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Verso University Presents: The Development of Comedy in Film

November 1, 2023 @ 2:00 pm - 3:00 pm EDT

Event Series Event Series (See All)
Van Hartman

Expect to laugh and learn when you join us for a fascinating exploration of the development of comedy in film! Discussed will be four films, outlined below, that take us from the beginning with silent comedy and moving forward.

Basic ideas explored will include (1) that laughter derives from a sense of superiority over what we laugh at; (2) that it derives from an unexpected incongruity between our concepts or expectations and the facts of experience that contradict them; (3) that it results from the sudden release and consequent unmasking of repressed impulses; and (4) that it is a means of correcting mechanically rigid forms of behavior that threaten our human flexibility.

Class will meet for four sessions: 10/18, 10/25, 11/1, 11/8 at 2 pm, in the Library's Komansky Room.


Upon registration, you will be provided links to view the films, listed below. It is requested that the films be viewed prior to class. If there are additional readings, participants will be notified and supplied with links to those readings.

  1. Buster Keaton, The General (1926): This classic silent comedy pits the gymnastic Buster Keaton against the rigid mechanical demands of his Civil War locomotive as he chases then is chased by enemy soldiers. His mechanical rigidity and human flexibility, along with the incongruity of man merging with machine, contribute to the comedy.
  2. Billy Wilder, Some Like It Hot (1959): This film on which the current Broadway musical is based has Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon playing male characters who must pass as women in a women only band to escape the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre mobsters who are trying to kill them. Both gender incongruity and the unexpected surfacing of repressed impulses help generate the laughter.
  3. Martin Brest, Beverly Hills Cop (1984): This was the movie that helped gave Eddie Murphy prominence as a comic actor.
  4. Amy Heckerling, Clueless (1995): Heckerling remakes Jane Austen's gentle early 18th century social satire, Emma, as a satirical romantic comedy set in modern day Beverly Hills.

The class will be taught by Professor Van Hartman, recently retired from his position as a Professor of English at Manhattanville College, where he taught literature and film studies. Van earned an undergraduate degree in history from Stanford University and a doctorate in English from UNC at Chapel Hill.. He resides in Norwalk with his wife, Laurel Peterson, a professor at Norwalk Community College. Van is also a published poet.


Verso University is the Library’s lifelong learning and education initiative, serving up year-round offerings of classes, workshops, and lectures designed to further education and learning. Offerings run the gamut of educational opportunities, ranging from one-time lectures to ongoing courses to classes that meet weekly or perhaps monthly.

Verso University programs are made possible by the generous support of the Nancy J. Beard Lifelong Learning and Education Fund.

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