Category Archives: More comedy!

Live From New York: The Ladies of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE!

by Naomi Penner

“My dream for the future is that sketch comedy shows become a gender-blind meritocracy of whoever is the funniest.”
–Tina Fey in her memoir, BossyPants (2011)
Saturday Night Live is not entirely a boy’s club. Since debuting in 1975, SNL has featured an array of seriously funny ladies who have captured the hearts and souls of viewers across the nation. In this paper, I will discuss the role of Saturday Night Lives’ female cast members from the 1970s to the 2000s (approx. 2000-2008), answering the question: “How did women influence Saturday Night Live throughout its history?” I will first also look at how women are depicted in television in my discussion on how women have impacted television and the media since the emergence of the Feminist Movement in the 1970s, not just as actresses or comedians, but also as producers and writers. I will look at women not only from the cast and crew of SNL, but from other television shows and media sources. I will then describe the history and influence of SNL on society, culture, and television; how the show impacted what could be said on television regarding race, gender, and politics, paving the way not just for late night, but prime time television as well. Saturday Night Live successfully became part of the counterculture, targeted at a younger audience looking for a show that could successfully voice their opinion, which I will also explain. Another topic I will explore is the portrayal of women in Saturday Night Live in parallel to the portrayal of women in society from a feminist perspective, looking at how feminist humor has influenced these depictions. In doing so, I will look at a few characters performed by Gilda Radner and Cheri Oteri. Finally, I will describe one specific example of how a female cast member has contributed to and impacted the show as well as society: Tina Fey’s impersonation of Governor Sarah Palin. Tina Fey herself has been a huge celebrity to come from Saturday Night Live, and the best example of a female figure who is significant in the realm of comedy, television, and film.
Throughout history, women have been treated as the lesser sex not capable of doing what men can do. However, time and time again, they’ve proven themselves to be just as capable, if not even better. Up until the emergence of Saturday Night Live, women in television generally played very passive, submissive, and traditional roles, this depiction as the lesser sex represented. In comedy, they are perhaps looked down upon even worse. The women of SNLhave changed all that.
The media is an important place in learning about gender. Cultural expectations of masculinity and femininity are constantly repeated; validating what defines gender norms (Mittell 330). Viewers, therefore, adapt to them as part of their own behavior and ideals (Mittell 330). Prior to the 1970s, television defined femininity as a woman whose main priority was the home, her only duties domestic. Although I Love Lucy of the 1950s featured a female character that often disobeyed the orders of her husband, the husband still always got the last word. When the Mary Tyler Moore Show premiered, women no longer were chained to the home, instead becoming working professionals and living on their own without a man. However, because the tradition of a women’s only place being in the home, these females can sometimes be seen as overly masculine, as shown with Murphy Brown (late 1980s -1990s) (Mittell 333). Maude gave us an older woman who dealt with real life issues, some perhaps too provocative for their time. Maude, however, fit in with the socially relevant sitcom structure, and, like the Mary Tyler Moore Show, provided viewers with a strong female lead. Women are also frequently portrayed as being overly emotional, “soft” in news and political programs (Mittell 334), placed in roles that require sensitivity: mothers, wives, nurses, etc (Mittell 334). Too much emotion can equate to irrationality, which women are depicted as in real life and in television. I Dream of Jeannie is a perfect example of this, as well the stereotype that women lack in intelligence with Jeannie’s dumb blonde character (Mittell 336). The two most overused roles for women in the media are the passive female and the sexual object – the damsel in distress and the vixen. Women are over sexualized in music videos, commercials, and beyond. The Aaron Spelling hit of the 1970s, Charlie’s Angels, featured a band of women who were often objects of male desire, fighting crime in skimpy outfits. Today, women are sexual subjects who initiate relationships, Sex and the City is a prime example (Mittell 344).Before the 1970s, women worked way behind the scenes as publicists, casting agents, costume designers, and “script girls” in the entertainment industry (Kimball 61). Female producers and executives were very rare up until the 2000s, where there were hundreds (Kimball 61). This change in the industry resulted from the establishment of the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunities Commission) during the 1970s (Kimball 62). From 1970-2000, more women realized they had the power to make films, to study the arts and transform it with a woman’s point of view (Kimball 62). Lindsay Law, executive producer, says, “Women dig deeper into themselves, both in what they bring to the project and the subject matter. Women seem to make things they care about as opposed to ‘I can sell this’” (Kimball 65).When it comes to comedy, women have surely come a long way. I would have never thought of the comedic world to be a place uninviting to women, but it turns out that it’s just as controlled by men as everything else. Humor is a difficult realm for women to break into (Maki 6). Historically speaking “women are not supposed to be funny in the first place” (Horowitz 133), but during the 1970s, at the peak of the women’s liberation movement, comedy for women really began to change its ways (Horowitz 144). A new style of women’s comedy emerged that was assertive, aggressive, and focused on “oppressiveness of the patriarchal culture” (Horowitz 144). Comedienne Caroline Hirsch states that “You didn’t really see women break out in comedy until the feminist movement made it possible for women to be considered funny without degrading themselves” (Horowitz 144). Being outside the norm – a minority, is funny in our society, and women fall under that category. Women’s comedy pushes past old restrictions, challenges any sexist assumptions, and allows women to claim power over men (Horowitz 7-8, 144). A woman that is funny is mentally strong and daring (Horowitz 8). She has intellect and wit, and admitting that a woman is funny means admitting she’s highly intellectual (Maki 6) – a threat for men. Men are sometimes scared of the woman wisecracker: a woman who we can laugh with while being the subject of humor, who has opinions, and who says whatever she thinks, feels, or wants to (Horowitz 133). Men don’t like a woman who can out do them, especially when it comes to making others laugh.

In August 1974, NBC president Herb Schlosser gave Dick Ebersol, a sports executive for ABC at the time, the task of creating a show based on traditional comedy-variety, but with a twist, and that was to close late-night Saturday television (Hilmes 201). Later that year, Ebersol met Lorne Michaels, a young, Canadian writer and comedian who had written for CBC’s Laugh-In during its first season in 1969 (Hilmes 201). Deciding to give Michaels a chance, Ebersol hired him for what was then NBC’s Saturday Night, housing Michaels and his late night show in Studio 8H, Rockefeller Center (Hilmes 202).

