Tuesday, May 22, 2012

At the end of April I attended an excellent one-day conference at the Carsey Wolf Center at the University of California - Santa Barbara. The event was titled "All in the...Modern Family" and featured lots of great talk about the sitcom from writers, directors, producers, performers, journalists, and a few select academics like myself muddying things up. I believe that you can find video of the event online. I am scared to death to look at it. You should be, too. 

I am publishing here the notes for my talk--more like an essay, really. We were under strict orders to keep it under 15 minutes and I failed...sticking to this script was my plan. It almost worked. The next day I realized I should have re-conceptualized the whole thing as a pitch for a socially relevant (or at least informed) sitcom. Ah, next time. 

(Note: To properly contextualize this talk, you need to watch a couple of the best episodes of Cheers right before reading. Jacob Smith and I faced the unenviable task of being the designated academics to follow a "writer's room" discussion with a half dozen hilarious comedy writers responsible for much of Cheers, Frasier, Ellen, and others.)

At an earlier roundtable discussion, Phil Rosenthal, a very funny guy and the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond said something about how creators of sitcoms can't intend to create social commentary. Of course, this flies in the face of the conference hybrid-namesake, Norman Lear. Minutes later, in response to a question from moderator Howard Rosenberg about what he thought about the satire of Colbert and Stewart, Rosenthal said he loved it and watched it all the time. End of discussion. Had I been on that roundtable, I would have asked why he considers satire and sitcoms to be so separate--indeed, mutually exclusive. My talk is essentially arguing to bridge that divide.

Sitcom as Cultural Forum, Please.

Ethan Thompson

I am here today as a scholar of television comedy, but I very briefly want to explain why and what I think that means. This is my vocation not because I don’t like television or comedy, but because I love it, and I think comedy can articulate complex ideas and conflicting feelings more popularly and more effectively than rational debate. In other words, I think comedy doesn’t just help us limp through life, but helps us understand our world and can powerfully impact how we make sense of our place in it. Today I want to talk about how the sitcom is especially equipped not just engage to audiences in order to make them devoted viewers, but to get them to feel and think.

For while its terrific to celebrate the longevity of the sitcom and the state of television comedy, let’s not forget that things are (as discussed earlier) pretty rough out there. What a contentious mess American politics and public life has become? For example, being a university-employed scholar, also makes me for many, a card-carrying member of the liberal elite not worthy of being listened to. Being a scholar of television comedy adds another layer of discomfort to all this, because—given how much smart, satiric comedy does exist on TV—if what I believed about the power of comedy to articulate complex ideas, and in particular to ridicule the powerful was true, shouldn’t American culture be in a better state? Shouldn’t we all being getting along a lot better?

There is excellent comedy to be found in many TV formats and comic modes, in many cases succeeding by appealing to specific audiences and tastes. I’m talking here about the news parody of Stewart and Colbert, the autobiographical soul-bearing of Louie, the post-adolescent hijinks of Workaholics, the parodic-critique of hipsterdom and liberal excess in the sketches of Portlandia, to the self-referential sitcom antics of 30 Rock. And that’s just some of the comedy that appeals to my tastes. The thing is, there is pleasure in having one’s tastes catered to, and knowledge of that catering makes comic transgressions a little more comfortable to laugh. I don’t have to worry, for example, that someone else doesn’t “get” that Kenny Powers is a caricature of white masculinity in decline and I can laugh at his obnoxious comments because they are components of that caricature, and I recognize his moments of awareness and growth. If Eastbound and Down was followed up by Blue Collar Comedy, maybe I’d be worried. Or maybe I would just pretend that that other world doesn’t exist, and stay in my own happy, slumpie TV universe.

Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, sometimes SNL—these programs excel at social commentary and cultural analysis through parody and satire. If you’re unhappy about the state of American public life, watching them makes you feel like you’re not alone. These shows are sometimes criticized for “preaching to the choir,” but that is what preachers most often do, reaffirming what that community believes and maintaining attendance in the church. So while satiric television shows like these may have real “bite” they largely do so for people who already feel the same way. The same goes for much of narrowcast TV, which by catering to our tastes flatters us without challenging us to do much more than laugh or groan and say “I get it” and not care whether other people don’t.

