Monthly Archives: October 2012

THE SIMPSONS: Comedy Progenitor

by Vic Browne

Though it is over two decades old, The Simpsons continues as one of the most successful shows on television and its impact continues to resonate throughout the world of comedy and animation.

Genre is the categorization of art and culture based on stylistic criteria. The study and process of this categorization is known as genre theory and is “based upon the idea that individual messages can usefully and meaningfully be categorized into discernible groups according to their structural elements” (Ott, Mack). Genres usually manifest themselves in one of two ways: historically or theoretically. Genres that emerge as a response to cultural demands and are familiar to their target audience are historical. These are the genres that have worked before and so shows are constructed utilizing similar genre components to repeat success. Some of televisions most popular formats fall into this category including legal dramas, talk shows and situation comedies or sitcoms. We can identify a legal drama based on certain historical components such as a courtroom setting, a morally righteous main character or technical elements like single-camera shooting and dramatic, non-diegetic music. These components (and more) have come to constitute a successful genre, trusted to work repeatedly and so are defined as historical.

Theoretical genres are identified to explain a social trend or occurrence. These are shows categorized based on viewer/societal reaction to them as opposed to being composed to adhere to viewer expectations. Theoretical genres usually emerge incidentally from the creators intentions and are theorized by critics and scholars who watch (Ott, Mack).

The Simpsons is an example of a theoretical genre as it was the first show of its kind to utilize all of the elements it has and was massively successful as a result. With origins steeped in traditional historical genres, the show is renowned for merging the traditional family sitcom with a subversive and absurdist sense of humor. This, with its (at the time) unique animation format, combined to create a whole new genre: the animated adult sitcom. At the same time the show’s success would come to patently influence the long standing traditional sitcom format as well. As a testament to its quality, the show and its influence can both still be seen on TV.

The family sitcom has been a popular genre since before television, going back to the days of radio shows (Sayles). For decades, following the popularization of televisions as household items, sitcoms all followed a very similar format: “a happy family where disagreements are laughably mild and easily resolved, the kids succeed in school, social handicaps are overcome, and finances are rarely a problem” (Miller). For years television presented what was mainly an idealistic view of life, but rarely a realistic one.

Following the romanticized worlds of shows like Leave it to Beaver or The Dick VanDyke Show in the 1950s and 60s, sitcoms in the 1970s began addressing societal issues with their stories. All in the Family famously covered topics such as racism (Dana, Rich “Sammy’s Visit”), homosexuality (Lear Styler, Rich “Judging Books by Covers”) and even rape. (Schiller Wesikopf, Bogart “Edith’s 50th Birthday”) But even as such pensive topics were addressed, it was done so through the sitcom lens meaning ultimately the result had to be, and more often than not was, a happy and resolved ending for all. In the 1980s, some sitcoms continued to evolve past the rosy-lensed worlds of the genre’s past, but few if any left behind the standard saccharin that separated sitcom families from real ones. When The Simpsons premiered in 1989 it did away with the notion that everything could/would be fine, and dozens of other sitcom conventions.

The Simpsons are depicted as a working class family. Homer is the father, a lazy, slow-witted but ultimately good hearted man. Marge is his wife, loving, nurturing and naively optimistic. They have three children: Son Bart, the 10 year-old troublemaker, daughter Lisa, the 8 year-old genius and musician, and Maggie, the six-month old baby girl. The family lives in the purposefully, blandly named town of Springfield in an unknown U.S. state and are surrounded by a town full of characters meant to parody typical American life.

Though drawn with little resemblance to actual people, the believability of these characters comes from the imperfections within their characters. After decades worth of sitcom characters too perfect to be human, Simpsons creator Matt Groening sought to create stories and plots along the same imperfect lines as his characters, revising the modern American dream to make it “more attainable” (Miller). A show like Full House, popular when The Simpsons premiered, misrepresented the American dream allowing audiences to escape reality while simultaneously condemning them for not being as perfect as the Full House family. Where The Simpsons succeeds is in recognizing no family is or could ever be perfect, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be happy. The family lives modestly on Homer’s middle-class, low-skill job salary and face economic hardship, but are content to live simply. The show trades unattainable perfection for “truly human-like qualities and blatant faults” (Miller) giving its yellow-skinned, animated characters a level of humanity that, until then, had not been popularly seen in the show’s live action contemporaries.

In addition to changing the function and meaning of stories and characters, The Simpsons influenced the technical and aesthetic style of sitcoms. Before The Simpsons sitcoms were nearly all shot multi-camera style in front of a live audience or were edited to appear so. A laugh track was used to accentuate jokes and add to the atmosphere of “live in front of an audience” even when shows were shot on location or closed sets. The Simpsons creators chose to not use a laugh track, relying on the cleverness of their writers jokes to and motivated by a desire not to cosset their audience by cuing their laughter with a track. Though on an aesthetic level audiences could hardly look past the fact that they were watching a cartoon, the removal of a “studio audience” allowed for a full immersion into the world the characters inhabited and for the jokes to seem more organic, i.e. not delivered for a reaction. Years later this idea would influence a number of popular comedies to adopt a level of realism not previously seen in successful sitcoms, beginning with the BBC series The Office (Strong).

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s 2001 series The Office was one of the first successful sitcoms to follow in this Simpsons mold. Co-creator and star, Ricky Gervais, has constantly cited the show as one of his influences and the main reason he wrote The Office without a laugh track as a mockumentary (“Ay, Caramba, The Simpsons turns 500″). Gervais was influenced in smaller more precise ways by the show as well:

The Simpsons has influenced my work in a very specific way, with the cutaways. They’ll go to someone saying something  stupid and it’ll come to the guy looking at him and then  it’ll come back.  And it’d go one more time back shot -reverse-shot and we did that a couple times in The Office…its just that one more shot which I like, they  just push the envelope with that and it always makes me  laugh. (Ricky Gervais on The Culture Show).

