HL90 DZ: Too Soon? Comedy in Europe’s Tragic Twentieth Century

No joke! One of our popular HL90 seminars is back! Kate Brackney told us more about European history, film, and comedy:

What inspired you to teach this class?

I thought up the title for this course years before teaching it; I’d bring up “Too Soon?” with colleagues, and we’d scheme about what might go on the syllabus. Initially, I just imagined the course as a standard survey of European history through comedic sources, but as I prepared to teach it, I came to appreciate comedy’s distinct value to cultural historians. Comedians often balance at the edge taboo, and their role in demarcating instinctive, often unspoken social boundaries makes comedy such a useful portal into the past.

I also began to see deeper structural parallels in comedy and history as narrative genres. The old adage, “Comedy equals tragedy plus time,” (a formula that we’ll test on the syllabus) suggests that some kind of distance or perspective is necessary for a joke be funny. Similarly, in the discipline of history, our remove from past events both enables and limits our capacity to formulate a coherent story about what happened and why.

Even if perspective is necessary for comedy, being on the inside of a given group often determines whether a joke will land. Historians, too, try to make up for our remove from the past by immersing ourselves in the sources from a given moment. In other words, a delicate and ever-changing balance between distance and proximity is what makes for both good comedy and insightful history. We’ll try to figure out how to achieve that kind of balancing act in this class.

What’s something you’re excited to share with students?

While not all of the sources we look at in this class are “timeless,” The Great Dictator definitely qualifies as a classic, and I love that students in 2021 can still laugh just as hard as audiences did back in 1940 at Chaplin’s wonderfully garbled parody of Hitler’s German speech style.

Yasemin Şamdereli’s Almanya: Welcome to Germany is another more contemporary highlight of the course. The film explores the experiences of a Turkish immigrant to Germany and his multi-generational family. Şamdereli may have a light comic touch, but her work speaks to deeper tensions over the reformation of Germany as a multi-ethnic society in the post-war era — tensions that students will have a chance to explore in the excellent historical reading that accompanies the film.

Do you have to be funny to get an A in this class?

No, no, of course not …but it can’t hurt.

How should students contact you to find out more?

Students can talk with me about the course during the HL90 open house on Friday, January 15. I’ll also be holding a shopping session on Thursday, January 21st at noon. Zoom info is available on the course’s Canvas site.

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

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