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March 21, 2009, 2:30 PM

The Comic Imagination

Participants: Lewis Black, Jim Holt, Bruce McCall, Tami Sagher, Cody Walker (moderator)

"Humor," E. B. White tells us, "can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind." We'll test White's tongue-in-cheek observation, as we consider the development of comic theory in the works of Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Baudelaire, Freud, Bergson, and others. What draws us, again and again, to the comic? How might humor work as an adaptive survival skill that allows us to better cope with experience? And what happens when the comic and the tragic share closet space (and borrow each other's clothes)? Some of the most potent humor in literature and entertainment is closely intertwined with sorrow and rage. (Even the existentially paralyzed Hamlet takes time for humorous asides.) A panel of writers and entertainers will address W.C. Fields' observation: "I never saw anything funny that wasn't terrible."

Lewis Black is a comedian, actor, and author. He is one of few performers to sell out Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York City Center, and the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. He started in theater, as playwright-in-residence at the West Bank Café's Downstairs Theatre Bar, where he oversaw the development of more than 1,000 plays, including works by West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin and American Beauty writer Alan Ball. A cast member of The Daily Show since its inception in 1996, he's earned an Emmy as well as a Grammy for his comedy album, "The Carnegie Hall Performance." He filmed two HBO specials, Black on Broadway and Red, White and Screwed, and has written two bestselling books, Nothing's Sacred and Me of Little Faith.

Jim Holt is the author of Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes and a longtime contributor to The New Yorker, where he has written on time, infinity, Einstein, string theory, sainthood, truth, and bullshit. He is currently working on a book about why the world exists. He lives in Greenwich Village.

Bruce McCall is a New York artist and writer whose humor appears in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and many other leading publications. He has published three collections as well as a memoir and, most recently, his first children's book, Marveltown. Bruce McCall was born and raised in Canada and had careers in commercial art, automotive journalism, and advertising before becoming a full-time freelancer in 1993.

Tami Sagher is a writer for 30 Rock on NBC. Before that she wrote for Psych on USA, and HBO's sitcom Lucky Louie. She was also a writer and producer on FOX's Mad TV, and is an alumna of the Second City mainstage and etc. theaters in Chicago. She's been featured on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Knocked Up, and This American Life on Public Radio. She performs and teaches classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre.

Cody Walker taught classes in literature and comic theory for many years at the University of Washington, where he received a 2005 Distinguished Teaching Award. In 2007 he was elected Seattle Poet Populist. His work appears in The Best American Poetry, Slate, Parnassus, Shenandoah, Light, and elsewhere. His first poetry collection, Shuffle and Breakdown, a two-time finalist for the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize, was published in 2008 by The Waywiser Press. He currently serves as the Amy Clampitt Resident Fellow in Lenox, Massachusetts.


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