I was about 30 seconds into a lecture in my Comedy class when the students started to titter and look around questioningly. A guy in the back row reared up in his chair and said, "Whaa----?"
"Is there a problem?" I asked.
Giggles and awkward looks and then some brave soul said, "Your glasses."
"What's wrong with my glasses?"
"Tell me," I told them, "Where is it written that a professor is forbidden from teaching a class while wearing fake glasses, plastic nose, and a bushy moustache?"
"So why can't I wear these glasses while teaching?"
That's when the reasons poured out: the fake glasses are distracting, unprofessional, silly, undignified, or just plain wrong.
And you know what? They were right, even if they didn't know why. We spent some time talking about how comedy can subvert conventions, starting with a discussion of social norms and where they come from: What's the proper procedure for entering an elevator? What would happen if you stood facing the other passengers instead of facing the door? Where are those rules written down? If they're not written down, how did you learn that it's not acceptable to sit on the floor of the elevator and fart loudly at the other passengers?
Then we did some group work: You've just won the championship game and it's time for the big press conference. What are you allowed to say? What are you not allowed to say? Other groups had to consider the conventions of writing an obituary or presenting a wedding toast. The norms are clear, as are the results of violating them: the sports champ who denigrates the other team will be vilified in the press; the obituary that includes gory details about mode of death will result in a flood of complaints; the bridesmaid so drunk she falls face-first into the wedding cake will suddenly find herself friendless.
Unless they're really, really funny, and then they'll go viral online and inspire memes. Because let's face it: violating social norms can be really funny, but it's the kind of comedy that skirts the edge of disaster.
Comedy always carries risks and rewards. The risk of wearing fake glasses, nose, and moustache in class is that I might end up with little bits of moustache fluff stuck in my mouth, but the reward is far greater: engaging students in a discussion that might otherwise have left them cold. Worth the effort? I would say so, if I could just get this moustache fluff out of my teeth.