John McGowan, “From Comedy to Comity: How Comic Literature Can Guide Us Toward a More Civil Society”

January 24, 2018

John McGowan

A democratic society relies on the ability of citizens to address one another in a measured and temperate fashion, yet civil debate in recent years has become increasingly contentious and polarized. In this podcast, Fellow John McGowan, professor of English and comparative literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, discusses how literature—specifically comedy—can help us recognize our shared humanity and help us find ways to transcend our differences.

Touching on works as diverse as James Joyce’s Ulysses, the novels of Anthony Trollope and Iris Murdoch, and situation comedies like 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation, McGowan explains how the conventions of comedy such as happy endings, vernacular language, and plots involving relatable, everyday characters offer models for managing change and dealing with the messiness of human interactions. Ultimately, McGowan suggests, these works may provide alternative social blueprints for a public sphere that is more conducive to courtesy and tolerance, where it may be possible even to cherish other perspectives—however different they may be from our own.