Thus Saturday Night Live began, and on October 11, 1975 the show debuted with George Carlin as the host and a cast referred to as the ‘Not So Ready For Prime Time Players’ (Hilmes 202). It was 100% live, distinctly New York, bringing back the vaudeville type shows of television’s Golden Age (Castleman and Podrazik 253). With its week-by-week format, the ‘Not So Ready For Prime Time Players’ were given the opportunity to develop distinct character types while featuring a guest host that worked with the cast and writers, as well as musical guests performing two to three songs for each show (Castleman and Podrazik 253). The show attracted the highest percentage of viewers than any other program on the air with its topical attacks on society and culture, political satire, and parodies of advertising, movies, and other cultural happenings. It was the equivalent to the Smothers Brothers of the 1960s, but late night, and free to discuss issues without controversy. It’s cutting edge style and approach to critiquing society appealed to this new found “television generation”, the young and intellectual 18-49 year olds (Hilmes 202).

Saturday Night Live presented an awareness of a willingness to comment on the world around it that was unlike any other show at the time (Hilmes 202). It helped satirical sketch comedy emerge as a dominant force and cultural touchstone for young audiences living in the 1970s (Mitell 293). The battles faced with NBC’s censors pushed the boundaries of what could be addressed with current events (Mitell 293), what could be said on television, and what could be depicted on screen.

One of the most significant cultural institutions of our time, deriving from Saturday Night Live, is the mock news segment Weekend Update. Weekend Update takes a direct stab at politics, social issues, and media (Hilmes 202). Shows such as John Stewart’s The Daily Show are able to thrive and exist (Reincheld 196) thanks to Weekend Update’s establishment as a fake news show for poking fun at serious issues and people. “The writers and producers who filled the segment each week were in position to have a great impact on the American social consciousness at an important time in the country’s history…Saturday Night Live was part of the counterculture, and those who anchored and wrote for the show viewed it as a way to voice an opinion about the world around them to a mass audience” (Reincheld 190-192). Thus, Weekend Update not just made people laugh, but made people learn, informing them of major news stories and people. Saturday Night Live was created during a turbulent time in American history, from the Vietnam War to Richard Nixon’s presidency, these events an influence on Lorne Michael’s “inclusion of a news parody on SNL” (Reincheld 192).

As mentioned, SNL pushed the boundaries of NBC’s censors. “Because of it’s 11:30 p.m. start, the show was able to get away with much more than average prime time shows, resulting in skits and jokes that were seen as shocking and sometimes outright racy” (Reincheld 194). In the season one episode hosted by African American comedian Richard Pryor, he and Chevy Chase act as interviewee and interviewer in a skit involving racial issues. Chase and Pryor engage in an association test that is turned into an exchange of racial insults and slurs; Pryor calling Chase names like “redneck”, “cracker”, and “honky”, Chase calling him a “tar baby”, “jungle bunny,” and “nigger”. Another specific Weekend Update moment occurred when Gilda Radner’s character Emily Latella, an old woman who would come on Weekend Update and comment on the wrong topic, did something that caused a big uproar with the censors: uttered the word “bitch” (Reincheld 195). Jane Curtain was the anchor of Weekend Update at the time, Latella calling her a bitch in response to Jane. Luckily, Lorne got away with it, thanks to a made up story regarding the context of the word: not “bitch” in the noun form, but “bitch” in the adverb form – like, she’s acting bitchy (Reincheld 195). Not only did this prove that SNL have a strong voice in television, but the women too. The show allowed more freedom in what could be said in skits, its efforts to push the limits allowing other television shows that freedom too (Reincheld 195).  Finally, what was being said on television reflected what was being said by people at home (Reincheld 195).

The show has also changed the way political campaigns are run (Reincheld 190). New York City’s former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, political activist Ralph Nader, and vice president Al Gore are examples of political figures who have appeared on the show (Reincheld 195-196). “At a correspondent’s dinner in Washington, D.C., Senator Eugene McCarthy told Michaels that the show and Update jokes made about senators was the first topic of conversation each Monday on the Senate Floor. Another sign of its importance was that political candidates started to turn to SNL to get attention for their campaigns” (Reincheld 195). In the most recent Presidential election, in 2008, Senator McCain and his vice presidential partner Sarah Palin appeared several times on the show, including Update. Tina Fey’s impersonation of Palin had a significant impact on viewers’ votes for president, which will be discussed later in my paper. “Likening Weekend Update to political cartoons, Michaels said, “ ’That’s a big part of how Americans define democracy’ “ (Reincheld 196).

For thirty years, the youth of America have been taught the news from a variety of anchors, at one point by two successful female cast members Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. They’ve also been educated on mainstream culture, society, and a range of other socially relevant topics. The cast and crew of Saturday Night Live have fulfilled a need in American society: to make viewers laugh while, most importantly, making them think.

For a woman to be funny, she usually has to play up existing “funny lady” stereotypes, like the dumb blonde, the bitch, the old woman, etc (Maki 3). It has to be something men can connect to, since, as I’ve mentioned, they control the industry. Humor, in a society so deeply into entertainment, provides the humorist with a certain power, a way to be successful amongst our culture and society. Saturday Night Live is “the most powerful cultural form in our history” (Maki 4). As I’ve discussed already, no other show on television has done a better job of portraying our society. Given that SNL has pushed so many boundaries and been so radical in so many ways, it is “well suited to push the line of feminist humor in a public and socially palatable way (Maki 5).

On and off camera, woman have played a vital role in the production of Saturday Night Live. Rosie Schuster, Anne Beatts, and Marilyn Suzanne Miller were some of the first writers, writing material that addressed issues women were experiencing, as well as issues of their own (Maki 5). These women created new ground for female humor, setting the standards for it on network television (Maki 5). They didn’t seem to care that they happened to be surrounded by boys, or being unfeminine or anti-woman through the material they were writing. Because by silencing a women’s humor, you silence her voice, her feminine, intellectual voice (Maki 7). And during a time when all women wanted was their voice to be heard, silencing it was more anti-feminine than anything else.