The Office became internationally lauded and began a paradigm shift in the world of sitcoms. Arrested Development premiered in 2003 using a format somewhere between mockumentary and typical single-camera, even using the ambiguity of this to comedic effect at times.(Saunders Dornetto, Amodeo “Forget Me Now”) Arrested Development’s nearly irredeemable family of characters owes to The Simpsons sensibility as well.

With such an unorthodox approach to its characters and portrayals how was the show able to find such success?  The Simpsons came out just after successful live-action sitcoms Married…with Children and Roseanne which had given audiences their first taste of “traditionally unlikable” main characters. Though the more mawkish sitcoms such as Full House and Who’s the Boss? continued to rate high (ClassicTvHits), the success of the former two shows “suggested audiences were ready to have a pop at the American dream” (Griffiths). Popular sitcom leads like the abrasive Al Bundy and Roseanne Connor helped usher in a new kind of main character, but The Simpsons still possessed something these shows did not. Critics noted:

It’s because [creator] Groening has invested [the characters] with a sensitive vulnerable side that most  sitcoms with human beings lack. In the standard sitcom, kids are obnoxious, moms are long-suffering, and dads are  dopes. They’re the cartoons; the Simpsons are for real (Tucker).

Buried beneath all the jokes, wild animation and neo-charecterizations is the most important component and the area where The Simpsons truly found its legs: emotional resonance.

The show offered a unique take on, not just its characters, but the American family as a whole. “The Simpsons are the American family at its most complicated, drawn as simple cartoons. It’s this neat paradox that makes millions of people…concentrate on The Simpsons (Tucker).

Along with this new approach to the family dynamic, The Simpsons was among the first shows to parody aspects of society as a whole. Never before had a show so poignantly parodied serious issues including corrupt media and politicians, religious restrictions, environmental issues and more. Premiering during the end of the cold war and written and conceived by a generation that came of age during Watergate, the show seemed to flagship a new attitude and therefore new sense of humor into the public conscious and the show’s success and quality made it impossible to ignore. A disdainful remark about the show by President George Bush during his 1992 presidential campaign is often cited as a major detriment to his popularity in that election which he would eventually lose. “People who enjoyed the show didn’t want to be told that they were watching something bad or stupid, or something bad for their kids” (Griffiths). Almost symbolically Bush had compared The Simpsons disfavorably to fictional TV family The Waltons, insisting American families aspire to be more like the latter. Audiences disagreed. The show’s ratings and reviews soared while sitcoms like The Waltons fell to the wayside and Bush lost the election.

Despite having produced over 500 episodes over twenty-three seasons, The Simpsons continues to be one of the highest rated  (Bibel) and most critically acclaimed shows on television. It is still regularly nominated for major awards including the Emmys (Outstanding Animate Program 2011), the Annie Awards (Annie Awards: Legacy – 35th Annual Annie Awards) and the Peabody Awards (George Foster Peabody Award Winners) in categories including writing, voice-acting, animation and others. It holds the Guiness World Records for Longest Running Sitcom by episode count, Most Emmy Awards won for an Animated TV Series and the longest running animated TV series to name a few (20 Years of The Simpsons). The show redefined the genre as it dominated it and its influence is acknowledged by everyone from guy-comedy guru Seth Rogen (D’oh! Seth Rogen write a Simpsons Episode) to female-comedy connoisseur Tina Fey (West).

Though it’s difficult for the show to seem very fresh after more than twenty years on the air, The Simpsons continues to deliver its unique brand of clever and subversive humor successfully and maintains a place among the top tier competitors it helped inspire in the worlds of comedy and animation. It is the greatest show ever made and if you disagree, you can eat my shorts.

Works Cited

“Annie Awards: Legacy – 35th Annual Annie Awards.” The 39th Annual Annie Awards: Animation’s Highest Honor. Web. 29 Apr. 2012. <http://annieawards.org/35thwinners.html>.

“Ay, caramba, The Simpsons turns 500.” http://za.news.yahoo.com. Daily Maverick, 22 Feb. 2012. Web. 4 Mar. 2012. <http://za.news.yahoo.com/ay-caramba-simpsons-turns-500-225448438.html>.

Bibel, Sara. “Sunday Final Ratings: ‘Once Upon a Time,’ ‘Amazing Race,’ ‘Celebrity Apprentice,’ ‘Cleveland’ Adjusted Up; ‘Harry’s Law,’ ‘GCB’ Adjusted Down.” 01 May 2012. Web. 01 May 2012. <http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/2012/05/01/sunday-final-ratings-once-upon-a-time-amazing-race-celebrity-apprentice-cleveland-adjusted-up-harrys-law-gcb-adjusted-down/131436/>.

“ClassicTVHits.com: TV Ratings 1980’s.” Classic TV & Movie Hits. Web. 29 Apr. 2012. <http://classictvhits.com/tvratings/1989.htm>

“D’oh! Seth Rogen Writes a Simpsons Episode.” TODAY.com. 28 Sept. 2009. Web. 01 May 2012. <http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/33027622/ns/today-entertainment/t/doh-seth-rogen-writes-simpsons-episode/>.

“Edith’s 50th Birthday” All in the Family. Bob Schiller, Bob Weiskopf. Paul Bogart.
CBS. 16 Oct 1977. Paramount. 1977. DVD.

