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*
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. It can even be used as an introduction to a lesson on Greek and Roman mythology, later exploring each of the major gods' roles 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.
Step 1: I like to begin the lesson with a whole-class discussion on students' favorite comics, eventually guiding their discussion to explore those comics that make us laugh at ourselves. Start by asking students to think about their favorite comics, comedy writers, comedy actors, talkshow hosts, etc.
Step 2: Discuss what makes the comics funny.
Step 3: If it hasn't been mentioned already, ask students to name a comic who makes audience members laugh at themselves.
Step 4: Explore through discussion how exactly this happens. What content does the comic use, why is it funny, what is the comic's delivery like (their voice style, their timing, their body language), and which contexts does this comic work within (their major works, their fan base, their public appearances, etc.).
Step 5: Explain that students will be creating and performing a character meant to invite the students in the class to laugh at themselves.
Step 6: Have students write individually, searching their selves. Ask them to spend time locating a personal quality of theirs that could be considered by another person as a fault. List examples such as jealousy, vanity, over-attention to detail, laziness, aggressiveness, hypersensitivity, clumsiness, ditziness, etc.
Step 7: Ask students to 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. To give examples, Jenna M. does a great job working with content teens can connect with in "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.
Step 8: After students finish their personal reflections, explain that their next task is to make their written experience a shared experience. Divide students into groups of four, trying not to have groups with repeated qualities. Have the students share only their qualities, not their situations.
Step 9: Instruct the other three students in the group to write down on a scrap of paper one situation in which they felt they themselves demonstrated the quality shared by the fourth student. Again ask the students to use relatable content. Share Wicy W.'s "Gym Rocks," a student's hilarious account of her frustrations with gym class, for another example.
Step 10: When students are done writing, have them give their situation examples to the student who shared that particular quality.
Step 11: Have students go around the group and do the same for each student's shared quality.
Step 12: Have students work independently again to create a character based on the five experiences they should have collected by then (two of their own and three from their group members). 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. Students can name their character, a great distancing technique that sometimes produces better, and not dangerously personal, results. Share "A Mean Old Queen" by Shayan A., a great title for her well-exaggerated character.
Step 13: Encourage 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. You can point out how he brings his character to life through daily scenarios.
Step 14: As students finish their character outlines, put them into pairs, preferably with students writing on different topics. Students should share their individual work and then together write a one-scene comic dialogue exchange between their two characters.
Step 15: Have each pair of students perform their scene to the class.
Step 16: After the performances, students should take time for reflection. Have students answer the following questions about their performance:
- How did it go?
- Did you get many laughs?
- Which part produced the most laughter?
- Which part bombed (resulted in no laughs)? Why?
- What was the relationship?
Step 17: End the lesson with a whole-class discussion exploring students' answers to the reflection 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 students that 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.