Feminist humor purposefully targets cultural structures (Maki 7), perfect for a show like SNL. It makes very clear that “the very absurdity of the culture’s views and expectations of women” making it clear that it’s not the women who are being ridiculous, or easy targets for ridicule, but their culture (Maki 7). Domesticity is a popular subject matter for feminist humor (Maki 7), unsurprising to me since it’s such a dominant role for a woman to be domestic. This traditional depiction is unquestionably still relevant in our society of soccer moms and celebrity housewives. Female comedic characters are more than likely to be at home than male characters, providing childcare, serving food, and performing household duties (Maki 8). I will discuss other portrayals later when I look at specific characters of Gilda Radner and Cheri Oteri.

It’s all about survival with feminist humor (Maki 8). Female humorists point out the cruelties, injustices, and incongruities of their culture, drawing them to the light (Maki 9). Identity is key to the structure and narrative (Maki 8). Language is a key tool in portraying these oppressions, using puns, irony, and sarcasm (Maki 8). Parody, satire, and skits are idyllic for presenting feminist humor, even better on television since it’s just a dominant form of entertainment (Maki 10). Again, Saturday Nigh Live is the perfect platform. A skit allows for parodies, for a woman to poke fun at herself (Maki 11). Sketch performances, which are comprised of skits, monologues, impersonations, and parodies, allow more freedom for women (Maki 11). They can create and recreate reality however they wish (Maki 11). Saturday Night Live allows for all of this.

Gilda Radner and Cheri Oteri neither developed strong television or movie careers post SNL, but were huge successes during their time on the show. The two are known for their physical talent as comedians and goofy characters. Gilda was a cast member during the first seasons of SNL in the 70s, Cheri during the 90s. Each played similar types of characters who portrayed certain archetypes. Archetypes span throughout history and culture, found in books, film, and television. They serve as “symbolic responses to shared human experiences”, therefore an agreeable form of feminist humor, something the audience can identify with even if the individual reinterprets it (Maki 14). The three archetypes I will be focusing are: the virgin, the vamp, and the crone. These, I feel, are the most recognizable and used the most. The virgin is defined as innocent and good, personified as a daughter, sister, or girl-next-door. The vamp is alluring and seductive, fatal to men. Finally, the crone is vengeful, a villain, aware that she can use her maternal role to get what she desires.

Radner and Oteri’s “virgin” characters are Judy Miller and Althea McMinnamen. Both are energetic, elementary school aged, very talkative, and with wild imaginations (Mika 16). Their environments and subject matter are, however, completely different. Judy’s playing is her pretending to be on her own TV show, playing characters that are mostly beautiful brides or princesses, sometimes evil queens (Maki 16). Radner fully commits to Judy as a child, her world never invaded by adults (Maki 17). On the other hand, Althea converses with a pilot, bringing up provocative topics like her brother’s one testicle and her aunt’s life partner (Maki 17). Judy is in a world of typical childhood fantasy, Althea a bit more “adult”, both interested in being grown up while remaining innocent (Maki 17).

The vamp characters are Gilda’s “Hey, You” girl and Oteri’s Adele (Maki 17). Radner is a girl in a commercial selling a fake perfume title “Hey, you”, a perfume for one-night stands (Maki 17-18). In the commercial she eyes a man across the bar, leaves with him, and wakes up the next morning disheveled and exiting his apartment (Maki 18). Adele works in an office, always trying to seduce her co-workers dressed in a tube top and skintight pants (Maki 18). Both “Hey, You” girl and Adele are focused on seducing a man; “Hey, You” girl uses her scent, Adele uses assertive come-ons (Maki 18). They represent the standard vamp – the enjoyment of casual sex and constant flirtation.

Emily Litella (Radner) and Rita Delvecchio (Oteri) reflect the crone archetype. I’ve mentioned Emily already in my paper, the woman who appears sweet on the outside, but tells us otherwise when she calls Jane Curtain a “bitch.” Rita is an elderly housewife confined to her home and her neighborhood (Maki 19). She is sarcastic to her neighbors, nasty, and not what you’d expect from an older woman. Both are passive aggressive – Emily more submissive and Rita very blunt (Maki 19). Emily is never apologetic and Rita is constantly putting her foot in her mouth (Maki 19). Both are very critical of the world around them.

Clearly, feminist humor is a part of Saturday Night Live, although quite subtle (Maki 20). While Oteri is a bit more “unruly” than Radner, both are “unruly” woman – “the woman who truly subverts the dominant order to present something counter, provocative, and thus uproariously funny” (Maki 20). Perhaps Cher Oteri’s unruliness is a reflection of society at the time. By the 90s, women had gained the freedoms they had fought for during the 70s, more comfortable in their sexuality and femininity. Looking back at the pop stars of the 90s, like Britney and Christina, it’s very clear that women were seen as more sexual beings. The more liberal the society, the more sexualized, and Oteri’s characters are a reflection of that. Women are still somewhat excluded from humor, still perceived as humorless, but rather than dig into an issue they can just “hike up their skirts, stick out their chests…” and ignore it (Maki 22). What it all comes down to is looks.

A counter-example of this is Ms. Tina Fey. She has made leaps and bounds for female comics and female humor, playing up her sexuality and femininity while, at the same time, mocking it. Saturday Night Live has been an important show for female comics because of the number of women who have attained stardom through it (Martin & Segrave 380), Fey being a prime example. Most recently have been in her depictions of Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin during the 2008 Presidential elections.

Not only did it do wonders for Fey, but put SNL back on the map as a “television landscape for political humor” (Flowers & Young 48) and as a truly funny show. When the parody of Palin first aired, SNL received its highest Nielsen rating for a season premiere, and the video went viral with 14.3 million viewers on and (Flowers & Young 49). The second skit, Fey and Amy Poehler mocking Palin’s Katie Couric interview, resulted in 7.9 million television viewers and 11.1 million views on the web (Flowers & Young 53). The third sketch, the debate between Palin and Biden, increased SNL’s viewership by 23%, and the fourth with Alec Baldwin gave SNL its best overnight ratings in more than 14 years (Flowers & Young 53). In fact, more people watched the SNL parodies than actual network news of Sarah Palin (Flowers & Young 62).

Tina Fey’s visual, verbal, and contextual impersonation of Governor Palin was so “remarkable, dead-on, spot-on, fantastic, pitch-perfect…,and a bull’s eye” (Flowers & Young 62) that it affected Palin’s public image, shaping her into a beautiful bimbo not at all qualified to help run a country. The New York Times commented “Ms. Palin has the distinct advantage – or disadvantage – of looking a lot like…Tina Fey, which saddled her with an instant association with someone who is not to be taken seriously” (Flowers & Young 62). Time Magazine also stated that Fey’s depictions were the perfect blending of reality and parody – “When voters close their eyes now and envision Public Palin, likely as not they see Tina Fey” (Flowers & Young 62). The images and dialogue of the skits provided an interpretation of Palin as an “unsophisticated, unworldly, inexperienced state politician, talking about subjects beyond her depth of knowledge” and even as someone who is uneducated (Flowers & Young 62).

