Saturday, June 12, 2010

Chapter abstracts from my upcoming book

My final manuscript (10+ years in the making) for my book, now titled Parody and Taste in Postwar American Television Culture is due at the publisher next week. Here are the chapter abstracts. I will hopefully be able to provide chapter pdfs to those interested who might want to use them in courses on TV history or TV comedy. I also hope the book will prove useful to anyone working on television comedy.

Introduction: The Parodic Impulse in the (Not-So) Fabulous Fifties
The introduction outlines the key historical and theoretical concerns and approaches of the book, surveying cultural criticism of the postwar period and critical approaches to the study of humor and parody in particular. The introduction sets the stage for an analysis of parody in postwar culture that acknowledges that the pedagogic as well as entertainment functions of parody both fundamentally shaped how viewers made sense of TV during the first decade of America’s adjustment to television culture.

Chapter 1: The New, Sick Sense: The Mediation of America’s Health and Humor at Mid-Century
This chapter examines a variety of television shows, comedy albums, and newspaper and magazine articles to understand how comedy in the late 1950s and early 1960s functioned in the articulation of identity in relation to perceptions of what it meant to be “normal.” During this time, television and the popular press took note that a new type of humor was developing: comedy was simultaneously becoming more socially relevant and breaking more social taboos. This new, socially relevant postwar humor that was often labeled “sick” (particularly that of Shelley Berman and Lenny Bruce) is examined to show how television propagated and popularized criticisms of postwar American culture

Chapter 2: What, Me Subversive? MAD Magazine and the Textual Strategies and Cultural Politics of Parody           
This chapter examines how MAD Magazine, through its parodies of movies, television, and advertising, armed readers with protocols for the reading of texts based on strategies of recycling, reappropriation, and recombination. Through analysis of articles from that magazine’s first decade as well as popular and critical responses (including that of the FBI), this chapter shows how MAD popularized decoding strategies as humorous-but-necessary exercises. MAD demanded the reader go outside the immediate text to uncover its meaning, and in doing so established its countercultural status as a monument to irreverence over the same period television became a fixture within the vast majority of American homes.

Chapter 3: The Parodic Sensibility and the Sophisticated Gaze: Masculinity and Taste in Playboy’s Penthouse\
The dramatic success of Playboy magazine in the 1950s paralleled the meteoric rise of television, but the magazine’s relationship with the new electronic medium was an uneasy one. This chapter examines how Playboy promoted a taste for parody as a form of cultural capital essential to its model of “sophisticated” masculine identity. The tensions between Playboy and television were especially apparent in Playboy’s own syndicated program, Playboy’s Penthouse (1959-1961). Analysis of that program’s urbane performances and distinctive televisual style show how it self-consciously offered a version of sophisticated television production that supplemented the magazine’s model of sophisticated television watching.

Chapter 4: Ernie Kovacs and the Logics of Television Parody and Electronic Trickery
Ernie Kovacs has posthumously been deemed the first video artist, but his aesthetic was also deeply steeped in parody. By looking at a wide variety of his programs and examining archival production documents and press coverage, this chapter examines how his parodic strategies fit within mainstream TV practices, from the vaudeville aesthetic of early comedy, to the loosely scripted talk format, to the fundamental need in commodity culture for product differentiation. This chapter seeks to refigure our understanding of Kovacs’s contribution to television culture at the same time it explores how parody functions in the formation of taste and identity.

Chapter 5: Black Tie, Straightjacket: Oscar Levant’s Sick Life on TV
Oscar Levant was a peculiar star of postwar culture, a concert pianist turned radio and television personality, who hosted a local show in Los Angeles in the late 1950s. This chapter investigates how The Oscar Levant Show cultivated a devoted following through Levant’s “sick” star persona and humor that incorporated a popularized and ambivalent form of mass culture critique. Oscar’s frequent tirades against his sponsors, his wide-ranging guests (Fred Astaire, Alduous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood), as well as his put-downs of celebrities connected with audiences who identified with his sick take on postwar culture and critics who certified Levant as quality culture and antidote to television mediocrity.

Conclusion: Television for People Who Hate Television?
The conclusion draws together the themes developed throughout the book, summarizing how television culture served as a catalyst for reflection not only on TV content, but the forces shaping that content in both its production and reception contexts. Through focusing on the relationships between parody and early television, we can trace out the ways in which Americans have grown accustomed to understanding politics, current events, and popular culture through parodic humor that can be simultaneously critical, commercial, and funny.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Dos Modos: Bedroom Side Table Project

My wife reads lots of books. I like to stack things. Thus, when she suggested her Mother's Day present from me could be a couple of side tables, I jumped at the chance. It had been a while since my last construction project (long enough that I had forgotten my general lack of construction "craft") and I was hankering to add another modern touch to the house.

As a model, I took Modernica's "Case Study" side tables that they sell to go along with their Case Study Bed, which we have. However, Modernica's tables are $500 a pop, which seems exorbitant for something made out of Plywood that doesn't have "Eames" attached to it. Also, in my opinion they are too wide, and would basically look silly in our small bedroom. So, after some discussion, we settled on a smaller version, with an opening on the side in place of Modernica's single drawer. This would actually be more functional, since we were both looking to use the tables to store reading materials, something a drawer isn't really good for.

I'm posting a scan of my plans, showing Modernica's table with my dimensions and alterations. I settled on a 20x20 back, made of two pieces of 3/4" plywood glued together, with a top of 17.5x20, atop two 10" hairpin legs I ordered online. The opening would be 6-7 inches high, depending on how things went. "How things went" turned out to not be exactly as planned, but in the end, came out almost exactly as I had initially hoped, dimension-wise at least.

The legs were bought from and was easily the most expensive part of the project. For four legs plus shipping, the total was just under $100. They shipped pretty quickly, and once I had ordered them, I was committed to the project. The surprise, money-wise, was the affordable plywood I got from Sutherland's: $35 for a 4x8 sheet of 3/4 inch cabinet-grade birch. My plan would would take up almost all of that sheet, with enough left for scrap to keep me comfortable.

On my last project I learned that perhaps the single most important component is being able to cut your pieces consistently, so I asked for a favor and had a friend cut my plywood on a very nice table saw in his shop rather than attempting it myself. Since I was making two matching pieces, this was important, and since I didn't want it made of anything except the plywood, it all had to match together nicely. The initial plan was for it all to be held together with carpenter's glue, with just a few screw supports in the back. That ended up changing as I decided to screw into the upright pieces from the bottom of the table. This was fine, though, because you can't see those screws, or the ones in the back. So it basically looks held together without screws or nails although it is very sturdy.

My biggest miscalculation was not realizing that the 10-inch legs weren't actually 10-inches high because they sit at an angle. This meant my tabletop wasn't high enough when first assembled. I remedied this by 1) cutting a scrap piece to attach the legs to which was in turn attached to the bottom of the table and 2) making the riser piece 7 inches instead of 6. With those changes made, I got to my target numbers of the initial design. Prior to this, as you can see in this picture of the table clamped together for assembly, the design looked goofy, with the back of the table far too tall. You can also see an essential tool for this job: "Quick Grips" to hold the pieces in place as you screw as well as hold them tight for glue to bond.

In the end, I have again confirmed that I am more designer than craftsman. I enjoy the process of building, but I would be better off having someone with more patience and skill put the thing together. Another mistake I made was putting too much polyurethane on the top pieces, which I did with multiple layers, sanding between each. Still, the end product is pretty sweet plywood modern furniture. Total price, just under $200 for both tables.