Course Description

Instructor: Christopher Kelley (MA, PhD Candidate)

Course description: Gautama Buddha is believed to have promulgated four basic truths about the nature of the human condition. In the first of these (the noble truth of “suffering”) he claims that stress, anxiety, and dissatisfaction are endemic to life. This supposition is not exclusive to Buddhism. Any good stand-up comedian knows this already because making jokes about it usually gets big laughs, or as they say—“kills.” Like the Buddha, the comic can be a powerful medium for communicating the more disquieting and shunned truths in life.

In this course we explore comedy as a vehicle for truth, and in particular, the essential meaning of the Buddha’s teaching on the four noble truths of: 1) suffering, 2) the cause of suffering, 3) the cessation of suffering, and 4) the path that leads to the end of suffering. We combine traditional Buddhist scholarship with a novel analysis of entertaining video clips drawn from contemporary comedy. Please be forewarned that most of these clips contain explicit language and adult content. You should contact me directly if this aspect of the course concerns you.

Course materials: Please do your level best to complete the homework assignments in advance of the corresponding class on the syllabus. With the exception of one book (The Four Noble Truths by Geshe Tashi Tsering. Wisdom Publications, 2005), I will make all of the course materials freely available here on this website. Please note that only some of the audio and video materials are actually hosted on this site (mostly just the Louis CK stuff). The majority of the A/V clips are already available online via hypertext links below.

Class One: The Truth of Suffering (May 7, 2014)

Required reading assignment:

1)     Tsering, Tashi. The Four Noble Truths. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2005. Chs. 1-2.

2)    Carrol, Noel. Humour: A Very Short Introduction.Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. Ch 1.

Lovell, Joel. “That’s Not Funny, That’s C.K.” GQ Magazine, August 2011.

3)     Aśvaghoṣa, Life of Buddha. New York: NYU Press, 2008. Cantos 1, 3, & 5.

4)     Brooks, David. “What Suffering Does.” The New York Times, April 7, 2014. 

Required viewing:

Louie, S1 E1, 2010 (Watch entire episode online) 

Some clips from Louie, S1 E1

Louie, S1E2, 2010. (Watch entire episode online)

A clip from Louis, S1E2

Louis C.K. Live at the Beacon Theatre, 2011. (Watch entire show)

A clip from Live at the Beacon Theatre

Further reading (optional):

1)     Berger, Peter L. Redeeming Laughter. Berlin & New York: Walter De Gruyter, 1997.

2)     Corsello, Andrew. “Louis C.K. Is America’s Undisputed King of Comedy.” GQ, May 2014.


Class Two: The Truth About the Cause (May 14, 2014)

Required reading assignment:

1)     Tsering, Tashi. The Four Noble Truths. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2005. Ch. 3.

2)     Thurman, Robert. The Jewel Tree of Tibet. New York: Free Press, 2005. Ch. 5.

3)     Hentoff, Nat. “The Crucifixion of a True Believer.” Gadfly March/April, 2001.

4)     Hecht, Julie. “Was This Man a Genius.” The New Yorker November 22, 1999. 

Required viewing/listening:

Louie, S1 E5. (Watch entire episode online)

Highlights from Louie, S1 E5

Lenny Bruce, “To is a preposition, come is a verb,” 1961.

George Carlin, ?.

Lenny Bruce, “Are there any niggers here tonight?” 1960s.

Louis C.K., Live at the Beacon Theater, 2011.

Andy Kaufman as Latka on Taxi, 1978-83.

Andy Kaufman, The David Letterman Show, 1980.

Andy Kaufman, HBO Special, 1977.

Reggie Watts, TED Talk, 2012.

Further reading (optional):

1)     Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press, 1973.

2)     Westerhoff, Jan. Nāgārjuna’s Madhyamaka. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Class Three: The Truth about the End of Suffering (May 21, 2014)

Required reading assignment:

1)   Tsering, Tashi. The Four Noble Truths. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2005. Ch. 5.

2)   Hopkins, Jeffrey. The Tantric Distinction. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1999. Ch.13.

3)  Syman, Stefanie. The Subtle Body. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2010. Ch. 10.

4) “Drugs and Comedy.” Philosophers’ Playground, October 3, 2009. Blog post.

5) Hiscock, John. “’I Spent 24 Hours Alone on a Mountain and Saw God.’ The Mirror, March 7, 2013.

Required viewing/listening:

1) Bill Hicks “positive drug experience”

2) Simon Amstell, Numb Tour, Live at BBC (2012).

3) Ram Dass, Fierce Grace, (2002).

4) Ram Dass, (early interview), 1960s.

Further reading (optional):

1)     Lahr, John. “The Goat Boy Rises.” The New Yorker, November 1, 1993.

Class Four: The Truth About Walking the Path (May 28, 2014)

Required reading assignment:

1)     Tsering, Tashi. The Four Noble Truths. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2005. Ch. 5.

2)     Gyatso, Tenzin (The Dalai Lama). My Spiritual Journey. New York: Harper Collins, 2010. Ch. 1.

3)     Brownstone, Sydney. “Tig Notaro: You’ll Laugh, You’l Cry.” Mother Jones, April 26, 2013.

4)     Tig Notaro (Louis CK site)

5)     Saltzstein, Dan. “The Comic Who Explores Comedy’s Darkest Side.” The New York Times, January 6, 2011.

6)     Gerard, Jeremy. “’Comic Relief’: Being Funny for a Serious Cause.” The New York Times, May 11, 1990.

7)     Stout, David. “Scientist at Work: PATCH ADAMS; Doctor in a Clown Suit Battle Ills of His Profession.” The New York Times, December 15, 1998.

Required viewing/listening:

1)     Tig Notaro (This American Life)

2)     Marc Maron (WTF episode 500)

3)     Comic Relief clip (Williams, Crystal, & Goldberg)

4)     Patch Adams (Patch Adams film clip)

Further reading (optional):

1)     Kreck, Dick. “Cerebral Stand-Up.” The Denver Post, August 11, 2006.

2)     Gyatso, Tenzin (The Dalai Lama). The Wisdom of Compassion. New York: Riverhead Books, 2012.

3)     Levine, Art. “Maria Bamford Tell (Almost) All…Huffpost, May 7, 2014.