PHIL 4800A                 

Philosophy, Comedy, and Film: An Exploration of Ethical Theory as Represented in Comedic Film and Television           

CRN 20625             

Spring 2011

West Hall 104            

Class meets T 5:00-7:45pm


Dr. Christine James

Office: 110 Ashley Hall

Office Hours: MTWR 3:30pm-4:45pm and after classes and by appointment as needed.

Telephone:  259-7609 

Mailbox:  Philosophy Department Office

Fax:  259-5011

E-mail address:


Please note that specific dates for readings and graded assignments in the syllabus may be adjusted and updated throughout the semester.  The latest version of the syllabus will always be available at


Purpose and goals of the course: An examination of the role that comedy plays in American culture, and the sense in which comedy reflects our social context.  Readings include the work of philosophers and scholars, as well as professional comedians.  The history of comedic commentary on politics, gender and race will be addressed.





Philosophy courses at Valdosta State University contribute to the VSU General Education Outcomes listed at the link below, with special emphasis on numbers 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, and 8.

The Learning Outcomes for our PHIL 4800 are:

1. To understand the distinctions among the various philosophical approaches to ethics, including the expression of ethics by comedians, as an academic field.

2. To recognize how philosophical inquiry applies to ‘real-world’ circumstances and to specific case studies in specific films and television examples.

3. To become conversant with the history of comedy as a means for ethical and political commentary, as well as specific examples of the issues of race, class and gender as comedians expressed these differences.

4. To recognize and define different world views, adopting a reasonably viable one and justifying it in a philosophically informed way that emphasizes critical reasoning and argument.

5.  To demonstrate the ability to discuss, in both oral and written discourse, the philosophical issues explored in the course.

6.  To be familiar with what academic philosophy is, and to understand how it can be applied to daily life as well as specific careers.

Members of the faculty in Philosophy and Religious Studies have verified that these outcomes are in line with the outcomes of the course as it is taught at peer institutions in the State System of Georgia.

These course-specific learning outcomes contribute to the departmental learning outcomes of the Philosophy and Religious Studies Major by enabling students better to

1. To encourage an understanding of central issues, topics and philosophers in the history of philosophy, from the ancient to the modern periods.

2. To develop students’ abilities to think, write, and speak critically and logically.

3. To enable students to challenge their own ideas and to develop self-understanding in the context of a diverse range of ideas which inform contemporary controversies and social conflict.

4. To enable students to engage in independent philosophical research, and to be responsible for communicating their understanding of the issues researched and developed, including a working familiarity with current research methods. 

5. To incorporate philosophical positions in oral and written communications.

6. To critically outline and analyze a philosophical question.


Members of the faculty in Philosophy and Religious Studies have verified that these outcomes are in line with the outcomes of the course as it is taught at peer institutions in the State System of Georgia.


Our materials are:

Blistein, Elmer M. Comedy In Action (out of print, available in .pdf format in schedule below)

Matthews, Nicole. Comic Politics: gender in Hollywood comedy after the new right. Manchester University Press, 2000. 0719055032

Marc, David. Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture. Blackwell, 1997 1577180038


How grades will be calculated, major graded items:

Class Participation and Attendance = 20%          

Spontaneous (Pop) in-class writing tests = 2 @ 10% = 20%                     

Two Page Proposal, Readings, and Video List for First Paper = 10%                                 

First Paper = 10%

Presentations (Comedy Term, First Paper Proposal) = 20%

Final Paper = 20%                    

Total = 100%               

***** Please note that I am not obligated to accept late work or to allow graded items to be turned in after the due date.*****


Attendance Policy:

I do care that you attend class regularly.  As you know, VSU policy is that missing 20% of class meetings results in an automatic grade of “F”.  Faculty can also institute added attendance policies in their syllabi. Our class will have a 10% rule for absences.  You can miss up to 10% of the class meetings with no grade penalty.  10% of our 18 class meetings is 2.  On absence number 3, your final grade for the course will be reduced by one whole letter grade; on absence number 4, your final grade for the course will be reduced by two whole letter grades; on absence number 5, you will automatically fail the course.  Be considerate of your fellow students – don’t be late, and don’t leave your cell phones and pagers on. No texting. Please note that this policy makes no distinction between excused and unexcused absences.


Secondary source material from academic journal articles is always a good idea in any philosophy paper.  Here are two links where you can begin to look for interesting journal articles:  (click on “Full Text Journal Title List”) and


The direct link for the database (Academic Search Complete)


Papers: This is a 4000-level philosophy class, and the papers will be long research papers.  You should plan to use a combination of materials including the class textbooks, secondary source material, and your own examples from film and television media.  You can write about examples that you enjoy and that you find funny, but you will have to deal with the material in a scholarly manner.


Presentations:  Each student will be responsible for a presentation during the semester.  All students not presenting on a given day will be responsible for participation, as well as peer evaluations. 


