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Multimedia Moment: Analyzing Comedy Audio Recordings to Explore Culture

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This post was written by Tom Bober, the Library of Congress 2015-16 Audio-Visual Teacher in Residence. Over the course of his year at Teacher in Residence, Tom will be writing regular posts exploring different aspects of audio-visual materials in the Library’s collection and their use in the classroom.

Why is something funny? Comedy stories often reflect an aspect of society at a particular time. Comedy recordings in the National Jukebox can give students the opportunity to identify social commentary while other resources within the Library of Congress may help to inform that commentary.

Take for instance the Uncle Josh comedy recordings from the early 20th century. Cal Stewart plays Uncle Josh, a country man subjected to city or modern life. While it is easy to see Uncle Josh as the brunt of the joke, looking at these stories from the narrator’s perspective may show a different target for the humor and offer insights into an element of society.

Consider the audio recording Uncle Josh on an Automobile, in which Uncle Josh takes his first ride in a car, whisked away in a “Benzine Buggy” by a chauffeur. During their brisk trip, they hit a man, crash, and finally are arrested for speeding. The idea of the reckless chauffeur drives the story forward.

[Men in automobiles] [between 1912 and 1930]
Introduce the piece as a comedic recording to students. Pose the question: What moments in the recording do you think listeners at the time thought were funny? Allow students to listen to the recording several times while documenting their observations, reflections, and questions using the Primary Source Analysis Tool. Questions selected from the Teacher’s Guide: Analyzing Sound Recordings may help direct students’ observations and reflections.

  • Are there any background noises?
  • Do you like what you hear?
  • What can you learn from listening to the recording?

Encourage students to use their observations, reflections, and questions to answer the initial question: What moments in the recording do you think listeners at the time thought were funny? Images of milestones and automobiles of the time may help students visualize the story being told.

Detail from “Muggsy Snares an Auto Scorcher,” The Times, 24 Jan. 1903

Print humor can help students understand the reckless chauffeur as a character not only in the audio recording, but also as a comedic stereotype. A joke in the February 27th, 1912 issue of The Day Book revolves around a chauffeur whose employer describes him as “utterly impossible” because he isn’t hitting things as he drives. The Muggsy comic strip from January 24, 1903, tells the story of a boy whose mischief is rewarded because he stops a chauffeur who had hit a dog and run from the police officer chasing him on a bicycle.

As students analyze the short pieces, ask what elements are consistent in all three. What do students wonder about automobiles and the culture of driving at the time? Comparing advertisements by chauffeurs as well as larger looks at driving in the early 20th century through Chronicling America articles on Horseless Carriages and Ford’s Model T can begin to answer questions about the culture of driving. That understanding of the culture can help inform why an audio recording would be considered funny by the people of the day.

What Uncle Josh comedy recording would you use to investigate the culture of the time?


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