Tag Archives: comedy tv

Comedy about the Worst of Us

In this series, we have been looking at the audience identification with Comedy shows and the kind of affective response that we have towards such shows. The first post focused on why we cry while watching a comedy show and the second examined how a serious topic can be discussed in a comedic program. This post will expand on the previous two ideas and examine how the affective quality in a comedy actually makes us care about people that we normally would not in our own real life. While we have had the worst of the worst on ‘serious’ or ‘Quality TV’, none of those shows normalize the troubling, sociopathic behavior as much as a comedy show.

We need to look at one of the many sitcoms to see behavior that is completely devoid of basic human decency that is perfectly acceptable within the world of a comedy. Historically, we have seen some of the worst aspects of humanity, from indefensible selfishness to pure sociopathy, and pass them off as normal human behavior in comedy shows including Full House, Friends, Scrubs, How I met your mother, The Big Bang Theory (to name only a few). How does this work? How do comedy shows succeed in making us identify with a character that is clearly despicable, even when serious dramas fail to do so?

This argument needs to be clearly examined in the context of TV having presented us many likable villains, or villainous leads over time. From the Original Gangster (literally) Tony Soprano, to Vic Mackey, Omar Little, Dexter Morgan, and of course, Walter White, TV dramas are full of protagonists that range from morally ambiguous to thoroughly corrupt. We like them and root for their success to no end, but identification requires something more. These characters’ situations are entirely strange to us, that even though we may share the nature of the emotion that they experience, we will never understand the full meaning of the experience. We always foresee their inevitable comeuppance despite enjoying their success at defying the social order. This distance cannot be traversed by the audience to enter their worlds.

However, despite our distance from these characters, they all share an element that we aspire to—being a badass. The indisputable aura of coolness makes these characters appear more seductive than their immediate narrative circumstances. Although we may never be able to relate to these characters we seek to identify with them in a fantastic wish-fulfilment, as they do things that we cannot. They can exact revenge, or tell off a superior in a way that we can only dream of in our everyday frustrations. The abrupt and violent streak that we may not indulge or even tolerate in our lives becomes the key to a life that offers a glamor and thrill beyond our grasp.

At the same time, we often find ourselves slipping into relating to the experiences of equally terrible people in TV comedies. It is easy to enjoy the antics of narcissistic, psychopathic and utterly selfish characters in TV, from Lucille Bluth to Selina Meyer, because the shows already begin with an assumption against levity. While drama expects you to be in awe of their characters, comedies invite you to laugh at the characters as much as we laugh with them. These enfants terribles bask in their pettiness and their syrupy malice is just another way of looking at our follies without ever directly addressing them. These characters say devastatingly cruel about their loved ones, and we at least think of saying those things, while a threat or an action that truly puts them in harm (as in a drama) is unthinkable to us.

Also, despite their separation from our world, comedies still exist within the realm of possibilities. That is, despite the events taking place in the White House, Selina’s problems with her co-workers’ (and sub-ordinates’) incompetence are entirely relatable. These shows often articulate things in a better way that we wish we could have said in those contexts. These characters are brought to our level, if not worse than us, and we are (unsurprisingly) more empathetic towards their struggles than those of serious characters.

So many times, we pity Catherine. But we love seeing her getting crushed.

In HBO’s Veep, the President of the United States, Selina Meyer’s treatment of her daughter always teeters at the edge of emotional abuse. In the season five premiere she makes an off-hand remark to her daughter, asking her: “Catherine, why is that your hair?” The truly horrifying nature of this comment can only be understood when we realize that she means no malice when she says that. As a President of a country, Selina already has very little time for her daughter, and when she does, she has nothing but the sharpest of words – and these words are not meant to hurt her, and in that, they hurt more. Selina’s contrasting position as a powerful and noble figure in international politics and a barely functioning parent is shockingly funny, but also truly humanizing. While I cannot imagine Barack Obama ever saying something politically incorrect to his daughters, Selina’s humiliating words are embarrassingly familiar.

Despite this apparent celebration of malice, TV comedies are able to restore balance with narrative justice, such as entirely placing Selina’s political future at Catherine’s discretion when she inherits the family’s fortune. And not to mention, when Catherine makes her own comment about Selina’s hair.

TV also limits the toxicity of lived encounters in fictional narratives. Black-ish’s acerbic matriarch Ruby is another terrifying character who embodies some of the worst traits of familial relationships. Her intrusive and belligerent nature would be unbearable in an immediate context, but is offered with a slightly more nostalgic and indulgent outlook in a TV show. Fans of any of many comedy shows would instantly recognize as toxic certain characters while fully indulging in the comedic aspect of such situations. Of course, shows like Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development and Louie have built their house on a bedrock of despicable and maladjusted characters full of self-loathing. Yet, we see a little of our eccentric friend or an annoying relative in such characters. The darker the circumstances, the deeper the laughs.