“Forget Me Now” Arrested Development. Tom Saunders, Karey Dornetto. John Amodeo. Fox. 03 Oct 2005. 20th Century Fox. 2005. DVD.

“George Foster Peabody Award Winners” (PDF). Peabody.uga.edu. Retrieved 2012-04-29.

Griffiths, Nick. “America’s First Family.” The Simpsons Archive: “” The Times Magazine, 15 Apr. 2000. Web. 29 Apr 2012. <http://snpp.com/other/articles/firstfamily.html>.

“Judging Books by Covers” All in the Family. Norman Lear, Burt Styler. John Rich.
CBS. 09 Feb 1971. Paramount. 1971. DVD.

Miller, Kirstyn. “Sitcom Satire at its Finest.” http://www.snpp.com.Web. 3 Apr. 2012. <http://www.snpp.com/other/papers/km.paper.html>

Ott, Brian L., and Robert L. Mack. “Rhetorical Analysis.” Critical Media Studies: An Introduction. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 110. Print.

Outstanding Animated Program 2011.” Primetime Emmy Awards Nominations for 2011. Web. 29 Apr. 2012. <http://www.emmys.com/nominations/2011/Outstanding%20Animated%20Program>.

“Ricky Gervais on The Culture Show.” YouTube.com. 29 Aug 2007. 05 Mar 2012 <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXuSVqiFmN4>

“Sammy’s Visit” All in the Family. Bill Dana. John Rich. CBS. 19 Feb 1972. Paramount. 1972. DVD.

Strong, Rider. “The Resistable Rise of the Mockumentary.” moviefone.com. 31 Jan 2012. Web. 12 Mar. 2012. <http://news.moviefone.com/rider-strong/mockumentary-films_b_1245505.html>.

Sayles, Ron. Old-Time Radio Digest, Volume 2009, number 51. 12 Mar 2012.

Tucker, Ken. “Tv Review: The Simpsons.” Www.ew.com. Entertainment Weekly, 18 May 1990. Web. 29 Apr. 2012. <http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,317389,00.html>.

“20 Years of The Simpsons.” Guinness World Records. Web. 01 May 2012. <http://community.guinnessworldrecords.com/_20-Years-of-The-Simpsons/blog/1711773/7691.html>.

West, Kelly. “Interview: Tina Fey Talks About 30 Rock (Part 2).” CinemaBlend.com: Entertainment News and Opinions You Can Trust. Cinema Blend, 10 Apr. 2008. Web. 02 May 2012. <http://www.cinemablend.com/television/Interview-Tina-Fey-Talks-About-30-Rock-Part-2-9724.html>.

Sex, Laughs, and Idiots: Thirty-Eight Years of (not so) Presidential Impersonations on SNL

by Lauren Piester

“Good evening.”
“Good evening.”
“Good evening.”
“Good evening. Good evening.”
“Let us begin.”

On October 11, 1975, Saturday Night Live entered the television landscape and public consciousness with that exchange. A heavily accented John Belushi repeats after the stately Michael O’Donaghue: “I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines,” and “I’m afraid we are out of badgers. Would you accept a wolverine in its place?” Eventually, O’Donaghue’s character seems to suffer a heart attack and falls out of his chair. Belushi’s character, believing this is still part of the exercise, does the same. Chevy Chase comes onstage, smiles, and shouts the now famous opening line: “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!”

With that, a phenomenon was born, although maybe it’s a phenomenon that is not best represented with that first skit, which makes almost as much sense on paper as it does on screen. Regardless, Saturday Night Live went on to become a staple of American comedy and late night television. It has stayed with us through many ups and downs, with its main goal being to make us laugh even if there’s not a lot of reason to. The show has evolved with the country over the years, taking on major events with little grace but with a lot of courageous gusto. In effect, it has acted as a continuously updating timeline for shifts in our nation’s sensibilities and sense of humor ever since its premiere.

There are some skits that can be used to define certain decades of the show, based on their relevancy to current events. Throughout most of SNL’s history, these skits tend to be fairly political. While the first two seasons of Saturday Night Live were a little unsure of themselves and hadn’t yet found the style that the show would keep to for the next thirty-four years. They did set the tone for the presidential impressions and endless political jokes that the show would go on to become extremely well known for.

At the time of SNL’s premiere in 1975, American politics were still reeling from Watergate, and the American public was angry at Gerald Ford, Nixon’s successor, for pardoning the disgraced former President so quickly. Much of the country’s youth was very much anti-government. Young people were all about the counter-culture and alternatives to the mainstream, going against “the man,” and Saturday Night Live was developed to be a voice for that generation. It makes sense that the voice of the anti-establishment would want to make jokes at the expense of the establishment. Chevy Chase’s seemingly gentle ribbing of president Gerald Ford began with the first episode of Saturday Night Live as a joke on the very first Weekend Update:

“Dateline: Washington. At a press conference Thursday night, President Ford blew his nose. Alert Secret Service agents seized his handkerchief and wrestled it to the ground.”