Aside from the general cultural milieu in the face of such a diversity of cutting-edge comedy, an ongoing unsettling event suggests to me the importance of re-engaging the family sitcom. I love to talk about the cultural politics of Eastbound and Down, or the nuances of verite style amongst The Office, Arrested Development, or Modern Family, but when it comes down to choosing a program to write a paper on, I repeatedly get this from students: Full House. My students watch Modern Family, they watch The Big Bang Theory, and some of them even watch Parks & Rec. But they LOVE and remember the sitcoms they grew up on—often the ones in syndication. And they even seek out others that they didn’t grow up watching. For example, while talking about binge-viewing seasons of programs at a sitting, and the potential desirability of this approach to Arrested Development, one of my students bragged that she was currently mainlining seasons of The Facts of Life. Obviously, there must remain basic pleasures in the episodic situation comedy that need to be embraced by those writers, producers and critics who believe comedy has the potential to make the culture better, to make us function and get along across perspectives and politics.

Bottom line: Although there is articulate, cutting-edge satire and other programs with an edge of cultural criticism in comedy, these attitudes, now more than ever, need to be brought into the sitcom. The ongoing relationships with characters that exists between audiences and narrative comedy inflects what is said and done in a way differently from other comedy formats like sketch or news parody. The sitcom has a special potential to make people think, because it puts much effort into making people feel. For example, when it comes to the pushing of boundaries, the crossing of what is or isn’t currently socially acceptable, we need more things like this, a clip from one of the prototypical domestic comedies in American television history, Father Knows Best.

Granted, this doesn’t come off as not particularly “enlightening television”—nor was it explicitly subversive in its day. By episode’s end, Betty gives up being an engineer for dating an engineer. But it is in fact an episode once cited as a prototypical model of how television engages culture, bringing viewers into contact with new ideas and values, channeling, however briefly, contemporary social “issues” as a way of creating narrative comedy.

Just as the sitcom has a history predating television and a distinguished record through the network, cable, and convergence eras—outlasting more than one pronouncement of its death—the sitcom also has a history in television studies, even if it hasn’t always been a form that critics have promoted as “quality Culture.” In fact, it was the ordinariness of the halfhour comedy that has been central to its role for theorizing how television works as culture. Central to my comments about the critical role of TV comedy is Horace Newcomb’s essay, co-written with Paul Hirsch and published in 1981, “Television as Cultural Forum.” The crux of that essay is this: television should be thought of as a practice, not a product. What is important is how individuals come into contact with different ideas, and how dialogues between competing ideas and values are voiced across television programming. Narrative closure in an episode, among characters, doesn’t close audience thinking. The Cultural Forum models suggests that TV, because of its status as not-quite-reality but still familiar, is the space for “meaningful play” for cultural engagement that can impact how individuals make sense of particular issues as well as much more generally their own place in the world. Newcomb no longer thinks TV should be considered a cultural forum because of how walled off we all are from each other in our own narrowcasted worlds. But while I agree that TV no longer serves as a forum in the sense we aren’t all talking about the same shows, even a single encounter with a single show by a single person holds the potential for dialogue with the viewer’s own previously held ways of seeing things.

And when this happens in the sitcom, they care about it and feel about it differently than when they encounter it in parody or satire. Again, I’m not just talking about the “airing of opinions” on TV, because one can find that in as many news channels as you want. Instead, the sitcom allows the repeated presentation of different perspectives, and modeling of how people holding various perspectives can still function together. A premiere model of this, as Heather Hendershot has suggested, is Parks and Recreation, a workplace family that functions in spite of ideological differences, with Leslie Knope the city government employee-extraordinaire, and her boss, libertarian Ron Swanson, who would abolish the government that employs him if he could.*

Several years ago I did a small audience study with fans of King of the Hill [published here] as a means of trying to understand the politics of comedy. Basically, I was interested in the distinction we make between “Laughing at” and “laughing with.” Much of the comedy in KotH comes from Hank’s expectations for his son and the ways in which the models of masculinity with which he grew up and which were imposed upon him no longer seem adequate, particularly for one raising a son who plans on a career as a prop comic. In domestic comedies like KotH, parents learn lessons as well as the kids, and this is especially the case with Hank. But his bits of growth are little more than those of Archie Bunker. In every episode, he is right back trying to make sense of Bobby. One of Hank’s best known phrases is “That boy ain’t right.” The show’s episodic structure meant that for so many years Hank never became comfortable with this realization, or stopped thinking it. For one of the fans I talked to, this exacerbated the frustrations she felt over Hank’s inability to just accept the changed world around him: In our conversation she became visibly agitated: “I don’t like how unaccepting of his son he is. At the end, there’s a little acceptance, but next time it’s going to be the same.” Rather than resolving cultural tensions and issues scrutinized, the episodic structure of sitcom promises to revisit the frustrations of its characters and underline those of it audiences as well.” (49) It reiterates our frustrations with what characters think, forces us to consider the roots of their beliefs, and acknowledge them.