Perhaps this is due to the important fact that serious dramas also bear an obligation to make moralizing gestures where the villainous characters are ultimately censured and pay a price for their behavior. Comedy shows escape such responsibilities, because they are just meant to be laughed at. But in their failure to be human, these characters reveal the worst in us to nudge us along introspection and evaluation of good behavior. The fact of our laughing at these characters helps shape unexpressed thoughts of good behavior because of their folly. That is why we will always have the mean-spirited Falstaff-like characters who grow more complex, but continue to perform a restorative moral function in comedy.

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Recommended TV: Speechless on ABC

This post begins with a non sequitur. Instead of directly arguing for the merits of the show that I am trying to get you to watch, I am going to explain the obvious reasons why you should watch a good TV show besides it being a good TV show. It has been a while since I posted on this site, and strangely, it also coincided with the annual summer break on the TV schedule. [It is one of my pet peeves that the scheduled TV summer break is irrelevant in the world of digital streaming and OTT content, but I will leave that aside for now. Clearly I am going to use the break to explain away my own laziness!]

So there are at least a half a dozen shows that I am watching (or failing trying to) at this time. Besides the great shows recommended by friends, family and Netflix, I am obliged to keep up with the upcoming scheduled network programs as well. One of the strangest, and beautiful things about network programs is that the audience voice matters and does not matter in two extreme and oppositional ways. First, if a show is underwatched in the outmoded AC Nielsen measurement, it is condemned for the chopping block. However, once the numbers are in, the critical reception and fan cultures have little influence on the show’s continuation.

While a show like Breaking Bad with less than 2 million viewers per week in its initial season was renewed for bigger and badder things in the latter seasons (which also ended up pulling monster level 15 million ratings for the last few episodes), a show like Hannibal on NBC could not drag its internationally subsidized production budget into a fourth season due to poor ratings. Leaving aside the less obvious shows like The Grinder (Rob Lowe’s best comedic performance), even the more widely appreciated shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Parks and Recreations, 30 Rock, Better off Ted all had to fend off the specter of cancellation throughout their run.

And that is why Speechless deserves your attention, because it fell from 7 million viewers to 4.5 over the course of the first season, and opened to a modest 5 million in the second season. Compared to ABC’s Modern Family (9 million viewers) and CBS’s The Big Bang Theory (up to a surprising 20 million viewers), Speechless’ position as ABC’s third best comedy might maybe good enough for a few more seasons, but not enough to be featured as a headliner as the show deserves to be treated. I guess that is rant over, so let us take a look at the show itself.

Formally, Speechless is far less daring as some of the modern sitcoms. The A and B plot lines are very clearly demarcated and the characters are, at times, typically indistinguishable from other dysfunctional TV families from Malcom in the Middle and The Goldbergs among others. However, the content of the show makes up for any timid imitative practices from other shows. In fact, the patient evaluation of simple situations may seem as obvious and tiresome to many. What kind of a ramp should a disabled child uses in a high school? Is a garbage disposal ramp an acceptable alternative to an adaptation or is it insulting to the user? How do disabled children fight? How do they express anger? Should adaptations help bridge access for them to do things that are perceived to be bad, just as much as they allow them to do things that are socially approved? The questions in Speechless move from the mundane and practical to serious grounds on social acceptance and good behavior.

In a different era, a show like this would have been deemed too depressing or heavy on reflections for a prime-time network TV comedy. And yet, along with shows like Black-ish and Fresh Off The Boat, ABC continues to present families of all shapes and colors, while maintaining an engaging and entertaining storyline. Speechless encourages people to laugh about these things, but not in a mean-spirited way. It normalizes the needs of disabled children without trivializing them, thus performing an important function of communication that goes beyond representation. And yet, these attempts of remaking similar narratives with the focus on access feels like an intentional ploy to produce a show that can produce popular images which help visualize, if not normalize the issues of adaptation.

Disabled characters do not have a lot of visibility on network TV, unless they are used as narrative props for a specific episode or in a quirky, upbeat role as a sidekick. ABC’s new comedy Speechless engages with questions of access and disability head on, presenting important questions without exceeding the typical conventions of the sitcom. This is a precious little show, which examines the questions of what kind and degree of adaptation is acceptable. The disability presented in this show is not a magical way in which life moves on without any difficulties. The show actually lingers on the struggles without making it about sympathy or overcoming the odds. It engages with the difficulties without judgement, and that makes Speechless rather unique.

The show examines JJ, the protagonist who communicates through a words written on a board, in the context of his family and friends. The representation of siblings and parents whose lives are linked to the disability of their family member is handled with an optimism that emphasizes the importance of awareness and practical knowledge rather than an old-world idea of stoic and unquestioning togetherness. There is a lot of heart and very funny one liners in this ABC sitcom, but most of all – it is a manifestation of the transformative power of TV.