This joke led the way for many more like it that almost always concluded with the Secret Service wrestling something harmless to the ground. It wasn’t until the cold open of the fourth episode, hosted by Candice Bergen, that Chevy Chase began to actually play Ford. What Chase actually played was less of an impression of Ford and more of an invented character of an endearingly dense klutz who happened to be President, but that didn’t matter. Maybe Chase didn’t look like Ford or talk like him, but by simply saying he was Ford, his “impression” was immediately equated in many minds with the man himself. The recurring character of Gerald Ford was an outright idiot who tripped over everything and believed his stuffed dog was pregnant. The basis for the character began with a misstep the President made as he exited Air Force One upon his arrival in Austria. The President was on his way to a meeting with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat on June 1, 1975. As he got off the plane, he fell down several stairs. He quickly got up and even made a joke to the Austrian chancellor who was there to greet him, but of course, the cameras only recorded the fall. Saturday Night Live premiered four months later, and Ford never even had a chance (Horner 2009). All that was needed at the time was an idea of Ford, not an exact replica. Chase didn’t have to look like him or sound like him, but people accepted and embraced it. His portrayal was all critique and very little mimicry. Chase’s full intention was to convince people that Ford did not belong to be President, and the White House soon realized that it was going to have to do some damage control.

SNL was new territory for a lot of people when it premiered. It was, of course, not the first sketch comedy show. It came in on the heels of Laugh In, but was a little more risqué and a lot more political.  As the show started to make fun of political and media figures, those figures had to figure out if and how they should respond. In 1976, the White House responded by allowing press secretary Ron Nessen to host the April 17 episode, which also featured pre-recorded clips of Ford himself. This episode marked the first of many appearances on the show by political figures, even though it was generally considered a huge mistake on Nessen’s part. Even by SNL’s standards today, many of the skits were quite raunchy. Despite the fact that Nessen had planned to help Ford’s image by appearing on the same show that was damaging it, many believe it did just the opposite. A clip of Ford saying “I’m Gerald Ford and you’re not,” was used as part of a joke about his supposed identity crisis. Nessen appeared as himself alongside Chase as Ford at arguably his clumsiest yet. Nessen’s soft-spoken monologue lamented how often challenging it is to be the press secretary for a president like Ford.

One skit poked fun at a proposed bill to outlaw sodomy by having the Supreme Court watch over an intimate couple and inform them when they were engaging in something illegal. Another skit featured various cast members trying to sell horribly inappropriately- named jam. Larraine Newman did a piece on “presidential erections” on Weekend Update while Chase made more Secret Service jokes. A short film featured a group of men singing at urinals and Nessen made jokes about Oedipus Rex and bestiality in two skits entitled “Press Secretaries Through History.” The episode was absolutely riddled with jokes about Richard Nixon, his press secretary (also named Ron) and Ford’s connections to the former President. At a time when “appropriate” television was a big concern, NBC’s censors largely paid no attention to the episode since they thought the Ford and his press secretary knew what they were doing (Horner 2009).

Some people gave credit to Chevy Chase, Saturday Night Live, and Ron Nessen for helping Gerald Ford lose the 1976 election. Others didn’t see how a late night comedy show could have an effect on real-life politics. In his essay “The First Saturday Night: Saturday Night Live and Gerald Ford,” William Horner sees a different significance altogether in Nessen and Ford’s appearances.

“Ford did not, in fact, do anything to defuse his bumbling image, but by inviting Ford and Nessen to appear on their show, Michaels and the rest of the Saturday Night staff started something that has become a major theme in the study of politics and the media. What was once edgy and anti-establishment has become part of the mainstream (20).”

Regardless of how he appeared on the show, President Gerald Ford still made an appearance and his press secretary hosted the entire episode, proving that at least somebody in the White House approved of what Saturday Night Live was doing. The fact that “the man” approved of the show could have made it less appealing to its demographic of young adults after not even one entire season, but instead it fused mainstream with hip and edgy programming, providing a small preview of what was to come in the eighties across every form of media.

The decade of Reaganomics and MTV got off to a rocky start for Saturday Night Live. The entire cast was replaced after the ’79-80 season and the show was without its creator and producer, Lorne Michaels, from ’80 through ’85. These seasons are widely agreed upon as the show’s worst, and when Michaels returned, he had his work cut out for him. The show had taken a ratings dive and needed to be revamped for a new decade and a new generation. The people the show had originally been aimed at were now ten years older and no longer fit into the ideal television demographic of 20 years and younger, and the show had to adapt to bring in these younger viewers. In a 1985 New York Times article (Bennetts, 1985), Lorne Michaels is quoted as saying, “’What I did was to say, ‘Is this a 70’s show that came of age as an expression of the counterculture movement, or is this a form that any generation could find a use for?” The show had been developed as an alternative to the typical ‘70’s TV show, an argument against mainstream culture, and it had fit in perfectly with the attitude of many young people at the time. In ten years, tastes had begun to change. What used to be anti-establishment was now passé, and SNL needed to catch up.

One interesting thing about the show’s continuing transformation throughout the eighties is a lack of any commitment to political critique. Ronald Reagan was president for eight years, and only a small handful of political sketches had any staying power. Michaels claimed that the public liked Reagan enough that there wasn’t much to do in terms of impersonating him. This is a puzzling excuse because Reagan was “unpopular and controversial in his first years in office, notoriously disengaged with the details of politics, and then became embroiled in two serious scandals later in his administration” (Jones 2009). It seemed that instead of trying to turn SNL back into the voice of the rebellious youth, Michaels was driving the show further into the mainstream by not engaging in serious criticism of politics. Instead of provoking, the show would just amuse.

Towards the end of the decade, Dana Carvey debuted his impression of George H. W. Bush, but it was just that – an impression. He mimicked the President perfectly, drawing humor from the way Bush spoke, rather than what he spoke about. His actual politics didn’t enter into the equation, and he was flattered. Bush used Carvey as White House entertainment and regularly imitated the imitation. Carvey wasn’t doing anything that threatened the public’s view of Bush’s presidency, so he took no issue with it. Bush also regularly brought up other SNL skits, like one that portrayed the press as either “fools or traitors,” in speeches and in response to questions from the press that he didn’t want to answer (Compton 2010). Bush felt that Saturday Night Live was on his side and he used it as much as he could, sometimes to get a laugh or sometimes just to prove that he was playing along (Jones 2009).