Helpful links:




Once you arrive at class, make an effort to get involved in the conversation. Don’t hesitate to ask questions if you need clarification or would like more information: if you are confused, it is likely that others are too! The participation percentage you receive will depend on a variety of factors, including (but not limited to) the frequency and helpfulness of your contributions to class discussions and the care you take when peer editing.


Pop Reading Quizzes:

If I notice that there are many students who are not keeping up with the reading, I may periodically administer reading quizzes in class. These will not be announced in advance. No “make-up” quizzes will be given, and a missed quiz will result in a grade of zero.  These quizzes are a solid reward for attending class, participating, and keeping up with the readings.


Online Discussions:

(Special Thank You to Richard Amesbury and other faculty members who teach using WebCT Vista, and the eCore staff!)


During certain weeks of the semester, you also will be expected to participate regularly in on-line discussions using WebCT Vista. Use this opportunity to comment on the week’s readings, ask questions, raise objections, and respond to what others have written or said in class.


To use Vista, you will need access to a computer with an internet connection. Your computer and its software will also need to meet certain technical specifications. You are solely responsible for all technical matters. Although you do not need to be on campus in order to access Vista, it is worth remembering that computer labs are available at VSU. For technical help, please contact the VSU Help Desk (located in Odum Library, to the left of the Circulation Desk) at 229-245-4357 or by e-mail at


To log in to Vista and the course “shell,” go to the VSU homepage and click on the words WebCT Vista in the upper right-hand corner. Your username and password are the same as for your BlazeNet e-mail account. For instructions on getting started, go to:


When posting in an online bulletin board, like those in the Discussion area of WebCT Vista, you must (1) post at least one original message of your own, (2) read all the messages posted by others, and (3) respond substantively to at least one message from another student. Your postings are due the same day as the readings are listed in the schedule below (i.e., no later than 11:59 p.m. on the relevant dates.)


Your first message on a given topic should be about 200 words in length. That is roughly the length of two medium-sized paragraphs (e.g., this one and the next). Your second (response) posting can be about half that length, but it should be substantive (i.e., involving serious content). Try not to simply repeat what others have said already. Additional postings can be as long or as short as you desire. Be sure to give the first message an interesting title in the “Subject” line. This will help alert the rest of us as to what it will be about.


When you are ready to respond to someone else, do so by opening their message and hitting the “Reply” button. This will create a “thread” that others can add on to. Keep in mind that although it is fine to disagree with what someone else has said, it is important to do so in a way that is polite and constructive. If someone says something that makes you angry, pause and take a breath before firing off a reply! You can preview your message before you send it, but once you have hit “Post,” your message will no longer be editable.


Vista allows me to keep track of how many messages you have read and posted. I will monitor student activity and may from time to time add a message of my own.


Academic Honesty:

Members of the Valdosta State University faculty value honesty and integrity extremely highly and do not tolerate cheating of any kind. Anyone caught cheating will automatically fail the course. Cheating includes – but is not limited to – plagiarism, giving or receiving assistance on a quiz, having someone else do work on your behalf, doing work on someone else’s behalf, and working with a partner or in a group on an individual assignment. By enrolling in this course, you are in effect promising to maintain the bond of trust on which the professor-student relationship is based.                          



VSU policy mandates that all official communication by e-mail take place through VSU e-mail accounts or through the WebCT Vista Mail tool.  Please check your VSU ( e-mail account regularly.

Note: This syllabus is not a legal contract; the content of this course is subject to revision by the professor.


Special Needs:

Students requiring classroom accommodations or modification because of a documented disability should discuss this need with me at the beginning of the semester.  Students requesting classroom accommodations or modifications because of a documented disability must contact the Access Office for Students with Disabilities located in Farber Hall. The phone numbers are 245-2498 (voice) and 219-1348 (tty).



Come to class with the reading listed on each date completed, be ready to discuss and ask questions.  In addition, each member of the class must pick a date for a presentation and leading discussion.



Date                 Readings for the day’s class                           


1/11 T           Introduction to the course


                        First reading together: Academic Integrity




What is a philosophical look at comedy?

Is comedy political, social, ethical?

When is comedy subversive?



                        For homework, begin reading the Blistein Comedy in Action pages, a classic and out-of-print text on comedy from 1964, using either the .pdf or the .htm page of .jpg thumbnail images (click on a thumbnail multiple times to make it larger to read) This is also available as a pdf inside the Blazeview area of our class.






1/18 T               Blistein’s Comedy in Action  pages xi-20

                        Comic Heroes. The Drive For Respectability: An Aspect of the Comic Character

An article about Judd Apatow, one of the creators of 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared:

An article about Mel Brooks (High Anxiety, Young Frankenstein, History of the World Part I)


1/25 T             Blistein pages 21-41                                          

                        The Object of Scorn: An Aspect of the Comic Antagonist


2/1 T             Matthews’ Comic Politics, pages 1-11  (Look inside Blazeview for pdf)

Popular Comedy: Taking It All Too Seriously                   

If the text is out at the bookstore, try using an online book source:




2/8 T              Matthews pages 12- 51                                                                          

Is Parody Political?

