Thursday, September 8

A Call for Comedy Studies

Recently, I was talking with my buddy OJ about the problems of comedy when talking about matters of Cultural Studies and Media Studies.  A lot of times, when people do their analyses of particular shows, movies, videogames, what have you, the role comedy plays in that analysis is nonexistent, even if the text in question is comedic.  You can do in-depth gender and racial studies of popular sitcoms like Friends or Arrested Development, but since these shows have an aspect to their design that's intended to make the audience laugh, why should that be neglected just to get a broader point across?

I got kids all over town.
This has always been something that's bothered me.  I come from a comedic background -- I used to do improv comedy and have always been a huge admirer of the sharpest comedic talents out there, either on television, doing stand-up, on the improv stage, or otherwise.  For me, the comedic value of something is oftentimes the most complex in its meaning, as it's a direct result from the cultural zeitgeist, funneled through individual (and broader) perception.  It gets at the toughest parts of a text's meaning -- which, frankly, is part of the reason I hold it in such esteem.  The age old adage that there's "truth in comedy" comes from a very real place.  If the point of any media text is to illicit some sense of humanity or human-ness, then oftentimes it's comedy that does this most accurately.

But you don't really see this kind of thing discussed in academia very much, or even the popular media for that matter.  The value of comedy and its inherent (and ever-changing) structures are pretty much always just accepted as "understood."  Either you get it or you don't, and I'm not just talking about "the joke."  There is very little discussion, other than people debating what comedian is better and why or what show is funnier and how they go about their comedy, on the matter of comedy's role in the way we approach, digest, and comprehend our media and its meanings.

So I was super pumped to see that a very smart friend of mine, AJ Aronstein, wrote this piece about the state of comedy immediately following 9/11 (smartly released in the media flurry surrounding the 10 year anniversary).  It's an excellent article and I highly recommend you check it out.  Go ahead.  I'm not going anywhere.

Not to be confused with The Crying Game

See?  Very well said, AJ.

What I love most about this article is its clear linkage between the state of comedy as a whole and a crucial historical moment in which everything American's culturally felt, understood, and knew was dramatically changed faster than a natural evolutionary rate would otherwise allow.  It's become somewhat trite, perhaps, to go on and say that "9/11 changed everything," but at the risk of bombast, it's kind of true, and AJ takes that case to comedy.

Here is a shining example of what it would look like to thoughtfully engage in the role of comedy on the level of culture and media.  There has been plenty of work done on SNL and its cultural significance, but AJ is more interested in what their comedy means in a broader sense through specific example (and the conclusions he draws from that Giuliani moment are excellently stated).

I don't mean this post to be a praise session for AJ's writing -- which is very good -- but I wanted to get this point across so that people can truly talk about it.  I want this to be a call for Comedy Studies (a fancier name would be nice but probably overlook the point).  There needs to be serious work done examining the role of comedy in culture on all levels, from the broadest peak to the most specific instance, to get at the way it changes our media's meanings.

This shit is HILARIOUS

If a character in a film crack's a black joke, sure we can use that as an excellent entry point into a broader discussion of race relations, but what do we make of the comedian's intent?  Where does the joke stop and the analysis begin?  It is my belief that they are too intertwined to separate and so we need to just as thoughtfully consider the shape of the joke as well as its latent meanings.  Cultural Studies would argue this point on the basis that the meaning of the author isn't necessarily the meanings derived by the media receiver -- and that's totally valid.  But I see this as a reason to look even deeper into the comedic complexities of an issue because it often is so intensely personal.

It's not as though comedy is the same for every person (obviously, because as far as I'm concerned, Larry the Cable Guy should have been lynched years ago for being the unfunniest man alive), but that doesn't mean there aren't connecting factors that are worthy of examination.  And as AJ does a good job portraying, the implications of comedy can be hard to deny when examined across a breadth of examples and media.  This mode of comedic analysis is worthwhile, dammit, and I hope that we can begin considering it as such.



  1. Hey man - thanks for the over-kind words. I was really glad that Splitsider let me write about something other than cartoons. I have two thoughts just to hopefully enrich your interesting observation about the weird schism between academy and comedy. One is 9/11-specific, one is not:

    1) In a class on 9/11 Literature that I sat in on this spring, we did a week on the comedic response. The students (most of whom were roughly 8-10 years old on the day of the attacks) seemed in many ways appalled that we'd be discussing the proximity of laughter to violence. Many of them just refused to engage in the discussion, or declared that it was still "too soon" to be having it. There's a sense that, when doing academic work, there's no place for anything perceived as un-serious. But I think part of your claim here is either that comedy *is* serious or that we can do serious work about silly things.

    The thing that seems weird about the lack of this kind of realization in the academy is that we always say stuff like that in everyday life.

    2) I agree that the lessons of cultural studies when it comes to providing us an entrypoint into these kinds of considerations are well learned. That is: we know them, and they've made us (hopefully) more sensitive and aware critics. But I think the course here is to look to a broader kind of media studies--looking at the way comedy is *mediated* in the ever-shifting landscape of cultural production--to enrich a discussion about comedy.

    I think....maybe that doesn't really make sense, but regardless, I'm all for a more serious look at comedy in the academy. Thanks again for the post. Hope we can keep this conversation going. At the very least we definitely need some more levity down in Hyde Park....

  2. Great discussion gentlemen. PK, I second your call for a more serious study of comedy. Not just of contemporary comedy, but as a history of form that led to our current sense of humor. Perhaps the lack of such study stems from as far back as the historical accident(?) of losing Aristotle's writings on comedy and other forms of literature that aren't tragedy. Every time I read, think about or come across a reference to the Poetics, I truly mourn the loss of those other writings. What if from the beginning of dramatic and literary analysis, comedy had been as meticulously analyzed as tragedy? Even what we have of Aristotle's tells us he considered tragedy the highest form of literary art.

    I, admittedly, am split down the middle concerning which form is more difficult to produce or more important to experience. But I imagine every person has that same split of being drawn towards tragedy or comedy because they each represent and elicit the most extreme of human conditions. Both can have long-lasting, even life-changing effects on the media receiver. Perhaps company just really loves misery.

    Comedy in narrative form is of course very different from comedy as device or the comedic moment, but certainly the two tend pal around together. It's worth remembering that some of the best tragic dramas have their share of comedic moments - just like our own recent American tragedy had to pull it's comedy from the wreckage. I can remember the question being asked almost immediately afterwards, "when will we be able to joke about what happened?" It's still a fine line, but conversations like these that investigate the parameters and meaning of that line that defines comedy are essential. Again, thank you for your insightful contributions!