Funny Business: Critical Analysis of Television Comedies, Part 2

The following is the second part of an ongoing, cross-blog conversation between myself and my A.V. Club colleague Ryan McGee. The first part of the conversation is posted at his blog, Boob Tube Dude, and can be found here (and should really be read before this, as certain references won’t make sense otherwise).

These posts stem from conversations we’ve had regarding how we approach comedies from a critical perspective within our own criticism and within criticism as a whole. We welcome any and all contributions to this discussion, and I apologize in advance for the lack of photos to break things up (which Ryan so helpfully deployed on Part One) – I have a strict “Big Blocks of Text = A-Okay” policy around these parts. – MM

Myles McNutt: Since your last missive, I spent an entire weekend sitting in a room of academics discussing television comedy, which dealt with many of the issues you discuss in terms of expanded potential of journalistic criticism. As scholars, we’re the ones who are expected to delve into these areas, and as someone who probably best identifies as a scholar-critic (provided I’m allowed to make up my own hyphenated terms) I like to think I bring at least some of this to bear.

However, I don’t do it particularly often, in part because my academic interests have less to do with the issues discussed in part one [feminism, ideology in general] and more to do with television as a form and as an industry. That’s not to say that this work is not valuable (it is, in fact, invaluable), but rather that it is very much work that you need to feel comfortable doing. Alyssa [Rosenberg, discussed in Part One] does, and I appreciate her work for it, but it isn’t more prominent because there is a perception that “people” (speaking here of a general perception of people reading television criticism) aren’t interested in reading that form of criticism.

I don’t know if that perception is wrong, really, especially as it relates to comedies. I’ve contended in the past that we need to contextualize particular critics within the field at large, as what works for one often doesn’t work for others. Alyssa sort of backed her way into television criticism while working within a space defined by politics and ideology, a situation that very few people would ever be hired to work within – sad as that may be – as it relates to television. The fact is that sites want posts that people will read, which is why we see predominately bland recaps, and what more extensive criticism we see is very much confined to the televisual (lest it alienate the audience). Alan Sepinwall, for example, has outwardly avoided political issues since commenting nightmares during the 2008 presidential election, as he discovered that complex issues are treated with very little nuance in the comment-driven culture television criticism exists within. As much as I value that culture, and as much as I am a part of it, it renders even vaguely critical commentary problematic, and would have very little idea on how to deal with a feminist reading of Parks and Recreation.

While we have spaces like Alyssa’s blog which offer that potential, the spaces we normally associated with TV criticism are considerably more hostile to these kinds of arguments. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t written (I’d cite Linda Holmes at NPR as another example of a critic working within these areas), but it does mean that their relationship to the kind of episodic review function most commonly afforded comedies is somewhat volatile.

Is it fair that these analyses are thus marginalized to outlets outside of the mainstream of television coverage? No. However, given that some people object to the very notion that we make them think about what they saw and instead want either a list of laughs or an exact copy of their own opinion, I’m not sure that the space in which we primarily write (professionally speaking) is even a productive space for these kinds of pieces on a weekly basis.

As for the notion of a golden age [of television], I’m reticent to use the term (in part because Jaime Weinman has convinced me that it’s a false relativity), and I’m also not entirely convinced that comedy is so clearly marginalized within that discourse. While drama may have been more clearly canonized, I would argue that comedies are often highly valued within these kinds of discourses, albeit perhaps within niche discourses related less to mass society and more to “cult” audiences. While that may mean we’re seeing two separate conversations, one that cites The Wire and Breaking Bad while the other cites Arrested Development and Community or Parks and Recreation, I’d nonetheless argue that we are still very much interested in canonizing comedy.

That we do so on its own terms, and independent from drama, does raise questions. However, the notion of throwing out comedy as a term entirely [as Ryan suggested in Part One] just feels reactionary to me. Yes, comedy comes with decades (if not millennia) of cultural codes which have shaped and contorted its meaning, but that is natural with such a subjective medium. TV comedy is, after all, very much in the eye of the beholder, and its discursive construction has been ongoing since the advent of television. While I would agree that we are at a crossroads for television comedy, I’m less convinced that some sort of terminological intervention is necessary. What’s necessary is critics willing to take it seriously (even if only within the bounds of television), which I may be presenting as a simpler notion than it would prove in reality.