What does “postmodern” mean?


2/15 T               COMEDY TERM DUE: Special research night: each class member will have been given a specific term about comedy to research before this class.  You must post in the Discussion area of WebCT Vista with a solid definition of the term and at least one example by this night at 5pm, and then present your term to the class orally during class tonight.



2/22 T               TWO PAGE PROPOSAL AND READING/RESEARCH/VIDEO LIST FOR PAPER 1 IS DUE.  The paper proposal follows the format linked here:

Be ready to describe and discuss your proposal standing in front of the class.

(The paper proposal is your chance to try out your paper topic for Paper 1. Paper 1 is due right after Spring Break, so the more work you do on the proposal now, the easier writing the paper is!)


                        Matthews pages 52-73 

                        Performing Gender in Comedian Comedy


3/1 T                Matthews pages 74-98


3/8 T                Matthews pages 99-134                                     

‘The New Man’ in family comedies


3/15-3/17          No Class, Spring Break Week


3/22 T               PAPER 1 IS DUE TONIGHT IN THE BLAZEVIEW ASSIGNMENT TOOL BY 5:00 PM.                                                                                                                           

                        David Marc’s Comic Visions, pages ix-xvi   


3/29 T               Marc pages 1-40

                        What’s So Funny About America?                      





4/5 T                 Marc pages 41-69

                         Waking Up to Television: A Garden in the Machine


4/12 T               Marc pages 70-99                                                                                             

                        The Making of the Sitcom, 1961


4/19 T               Marc pages 100-129                                                                              

                        Planet Earth of/to Sitcom


4/26 T               Marc pages 130-171                                          

                        The Sitcom at Literate Peak: Post-Vietnam Refinements of Mass Consciousness



(Last Official Class Day for all VSU classes is May 2)





To look up your other classes’ Spring final exams, see the online guide at the link to Registration at the university homepage.

Special Pilot Project: Online Course Evaluations

You will be evaluating this course using the online Student Opinion of Instruction (SOI) form in Banner, under the Answer a Survey link.  Student evaluations are extremely important in helping faculty members plan and revise their courses.  Rather than completing these evaluations during class time, students will need to access evaluation forms via BANNER and complete them in a period during the last few weeks of class.  Please take the time to complete this important evaluation (or opt out of providing an evaluation) during the designated period.  These evaluations are usually done before the final grades for the course are released for student viewing on the Monday after the final examination days.


The Administration has not yet opened the online SOI forms, and Dr. James will update the class with instructions when they are available.

Tips for doing well in Philosophy classes, adapted from a handout by Robert Scott


1.  Read text with a pencil, underline the important ideas and key concepts. Write down technical ideas, key terms, key distinctions between two terms, definitions, diagrams, etc. to help you remember them.


2.  Write questions or reactions you have to the text in the margin of the book.  Ask about these questions in class, and keep them in mind, since they may provide good points to make about that author in papers you will write for class.


3.  Read ahead to see the ultimate objectives of the chapter and of the individual readings.  Keep in mind the overall picture of the chapters given in the introductory sections to each chapter in the book.


4.  Work with the new terminology frequently, and try to apply it to situations outside of class.  I would recommend flash cards to help you memorize the meanings of new terms quickly.


5.  For longer readings, be sure to review the reading as a whole after you have read it section-by-section.  What was the main question the author wanted to address? What were the answers? What concepts were used to make the points?


6.  When confronted with a difficult reading or question, break it down into parts, and into individual ideas.  This will at least help to clarify the question, even if it might not give the answer.  And for philosophy, clarifying the question is really half the battle!


7.  Ponder an unsolved problem and return to it every so often to see if it will give.  Inspiration may happen at an unexpected time, and the subconscious mind does work on problems even when we aren't consciously aware of it.


8.  Begin work on all the class tasks early, and spread out your work over time so as to maximize your chances for comprehending the readings accurately, memorizing the information, and grappling with the questions for papers.


9.  If you do need to meet with an instructor outside of class, be sure to have your questions for the instructor planned out ahead of time, to make the meeting as productive as possible.


10.  Always think about the philosophical issues for yourself, rather than waiting to be told what to think or believe.


11.  Study for all exams on a daily basis, for at least a week before the exam date. You will need to know who said what, from memory.


12.  Try to anticipate the questions that will be asked on an examination beforehand.  Questions may come from the readings or from lectures and class discussions, but in either case, certain terms and concepts will be emphasized more than others.


13.  Listen carefully to different points of view, and actively respond (when you read, when you are in class, and when you write your philosophy papers)!


14.  Philosophy involves skills, like learning to appreciate a good debate, learning to imagine the world differently than we assume it to be, and appreciating the world with a sense of wonder.