In my opinion, Fey was the reason why Senator McCain lost the election – not only was there fear that he was too old, but fear of what Sarah Palin might do to destroy our country. “Fey had about as much impact on this election as the economy did” said a CNN reporter (Flowers & Young 62). “Tina Fey has done more to hurt Sarah Palin and John McCain more than anyone” pollster Dick Bennett said (Flowers & Young 63). Polls conducted by groups such as CBS News, Cable News Network, Fox News, and Women’s voice Women’s Vote uncovered that Palin’s favorability ratings decreased from September to early November 2008 (Flowers & Young 63). Time Magazine wrote, based off its list of “100 People Who Mattered in 2008”, that Fey made the list because “she proved that comedy can still have a serious political clout: her winking performance of Governor Palin defined the governor before she even had a chance to define herself” (Flowers & Young 63).

Television is a truly powerful medium. And Saturday Night Live, the show of satire, has proven time and time again just how powerful the medium can be. From its very beginning, it’s done nothing but provide its viewers with truthful – and hilarious – representations of topical issues and public figures.  SNL has also successfully reflected such issues regarding race and gender, more specifically, through its female writers and performers, women’s roles in society and the media. Every one of these female representations – from the virgin to the vamp- has been portrayed in a clever, comedic fashion, providing these female talents with a well-needed voice. The women of SNL have played a role not only as female entertainers and comedians, but also as women who have used their sexuality to break (as well as exemplify) archetypal boundaries and the lines that separate them from their fellow male comedians. If I were given more time, I would love nothing more than to watch every episode of Saturday Night Live, studying every female cast member – from the characters they play to the female archetypes most commonly depicted. I’d analyze lines, costumes, body language, and more, as well as research the extent of their careers. I’m fascinated with these women, these ladies who’ve really broken barriers in the world of comedy. With comedy, comes power, and these SNL females aren’t afraid to pack a punch.

Works Cited

Castleman, Harry, and Walter J. Podrazik. “35. 1975-76 Season: Freddie or Not?”  Watching TV: Six Decades of American Television. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2010, 1982. (253-259). Print.

Fey, Tina.  BossyPants. New York: Reagan Arthur Books, 2011. Print.

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, vol. 29, no. 1 (Spring). Ithaca: Journal of Visual Literacy, 2010. (47-67). Print.

Hilmes, Michele. “What Closes on Saturday Night: NBC and Satire.” NBC: America’s             Network. Ed. Jeffrey S. Miller. Berkley. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007. (192-208). Print.

Horowitz, Susan. Queens of Comedy. Amsterdam: Overseas Publishers Association, 1997. Print.

Kimball, Gayle. “Galloping in Slow Motion: Women’s Influence on Film and Television.” Women’s Culture In a New Era: A Feminist Revolution? Ed. Mollie Gregory. Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2005. (61-78). Print.

Maki, Kelsey J. “It’s Always Something: Creating and Sustaining Feminist Humor on Saturday Night Live.” Conference Papers – National Communication Association, p1, 0p. Minnesota: Conference Papers – National Communication Association, 2009. (1-27). Print.

Martin, Linda, and Kerry Segrave. “Gilda Radner.” Women in Comedy. New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1986. (380-386). Print.

Mittell, Jason. “Representing Identity.” Television and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. (305-353). Print.

Reincheld, Aaron. “’Saturday Night Live’ and Weekend Update: The Formative Years of  Comedy News Dissemination.” Journalism History, vol. 31, no. 4 (Winter). Ohio: E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, 2006. (190-197). Print.

Shales, Tom, and James Andrew Miller. Live From New York: An Uncensored History of   Saturday Night Live. New York: Little Brown and Company Hachette Book Group USA, 2002. Print.

MTV: Always New and Improved

by Joanna De Jesus

At the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards (VMA’s), Justin Timberlake accepted his award for Best Male Artist and criticized the network’s lack of music videos as part of their programming. “MTV, play more damn videos,” he said, “We don’t want to see The Simpsons on reality television. Play more videos” (Hiatt 1). Though I concede that MTV should play more music videos, I still insist that they are, in fact, giving their viewers what they want. In the article by Steve Jones, “MTV: The Medium was the Message”, he argues that scholarly sources on MTV have declined since the 1980’s due to MTV’s change in programming. He admits, MTV changed and lost its promise as “Music Television”, but he reminds us the change was for the better. “What caused MTV to begin moving towards live and reality programming was the need to capture audiences for longer periods of time than music videos would permit” (Jones 87). “Timberlake’s criticism pointed at broader concerns that music has become less essential to MTV’s identity” (Hiatt 1).

In the early history of MTV, music videos were a new way to experience music, but the network could not sustain itself forever solely by producing one type of programming. MTV expanded by adding variety to their programming and marketing their brand to reach the youth in other cultures through global expansion. Jones argues that this global phenomenon is “the first and most important reason that MTV continues to have an impact on popular culture” (Jones 84). For this reason, more scholarly attention should be given to the long-term effects of MTV. “‘Music television is a term that has to be redefined for each generation,’ says president of programming Brian Graden, who was instrumental in the station’s recent shift toward teen pop. ‘You have to find new ways to package it, celebrate it, reinvent it, or somebody else would create tomorrow’s music television’ “(Ali and Devin 50). Even though MTV stopped airing music videos and turned to regular programming, thus sacrificing its original purpose, MTV’s success at capturing their youth audience after 30 years should be defined by their ability to reinvent themselves with each generation.

To understand postmodernism, one must understand modernism: “Modernism is characterized as a rejection of realist representation and was thus a move away from the 19th century’s objective depiction of the world to various forms of abstraction and symbolism that emphasized subjective inward consciousness” (O’Donnell 183). Postmodernism explains how today’s modern culture is created by the advancement in technologies which set us apart from previous “modern societies”. It is the next layer of modernism. The debate of what is “postmodern” began in the 1950’s as a way to describe modern architecture and new styles of poetry (O’Donnell 191). In the 1970’s, when the claims of postmodernism began to appear in other cultures and academic disciplines, and theorist like Jean-Francois Lyotard came on the scene, the idea began to take hold and postmodernism was “here to stay”(Connor 6).

