Laughing Matters ( A Longman Topics Reader)

Marvin Diogenes  
Total pages
September 2008
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Laughing Matters showcases how a range of contemporary writers including Jon Stewart and David Sedaris craft persuasive arguments, using humor to make their case while entertaining the reader.


Many cultural commentators note that we live in an age of comedy.  Staples of comic rhetoric–irony, sarcasm, and various forms of lampoon and caricature–have become dominant forms of public discourse, readily available through both traditional print forms and the electronic medis that drive public culture.  Contemporary comedy helps define public issues and delivers critical perspectives on courses of action, judgments on the morality and effectiveness of policy decisions, and praise and blame for elected leaders.  Given this cultural moment, a guide to analyzing how comic arguments are made–and to crafting such arguments using the rhetorical strategies particular to comedy–seems timely.


  • Contents include three kinds of readings, so students can move beyond simple appreciation to great understanding of how comic rhetoric works
    • Theoretical essays exploring how comedy functions;
    • Analytical essays applying theory to particular examples of comedy (or meditating on the cultural role of a comic icon;
    • Essays illustrating a full range of comic strategies.
  • Comic readings are organized based on Aristotle’s categories of deliberative, judicial, and ceremonial rhetoric, so students will understand the range of purposes for comic writing.
  • Each chapter includes a brief introduction, and each reading has a headnote and discussion questions, as well as writing exercises that move students toward more active exploration of the readings.

Table of Contents


Chapter One: How Comedy Works

Henri Bergson, excerpt from Laughter

Murray Davis, excerpt from What’s So Funny

Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves, “Tickling the Naked Ape: The Science of Laughter”

Robin Hemley, “Relaxing the Rules of Reason”


Chapter Two: The Cultural Role of Comedy

Elizabeth Kolbert, “Stooping to Conquer: Why Candidates Need to Make Fun of Themselves”

J. Michael Waller, “Ridicule: An Instrument in the War on Terrorism”

Daniel Harris, “Light-Bulb Jokes: Charting an Era”

J. David Stevens, “The Joke”

Vicki Hearne, “Can an Ape Tell a Joke?”


Chapter Three: Modest and Immodest Proposals (deliberative rhetoric)

Jonathan Swift, “A Modest Proposal”

Jane Austen, Mr. Collins’ Proposal from Pride and Prejudice

Joseph Addison, “On Giving Advice”

Oscar Wilde, “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young”

Scott Adams, “Surviving Meetings”

Molly Ivins, “The Lung-Impaired Liberation Movement”


Chapter Four: Making the Case with Comedy (forensic rhetoric)

Benjamin Franklin, “’What are the Poor Young Women to Do?’ The Speech of Polly Baker”

Anton Chekhov, “A Malefactor”

Ian Frazier, “Coyote v. Acme”

Jim Stallard, “No Justice, No Foul”

Ian Frazier, “Laws Concerning Food and Drink; Household Principles; Lamentations of the Father”

Madeleine Begun Kane, “A Pre-Musical Agreement”

Chris Harris, “Why Are Kids So Dumb?  A Defense”


Chapter Five: Comic Celebrations and Attacks (ceremonial rhetoric)

Mark Twain, Toast to The Babies

Mark Twain, “Concerning Tobacco”

Anton Chekhov, “The Orator”

Lewis Thomas, “Notes on Punctuation”

Laurie Anderson, “Dazed and Bemused”

Anne Lamott, “Why I Don’t Meditate”



Chapter Six: Observations on Gender (ceremonial rhetoric too)

H. L. Mencken, from In Defense of Women

Helen Rowland, “Reflections of a Bachelor Girl”

Regina Barreca and Gene Weingarten, “The Joys of Sexism (Part I–Jokes that Offend Women,” and “The Joys of Sexism (Part II–Jokes that Castrate Men)”

Bill Cosby, “Till Talk Do You Part”

Susan Allen Toth, “Going to the Movies”

Emily Hiestand, “Neon Effects”

Marcia Aldrich, “Hair”


Chapter Seven: Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Comedy

Ambrose Bierce, from The Devil’s Dictionary

Joseph Dennie, “Jack and Gill: A Scholarly Commentary”

Benjamin Franklin, “On Perfumes”

Jon Stewart, “The Last Supper, or The Dead Waiter”

Louis Phillips, “Aristotle’s ‘On Baseball’”

Dave Barry “What Is and Ain’t Grammatical”

Paul Davidson, “