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Bridging Summary and Analysis with Standup Clips

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Aziz Ansari Comedy Poster
Image Credit: 

Image Credit: Cory Schmitz

Brief Assignment Overview: 

This assignment uses clips from standup comedy specials to hone student skills of summary and synethesis, for the controversy map essay assignment. It can also function as a precursor to Unit 2, Rhetorical Analysis. At this point, they have gathered data on the contexts of their controversy, and performed two summaries of viewpoints. They are currently writing their controversy maps, which require them to demonstrate that they can identify and incorporate a speaker's major claims and supporting statements. This summary exercise is meant to help students practice those skills and to introduce rhetorical analysis.

Type of Assignment: 
Assignment Length: 
Pedagogical Goals - Writing: 
Additional Pedagogical Goals: 

This class activity came out of several grading sessions, wherein I realized my students were having a hard time subordinating an author's points during a summary. They seemed to give each of the author's statements equal weight, without differentiating between which ideas were primary and which were more supporting details. So while this activity is meant to reinforce the skills of summary and syntehsis, it's foremost an thought-exercise, which I hoped would help them give themselves permission to fairly emphasize certain statements over others.

Media Requirements: 
Required Materials: 

This activity will go more smoothly if each student can efficiently take notes. I allow them to take digital notes on a laptop or tablet, but this isn't strictly necessary. The project does require that the instructor have a media console and projector. 

Timeline for Optimal Use: 
Full Assignment Description: 

Ask students to sit in groups of three. These groups will be informal, and they shouldn't get too hung up on them. Most of their work will be individual, but asking them to share with a tiny group before discussing with the entire class can make them feel more confident.

Screen a clip from a popular comedian's standup special. I chose Louis CK, Aziz Ansari, and Bill Burr, to get a range of comedic styles. Each clip should last no more than 3-4 minutes, although the length will of course be based on the amount of time devoted to a single topic within the special. I also chose clips that I felt addressed primary controversies circulating in the news, and ones I felt my students would probably be familiar with.

Ask students to take notes on the clip and to identify the comedian's main point. Then ask them to fill in the supporting details.

Students should share their breakdown of the clip with their miniature group.

Once they have had a chance to discuss (this should only take two minutes or so), get a class consensus about what the comedian is "really" talking about, and what lines are there for effect or support. This is an opportunity to point out which points may seem like they're geting a lot of focus but are actually in the clip for a laugh or for emphasis.

Students should be able to summarize the clip in one statement. Encourage them to write an informal thesis as a class. For example, "In this bit, Aziz Ansari pokes fun at gender conventions by highlighting the arbitrariness of marriage rituals." This statement bridges a summary understanding of the text and an introduction to basic analysis. The extent to which the dicussion veers toward how the comedian's performance and language are affecting the humor is flexible; depending on how far the instructor would like to introduce or foreshadow Unit 2, this activity could stick to summary, or it could invite students to begin considering ethos, logos, pathos, and so on.

Repeat the exercise two or three times, time permitting, and debrief with students. They should feel more confident identifying primary and secondary points, especially with such a flexible genre.

Suggestions for Instructor Preparation: 

I recommend converting the YouTube videos to an MP4 file that can be embedded in a Prezi or PowerPoint. This avoids the mid-class confusion of watching ads, finding the right clips, and so on.

Instructions For Students: 

1. Watch the following comedy clip.

2. Take notes on what is being said.

3. When the clip is finished, re-read your notes and organize the bit based on its primary argument and its supporting subpoints.

4. Discuss with your group: compare your own breakdown of the primary and secondary claims with the others. Be prepared to report your organization to the class.

Repeat with three different clips, time allowing.


1. Find your own clip.

2. Take notes on the content and revise your notes into some kind of outline that separates the main ideas from the subpoints.

3. Write up a short paragraph summarizing and synthesizing the comedian's argument.

4. Post both the paragraph and a link to the clip on the Canvas discussion board.

Evaluation Suggestions: 

I ask students to share their choice/phrasing of the comedian's main argument and subpoints with the class. This is an informal evaluation, but it allows me to both determine their comfort with pulling out the major threads of an argument and to encourage them to make those distinctions between which ideas are emphasized and which are supplemental.

I also ask students to do one more summary/synthesis on a Canvas discussion board. They find their own set of clips, summarize them and synthesize their relationship to one another, and post their writing with the clip link on Canvas. I grade it for completion, but it can be a good, efficient way to guage whether students can differentiate between main ideas and subpoints.

Notes on Reception, Execution, etc.: 

My PowerPoint didn't actually work, but I did have the separate downloaded clips, so it went relatively smoothly. Despite the technical glitch, I got a lot of positive feedback on this assignment. I think my students liked the project simply for content--it made a nice vacation from reading arguments about marijuana legalization--but they did also seemed to really enjoy applying their summary skills to less-conventional media. After we discussed the major/minor points, they enjoyed very briefly discussing how the rhetorical turns worked, which was what made me think this assignment worked well as a pseudo-bridge between Unit 1 (research/summary) and Unit 2 (analysis).

Course Description: 

Rhetoric 306 is a course designed to introduce students to the fundamentals of research and argumentation.  They are asked to research a controversy, summarize and analyze the arguments of the major stakeholders in that controversy, and then develop their own arguments.

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