Rhetorical Analysis: The Structure of Humor

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SWBAT recognize the specific language constructions and word choices that work to create humor through a close reading of Dave Barry.

Big Idea

Humorous writing, like any other writing, is highly structured.


Close Reading The Humor of Dave Barry

45 minutes

So far the pieces we’ve read on gender have covered serious topics in a serious tone; I don’t want students to think that is the only way to think about gender issues!  Humor can be a powerful tool for addressing issues, too, and to explore how this can be done, we will read a season-appropriate piece by Dave Barry called “Turkeys in the Kitchen” that addresses male stereotypes in a very humorous and self-effacing way (I've had a photocopy of this piece for a while that I got from another teacher, though I think it is anthologized in 50 Model Essays).  In covering this, we will look specifically at how a writer uses language to construct humor, both by analyzing the text itself, and also by exploring what the text would look like if written in a non-humorous tone.

There will be a number of students missing from class today due to field trips (five of twelve will be missing), so we will work with this piece as a whole group (I also pushed the Virginia Wolff analysis off until tomorrow, because today’s lesson and activity is more accessible for students to do on their own).  First, we will read it out loud so we can jointly experience the humor (this method also acts as a formative assessment for understanding from the laughter—if students laugh at the funny parts, as well as simply seeing what they find funny, are great measures for how a humorous text works with students).  The first time through, we will read it from start to finish, with each student reading a paragraph, so we can experience the piece as a whole (I will just let a new student pick-up where the last one left off; this has worked well in this class in the past and all of the students take the responsibility).

Then, I will ask students to read it again by themselves and annotate—noticing how the word choices and syntax are constructing humor and also developing central ideas (this should take about fifteen minutes).

After they’ve annotated, we will go through the piece paragraph by paragraph to look at how humor is constructed, and also how the central idea is developed through the use of personal experiences.   A couple particular items I want to focus on is the use of hyperbole to the point of absurdity, such as when he writes of his “highly scientific study” at his friend’s house on Thanksgiving.  He does this a couple of times, using references to science in a way that isn’t scientific, but the comparison also shows how common and “factual” his observations are.

Another item I will address is how rhythmic the punch lines are—that part of writing humor is to make sure the laughs come consistently.

Re-writing Humor, Seriously

25 minutes

After we have explored the language and organization of the text, students will choose a humorous passage and re-write it in a way that keeps the meaning but conveys it in a serious way.  Students will take about ten minutes to do this, at which time they will read their pieces out loud to the class, and explain some of the changes and challenges they had.  This latter explanation will work to further identify how word choices and language constructions affect meaning and tone in a text.

Next Steps:  Everyone should be in class tomorrow, so we will address the Virginia Woolf text they read for homework.