Few events over the past nearly four decades have seemed more tailor-made for SNL than the Monica Lewinsky scandal of the late nineties. Darrell Hammond and his pitch-perfect Bill Clinton impersonation hadn’t quite broached Clinton’s politics or policies and had instead focused more on portraying the President as an overconfident, sexed-up frat boy who couldn’t keep his mouth (or his pants) shut. So, when it was revealed that the actual President had been engaging in an “improper relationship” with 22 year-old Monica Lewinsky, it was like the comedy gods had thrown a bone right into SNL’s lap. Many of the show’s best moments during that time had nothing to do with Hammond’s portrayal of Clinton, and instead featured Molly Shannon as Lewinsky and John Goodman as Linda Tripp. Saturday Night Live’s penchant for critiquing personality over policy worked perfectly with this story. This was the political atmosphere at the time – ridiculous. The media cared more about Lewinsky than actual politics, and SNL understood that. Lewinsky even made an appearance on the show, milking her “fame” for as long as possible while the Clintons just wanted her forgotten (Borger 1999).

The ridiculousness of the political climate continued through Clinton’s impeachment to the 2000 election, when neither candidate was particularly appealing in personality or in policy. Darrell Hammond, master impressionist, captured Al Gore’s robotic, boring persona to a T, while Will Ferrell took a slightly different approach to George W. Bush. He portrayed a very arrogant George W. Bush with no real brains who just made everything up and tried to pass it off as if everyone else was dumb. Neither candidate seemed that great in real life, and neither candidate seemed that great on the SNL stage either. What the Saturday Night Live portrayals did was help point out to America the state of its politics: the last President was impeached for an affair, and this was now all there was to choose from (Jones,2009).

The show’s political impressions got a huge boost in just before the 2008 election on both sides. Fred Armisen, despite being Venezuelan, German, and Japanese and not African American, took on the role of Barack Obama fairly well, but the comedy gods threw another, less innuendo-filled bone to the show when Republican Presidential candidate John McCain chose Alaska’s cutesy bespectacled “soccer mom” of a governor as his running mate. It wasn’t just Sarah Palin’s accent, her penchant for guns or her unusual word-usage that made her so perfect for the program; it was, in fact, her uncanny resemblance to previous head-writer and cast member Tina Fey. Fey returned to SNL on September 13, 2008 and she, as Palin, along with Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton, opened the show with “A Non-Partisan Message from Governor Sarah Palin and Senator Hillary Clinton.” The skit’s premise was that Palin and Clinton were holding a press conference to talk about their roles as women in politics. Poehler played Clinton as “an intelligent political figure with sufficient experience” (Breshnahan 2009). Fey played Palin with a gleam in her eye and not a care in the world.

What was most interesting about the skit, and the subsequent skits that followed, was how little truly had to be invented about the character of Sarah Palin in order to make her worthy of comedy. In “Parodying Palin: How Tina Fey’s Visual and Verbal Impersonations Revived a Comedy Show and Impacted the 2008 Election,” Flowers and Young (2010) detail how direct quotes were taken from various speeches and interviews with Sarah Palin and just slightly rephrased for the purposes of the Tina Fey character. Even the now famous and oft-quoted line “I can see Russia from my house!” isn’t too far off from an actual quote about how much foreign policy experience Palin has due to Russia’s proximity to Alaska. When traits and quotes are compared side by side, the character in general isn’t too far off from the actual Sarah Palin. In fact, the Tina Fey character may actually be more likable than the real life woman, even though the portrayal has mostly been referred to as a rather negative one and could be described as “an unsophisticated, unworldly, inexperienced state politician, talking about subjects beyond her depth of knowledge—and even one who is undereducated with a poor grasp of basic grammar” (Flowers & Young 2010). Palin’s voice, body language, hand gestures, facial expressions, and very distinct manner of speaking were perfectly captured and just slightly exaggerated, but Fey also provided a little of her own charm to the character, and the ignorance and lack of experience became endearing, perhaps even worthy of a little sympathy. She became likable in terms of not being a serious political threat, but at the same time, it became more and more apparent to many viewers that this was not a person fit to be Vice President.

While the sketch, as written, was funny in itself, it almost didn’t matter. Fey is a fine impressionist, but in playing Palin she went above and beyond to truly embody the governor in such a way that almost completely blended the impression with the image of the actual Sarah Palin. The two became nearly indistinguishable in the minds of a lot of viewers and voters (Flowers and Young, 2010).

Palin was unperturbed by the mockery enough to appear on SNL herself, as a guest on “Weekend Update.” She didn’t do much except pretend to refuse to rap, which the very pregnant Amy Poehler did in her place, while Palin bobbed her head along to the music. It was an attempt to show that she was a good sport, but also provided more fodder for the show and its viewers as Palin seemed to be supporting the fictionalized image of her. She helped to prove to the world how unfit she was for the Vice Presidency. McCain lost the election, and many believed that his choice of Palin, and Fey’s subsequent portrayal of her, did a great deal to help him clench that loss. Sarah Palin resigned as governor and developed her own reality show (which was canceled after one season), while her teenage daughter had a baby before becoming a contestant on Dancing with the Stars. The baby’s father posed for Playgirl. It’s as if the Palin clan turned into a real-life SNL skit all on its own.

