For Schreiber, humor’s a topic worthy of serious consideration

Listening to comedy routines of Dave Chappelle, Steven Wright and Joan Rivers are assignments in Holly Schreiber’s “Humor and Diversity in the U.S.” course.

So too, are watching clips of television hits “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation.”

No joke. Students examine humor from a variety of perspectives in the three-credit online course, including humorous expression in U.S. culture and their role within it.

They learn how humor can highlight, reinforce and critique differences of gender, race, sexuality, nationality, religion and physical ability.

Schreiber, a University of Maine assistant professor of communication and journalism, developed the course as a project when she participated in UMaine’s Diversity Leadership Institute.

Each year, a cohort of faculty and staff examines discrimination, racism, privilege, prejudice and stereotyping. Participants then seek to strengthen inclusivity and diversity on the Orono campus.

“The U.S. is founded upon the advantages of diversity,” including freedom of religion and expression, says Schreiber, who explores comedy as a vehicle for embracing diversity and encouraging tolerance.

When she was growing up, humor was a core family value. At Indiana University, where Schreiber earned a dual Ph.D. in American studies and comparative literature, she taught a course about stand-up comedy.

Humor continues to help her make friends and create bonds. And she enjoys taking improv classes.

In broad terms, humor is anything that people do or say that’s perceived to be funny. Merriam-Webster defines it as “that quality which appeals to a sense of the ludicrous or absurdly incongruous: a funny or amusing quality.”

While humor is universal, what’s funny is in the mind of the beholder.

Schreiber, who laughs easily and often, says humor is a powerful, sometimes complicated, tool. It can be used for good or evil — to make others feel happy or humiliated.

“It’s a topic worthy of serious consideration,” she says.

So students examine minstrel shows that started in the 1830s in the U.S. And they watch Chappelle’s 2000 show “Killin’ Them Softly,” in which he addresses differential treatment of black and white people by police.

Chappelle’s humorous approach invites audience members with different backgrounds and beliefs to be open-minded and appreciate perspectives and experiences unlike their own, says Schreiber.

There’s a debate about whether jokes — which can push boundaries — should be judged ethically. Because they involve power, Schreiber believes they should.

Context is important.

“When we deconstruct humor, we’re looking into important parts of the equation,” she says. “Who is creating or telling the joke, who is witnessing or hearing the joke, and who is the butt of the joke?”

The course also examines people’s cognitive, emotional, behavioral and social responses to humor — from slapstick to satire.

For students interested in learning about humor, and laughing some along the way, the course also will be offered during Session 6 (July 15—Aug. 2) of Summer University.

Contact: Beth Staples. 207.581.3777,