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.


Young Sheldon: The Big Bang Theory spin-off rant

This week CBS released trailers for it’s the upcoming slate of Fall shows (Read my side rant about the outdated Fall schedule here*), including Young Sheldon, a spin-off for one of the network’s biggest hits, The Big Bang Theory. The response to the five-minute preview seems to be generally positive, with most people being pleasantly surprised with the intimate portrayal of what promises to be a difficult childhood. I was very impressed with the promo too. However, I could not help but feel that the spin-off feels inconsistent within TBBT’s universe.

The biggest disconnect seems to be in the intimate portrayals of the characters and their relationships as opposed to the show that we are familiar with. The young Sheldon portrayed in the eponymous promo seems like a character primed to go through a learning curve and change to be a better adapted person. His relationship with his step-father and his sister are framed as very important to the titular character. However, these aspects are completely discordant with the stubborn and utterly selfish person we encounter as the adult Sheldon Cooper in TBBT. The adult Sheldon has not changed much over the nine years and is still as inconsiderate as he was at the beginning. The idea of a prequel spin-off becomes woefully frustrating when considering that either the character is going to evolve (and thus leading to a different point than the beginning of TBBT) or he is not going to evolve (rendering the whole project irrelevant). Let me be clear, I am not writing off a show even before its first full episode is out – I like the promo too. All I am saying is that this discrepancy is a direct result of networks trying to package a good idea (the relationships of a misadjusted boy) as a familiar idea (he is also Sheldon Cooper from TBBT), to keep things safe. It feels as if the new show was written as a spin-off only to cash in on TBBT’s popularity, rather than any organic need to extend it. Again, I am not against prequels – my favorite show on air currently is a prequel – Better Call Saul (and that show deserves an entire series of posts to talk about its conceptual brilliance). From Fraiser to Mork and Mindy, American TV is full of spin-offs, each of varying quality. The problem is not with the idea of a spin-off but with one that is clearly disjointed from its original premise.

I understand the intention of trying to update a series with a new aesthetic sensibility. Despite its success, TBBT’s critical reception has dwindled over the years, and especially amidst a growing number of TV comedies like Louie and Master of None that have challenged the limits of that term. Single-camera comedies like ABC’s Black-ish and Speechless continue to present socially-relevant comedy without the annoying laugter-track. Even more traditional sitcoms like Mom (from TBBT’s creator Chuck Lorre) have gone on to grapple important issues about sobriety and failure, whereas TBBT continues to harp on four mostly unlikeable men-children struggling in their fairly comfortable lives. In light of this, a Young Sheldon spin-off could go a long way in recuperating the image of the much-maligned show. But when a character as static and with a glacial development pace as Sheldon Cooper imprinted on the minds of the viewers, it is going to take a lot for the show to win over its audience.

* Now, my Fall Schedule Rant!

I am tired of the convention of shows taking a break over the summer and returning every fall. Cable shows have long since dispelled with the idea of a seasonal premiere, with shows taking as much time as they need to return with a compelling season. HBO’s ratings juggernaut Game of Thrones is ditching its usual March premiere in favor of July because they need more time to shoot. Shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Walking Dead have all broken up seasons into two parts to write the shows to their satisfaction rather than being forced to deliver a poorly delivered season on-time. The change in these shows’ scheduling has not affected the fan-base. Online video streaming service Netflix has even taken an even more brazenly contrarian approach with many of its major shows (Orange is the New Black, Master of None, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, House of Cards and Narcos) returning this year over the summer. And the best thing about this scheduling is that it will not be the same next year. It does not have to be, because the quality of the programs control the audience and not some arbitrarily made up criteria of a TV season. A staggered year-long schedule where a show is on air only as long as it needs to before taking a break to prepare its next season would be better suited to attract today’s audiences.

The schedule also imposes a rigid and unnecessary imposition that a regular season should feature about 22-24 episodes. Cable and streaming shows demonstrate how the duration of the program’s availability is irrelevant when it comes to popularity and critical acclaim. The only important feature that remains common across all successful shows is that the shows tell a story that is sincere to its chosen mode. By forcing creators to stretch their material to a specific length, many shows have resulted in episodes of uneven quality (like the second and third seasons of Fresh Off the Boat) or in being prolonged for seemingly no reason (like the still delightful but meandering Modern Family). But networks don’t want to give up on a good thing – and a successful episode of a hit show will have the exact same ad spots to sell as a poorly reviewed one. As long as the network can lead its viewers with a show with promise of a better episode down the line, they can sell ad spots in bulk. Instead, would not multiple shows of differing lengths presented over a staggered schedule promote a more vibrant TV culture?