Mark Poster’s claim on postmodernism is that new technology increases the speed in which we receive a message, thus changing our lives because we quickly become dependent on this (O’Donnell 182).

What does new technology have to do with postmodernism? Theorists believe that they influence our society and create “a simulated culture highlighted by virtual reality” (O’Donnell 182). Jean Baudrillard and Jean-Francois Lyotard argue that the growth of the Internet, satellite radio, and phones with advance capabilities, are all forming a new social culture (O’Donnell 183). Does postmodernism really exist? Is there a ‘unified sensibility’ running across and between all the different areas of cultural life? Does postmodernism unjustly limit or prematurely curtail the ‘unfinished project’ of modernism? Is there anything new or valuable in the alleged ‘postmodern breakthrough’? Does postmodernist culture exist? If so, (sometimes even if not) is it a good thing or a bad thing? These are some of the many questions that came with the controversy following the “postmodernism” debate (Connor 6).

Smartphones and social networking sites such as Facebook prove Jean Baudrillard and Jean-Francois to be correct in their argument. Now, our social culture depends on technology. A cell phone can be used as a portable computer, an ATM, a radio, a camera, and of course a phone. People regain contact after years at the click of a button by accepting a friend request and have virtual coffee dates, rather than actual face time.

Postmodernism in television looks at the way intertextuality is used and lets the viewers analyze their own meanings to what they are watching (O’Donnell 187). Intertextuality can be defined through shows such as South Park, Family Guy, and The Daily Show. These shows address current events and pop culture moments that we, as viewers, are familiar with. Every week South Park parodies current events in pop culture, politics, or world news. Intertexuality is the content and the action is self-reflexivity or self-awareness when television recognizes and references itself.

Another great example of this is an old cartoon that aired on MTV, Beavis and Butthead. Beavis and Butthead were two young guys in high school, who sat around watching music videos on MTV. They were doing exactly what their viewers were doing and through the same network.

MTV is the epitome of postmodernism in television. Combining music with television and coining the term VJ (video jockey) to mean, “A person who conducts a television program of recorded music interspersed with chatter, jokes, and commercials (O’Donnell 188),” the network found a business in using music videos as paid advertisement for the record companies. They also televised live mega events, which were a catalyst for reality shows and more. MTV has redefined the way television is produced through creative editing, camera angles, and breaking the 4th wall (O’Donnell 189). “MTV not only changed the way we listen to music, but the station turbocharged the careers of icons such as Madonna and Michael Jackson, inspired fashion trends (remember the Hammer flattop?) and even influenced the way movies and TV programs are made (its Real World series was a reality-TV pioneer). From the chortling idiocy of Beavis and Butthead, to the appeal of MTV’s ever-morphing logo and eye-popping graphics, the Viacom-owned station’s presence is now ubiquitous” (Ali and Devin 50). Furthermore, to cater to our fragmented culture, the sister network VH1 was created for those who have grown out of the MTV phase.

The key to MTV’s survival is its’ ability to know when to change, what to market, and who to target. When the shift in viewership begins to affect ratings, MTV turns to its research team to help them create content that will set the next trends in pop culture. They turn to the trendsetters, teenagers who are aware and have a sense for the next big thing, for inside information. “We’re in a constant state of reinvention,” said Van Toffler, the president of MTV Networks Music/Film/Logo Group. The network is “rethinking the channels programs for the millennial generation, as those born in the 1980’s and 90’s are sometimes called.” From 2005 to 2009, MTV lost about 250,000 viewers and realized they were hanging on to the Gen X-ers for too long. It was time to give their attention to the next generation, who make up the current audience (Stelter 2).

In an article for Newsweek (2001) titled, “We Still Want Our MTV,” Lorraine Ali and Devin Gordon wrote, ”But not everyone is feeling the love for MTV. Critics say the secret to its success is the result of a Faustian bargain, where the station sacrificed its initial credibility to cater to teens’ most immediate and banal tastes.” Letting teenagers dictate who your target audience will be next, what type of content you’ll be airing, and when you will begin to change your programming to fit their needs, may not sound like the smartest business decision, especially when referring to it as a “Faustian bargain.” But for MTV this is what has worked for them because their audience is a 12-25 demographic.

The article continued to describe the over all-content on MTV: MTV’s main-attraction artists are now bubblegum poppers like Britney Spears and ‘N Sync, while its most popular shows consist of teens voting (and woo-hoo-ing) for their favorite videos, singing karaoke-style over hits and being made over into their favorite pop stars. Its prime-time hours (from 3:30 p.m. until dinner time) are filled with this fare, not to mention nonstop T&A in videos and beach-house specials, while more edgy artists are relegated to off-peak viewing hours or the smaller satellite station, MTV2. “It would be nice if MTV’s music programming was as risk-taking as the people who run it,” says former news anchor Tabitha Soren, who was at the station from 1991 to 1998. “It would be nice if their programming was more diverse. MTV now has enough power and has shown how irreverent and how creative it can be, so they should distinguish their programming from radio programming” (Ali and Devin 50).

Three years earlier, in 1998, Chris Morris wrote an article about trendsetter studies and how this research was used to influence MTV programming. Music Trendsetter Studies (MTS) is research conducted by the network that looks at “opinions, aspirations, tastes, and longings of listeners who live their lives ahead of he mainstream curve” (2). He quotes MTV president Judy McGrath when she explains this research is important to their programming because by knowing what these self-motivated young adults are thinking, you can use that knowledge to trigger what the latest artist will be working on next. She also says, “It can really tell you something about where the audience is, because that audience connection is the whole deal” (2).

The quote above also mentions MTV2. MTV2 was brought on as an alternative to viewers that did not care for the Backstreet Boys and Ms. Spears. As a way to cover their boundaries and not leave any viewers behind, MTV2 continues its “original purpose” of 24/7 music videos. To sum up, MTV allows the network to have a clear understanding of where trends are headed so they can create the their own. Getting there before the others is what MTV prides itself on.

