Stephen Kidd

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Stephen Kidd

Assistant Professor of Classics

Frank Mullin/Brown University
Ancient Greek comedies have cracked up audiences for millennia, across cultures, languages, and continents. Getting at their meaning, Stephen Kidd has found, requires a different approach and an appreciation of nonsense.

“When you read Greek comedy you feel like you have access to a whole different world than you would reading other genres. There’s this realistic day-to-day life in Athens on the one hand and the slangy language that they used on the other,” said Stephen Kidd, who comes to Brown from Humboldt University in Berlin.

Kidd explained that comedy is unlike tragedy, epic, or almost any other literary genre, where listeners and readers can get closer to its meaning through discussion. Comedy presents a completely different situation. “The more you talk about what the comedy is about — whether the message is political, aesthetic, or some sort of moral sentiment — there is always this reaction that some of it is just silly, some of it is just fun.” His interest lies in understanding that difference. “What is this ‘just silly’ part? What is this ‘just fun’ part? How can we isolate it and talk about it?”

Kidd turned his ponderings over the relationship between laughter and meaning into a book project, Nonsense and Meaning in Greek Comedy. In it he focuses on the element of Greek comedy that is supposedly not meaningful by exploring the question “How do we isolate the just fun, the just silly part of comedy and how does it translate across time?”

His breakthrough for the book came when he looked at all the ways Greeks talked about nonsense. Similar to English speakers, the Greeks usually used nonsense as a pejorative term — “that argument is just nonsense” or “they are just speaking nonsense.” The only time nonsense wasn’t discussed pejoratively was in the context of mental illness and in the context of play.

“At first, I was thinking there is some sort of formal relationship between the two. Old comedies, especially those of Aristophanes, contain lines of gibberish, like a Persian ambassador speaking Persian gibberish, which strikes us as funny. We can also imagine a feverish patient doing the same kind of babbling. But the more I thought about it, I felt that the similarity had more to do with interpretation.” A Hippocratic doctor, he explained, is not interested in interpreting what a fevered patient is saying once a diagnosis of speaking nonsense has been made. Similarly in comedy, whether the subject matter is politics or aesthetics or something else, once it is deemed as just silly or fun, there is opportunity for a different kind of interpretation. According to Kidd, this is what makes comedy special.

Kidd believes that humor is timeless and translates completely. “There is often a resistance to saying humor is timeless and that it can be cross-cultural, but I don’t know how to avoid that conclusion given that all these different people across different cultures can laugh at the same thing.”

Kidd, who received a B.A. (summa cum laude) in classics from Washington University in St. Louis and a Ph.D. from New York University, will be teaching an upper-level Greek seminar on the poet Menander and a freshman seminar called “The Greeks” in the fall semester. Kidd describes the latter as an overview of the best hits of Greek literature from Homer to a later writer Lucian. He looks forward to making his students ponder big questions — everything from “What made Homer the beginning of the Western literature?” to “Why did the writings of Menander, a wildly popular ancient poet, become virtually lost for centuries?” To answer that question, students will study recently discovered papyri containing Menander’s long lost works found at such sites as Oxyrhynchus in Egypt.

When not pondering the big comedic questions, Kidd enjoys being outdoors, hiking, listening to classical music, and attending concerts with his wife Olga. He is very much looking forward to having his bike shipped from Berlin and eagerly searching for squash partners here at Brown.

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