What are your thoughts on the Fall Schedule and TV Spin-Offs? Share your comments and views with ScreenEthics.com through facebook or twitter.

SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Upstart Crow – Literary Fan Dream TV

If you are a literature student who wonders if there are any TV programs about literary figures and history, then Upstart Crow is the answer to that question. Upstart Crow was created by Ben Elton as a part of the 400th anniversary Shakespeare celebrations, featuring David Mitchell as the titular upstart crow. It is perhaps the most inventive and irreverent approach to a historical figure whose daily circumstances are still largely undocumented and obscure, if not shrouded in mystery. By evoking comedic tropes that feature in Shakespeare’s own narratives and building real-life parallels that echo the future significance of his works, Upstart Crow brilliantly constructs a world that is as clever as it is funny.

The writing makes you tear up with pride, because it is just that good. Every line feels clever without being annoying or grating – unless it is on purpose. You get a range of characters and motivations, from the chaotic good to stoic and solid. Where the show shines is in its treatment of 16th century social issues with a tongue firmly in the cheek, and somehow making it relevant to our own time and concerns. With a compelling cast of characters whose concerns mirror our own contemporary lives, Upstart Crow pulls off a comedy about daily life featuring a playwright whose works have become iconic if not archetypal in our view.

While each actor is worthy of mention, Gemma Whelan (who plays Asha Greyjoy in Game of Thrones) plays a magnificent supporting role as Shakespeare’s landlord’s daughter Kate, who aspires to be an actress on the Elizabethan stage. Her is repeatedly thwarted by scoffing men who tell her that to be an actor, you need to be a boy, with coconuts. However, she responds to these rejections with a determined optimism, working on her next attempt at breaking the barriers. These figures may be imaginary, however they open the possibility of thinking about Shakespeare as an artist situated in the community and taking inspiration from his immediate circumstances.

Other characters like Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe, help highlight the problem of class that still persists in many performance arts circles. By playing up Shakespeare’s need to ingratiate himself to his vapid and popular friend Marlowe, the show takes shots at the clout some artists enjoy simply by association and legacy. Yet, Marlowe’s turn is is played without malice and Shakespeare’s attempts to impress him come across as endearing. Most importantly, this show reverses some of the popular authorship theories and presents Shakespeare as having authored Marlowe’s plays for him. Fighting back against persistent shadows of doubt from conspiracy theorists disguised as literary historians, this show openly laughs at the snobbishness that questions the ability of someone from the common class to have written such delightful works.

The title of the show is an allusion to the comment made by Shakespeare’s critic and his contemporary playwright, Robert Greene, who warned his fellow university wits about the upstart crow who “beautified with our feathers… supposes he he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you.” While using the quote for the title would have been funny enough, Robert Green (played by Mark Heap) is featured as a riotous foil to Shakespeare, who makes fantastic plans and announces them to the audience in hilarious soliloquys. Playing him out as a literal mustache twirling villain creates a wonderful dynamic that adds a Shakespearean depth to the lives of the other characters that simply carry on with their lives.

Now, the obvious comparison that this show evokes is to the now legendary Black Adder, which managed to present outstanding episodes in its historic run. Only time will tell if this Upstart Crow will ever reach the same acclaim as the that show, but it is definitely headed in the right direction. Among the many TV encounters that have been shared on this site, if there is one show that exemplifies the phrase ‘must see TV’, then it is this show. Smart writing, brilliant acting and a rich world to draw interesting elements from – this show has them all. BBC has produced some of the best comedies in English through the years, and this show is a fine addition to that list. If you have the slightest doubt about the show, watch this preview of the first episode. And Wankington!

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

“For the Love of Louie”: A Comedic Deconstruction of Romance in the Media

One of the top viewed American reality television shows, The Bachelor, has run for more than twenty seasons – that’s over fourteen years of ‘blind’ dates, breakups, humiliation, competition and drama – all of which ultimately encompass the mania-inducing search for a ‘one true love.’ Covering the success of an eligible bachelor on the hunt for a wife (usually among twenty or so, attractive, young women), The Bachelor showcases and further reaffirms ideals of monogamy, (mostly white), heterosexual relationships as the norm, and that one can never ‘win’ if one is not beautiful.

The Bachelor, U.S. TV Series
The Bachelor, U.S. TV Series

When shows such as The Bachelor air, countless viewers flock to the screen; perhaps in the hopes that their ‘chosen’ contestant will win, or simply to watch the next catfight (a problematic term widely accepted in reference to women in physical conflict), or perhaps the show gives them a ray of hope in an otherwise grim reality where ‘true love’ rarely happens over an hour-long dinner of rare filets, roses and candlelight.