Ryan McGee: I think your points, as per usual, are astute. I think we’re in an interesting time in terms of television criticism, because I sense we’re at the end of whatever age of online discourse about the medium is currently in. There are cracks in the seams, and I think this is fact a GOOD thing. We’ve been applying the same techniques to dissimilar pieces, and where you and I have been running into problems over our now epic discussion centers primarily around the facts that we need new ways in order to break old habits. Renaming “comedy” probably isn’t the way to go. Reconfiguring how we approach criticism undoubtedly is.

Since we’ve last spoken, I’ve had a chance to watch the latest How I Met Your Mother. “Mystery Versus History” was both the funniest episode all season, and yet one of the weakest. That’s seems paradoxical, but that paradox is what I am usually interesting in trying to explain if/when I review the show. I found much of the episode laugh-out-loud funny, but couldn’t believe they introduced then ignored the most potent part of the episode: Kal Penn’s character calling the group out on their obsessive, codependent behavior. It was played for a lark, when it should have landed a punch.

Now, there are probably many people that want to use “laughs” as their pure, singular metric for a comedy. But there are a sizable number that wouldn’t mind getting at the non-comedic aspects of HIMYM and other shows of its kind as well. But those are obviously not the sole two camps at home watching the show. There are gradations of engagement for each program, and I can’t help but feel like ten years from now, online television criticism is going to be as niche as television itself currently is. The days of 20 million people tuning into a rerun of The Drew Carey Show are over, and I wonder if the future of criticism isn’t going to be emulating the current heavy hitters so much as finding niche audiences.

That’s obviously easier said than done. But it involves someone(s) thinking outside the box about ways to get past the seemingly codified way in which shows of all shapes and sizes are analyzed. Having weekly reviews of episodes is a perfectly fine way to go, but it’s so far from the only one that it’s amazing to me that we haven’t seen more innovation at this point. One could argue that weekly reviews of episodes provides both constant content and constant readership, but also leads to a massive glut in the “market” that has people competing for same real estate, eyeballs, and attention. Part of why I brought up Alyssa’s stuff is not just because we both like her work, but also because it stands as a living, breathing example of the alternate ways in which criticism can be practiced and can be valid precisely because of, not in spite of, its specific viewpoint.

To try to get everyone onboard with my view of HIMYM is both foolish and arrogant. In no way is my reading the “correct” one, insomuch as other ways of watching the show are equally valid. But as I am interested in thinking about ways to expand the critical techniques employed on analyzing television, I feel like comedy is the right place to start that expansion. Laughter connects us as humans more than almost anything else, and yet how we arrive at that laughter is as unique as humans themselves. Rather than trying to get to a single reason why a particular comedy works, shouldn’t we be seeking to extend the ways in we talk about what makes a show funny?

MM: My question, I think, is what spaces you think this will take place within. Is weekly criticism, in its arguably ephemeral form (an argument I’d contend, mind you, but an argument that is definitely made), the right space for deeper analysis? Or is this conversation revealing less a need for a shift within that discourse and more the need for another discourse entirely? I’d argue that, provided we’re talking about dominant critical spaces, this kind of analysis is not consistently afforded to dramas either. While people might spend more (digital) ink waxing poetic about Breaking Bad, I’d argue much of that has more to do with intense seriality (and longer running times) than a deeper exploration of the kinds of critical issues we’ve discussed.

I like your idea of considering niche audiences, but really all episodic TV criticism is read by niche audiences if we consider mass culture as a whole. The challenge, then, is finding a space that is willing to accept the niche within a niche, which is a challenging notion when it comes to the “industry” as a journalistic enterprise, but certainly a notion that I believe we should be pursuing (and that, if we had the time in our busy schedules, we could pursue on our own personal blogs).