Michael Mertz, a television instructor at Columbia College Chicago, with an extensive knowledge of rock music and the history of television said this about MTV,“MTV is postmodern because they reflect the sensibilities of their audience and that audience is completely postmodern in terms of their expectations of television and of the culture and the world in general.” In the beginning, MTV went through an experimental phase that “marked a new era in the promotion, consumption and power of pop music among the record-buying young, and coined the expression the ‘MTV generation’”(BBC News 1). During their rise to the top, MTV quickly became an iconic presence in pop-culture, impacting visual style and popular music.

From its debut in the U.S in 1981, MTV has inspired visual media culture and was the first to explore and introduce new formats for programs that are now essential to popular culture.  What made MTV so groundbreaking was the fact that there were only two ways to listen to music as the time: listening to it on the radio or buying the record. MTV began with around the clock broadcasting of music videos and later introduced “mega-events”, the merging of popular music and corporate sponsorship, “unplugged” acoustic performances, and reality programming in the form of The Real World. LiveAid was one of MTV’s mega-events, a fundraiser that helped raise money for the victims of the famine in Ethiopia in the mid 1980’s (BBC News4). The youth culture in the 1980’s and the artist were aware of global issues such as the famine in Ethiopia.

Soon after, coverage of the US Presidential election in 1992 set the trend for “Rock the Vote,” a campaign that encourages young adults to be aware of social and political issues. MTV found a way to make politics cool. By its 20th year, the music started to fade and the content turned to reality TV. It is my opinion that between the 2001 and 2011, MTV has been undergoing yet another experimental phase. The music is not completely gone. It can be heard as background music in their shows and found on their web site. The cartoons are gone and all that’s left is guilty pleasure reality shows such as, Jersey Shore, My Super Sweet Sixteen, and Sixteen & Pregnant. I believe the next generation of MTV programming will be documentary-style. The shift has already begun, while we see the immature sixteen year old demand an over the top party to commemorate their sixteenth birthday, the same viewers get to follow the lives of the same age group having to grow up faster than expected as teen parents.

It is also important to take into account that the youth market of today is different from the teens ten and twenty years ago. The teens today can be categorized into so many subcultures. Their expectations are higher and they demand things faster. The generation that MTV is now trying to target grew up with the Internet and iPods. MTV is aware of this and also aware that the network is no longer a musical tastemaker. With new research and new marketing tools, MTV will find a way to reach the new audience as they have in the past.

It is important to acknowledge that MTV is bigger than just MTV and After it’s launch, MTV proved to be a success and decided to test their chances at success over seas. “In 1987, MTV Europe launched adding more than 1.6 million households to MTV’s subscription list” (BBC News4). Ten years later, MTV was the first music channel to launch on the web and continued launching the network in other countries, such as the UK and Ireland (BBC News 4). MTV Networks is a business owned by Viacom. Their brand, “MTV”, is a global brand known worldwide with programs showing in 169 countries and heard in 28 languages (Lowry 1). In fact, the network has a policy with its overseas partners of 70% local content, which has resulted in some of the network’s most creative shows (Capell 4).
MTV’s global expansion has created a global village or “global mall.” Economically, the profits made from this operation are more than expected since “few other transnational media operations can claim to make profits at all” (Capell 2). In some countries, such as China, MTV has partnered with local cable operators. China and India are their biggest markets, and as noted before the policy states that 70% of programming needs to be local content. This allows the country to have control over the content, while MTV still gets to attach their brand to it. The cultures may be different, but musically the cultures are the same. This influences all kinds of trends, not just in music. It influences the clothing style, slang, and unifies different cultures through this global network. Being a network that markets to teens or “youth culture,” it is equally as important to be globally aware than it is to be politically aware or socially aware.

The Real World and The Hills era is coming to an end and MTV may never return to its original purpose: broadcasting music videos around the clock. Though I admit, MTV should play more music videos, the reality is the network would not have made it past five or ten years if that is all it did. The new generation is impatient. They want things instantly and the growth of the Internet has allowed this. With other media outlets available to them, like Yahoo! Music, YouTube, and MySpace to name a few, people have options for watching music videos. They turn to MTV (or because it is a brand they know and trust. MTV Networks, a business that now includes MTV2, VH1, Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite, TV Land, TNN and CMT, continues to find new ways to promote music while creating content that revolves around pop culture. Without a doubt, MTV is postmodern and so are the people that tune in.

Works Cited

Ali, Lorraine, and Devin Gordon. “We Still Want Our MTV.” Newsweek 138, no.4 (July 23, 2001):50. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed September 29,2010).

Capell, Kery, et al. “MTV’S World.” BusinessWeek 3770 (2002): 81-84. Business Source Elite. EBSCO. Wed. 19 Oct. 2010.

Connor, Steven. Postmodern Culture: An Introduction to Theories of the Contemporary. 2nd. London University: Birkbeck College, 2001. 6

Hiatt, Brain. “MTV’s Midlife Crisis.” Rolling Stone 1036 (2007): 11-12. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. 19 OCT. 2010

Jones, Steve. “MTV: The Medium was the Message.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 22.1 (2005): 83-88. Communication & Mass Media Complete. EBSCO. 29 Sept. 2010

Lowry, Tom. “Can MTV Stay Cool? (cover story).” BusinessWeek 3972 (2006): 50-60. Business Source Elite. EBSCO. Web. 19 Oct. 2010.

O’Donnell, Victoria. Television Criticism. Montana: SAGE Publications, 2007. 181-198

Mertz, Michael. Interview by Joanna DeJesus. 12 Dec 2010

“MTV’s irresistible rise.” BBC News (2001):1-5. 19 OCT 2010

Morris, Chris. “Future Divined in new ‘Trendsetters Study’.” Billboard 110.39 26 Sept 1998. N. pag. Academic Search Premier. Database. 19 Oct 2010.

Stelter, Brian. “MTV Is Looking Beyond.” New York Times (2010): 1-4. Web. 14 Dec 2010.

SOUTH PARK: Land of the Free

by Alisha Ketry

What do South Park and the American dream have in common? Not much, but it seems safe to say that the American dream has veered from its previous ‘white picket fence’ route to something else. Many Americans look at South Park with disdain for being amoral, inappropriate, and just not what America stands for. However, upon deeper investigation into the encoding of the South Park’s messages, one finds the same commentary, ‘this is not what America stands for’. South Park takes what the American culture has become, a television obsessed, fame-seeking, materialistic society and emphasizes it only to show its flaws. It is a mirror to the American culture, granted, a vulgar mirror, but a mirror nonetheless. The way South Park does this is by encoding messages that challenge the American culture through the use of children, animation, and lowbrow humor.