An American Obsession

The phrase “Love is in the air” is, indeed, not an uncommon one: at least as far as grocery store tabloids, online dating, movies and television are concerned.  ‘Intricate details’ of love-lives of the rich and famous are exposed to every supermarket shopper; the inside scoop on a quarreling couple becomes an overnight scandal, and the words marriage, divorce, and baby suddenly take on a myriad of meanings never lacking a healthy dose of drama.

Love it! Magazine: Britain’s BRIGHTEST magazine for women
Love it! Magazine: Britain’s BRIGHTEST magazine for women

What these romantically charged media have in common is something much deeper, and much more complex than one-and-only gushy romance and the promise of a successful love story – the common vein running through these love ‘stories’ is a reflection of societal attitudes towards relationships, marriage, and romantic love in general.  Turn to any popular tabloid (Star Magazine and The Sun are two of the most read tabloids in America) or the latest rom-com and you’ll get a look at one obtuse corner of a cultural obsession.  An obsession that revolves around striving toward success – in your professional life, social life and finally, personal life.  American culture places an overwhelming emphasis on finding a ‘soulmate’ and settling down. While fairy-tales have been with us for centuries, can this obsession also be traced to popular media that is so universally consumed?  A growing number of ‘realistic’ (or alternative) television shows and films are gaining traction – HBO’s Girls and Togetherness and films such as Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012) and Her (Spike Jonze, 2013) deconstruct typical interpretations of romantic relationships. However, more often than not, mainstream media is still dominated by unrealistic romantic representations. Not only can such unattainable portrayals be found in The Bachelor, but in countless other shows and movies such as Never Been Kissed, Pretty Woman, and the cringe-worthy Christian Mingle, to name a few.  For many, the genre of romance is simple day-to-day entertainment; for those who acknowledge the synthetic patterns and predictable ‘happy’ endings found in much of romantic media, it is inescapable, and absolutely exhausting.  Some may find this unified interpretation of romance harmless, placing it into the category of widely understood and accepted cultural attitudes.  However, the impact the media have had on relationships varies depending on many factors, and its effect on romantic relationships in particular has been monumental in regard to our lifestyle choices and in turn, quality of life.

Louis CK and a Life of Romance

That’s why, I couldn’t let go of comedian Louis C.K.’s stand-up-vignettes (Louie, FX, 2009-).  Somewhere amidst the cringe-worthy social encounters and other awkward mishaps, the middle-aged, slouched and pudgy comedian is pointing something out – something that goes beyond shallow themes and interpretations portrayed in most widely accepted romantic stories. Amidst the many criticisms toward the ways Americans interpret romance, Louie deconstructs relationship norms portrayed in popular culture through the lens of comedy, and even echoes themes of the absurdist philosophy. Doing so, Louie provides a gap between unrealistic romance norms and the hard, bare bones of reality, where all too often a one and only “true love” simply isn’t attainable or level with “the real world.” And while each of his painfully witty comedic elements is interwoven throughout Louie’s humorous disposition, analyzing their significance in relation to the critiquing of popular romance tropes in the media is important when observing the gravity of its influence on viewers.

Louis C.K., from the cover of Louie Season 5
Louis C.K., from the cover of Louie Season 5

Oscillating between deadpan and dark comedy, C.K.’s stand-up (which appears in scaffolding layers throughout Louie) often depicts situations not uncommon to daily life and relays every detail in segments of vignettes to the audience—including his bad romantic encounters. Ways in which Louie breaks new ground in terms of romance in the media can be found in his atypical depiction of personal relationships in Louie.  He continually gets asked out by a heavyset fellow comedian (“So Did the Fat Lady”), only to go on a date with her and hear her rant about the biting realities of societal body shaming and ideals. In another episode he falls in love with a Hungarian woman, who barely speaks English, melts his heart with her intense violin skills and later rejects him to move back to Hungary (“Elevator Pt. 2”). In the same season, Louie gets beaten up by a woman on the street after having a disastrous affair with a model (“Model”), and most frequently Louie portrays his off-and-on relationship with the fiery Pamela, a woman who sends Louie into fantastical situations that teeter from depression to swapping gender roles as part of a sexual role play (“Bobby’s House”). These anti-climactic and atypical romantic encounters offer a different vision of the modern romance – one that is laced with gut-wrenching disappointment and situational irony.

