We have so many talented, funny students at Bucknell, and over the years I've taught students from theatre, improv and stand-up groups who naturally wrote in a comic mode. But the majority of student fiction is just the opposite: earnest and serious, as if they feel literary writing must be formal or stuffy. That couldn't be further from the truth. The greatest writers, from Boccaccio and Chaucer to Shakespeare to our own Philip Roth, have always balanced thematic gravity with rich doses of humor — not to mention profanity and bawdiness. Pushing boundaries is a kind of bravery required of great writers. So I wanted to teach a fiction workshop that explores how comedy helps to unearth and deliver truth.
Find Your Path
Comedy is one of the richest forms of human connection, and deepens our understanding of the world. We know what successful comedy feels like. But even in my own writing I've never understood what makes a joke work. The more you analyze it, the less funny it gets, right? We try to get to the bottom of how comedy not only entertains but also enlightens, and how it can effectively be used as political, philosophical and social commentary.
Students spend the semester reading literature and crafting a portfolio of comic material across genres — personal essays, absurd stories, satirical sketches, parodies, confessions. Each week, we workshop student stories as a class, and the authors return to them again and again to get them working at higher levels. It's constant feedback and revision — the way professional writers work. As a class, we've recognized that the difference between a moment of comedy working or failing can be a single word, a beat in the prose rhythm, even the simplest syntactical choice.
We also exercise our comedy muscles through a weekly Onion headline challenge. We explore the incredibly rigorous editorial process used by the satirical newspaper The Onion. Inspired by this, each week students must write two or three Onion-style headlines and pitch them to their classmates to vote up or down. Then students form teams to write full satirical articles based on these headlines.
So much of comedy basically comes down to what some comedians have called "The Rule of Nine," meaning nine out of 10 jokes we write fail. We have to be OK with that level of creative failure, so first and foremost, students develop a thick skin. They discover the ability to keep at it. In this way, the class is not theoretical; it's practical. The heart of the course is learning structure, dramatization, revision, a tolerance for criticism and how to put constant pressure on your language. These skills don't just improve the comedy — they improve all writing.
See what else Bucknell offers in the Department of English.
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