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Like many Classicists, I teach a course that combines Roman history with literature and culture. As a general education course that also serves majors, this course presents a familiar problem - students intensely interested in antiquity alongside others looking to check off a box on their way to graduation. Non-majors can feel at a disadvantage because they are not as familiar with the ancient material, and majors can feel that the course has been dumbed-down too much. When I taught this course last fall, I found a way to enable non-majors to engage their knowledge of modern comedy while tying the discussion back into Plautus in order to let the majors shine.

The students read Plautus’ Miles, Pseudolus, and Casina. Drawing examples from early and late in Plautus’ career, I wanted students to discuss why innovation is an essential element of comedy. I asked them to think about their expectations for a Will Ferell or Steve Carell comedy. If we look at Steve Carell, we see he tends to play characters who are over-the-top, good-hearted to a fault, and oblivious to the awkwardness they create for others. In The Office, Carell’s character creates a comically awkward situation as he attempts to show his acceptance and support for a co-worker’s homosexuality. With an expectation established, I could then turn to Ferrell and Carell comedies that deviate from the usual model. In Little Miss Sunshine, Carell’s awkwardness shines through, but his usual high energy has given way to a depressive, yet caring Proust scholar.

As we turned our discussions to Plautus, we used Miles Gloriosus to set up a standard for what to expect from Plautine comedy - young man falls in love with a girl and gets her through the help of his plotting slave. Turning to Pseudolus, students could see connections between Palaestrio and Pseudolus, connections encouraged by Pseudolus’ delivery of every type of monologue delivered by a servus callidus, as Moore [1998] has noted. However, they could also recognize that Plautus was playing with the typical slave through Pseudolus’ frequent failures. When we turned to Casina, presumably a play about a young man in love with a servant girl, students were already thinking about innovation in the careers of modern comedians; they were thus primed to talk about ways that Plautus could surprise his audience, washing out the bridge (64-66) in order to make Casinaa play about husbands and wives.

If, as Batstone [2005] has suggested, Plautus celebrates the ways we negotiate our identity through references to theatricality, then we should expect Plautus to deviate from his early plays. We are perpetually works in progress, and comedy celebrates this vitality by presenting us with surplus ways to understand ourselves. As Zupančič [2008] has argued, comedy works by giving us something we never asked for. It celebrates new and unexpected ways of looking at old models. By encouraging students to think about variations in the careers of popular modern comedians alongside the prolific career of Plautus, I have been able to push students to think about the value of comedy in understanding our human experience.

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