Louie and Pamela in Louie Season 5, episode 4, "Bobby's House"
Louie and Pamela in Louie Season 5, episode 4, “Bobby’s House”

Comedy as Controversy

As a comedian who dabbles in a style that is both unapologetically raunchy and extremely surreal, Louie inevitably raises controversial issues in his society and addresses them point-blank. In his comedy special Louis C.K.: Chewed Up, he recollects a night spent with a waitress and the situation in which he finds himself after they get a hotel room together.  During this one-night stand, the woman continually rejects Louie’s physical advances. When Louie sees her the next day, the waitress asks why he didn’t have sex with her.  In what turns out to be an uncomfortable scenario, the waitress reveals that she’d really wanted Louie to not only be more assertive, but to ‘rape’ her.  At this point the conversation becomes disturbing; all the while C.K. relays the whole story while showing little more than a confused, deadpan expression while asking “…like, what are [you], out of your fucking mind? You think I’m just gonna rape you in the off-chance that hopefully you’re into that shit?” Ultimately, Louie missed out on a sexual encounter because he did not attempt to rape his date for the night—a ridiculous situation that clearly goes against typical romantic encounters in TV programming where sex is of mutual consent (again, an important and problematic term in today’s social discourse), short and steamy, and always gratifying for both parties.

In this skit, Louie seems to scoff at the misconstrued meanings society has tied to the word ‘rape,’ (as described by his potential partner) and how desensitized culture has become to the concept of sexual violence.  This puts an interesting frame around the issue of rape in America and its uneasy ties with humor in that Louie places himself as the center of ridicule, and distinguishes between the incompatibility between a sexual fetish and a social reality. While the conversation about rape is elevated to a point where it cannot be openly discussed, Louie’s satire offers an effective point of entry to expose the fetishisation of rape which the waitress blindly goes along with. Cleverly, the skit also subverts the expected roles of the dialogue by putting the ‘subordinate’ (the waitress) in a stance of dominance and control – the last of which unfortunately speaks to victims of rape. In a way which avoids dismissing the seriousness of these tragedies, Louie challenges common tropes of the “victimized woman” or “damsel in distress” and places himself in a submissive stance – which strays from collectively understood gender roles and stereotypes in “normal,” heterosexual relationships where women are submissive and gentle and men powerful and dominant.  With that said, there is much more to be considered in regards to issues of power, rape and gender when it comes to the ways sexual relationships are depicted in the media. Louie nevertheless chips away at the monolith of social taboos and begins a conversation that does not shroud the topic in an untouchable aura – thus bringing to attention one of the most ignored aspects of culture today.

Louie, Amia, and Louie’s daughter Jane in Louie Season 4
Louie, Amia, and Louie’s daughter Jane in Louie Season 4

All of these episodes, along with many others in Louie, have culminated largely in a pool of critique from many angles of gender and sexual points of view; what can safely be said is that in one way or another, Louie deconstructs popular romance norms in his wincingly funny depictions of love which illustrate anything but a fairy-tale.  And while the main reason behind watching Louis C.K. is indeed to make us laugh, his realistic portrayals of romance, and ultimately of life itself, go to show that not everything is perfect – he almost seems to say that real relationships never really are.  Real human beings never are, and once we become content with that realization, the human condition in many ways can become, well, funny.

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BrooksThe contributing writer RACHEL BROOKS is an M.A. candidate at Middle Tennessee State University, where she also earned her B.A. in English. Her current focus is on the comedy of Louis C.K. as well as philosophy, sex, gender and relationship studies.

Let’s be serious for a moment: Feeling for Comedy TV part 2

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a piece about watching comedy television (read here). It asked a simple question, why are we moved more easily when watching a comedy rather than a drama. The main argument in that piece was that our identification is stronger when we encounter people who are not particularly exceptional, and elevated as they remind us of ourselves. The vulnerability towards failure and the deflating tendency that breaks the fantasy makes the comedic characters endearing.

Let us look more closely at the experience of a tragic moment in a comedy and its effect on the audience. At the start of this discussion, it is very important to note that distinctions of comedy and tragedy are not strict divisions that remain separated. Sometimes comedy is used in tragedies to highlight the pathos and the bleakness of the circumstances. Even in the bleakest episode of The Wire is a joke with a black heart that makes you check yourself from laughing at it. That joke augments the ill-atmosphere that we encounter in such a show. Shakespeare recognized this potential of mixing comedy with his tragedies, and he often juxtaposed moments of horror against comedic beats to make the audience more uncomfortable. The dramatic moment that we just witnessed in King Duncan’s murder by Macbeth or Ophelia’s drowning, is frozen outside the stage-action. We want to return to the scene of crime and process our emotions or witness the aftermath, but that desire is denied by the craft of the playwright who makes us suffer in an unresolved anguish. In this regard, all theatre is the theatre of cruelty.