It’s true that Saturday Night Live has come to rely on simple – but very good – character impersonations rather than serious critiques of politics, but as in Sarah Palin’s case, that is sometimes all that is necessary. Palin could technically be called a politician, but for all intents and purposes, she is a celebrity. All it took was an exaggeration of her flaws and mannerisms, in a similar fashion to how SNL portrays actors, actresses and reality stars like Kim Kardashian, to illustrate her lack of experience and necessary worldly knowledge. While the personalities involved in the 2012 election aren’t quite as big, the approach to the impressions is fairly similar. However, for the show’s 38th season, the overused and ethnically underqualified Fred Armisen passed the job of Obama on to the African American who had previously remained in the background Jay Pharoah. Pharoah could easily be called a world class impressionist, and his Obama is nearly perfect. In Sarah Palin’s case, her personality alone provided enough material for comedic criticism. For Obama, Pharoah seems to focus primarily on neither his personality nor his politics, but more on the shortcomings of the other side.

Jason Sudeikis’ Mitt Romney and Joe Biden impressions are less perfect and far more exaggerated, while Taran Killam’s Paul Ryan seems intentionally more rodent-like than the man himself (evidenced by a recent skit in which he drank from an upside down water bottle usually meant for hamsters). At this point, it’s still too early to tell where this election season will fall in terms of the breadth of Saturday Night Live politics. So far, you could say it’s no 2008, but it’s not the eighties, either. Politics and political impressions remain at the forefront of the show, even without Sarah Palin and Tina Fey.

Over the years, Saturday Night Live has gone through some rough patches and has, at times, struggled to provide the political humor that many have come to want from the show. However, it seems that at least in terms of its politics, either SNL has finally figured out how to balance true mimicry with actual critique or it’s just an indication of the unfortunate types of people in charge in today’s climate. Either way, after more than thirty-seven long years, the show still provides an accurate representation of today’s America and today’s American sense of humor, particularly with regards to the guys running the place.

Works Cited

Bennetts, Leslie. “Struggles at the New “Saturday Night.” New York Times. 12 Dec. 1985.General OneFile. Web. 3 May. 2011.

Borger, Gloria. “Didn’t we make a deal?.” U.S. News & World Report. 126.20 (1999): 32. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 3 May 2011.

Cader, Michael. Saturday Night Live the First Twenty Years. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994. Print.

Compton, Josh. “Live From DC: Saturday Night Live Political Parody References in Presidential Rhetoric.”Conference Papers — International Communication Association (2010): 1. Communication & Mass Media Complete. EBSCO. Web. 3 May 2011.

Flowers, Arhlene A., and Cory L. Young. “Parodying Palin: How Tina Fey’s Visual and Verbal Impersonations Revived a Comedy Show and Impacted the 2008 Election.” Journal of Visual Literacy 29.1 (2010): 47-67. Web.

Horner, William. “The First Saturday Night: Saturday Night Live and Gerald Ford.” Conference Papers — Midwestern Political Science Association (2009): 1. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 1 May 2011

Jones, Jeffrey P. “With All Due Respect: Saturday Night Live.Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-network Era. Eds. Gray, Jonathan, Jeffrey P. Jones, and Ethan Thompson. New York: NYU, 2009. 39-48. Print.

Shoemaker, Mike, and Scott Weinstein. SNL Presents: the Clinton Years. New York: TV, 1999. Print.

Comedy and Humor

by Vassia Mastrogianni

Even though comedy has a specific style in the television industry, sense of humor differentiates according to cultural background. Through an investigation of students who are originally from countries outside the United States, it became evident that sense of humor, comedy, and laughter are elements connected with a culture’s ideology and background such as political views, historical background, wars, and domestic and international policies.

In several articles and scholarly papers that examine the cultural connection between countries around the world, the idea of humor is always mentioned and analyzed. This phenomenon, however, is also seen in the medium of television. For instance, the American network Adult Swim contains material that is widely considered to be funny. Still, this is not always the case. In an interview that included ten students from European, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries, several television series, such as American Dad, Family Guy, Mr. Bean, and Friends were discussed. From a general perspective, ethics, personal background, political views, country of origin, personal preference, and domestic television programming were the factors that differentiated the responses. With these, but also several other factors of each interviewee’s personality, I gathered some information about how differently viewers interpret the medium of television. Nevertheless, it is important to first mention and analyze a significant theory or ideology that can deeply clarify how or why the sense of humor of an individual changes throughout the world.

In more detail, throughout the last decades globalization seems to have affected several aspects of the world in several ways, such as politics, trade, history, music and film. Yet, the television industry and the internet might be characterized as the two factors that deeply and consistently influence the world. The phenomenon of globalization nowadays brings several parts of the world closer faster compared to the past. As a result, the effects of it can be seen respectively more often. For example, countries with an extreme geographic distance can connect to each other instantly through the effectiveness of globalization. An interviewee from Kazakhstan supported this effect of globalization by describing their early lives before the medium of Internet and by only watching domestic television programming. According to the Kazakhstani interviewee, “we used to have a poor programming, without many choices. Before the Internet I did not know shows like Saturday Night Live or Friends. Only after the creation of more private networks I had the chance to watch American television programming. It wasn’t always funny, but I loved Mr. Bean”.

According to a 2011 analysis by Robert O. Keel, the globalization theory “is defined as the spread of worldwide practices, relations, consciousness, and organization of social life.  Globalization theory emerged as the result of real world concerns with the dramatic transformations of globalization as well as a reaction against the earlier perspective of modernization theory.  Globalization can be analyzed culturally, economically, and politically.” In other words, several parts of the world throughout the years started sharing or exchanging ideas, customs and experiences. The meaning of globalization throughout the years is that worldwide openness brings the fundamental wealth of all nations. As a result, globalization does not necessarily refer only to political or economical sharing, but also to cultural. Therefore, globalization undoubtedly refers similarly to the media and the medium of television in particular.

