The Art of Stand-Up Comedy
Fine Arts as Global Perspective - HNRS 2113

Instructor(s): Maria Szasz , Spenser Wilden

Course Description

“Comedy is one of the Great Jobs. And there are only four Great Jobs in the world: baseball player, race-car driver, professional surfer, and stand-up comedian.” —Jerry Seinfeld 

Richard Florida says, “If you want to understand society, don’t look at where people work or even what they buy.  Instead, look at what they find funny.” The Art of Stand-Up Comedy will examine the roots and development of stand-up comedy: the hilarious, inspiring, outrageous, and boundary-pushing art form that openly satirizes humanity’s idiosyncrasies, politics, history, religion, and culture.  Beginning with early stand-up pioneers in America, we will trace the growth of this art form from the 1940s to the twenty-first century.  We will consider why and how stand-up comedy began, and how it has changed by incorporating improvisation, sketch comedy, observational, and “alternative comedy.” We will ponder the remarkable achievements of female, non-binary and LGBTQ+ comics in what has been a straight, male-dominated form of entertainment.  We will look at individual performers such as Phyllis Diller, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Jerry Seinfeld, Margaret Cho, Gabriel Iglesias, Negin Farsad, and Hannah Gadsby; writers, such as Larry David; as well as important television shows, such as “Saturday Night Live” and “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.” This class will be predominantly interdisciplinary. We will explore stand-up comedy through history, art, business, and performance. We will investigate how stand-up has become an influential and outspoken art form, unafraid to wryly comment on political and social justice issues. Comedian George Carlin famously said, “I find out where they draw the line, then I step across it.” Is stand-up comedy, as Jason Zinoman asks, “the last completely uncensored place” in American culture? Take The Art of Stand-Up Comedy to find out more about how stand-up continues to make the world laugh as well as squirm.  Advisory: this course contains explicit language (comedians swear—sorry!).


Franklyn Ajaye, Comic Insights: The Art of Stand-Up Comedy (2001)

Gerald Nachman, SeriouslyFunny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s (2003) 

Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller, Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live) (2002) 

Ritch Schydner and Mark Schiff, I Killed: True Stories of the Road from America’s Top Comics (2006) 

Steve Martin, Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life (2007) 

Jerry Seinfeld, SeinLanguage (1993)

Andy Dougan, RobinWilliams (1998) 

Richard Zoglin, Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-Up in the 1970s Changed America (2009)

Eddie Tafoya, The Legacy of the Wisecrack: Stand-Up Comedy as the Great American Literary Form (2009) 

Yael Kohen, The Rise of Women in American Comedy: A Very Oral History (2012)

Kliph Nesteroff, Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy (2015) 

Negin Farsad, How to Make White People Laugh (2015)


Regular attendance and active, enthusiastic participation in each class; two short response papers on the readings; a two page proposal for a research paper; a ten minute conference with the instructor about the research paper proposal; a six to eight page research paper; a group project: a 60 minute oral presentation about a stand-up performer, writer, television show, or comedy album/special.

About the Instructor(s): Maria Szasz , Spenser Wilden

Maria Szasz’s primary interests include Comedy, Irish Drama, American Drama, Musical Theatre and Theatre and Human Rights. She received a Master’s Degree in Theatre Education from Emerson College, and a PhD in English with an emphasis in Theatre from UNM.