Report from the UW-Madison Television Comedy Conference
This past weekend, television scholars descended on Madison, Wisconsin, for the UW-Madison Television Comedy Conference, a small, focused scholarly discussion of TV comedy organized by the faculty and graduate students in the Media and Cultural Studies area of the Department of Communication Arts. Though limited in size and scope (attendance was kept to about 40), the conference featured a deluge of enthusiasm, thought, and scholarly excitement that the one small conference room could barely contain.
Festivities began on Friday afternoon, when the venerable Horace Newcomb presented his keynote speech, “Looking for the Best Funny: Comedy Program Recipients of the Peabody Award.” Newcomb, director of the prestigious Peabody Awards, provided valuable insight into the process of Peabody selection (with its unanimous vote requirement), the complexities of the Peabody archive (containing all submitted materials, not just those of the recipients), and the history of the recognition of television comedy by the awards. Though comedy Peabody Awards are commonplace now, Newcomb highlighted, through close readings of the award citations of years past, the ways in which a sense of “higher purpose,” rather than humor value, was frequently used as a justification for giving a respected award to a representative of a seemingly insubstantial genre.
Newcomb’s discussion of the Peabody archive continued into the first panel of day one of the conference proper, “Comedy and the Archives.” While Newcomb gave examples of non-program television material meticulously archived by Peabody over time, Nick Marx painted a very different picture of the nearly-nonexistent state of the improvisational comedy archive. Michele Hilmes, meanwhile, used archival material to provide valuable historical context for comedy as we know it, detailing the transition of the comedy genre from the vaudeville/gag aesthetic of early radio to the creation, in the 1940s, of the situation comedy. Together, these panelists raised questions for the audience to take up about the ephemeral nature of performative media, the reliability of a necessarily limited archive, and fears of a digital future devoid of the kind of paper artifacts that allow scholars like Hilmes to do their work.
Marx’s discussion of non-television improv comedy dovetailed nicely with the next panel, “Comedy and Industrial Practices,” in which Evan Elkins suggested that comedy is itself an industry that includes television but is not limited to it, as the prevalence of the comedy club circuit, improv troupes, podcasts, and other feeder systems prove. This idea of comedy as a transmedial enterprise was taken up by Max Dawson and David Gurney, who each explored the ways in which Internet comedy supplanted the comedy club and changed the dynamics of the comedy industry, creating a world in which TV and Internet comedy feed into and bolster one another (rather than one, as the popular narrative claims, “killing” or “saving” the other). Finally, Myles McNutt discussed the ways in which television channels, particularly HBO, brand their comedies, often attempting to hide the comedy identity that seems ill-fitting with a network’s self-image of prestige. All of this led to a fruitful discussion on the hierarchical nature of the work of comedians and of comedy taste cultures. This discussion of taste cultures would resurface throughout the weekend, as the conference tried to contend with the differences between mass-appeal, critically-derided sitcoms and niche, experimental, critically-lauded examples.
The next panel, “Boundaries of the Acceptable,” was marked by the introduction of the term “Post-PC” comedy, proposed by Amanda Lotz to describe the breaking down of taboos in modern TV comedy and the use of irony to talk about what could not be talked about before. Though Nora Seitz offered a critical example of how “Post-PC” comedy functions in modern sitcom depictions of rude or cruel parenting, and Ethan Thompson provided a historical context for the development of these new modes of comedy and the centrality of self-humiliating humor, much of the discussion that followed centered around the usefulness, or potential lack thereof, of “post-PC” as a term. Though the question was left unresolved, it was the first of many discussions over the course of the weekend about the need for a new critical language for the study of modern TV comedy and the new methodologies it requires for proper analysis.
