Too Soon? Comedy in Europe’s Tragic Twentieth Century




In the first half the twentieth century, Europe was the site of two wars that depleted the world’s population, dislocated millions, and stripped once diverse regions of the continent of their minority populations. Later, even as Europe managed to rebuild, progress occurred under the shadow of two hegemonic superpowers in possession of weapons capable of incinerating both sides of the Iron Curtain. In a 1966 profile of Bertolt Brecht for The New Yorker, Hannah Arendt wrote of “the terrible freshness of the post-war world”—in which all that poets could do in the rubble was laugh at the sky that remained. As Europe destroyed and reinvented itself through the twentieth century, how did humor serve as a tool for working through all this tragedy? This course will draw on sources in various media to examine how comedy can be a means of not just coping with history but investigating it. We will consider humor as a tool of political critique, historical analysis, and mourning and pay particular attention to the boundaries and historicity of taste. Assigned readings and films include works by Terry Eagleton, Hannah Arendt, Karel Čapek, Charlie Chaplin, Milos Forman, and Yasemin Şamdereli.