Top of page
Skip to main content
Main content

Uproarious: How Feminists and Other Subversive Comics Speak Truth

by Cynthia Willett and Julie Willett

Cynthia Willett is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Philosophy.Julie Willett is Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of History at Texas Tech University.

Humor is often dismissed as cruel ridicule or harmless fun. But what if laughter is a vital force to channel rage against patriarchy, Islamophobia, or mass incarceration? To create moments of empathy and dialogue between Black Lives Matter and the police? These and other such questions are at the heart of this powerful reassessment of humor. Placing theorists in conversation with comedians, Uproariousoffers a full-frontal approach to the very foundation of comedy and its profound political impact. 

Here Cynthia Willett and Julie Willett address the four major theories of humor—superiority, relief, incongruity, and social play—through the lens of feminist and game-changing comics Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho, Hannah Gadsby, Hari Kondabolu, and Tig Notaro. They take a radical and holistic approach to the understanding of humor, particularly of humor deployed by those from groups long relegated to the margins, and propose a powerful new understanding of humor as a force that can engender politically progressive social movements. Drawing on a range of cross-disciplinary sources, from philosophies and histories of humor to the psychology and physiology of laughter to animal studies, Uproarious offers a richer understanding of the political and cathartic potential of humor.

A major new contribution to a wider dialogue on comedy, Uproarious grounds for us explorations of outsider humor and our golden age of feminist comics—showing that when women, prisoners, or even animals laugh back, comedy along with belly laughs forges new identities and alters the political climate.

“With their groundbreaking new book, Cynthia Willett and Julie Willett offer nothing less than an unabashedly feminist means of reconceptualizing humor. It promises to become a touchstone text for humor scholars for decades to come.” Studies in American Humor

“If you think humans are the only animals with a sense of humor, Uproarious surely will break you out of your misleading speciesist perspective. There's a lot we can learn from other animals about how and why humans' sense of humor evolved. This wide-ranging, transdisciplinary, and future-looking collection of essays nicely lays the groundwork for stimulating discussions freed from human exceptionalism.” Marc Bekoff, University of Colorado

“Cynthia Willett and Julie Willett take the reader on a delightful and inspiring voyage into the belly of satire, comedy, and laughter. While we may have a visceral sense of humor’s powers, philosophy has not yet found the language for it. In giving us just that, Uproarious expands our understanding of feminist and race politics and exposes dimensions of sociality, embodiment, and empathy that carry rich (and, yes, humorous!) implications for critical theory and aesthetics.” Monique Roelofs, author of The Cultural Promise of the Aesthetic



From the authors

As a philosopher and a historian, we began this project hoping to reach out to a larger audience across academic disciplines and to general interest readers. Our prose strives to be free of jargon as the book addresses a topic of heightened relevance at a time when a twitter joke can shift the political climate overnight. But it is TOME that makes the hope of an extended reach a more likely reality. Our reconceptualization of humor draws from feminist stand-ups, post-9/11-era comics, and even the mocking of alpha males across species to challenge traditional theories. Just as our claims are driven by popular culture, we think TOME too helps us engage in global conversations. In an era with the fortunes of academics and educational institutions caught up in growing social inequality, we also hope that TOME allows our research to be more accessible not only to students at elite institutions but also to those who lack resources yet often drive the conversations on trending fields like humor.