Veep (HBO, 2012-)
Veep (HBO, 2012-)

However, a tragic moment in a comedy show does not serve a similar corresponding function of augmenting the genre’s tendency. Instead, a tragic moment in a comedy is a sobering moment of genre-breaking that serves as a narrative interruption. In a recent episode of Veep, President Selina Meyer’s actions lead to a diplomatic stand-off with China. In response to her critical comments, China imposes several restrictions including freezing all American adoptions of Chinese babies. One of the supporting characters, Mike McClintock, who has been trying to adopt a child is devastated at that moment when he reads out loud the Chinese restrictions. Despite being a bumbling idiot who often behaves completely unaware of the context he is present in; Mike’s misery is a harsh punch line for the viewer to contend. Of course, we laugh at that moment’s reversal, but we also sympathize with him for his loss, regardless of our attitude towards him. This example is crucial because it shows that our degree of identification is not the only contributing factor regarding our affective response. When Mike stumbles with his words trying to compose himself in the face of tragedy, he opens a new dimension to his character.

Mike McClintock, Veep (HBO 2012-)
Mike McClintock, goofing about in Veep

While Mike’s case is pitiful, there are far more severe interruptions that viewers have endured over the course of comedy television. The oft cited series finale of M*A*S*H is a fine example of how devastating a comedy can be. Several episodes from shows of differing quality like How I Met Your Mother, Scrubs, The Big Bang Theory and Friends have all used the trope of a life changing tragedy interrupting the comedic reception in a significant way. However, loss and death are not the only ways in which a comedic program can discuss a serious moment.

The episode titled ‘Hope’ (2.16) from Black-ish is a stunning example of the sway that a comedy tackling a serious socio-political problem. In this bottle episode, the Johnson family is in front of their Television set, witnessing the news of police officers standing trial for shooting an unarmed black man. As more and more information about the case unfolds, the characters have a very important and open discussion about the visible and invisible burdens of racial violence and oppression. This discussion does not offer any distractions with deflating jokes or juxtapositions, and yet the characters behave in a manner that is consistent with our memory. It presents important questions to the audience without changing the nature of the show. In this way, the show makes a subtle move of drawing on our memory of the show to present something that would seem to be beyond the scope of the show on the surface. You can read more about this episode in this article in the Vulture, which positions it in the context of other comedies that discuss serious themes.

Such a narrative interruption calls back to a feature of ancient Greek comedies, called the Parrhesia. The word means ‘to speak freely’, and this trope is used in a Greek comedy where an actor steps out of the character he is performing to address real social and political issues, as if he is speaking candidly. While such a moment cannot occur in modern television in the same way, the serious moment serves as a substitute for the direct address, as it evokes a similar sobering effect. Take a look at the video of Andre Johnson talking about President Obama and decide for yourself how much of the actor Anthony Anderson you can see in that moment.

What are your favorite serious moments in comedy TV? What is your response to them?

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profile 2SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

Why do we cry, when we should laugh? Feeling for Comedy TV

Scrubs (Bill Lawrence, NBC 2001-07, ABC 2007-10). Image Scrubs Wikia

The single-camera sitcom Scrubs (NBC 2001-07, ABC 2007-10) has moved me more times than any of the best melodramas I have seen on TV. The episodes where Jordan’s brother Ben Sullivan (Brendan Fraser) visits, nurse Laverne’s accident, the episode with Cabbage, the multiple organ-donation episode where Dr. Cox makes a mistake, all have left a strong imprint in my mind over the years. These episodes may not mean anything to you, the reader, but have you ever encountered a comedy on TV that made you feel sadder than you have felt watching anything else? Have you wondered why?

In popular entertainment, comedy has always been regarded as a secondary genre to ‘serious’ drama. Shakespeare’s tragedies are generally regarded as superior to his comedies. Even popular standards of recognition in film like the Academy Awards seldom celebrate comedies (the most recent comedy to win the best picture award would be Chicago in 2002). However, somehow comedies continue to dominate television. They even their own categories in the television-centric awards like the Golden Globes and the Emmys. TV drama has steadily caught up in viewership in the recent years from the comedy hey-days of Friends, Frasier and Seinfeld in the early 2000s, but the most viewed show of 2015 is still a comedy (The Big Bang Theory). What is it about a comedy that just fits so well in a television? Some may attribute this to the fact that comedy typifies the kind of light entertainment that has always been a mainstay in the world of television; a brainless, non-committal form of entertainment that does not seek anything beyond the 30 minutes I am seated in front of it. While this reason contributes heavily to its popularity, I am unwilling to accept that an entire genre is built on this premise of distraction. Especially when I consider that I have been moved more when a comedy TV show presents a serious moment, while remaining stone-faced during some of the most evocative moments in serious drama.

The simplest answer could relate to the element of surprise that a comedy has over me. I do not watch a comedy expecting to be moved. Or we could write it up to matters of taste, and I agree that these answers hold a lot of value. Perhaps it is just me personally who cares more for the make-believe President Selina Meyer (from the extremely funny Veep) more than I care for the make-believe President Frank Underwood (from the indulgent melodrama, House of Cards), although both of them do petty and selfish things to further their own agendas. But I would like to press this mode of enquiry, if there are reasons that we care for characters in a comedy television show, especially because of the intersection of the genre of comedy on the site of the television.