The theory of cultural studies stems directly from who people are as a society and from who people are as individuals. When it comes to media, cultural studies is one of the most important theories to discuss because it is the basis for why, or why not, people watch certain things on television based on the meanings these shows inspire.

Culture is defined as, “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization”(“Culture”). Culture is what makes a television show. The content might be strongly agreeing with the culture or questioning it. Cultural studies theory is the analysis of this. The message a television show is trying to convey comes from the viewer’s interpretation. Consequently, the possibility of multiple meanings, polysemy, exists because various viewers incorporate their own experiences, lifestyles, values, and other cultural practices into their interpretations” (O’Donnell 150).

An argument may be made that a television show can only have one message based on the writer’s intention. However, this cannot be true for everyone for it is impossible for everyone to know what a writer’s message is without asking him or her, and people will have an initial reaction, thought, and opinion of a show’s meaning based on what they know, not what someone else knows.

A culture is littered with symbols that they recognize to mean something. The meaning of a symbol is decided upon by a culture, which is why one symbol in one country can mean something entirely different in another. For example, in America, when someone sees a cow it may represent food or small-town country life, but in India, which has a dominance of Hinduism, the cow is sacred.

A popular and influential theorist of cultural studies is Stuart Hall who is most famous for his encoding/decoding theory. These symbols lie in class, ethnicity, gender, etc. which are interpreted differently by each person, but understood by a culture. A culture might recognize a black man on the side of the street as an irritating bum, but an individual may recognize him as a man who has lost everything because of his race.

Hall’s theory of encoding/decoding is based on the power people exert when analyzing a television show. He discusses three main social positions  when interpreting media: dominant, which is when a viewer decodes and accepts  a television show ‘s intended meaning; oppositional, which is when a viewer opposes what he or she sees and interprets the opposite meaning; and negotiated,  which is when a viewer mostly agrees, but disagrees with certain elements (O’Donnell 155).

Jeff Lewis, another theorist, agreed with Hall on this, giving people power which he defines as, “something which enables one person or group to exert their will and interest over others” (Lewis 25). People retain pleasure from this power by feeling accomplished at understanding the meaning or brave for questioning it.

Another theorist is John Fiske who is heavily influenced by the works of Hall. Fiske’s theory is based on codes which he defines as a rule-governed system of signs, whose rules and conventions are shared amongst members of a culture, and which is used to generate and circulate meanings in and for that culture (Fiske 4). Fiske breaks these codes into three levels which are; reality, representation, and ideology. Reality relates to appearance, behavior, speech, sound, and setting; Representation relates to technical codes with the camera , lighting, sound , music , and editing ; Ideological codes are when codes come together to be interpreted for a preferred meaning which supports ones ideology.

Cultural studies has been presented as a way to demystify what attitudes, beliefs, values, preferred forms of conduct, and ideologies are embedded and reinforced in images and supporting discourse (O’Donnell 161). Cultural studies is a way to understand why television is interpreted, how it is interpreted, and who is doing the interpreting.

Since culture is based on the agreed upon meaning of signs, television based on our culture will ultimately use these signs. Creators deliberately choose what is shown based on the meaning of the signs a culture agrees upon. For example, if a creator chooses to show a single rose, it is an underlying meaning of love, but if the creator shows that rose wilting, it may be to portray love lost. South Park takes the idea of cultural studies and runs with it. It uses the signs based around American beliefs and ideologies to break them down and present them in a perspective that can be decoded as challenging the very basis and validity of these beliefs.

Stuart Hall confronts a fundamental aspect of culture – which is power. Who has control determines what issues are important. Whether it is in politics, economics, or race, someone, or some group, holds the power. Between adults and children, adults are generally the ones holding the power.

South Park uses this specific power structure to challenge the American culture. It has been an underlying assumption that children have less understanding and less capability to make decisions. Children are a symbol, or a sign. They represent naiveté. South Park has reversed the roles and given the children the power role without the adults in the world of South Park ever knowing it. In fact, the adults are usually the ones to make things even worse and act childish.

The ideology that South Park encodes is that the adults are wise while the reality is that the children are. In the episode “Margaritaville” the citizens of South Park blindly follow Randy Marsh, Stan’s dad, treating him as a prophet of the almighty economy. The citizens treat the economy as a vengeful God. They stop spending money and walk the streets barefoot and dressed in togas. Rather than making a conscious effort to fix the economy, the adults believe they must treat it with respect and it will forgive them. It also makes the treasury department in Washington, D.C. three men who make decisions by cutting off the head of a chicken and letting it run around a chart with different solutions (such as bailout, telethon, or go to war) written on it until it dies. Wherever it lands is the decision the department makes no matter what the situation is. This is a childish way of thinking. The roles of adult and child are reversed when it is the children who finally convince the citizens that just sitting back and doing nothing will not make the economy better.

South Park is an animated series which allows for a lot of freedom. The creators are able to encode messages that a series using real actors and props wouldn’t be able to execute. According to Fiske, ideology encoding involves ideological codes “such as individualism, patriarchy, class, materialism, capitalism, and so on. All the codes come together to encode a preferred meaning that supports a certain ideology” (O’Donnell 158).

South Park uses animation to confront each of these ideologies and question the validity of them. The ideology of religion is often approached. South  Park animates all of the popular prophets of the world, including Jesus, and gives  them the role of a superhero troupe entitled “Super Best Friends”. By doing this,  South Park takes a literal view of how some people view God as some sort of  magical being that can solve all problems. It also does this with the villains of the world by making Satan a bumbling, whiny, brute who only wants popularity. An example of this is when Satan throws a sweet sixteen party for himself and sends  Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and John Wayne Gacy to pick up his cake. South Park animates the three mass murderers as if they are the three stooges.

The American culture is obsessed with celebrity life and South Park has no hesitation when confronting the ideology behind it. It often mocks this ideology by animating celebrities that depict what they represent rather than who they are. An example of this is in an episode with Paris Hilton, the heiress to the Hilton fortune. The animators draw her character in a way that makes her look incredibly thin, scantily clad, and obsessed with herself (she wears a necklace with her name on it).