At the same time, I have to admit that I’m not sure I’ve ever felt particularly constrained on this issue. I am one of those people who takes comedy seriously, who wants to explore why something is or is not funny, and who is highly resistant to just listing what was funny within a given episode. And while I don’t want to interiorize this debate and attempt to isolate it from the larger issues it does raise, I’m kind of satisfied with just doing my part. As I noted earlier, the few times my reviews have prompted people to offer their own theories on why they keep watching The Office, or why a particular episode worked differently for them, I’m ecstatic: it means I have done my job, and it means that my review has revealed the divisions within the reception of that episode and perhaps the series as a whole.

I wonder, though, if expanding anything more than that from a single review of a single episode may be less a problem with how people treat/perceive comedy, and more an inherent limitation of the form. Mind you, larger pieces on this subject (like any sort of large-scale theorizing on the multi-camera sitcom) reveal the perils of taking comedy too seriously even in other venues as far as sectors of the audience are concerned, but on a weekly basis I don’t think this requires a dramatic reinvention: just a desire to provoke response instead of just writing response.

And with that, we cede the floor to you once again. Where do you see the future of television criticism online going, and to what extent will comedies drive the potential “niche of a niche” writing/reading? Is the current model of analysis sustainable, or just a stop gap?

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7 Comments

Filed under TV Criticism

7 responses to “Funny Business: Critical Analysis of Television Comedies, Part 2

  1. Tausif Khan

    “Alan Sepinwall, for example, has outwardly avoided political issues since commenting nightmares during the 2008 presidential election, as he discovered that complex issues are treated with very little nuance in the comment-driven culture television criticism exists within.”

    What is interesting to me is that this conception of politics, a purely procedural conception, is the one that is the least inclusive and involves a very rarefied conception of politics. In which “the people” vote once a year. This conception of politics in fact rarely encompasses almost counter-intuitively the most important subject within the concept, power (and how it operates outside the institution of government).

    • Tausif Khan

      To qualify my comment a little I think your characterization of Alan’s blog is a little sparse and leaves out that Alan has allowed race and gender politics into his comments sections as along as they stay within the bounds of his show. Mostly people ignore it.

      Dan Fienberg has openly talked about race and gender on Firewall and Iceberg podcasts

      Todd Van Der Werff has declared himself a feminist on his TVOTI podcast.

      Mo Ryan usually devotes at least couple pieces every once in a while to gender.

      Of course there is also the great work of Anita Sarkeesian over at Feminist Frequency who looks at media from a feminist and race based perspective.

      So I don’t think the critical community is devoid of such commentary.

      • Tausif Khan

        Also Libby Hill got me to notice that not only is The New Girl is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl but that Zooey Deschanel is one too. She usually says one thing a podcast that makes me rethink they way think about my response to a show or its impact on society.

  2. EvilPicnic

    Miles, of course you’re allowed to make up your own hyphenated terms.
    As long as they’re along the lines of ‘analyst-therapist’.
    Or; ‘anal-rapist’.

  3. I think what’s interesting about this discussion is the fact that it is certainly not limited to TV comedy, but to pretty much all forms of comedy. Comedic movies rarely get the kind of critical acclaim than do their dramatic counterparts, and the same is true for literature. Funny literature (with few exceptions) is always relegated to a second-tier status no matter how deeply or deftly it analyzes the human condition (or what have you).

    Myles, as you suggest, doing comedy criticism on an episode-by-episode is certainly easier and more effective than trying to tackle the whole genre at one time. However, as you point out in part 1, critical analysis on an episodic basis isn’t hugely popular with the people who like to read “recaps.”

    However difficult this whole question and its subsequent problems may be, I think critics like yourself, Sepinwall, McGee, and others are doing a great job of trying to attempt and discuss these problems in a space that is not always willing to accept your criticism.

  4. I feel like I’ve just been mindfucked reading this article.

  5. Pingback: Just be funny: On why Happy Endings is the new Friends and how it’s hard to express that « TV Surveillance

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