The answer could lie in the domestic immediacy of a TV comedy that changes our encounter of a character’s vulnerability. Comedies at the mainstream cinema always exaggerate personalities and present larger than life characters to play out a joke. A character’s small failures create distance in the cinema, because they are used for a moment of laughter rather than helping transform the character. But in a TV show, we continue regarding the character after the failure, through the end of the episode and then in the next and so on. We are familiar to the characters and their quirks, and we estimate right from the beginning of an episode, if a character is going to be able to handle a reversal that they have been presented. Sometimes, they succeed in an improbable fashion, and at other times, they simply learn from their circumstances and move on, but unlike a cinematic encounter where we exit the theatre at the end of their learning, we stay with them in a TV show, return to them next year, to see if their lives are better for the lessons they have learnt. We cultivate a routine with a TV show that makes our investment with characters more personal. And when such a character reflects on their mortality, it is far more humanizing.

Let us also consider an alternate reason why we are invested in a character whose failures and mistakes are not just habitual but also inevitable due to the format of the show. Does this hint at a more sadistic side to the viewer, or simply one of desiring to see people lesser than ourselves being represented, and feel better about ourselves? Do we want a scientist of quantum physics to have social anxieties just because we want to feel that he is ‘just like us’? This assessment of the audience, however, is inconsistent with their generosity and love towards these characters, no matter how often these characters fail. There is a genuine warmth in the encounter with the character, that goes beyond simply selfishly inflating our egos. We watch characters to overcome their failures as much as we watch them knowing that they will fail. But there is a greater uncertainty in this trope of overcoming the odds in a TV show, than a movie, for a movie is invariably bound by its genre markers to reward the character with a win at the end of its running time. While Melissa McCarthy has to completely unlearn all her faults by the end of the movie to become a better boss (in The Boss), a better spy (in Spy), but Melissa McCarthy does not have to fix all her problems at the end of any one episode of Mike and Molly (although considering her talent and the kind of work she has taken on, maybe she should look into ‘fixing’ her agents). A TV comedy, however, can allow for the character to learn at a more believable phase, as individual stories are not tied to permanent ‘fixes’ to the character.

This also brings us to the important consideration that such characters are not exclusive to comedy, as characters making poor choices and confronting the consequences is fundamental to some of the most compelling dramas as it is with a comedy. Do we not care about an Arya Stark or a Jesse Pinkman as much as we care about a Eddie Huang (Fresh off the Boat) or a Liz Lemon (30 Rock)? In fact, the recent fan-frenzy and speculation to the death of a main characters from The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones is testament to our invest in characters regardless of the genre. This is definitely a very sound claim, and perhaps my argument could be extended to our concern for characters in television in general rather than just comedy. But one thing prevents me from doing so— the manner of identification we have with characters in a comedy. No matter how sympathetic or humanized the figure of a drug-lord is, there is a clear knowledge that those experiences would never become a part of our reality, and thus my relationship with that world is one of fantasy. On the other side, when we identify with a character in a comedy, we invest our desire for our common, everyday lives, while resisting the fantasy world on the screen, and thus fully possessing our own place in our lives. I am in awe of Walter White, but I know I could make the same mistakes of Leslie Knope (Parks and Recreation). And yet, I may fantasize of being a genius scientist-drug lord who can make threats and pull off a pork-pie hat only because I know that no such world can ever approach mine, but I will never desire the reality of Leslie Knope even though I identify with her, especially because I recognize her world as similar to mine and hence unappealing to me.

But the aim of this piece is not not to argue that comedy presents completely immediate and ‘real’ characters either. In fact, from socially inept nuclear physicists, perpetually successful New Yorkers, financially secure waitresses and even a neurotic president of the USA, comedies present figures that are as detached from our experience of reality as the Game of Thrones. And yet, people who make us laugh, through their failures, weaknesses and vulnerability make us care for them in a way that is nowhere close to our investment in a drama. I care for a Vic Mackey or a Claire Underwood, but somewhere in my viewing expectations, I am prepared for their failures due to the course of their narratives and the quality of choices they make. In fact, their failure might actually be satisfying even if they are fan favorite characters, because that is reflective of a sense of poetic justice and that serves as a logical end to their story arcs. Beneath all my admiration, I also recognize that they are entirely motivated by selfishness and would do anything to further their own agendas. But in a comedy the person suffering has made you laugh; through that feeling of joy, made you feel cared about. They don’t have to be perceived as more real for this, just being capable of evoking a genuine feeling reifies them to you.

What do you think, readers? Which characters do you care for? What are your reasons?

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