In her article, Julia Seirlis refers that “comedy as a cultural indicator extends beyond the specifics of geographical, historical, linguistic, or prosopographic references” (2). The writer, through analysis, explains how comedy is viewed and understood in Johannesburg, South Africa before and after the establishment of democracy. Throughout the article the reader comes to understand an earlier statement that was pointed out in this paper – the sense of humor differs. People of several standards create humor and make jokes that refer to their own life, personal struggle or happiness and they express their feelings through that way towards others. However, it is clear that since an individual has a unique personality and point of view, not every part of a society is able to follow what is said.

Furthermore, when it comes to American comedy shows and television programming, non-American viewers do not necessarily find comedians and their jokes funny. Popular comedians, such as Louis C.K., Conan O’ Brien and Daniel Tosh were discussed in the meeting and each interviewee gave a different approach. For the Qatari interviewee, the three comedians were unknown. She had never seen any episode or video featuring them online and she could not participate in the discussion. That incident alone verifies when the theory of globalization exists and when it does not; the Qatari and Kazakhstani interviewees had never watched the three comedians before and more specifically the Kazakhstani interviewee started watching after moving to the United States for studies. The interviewees from Greece and Spain were only familiar with Conan O’ Brien before moving to the United States. However they specified that they “became familiar with C.K. and Tosh after a couple of months.” Surprisingly enough, due to geographic distance, the Chinese and Egyptian interviewees were familiar with Conan O’ Brien as well. According to them “internet and global networks” were the reasons why. When the interviewees were asked if those three comedians are funny enough for their personal taste, most of them replied in a positive way. Conversely, a Greek and the Egyptian interviewee found Louis C.K. and Daniel Tosh jokes overreacting and exaggerating. In more detail, the Greek female interviewee responded, “ some videos are more racist than funny, I believe that they cross the limits sometimes.”

The interviewees were then asked to point out some American and non-American comedy shows of their personal preference, some of which were: Friends, Monk, Mr. Bean, Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, Family Guy, American Dad, South Park, Seinfeld, The Office, and The Simpsons. Most shows listed by the interviewees were originally American except the British The Office. None, however, knew that The Office was originally a British sitcom. Shows such as Family Guy and The Simpsons are accurate shows/examples that illustrate the difference or appreciation of joking. More specifically, these two shows among others were discussed in the meeting. The discussion within the interviewees led to the indication and verification of the effectiveness of the globalization theory as well as the difference and uniqueness of each culture. The Asian interviewees responded that the two shows are offensive towards their own culture, since “the shows often portray Asian women as reckless and unwise.” However, a completely opposite respond came from the Greek and Spanish interviewees that characterized the shows as “hilarious”, “smart” or “extremely funny.”

In his online article, Ronald Hilton refers to globalization and sense of humor by saying:

“Some people might like to call social globalization Americanization. The English and Americans have a shared sense of humor as shown in the shared popularity of Gilbert and Sullivan. The Spaniards have a good sense of humor, but not the Russians. The Jews do, but the Muslims seem not to. A whole field has opened up: the sociology of laughter. Laughter is spreading, which is a good thing.”

Furthermore, Joel Stein states in his article How Everybody Loves Raymond Plays in Moscow that “almost none of the shows pulled in enough viewers to have a financial impact, American sitcoms don’t play very well outside the United States.” According to Stein’s article it is so “largely because different cultures have very different senses of humor.” The sense of humor therefore varies throughout the cultures. It is the family or personal background, life experience, maturity and mentality that develop the sense of humor of an individual.

In order to receive more personal views and information from my interviewees about their perception upon sense of humor, joking, American comedy and the American television industry as a whole, I decided to interview one at the time. The Kazakhstani interviewee instantly referred to Mr. Bean when asked about his favorite comedy series. Moreover, the interviewee referred to his personal television preferences and explained why he particularly liked it by saying “ it is one of the most unusual sitcoms I have ever watched, in my country nothing was like this show”. Besides, the interviewee clarified that it was “the minimum dialogue and Mr. Bean’s uniqueness” that surprised him and his family the most. Likewise, the British interviewee stated that this particular show was a hit for years in England and in several parts of Europe as well and she truly enjoyed watching it. The British interviewee also clarified that the widely known, in its American version, The Office was mostly a disaster in her own country by saying “ it was a series that nobody talked about, it was not bad but it did not have anything special; I enjoy the American version better.”

American sense of humor and American television are viewed and appreciated differently in other parts of the world. Globalization theory, as already mentioned, consists of several aspects that among others include politics. The American jokes or the American approach differs in countries such as Middle East. In order to secure and create a certain profile in Middle East after September 11th, the US government created a network called al-Hurra, or according to journalist Craig Whitlock “The Free One”. Moreover, according to Whitlock’s article, the al-Hurra network “is the centerpiece of a U.S. government campaign to spread democracy in the Middle East” however the local people describe this American effort as a misunderstood and untrusted move since the network “is widely regarded as a flop in the Arab world, where it has struggled to attract viewers and overcome skepticism about its mission” (Witlock). The al-Hurra network is a precise example to understand how differently people appreciate the American television, the medium of television in a general perspective, but it also confirms the combination of the television medium and the globalization theory. In his article, Whitlock demonstrates several reasons for the network’s failure by stating “ the U.S. government miscalculated in assuming that al-Hurra could repeat the success of Radio Free Europe during the Cold War, when information-starved listeners behind the Iron Curtain tuned in on their shortwave radios” and by implying that successful methods for television programming do not exist and every region and country is exceptional.