Discussions of boundary-breaking and the privilege inherent in being able to make certain ironic, “post-PC” jokes recirculated in the following panel, “Comedy and Gender.” Ron Becker described his reception studies of straight males watching “bromance” narratives, while Timothy Havens brought in the idea of minority groups (particularly racial minorities) using satire as a tool against the oppressors, an idea that could have purchase with discussions of gender. Kyra Hunting explored the ways in which female-led or -targeted comedy is often categorized generically as “dramedy,” raising questions about the perception of women’s humor, while Victoria Johnson explored the ways in which current female-centric comedies like 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation negotiate cultural geography and, in the latter case, present a new comedy of earnestness. The diversity of these panelists’ ideas led to a vibrant, free-floating discussion of the relative masculinization of comedy, as well as a broader discussion of women’s roles in contemporary television comedy.
Rounding out day one was a lively discussion of “Comedy and Politics,” a panel that tried to contemporize Horace Newcomb and Paul Hirsch’s idea of television as a “cultural forum”. Jeffrey Jones highlighted the necessity of audience research to determine how political TV comedy affects audiences and their constructions of citizenship, while Amber Day focused specifically on the potential political consequences of Stephen Colbert’s “SuperPAC” and the extended civics lesson embedded in its comedy. Heather Hendershot pointed to another example of a television civics lesson in the form of Parks and Recreation, which promotes a liberal pluralist view that ridicules extremism and posits a world where people of differing beliefs can discuss ideas rationally in a functioning and important local government. On the other end of the spectrum, Jeffrey Sconce discussed the ways in which TV comedy, as opposed to generally “realistic” drama, acts in a more radical and modernist way to appeal to niche groups through messy tactics that may be incoherent to those outside the niche. The resulting conversation was heated and, in some corners, a bit pessimistic, but offered valuable discussion around of the need for effects research, the role of affect, and the merits of working within the confines of empirical American political science.
After the lengthy critical discussion of day one, day two held just two panels to finish up the conference. The first, “Comedy, Race, Ethnicity, and Nation” featured a wide-ranging discussion of comedy in national and cultural contexts. Christopher Cwynar and Serra Tinic discussed the formation of Canadian cultural identity in Little Mosque on the Prairie and British-influenced Canadian sketch comedy, respectively, while Racquel Gates and Matt Sienkiewicz returned to day one’s discussions of race, power, and the boundaries of the acceptable. Gates discussed the ways in which a focus on positive and negative representation may obscure discussion of the humor and quality of African-American-centric comedy, while Sienkiewicz considered the ways in which Family Guy’s random, stream-of-conscious style makes its ethnic humor all the more problematic. Though the resulting discussion picked up all of these topics, the most common thread was the discussion of irony and the ways in which it is used as both a tool of the powerless and a tool of the dominant who feel their power slipping, a way of both fighting against and reinforcing power structures.
The conference ended where it began, with a historiographic view of “Multi-Camera Sitcoms” and the transition to the single-camera form. Elana Levine and Michael Newman began by discussing the discursive construction of the single-camera sitcom as an “upgrade” from the multi-camera form and the ways in which the two forms actually represent divergent historical styles. In explaining the history of the laugh track and other elements of the multi-camera sitcom, they succeeded in historicizing the genre and highlighting the ways in which it has been a victim of classed and gendered assumptions. Andrew Bottomley took up the falseness of the single-cam/multi-cam dichotomy by exploring the ways in which How I Met Your Mother blends the two genres, while Christine Becker provided a similar analysis, in the British context, of the program Miranda. What ensued was a lengthy conversation about form, history, and the impact of such affective properties as nostalgia and identification on these formal decisions.
The UW-Madison Television Comedy Conference was a positive argument for the replication of small-style conferences in other schools and on other topics. The restrictive subject matter and presence of all conference participants at every panel created a common frame of reference among scholars, resulting in a discussion that could travel beyond panel borders and build over the course of the weekend and thereafter. Thanks in large part to Jonathan Gray’s strict timekeeping and moderation, everyone with thoughts to share found the opportunity to speak, and the result was a richer experience for all involved. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience for my first-ever academic conference, and I’m sure other participants share my warmth and enthusiasm.