most laughter?
d. Which part bombed (resulted in no laughs)?
e. Why? What was the relationship?
14. End the lesson with a whole-class discussion, exploring the students’ answers to these questions.
A Final Note: When using comedy in the classroom, it’s always important to be aware of any hurtful humor the students might try. I like to have a discussion early in the year on inappropriate humor, what makes it inappropriate, and what varieties there are. It’s good to build a classroom vocabulary around humor that can be used in the class and humor that can’t function in the class, such as “Good Laugh/Bad Laugh,” but also exploring with the students humor that can’t be pinned down in either category.
With self-humor, there is also a fine line between a healthy dose and an excessive use. Be alert for students’ overuse of self-humor, which results in self-depreciation or self-bullying. The group work section of this lesson is where this can be avoided, having the students celebrate a common idea of these qualities, creating characters based not on a single student’s struggle, but on an idea shared within the culture of students. Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. The New American Library, Inc., New York: 1969.
Carly Nicholson is in her first year of teaching overseas in Turkey’s Tarsus American College. She received her Masters in English Education from the University of Virginia, and she likes to laugh.