The Qatari interviewee mentioned the al-Hurra network by saying “only a few people watch it in Doha, I do not know any but some do. However, it is nothing like American television they even make mistakes on air.” She talked about the American Television Industry with excitement and appreciation. Her first reaction when asked about her favorite American television sitcom or series was “30 Rock, The Office, X Factor and American Idol, America’s next Top Model and How I Met Your Mother.” It is noteworthy to mention that the Qatari interviewee did not have access to these shows while living in her country of origin. She started watching American television just after she began her college studies in United Kingdom.

Nationality and humor are often combined in American comedy shows or television series that mostly emphasize cultural differences, distinctions or worldwide known events. Other audiences, rather than the American audience, often watch American television series. According to the Spanish interviewee “nationality or current events are often mentioned or included in stand-up comedies or other popular American shows and series and they have an effect, one classic weekly show that I always watch is Saturday Night Live. I even remember that the Greek crisis was also portrayed in an episode of Saturday Night Live in which actors were making jokes while dressed as Greek gods.” Subsequently, a form of a show created by either producers or comedians, in whom nationality and ethics are used in various ways, generates tension or misunderstanding between audiences that represent each culture.

The tendency of exporting American television series to European countries, Middle East or Asia is significantly large for several decades. One of the two Greek interviewees, from Thessaloniki, Greece referred to old Latin- American drama series like Esmeralda and Maria from the 90s or American comedy ones, like Friends and Seinfeld. This tendency of exporting is also referred in the article by Giselinde Kuipers that mainly focuses and analyses the role and position of television buyers and the import of American television series in four European countries: France, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland. Throughout her introduction, Kuipers discusses the meaning and effect of humor in cultures. “ Humor, indeed, is very strongly linked to culture and group boundaries. For migrants developing a feeling for the local sense of humor often is one of the last steps in fitting in and feeling at home” (Kuipers, 2). Furthermore, Kuipers adds that according to television executives “the most striking example of the translatability of humor is American television comedy” (2).

Kuipers analyzes each country’s imports from American television material. It is noteworthy to mention that the Netherlands is most open to American import, whereas France is the extremely opposite. The latter, uses a “very active protectionist policy” and also “a marked and often government-approved anti-Americanism” policy (Kuipers, 4). Even though Italy is more reliant on American imports the imported programs are not only dubbed but also modified; in other words “strong language, nudity, homosexuality and non-positive references to Christianity are often edited out” (Kuipers, 5). Finally, Poland did not use to air much American programming until the end of the communism administration in 1989. However, nowadays Polish networks “favor remakes”. Throughout the last decade, by mainly “using the voice- over as the translation system, several remakes are made about the classic and popular American comedy series Married…with Children, Man about the house, The Honeymooners, and The Nanny” (Kuipers, 5).

Even if the American television industry is undoubtedly powerful, the British industry happens to be truly important as well. In his article, Jonathan Bignell deeply analyses the power of British television programming. In more detail, it is widely known that series as The Office, Strictly Come Dancing (generally known as Dancing With The Stars), and Pop Idol are some of the most popular programs that were officially made and aired first in the United Kingdom. According to Bignell, “the critical discourses of television study have negotiated a complex understanding of American programs. But for British and other European theorists, what is evident here is not the teleological progress of US media hegemony, but the unevenness of the impact of different genres of US television and their contestation in specific contexts” (Bignell, 186).

In his online article, Steward Lee, comedian, described his trip to Germany as an English visitor. He explained his experience and misinterpret of the German sense of humor by helping composer Richard Thomas to develop a stand up comedy show in Hanover, Germany. In order to explain the German sense of humor Lee briefly tells a joke about a German boy who talked for the first time when he turned 17, just to tell to his mother “this soup is a little tepid.” The boy replied to his mother, who was astonished, that the reason that he had never spoken was that “up until now, everything has been satisfactory” (Lee, “Lost in Translation”). By telling that joke, Lee tries to indicate how differently Germans perceive joking comparing to English or Americans. He precisely states that “the implication of this fabulous joke is that the Germans are ruthlessly rational, and this assumption leaves us little room to imagine them finding time to be playful. But be assured, the German sense of humor not only exists, it actually flourishes, albeit in a form we are ill-equipped to recognize” (Lee).

Consequently, even if the American Television industry is a major part of the global television industry nowadays, it should not be seen as a way of separating or dividing cultures. It is only a part of globalization theory that creates a gap between cultures, mainly caused by marketing policies, politics, history, the press and domestic or international journalism. However, the theory of globalization simultaneously combines cultures. As a result, even if an individual appreciates the sense of humor and laughter differently, it is globalization theory that makes the sense of humor of that individual to go beyond the borders of his country.

Works Cited

Bignell, Jonathan.  Journal of Literary Theory (18625290), Dec2010, Vol. 4 Issue 2, p181-198

Hilton, Ronald. “Globalization: The Sociology of Humor And Laughter”

Kuipers, Giselinde. Comedy and Hegemony: Television Buyers and the Import of American comedy in four European Countries. 2008, p 20.

Mills, Brett. Television Comedy as an invented tradition. No. 134, Feb 2010: 64-73.

Lee, Steward. “Lost In Translation” The Guardian, 22 May 2006.

Seirlis, Julia Katherine. Laughing all the way to freedom? : Contemporary stand-up comedy and democracy in South Africa. 2011, Vol. 24 Issue 4, p513-530.

Stein, Joel. How Everybody Loves Raymond Plays in Moscow.  May 5, 2011.  <http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/11_20/b4228077681906.htm>