THUS, the practice of watching episodic comedy, of reencountering again and again characters who frustrate us, or who continually hold opinions contrary to us, magnifies its function of television as a cultural forum. One of the ironies of All in the Family is that it wasn’t just popular with a quality demographic that thought Archie was an artifact deserving of ridicule. The great triumph of All in the Family is that people did love Archie—whatever his outdated social beliefs and obnoxiousness. Archie wasn’t just satirized, he was a character that people found funny, that they could empathize with, that they could see their own family members in or even their own feelings and contradictions. The fact that Archie was embraced by many viewers is sometimes invoked as proof that its satire was ineffective, that TV, even when attempting to be its most culturally relevant and engaging in social commentary, remains “just entertainment.” If the critique was consistent, if it was substantial, so this line of thinking goes, then no one could possibly “laugh with” Archie rather than at him. But what I am suggesting is that this is a key strength of the sitcom, because it is essential to its appeal. It enables multiple audiences to enjoy Archie, and in so doing, encounter non-Archie ways of thinking.

What follows are some key components of halfhour comedy that I think testify to its ability to engage audiences, and ought to be employed so that the halfhour comedy plays a vital role in what I, at least, consider TV’s most important cultural function, getting people to think and feel—even when they aren’t expecting it.

  1. Thanks to so many stripped off-network sitcoms, the halfhour comedy is ordinary. It is “normal” television. We expect to laugh, and to be done in 30 minutes. A key value of halfhour comedy lies in its mundane nature, its ordinary presence in the TV schedule and in the lives of audiences. Because it is such an unassuming form, the the sitcom has always had great potential for how it might disrupt our expectations of TV as entertainment—even to the point where we need to consider what it means to be entertained. 
  2. Being familiar with sitcom characters allows us to play the game of “what if” they (or we) were in various scenarios. The format can incorporate controversy and current events into that existing framework of characters and character/audience relationships. Lessons may be learned and subtle growth suggested but not so much that characters become unfamiliar—and that is a strength. 
  3. The domestic comedy testifies to the flexibility and resilience of the family, whether constituted by blood-relatives, work colleagues, or best friends. People work together to solve problems. Even though they might be at each other’s throats, people come around and fulfill specific roles in order to bring about a desirable outcome. 
  4. Conflict passes. So what if the real world doesn’t right itself in a halfhour? The promise that the sitcom will do that means viewers are willing to encounter characters, ideas, and values that come into conflict with one another and potentially with the viewer’s own. 


I ultimately care about the sitcom because I think comedy communicates complex ideas and conflicting feelings more effectively than rational debate, and can do so when people aren’t expecting it. For each of us to have our own particular comedy for our own particular tastes isn’t good enough, because it’s symptomatic of the balkanization of American life and it further accustoms us to that state, rather than making connections across divisions in tastes and politics. Americans, and not just those in Washington, need to be taught how to get along. The model of comedy that’s the best for doing that is the sitcom, and we need more programs like those this conference is named after, that integrate social conflict into their comic narrative structure.

We need more offensiveness and discomfort in TV comedies, but we need it directed a little more at ourselves, rather than just to flatter our tastes. We need characters in shows we like who don’t share the same beliefs and values as us, but who we empathize with nonetheless. Forget about a litmus test for whether or not comedy is appropriately stringent as social satire. We need comedies that incorporate varieties of politics, values, beliefs, and tastes—that is a diversity of perspectives, not tokenism. And they should do so while sticking to familiar tenants of episodic television, those components of halfhour comedy that—whatever shifts in style and content have come—have proven to successfully appeal to audiences through a dependable narrative of complication, confusion, and alleviation.

*Look for Heather Hendershot's essay on Parks and Recreation in the forthcoming How to Watch Television edited by myself and Jason Mittell. Due in 2013 from NYU Press.