By doing this, the creators mock the entitlement that celebrities seem to have. In the episode with Paris Hilton, she decides that she wants one of the children, Butters, to be her pet and his parents allow this to happen. The idea is that because Paris is a celebrity she can have whatever she wants including people. South Park also blends levels of encoding to portray a meaning.

An example of using animation to blend the levels of encoding is in an episode of South Park where a water park overflows and Cartman is stuck on an abandoned life raft with other people who were at the water park.

However, the people he is abandoned with are all of Hispanic descent which is the use of the reality code. Cartman is upset because he is surrounded by minorities, which is the ideology code of class, and then Cartman sings a woeful song about being surrounded by minorities which is the use of sound and music in the representation code. This episode is a good example of how South Park uses encoding to challenge the American culture because the reality is that Cartman is the minority, but the ideology of class is still what motivates him. Then South Park uses sound and music in an unconventional way to show the absurdity of it. “Sound and music create mood, attitude and other various emotions” (O’Donnell 157). At a moment of controversy over minorities, Cartman begins a musical paralleling the absurdity of breaking out into song with the absurdity of the ideology of class.

South Park has been known for the past 14 years for being, what some say, disgusting, offensive, and absurd, but it is the way that it has thread this lowbrow humor with the content that makes it’s encoding so important. There are people who believe that lowbrow humor does not have to be used in order to get a point across. They believe that these words and topics can be avoided and that it would even make a stronger argument without them. While I agree that using four letter words and degrading language can often discredit an otherwise solid argument, South Park uses these words with an intention to challenge them. It does this by using the ideology and reality levels of encoding.

South Park is not offensive just to be offensive. Instead, it makes certain characters offensive while others are intelligent and tolerant. The character of  Cartman is the personification of close-minded ignorance. He is an intolerant,  gluttonous, racist, and narcissistic sociopath. There is no admirable quality in this character and South Park makes this apparent.

The psychoanalyst, Albert Ellis, believed that the reason for depression and neuroticism in people was because of, what he called, dysfunctional beliefs. These beliefs included things such as “When people act obnoxiously or unfairly, they should be blamed for being bad, wicked, or rotten individuals” (Ellis and Lynn 130). While most people would agree with this statement, Ellis described this as irrational thinking. In South Park, the ideology encoding of justice is involved when the other characters believe that Cartman should be punished, but the reality encoding is that Cartman gets away with everything he does. This may lead people to believe South Park agrees with or condones his actions, but in actuality it is a statement on the reality of the American culture.

South Park also takes words that hold negative weight and challenges the meaning behind them. It challenges how these words become harmful. Proof of this encoding is in the episode entitled “The F Word”. The episode is about the word fag and its meaning. The boys of South Park want to refer to Harley motorcycle riders as fags which sends the mayor into an uproar. The boys defend themselves saying they aren’t referring to homosexuals and that one can be gay and not be a fag. They go as far as to change the definition of fag altogether. The mayor is upset that the rest of the country thinks the city of South Park looks like “gay bashing, red-neck, homophones,” which is where the ideology of equality and tolerance comes into play.

The reality encoding is that the word, fag, has had many different meanings over the last few centuries and that it only holds weight if one allows it to. Stan says, “All we have to do is convince the dictionary people to take out that fag means homosexual”. The boys do this and even have the homosexuals of South Park referring to Harley riders as fags. To remove the effects of a word that has brought about so much real emotional and physical harm simply by changing the definition in the dictionary proves that it is the meaning one puts behind the word rather than the word itself. It is in this way that South Park challenges the objectivity of pejorative language.

It is important to understand what a culture is, because so many decisions are made based on the beliefs of a culture. When one realizes that a culture is only made up of beliefs and attitudes that are agreed upon by a number of people, it gives some perspective. It makes one open to other cultures rather than demeaning them and claiming them to be wrong only because they are different.

When looking at the encoding of South Park, it seems that this is the message the creators are attempting to portray. It takes a look at the culture of America, and turns it into a caricature to point out that some things taken so seriously may just be because we, as a culture, decided it was serious.

Works Cited

“Culture.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2010. Merriam-Webster Online. 1 March 2010.

Ellis, Albert, and Steven J. Lynn. Rational and Irrational Beliefs. Oxford:    Oxford UP,     2010. Print.

Fiske, John. (1987). Television Culture. London, UK: Methuen.

Lewis, Jeff. (2002). Cultural Studies: the Basics. London, UK: Sage Publications.

O’Donnell, Victoria. Television Criticism. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications Inc., 2007. Print.

Identity Politics and the Comedy of CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM

by Ben Fine

Throughout the course of television, comedians have been portraying stereotypes of race, religion, ethnicity, sexuality, and so forth. Ranging from the early days of Gosden’s and Correll’s Amos ‘n’ Andy, to today’s hit series, Family Guy, minorities have been portrayed based on society’s judgments. Times have changed since television’s early days, with many more shows poking fun at racism, instead of actually being racist. One of the comedians who lightens up the dark side of racism is writer and producer Larry David, the creator of HBO’s hit series, Curb Your Enthusiasm (or as fans often call it, Curb) which focuses on his life. Viewers witness David getting into trouble by the things he says, or the mishaps he creates. David usually stereotypes a certain culture or ethnicity, which ties into identity politics. Identity politics signifies a wide range of political activity and theorizing found in the shared experiences of injustice of members of a certain social group. Rather then organizing solely around belief systems, programmatic manifestoes, or party affiliation, identity political formations will typically aim to secure the freedom of a specific constituency marginalized within a larger context. After watching Curb for a few seasons, I’ve realized that David usually gets himself into trouble by offending African-Americans, Christians, Jews, and homosexuals. As a viewer, I understand that it’s not right to laugh at hardships many face, but as David portrays stereotypes he is commenting on them through the show’s comedy.After analyzing Curb Your Enthusiasm,  I’ve reached the conclusion that David’s confusion towards Christians, African-Americans, and homosexuals is what makes this such a funny show.  Identity politics is a political action that advances the interests of members of a certain group whose members are oppressed by virtue of a shared and marginalized identity such as, race, religion, ethnicity, gender, and/ or sexual orientation (Kenny 3-4). Although, the history of identity politics has not been addressed as a subject in it’s own right in full-length literature, L.A. Kauffman who traced its origins to the SNCC, also known as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, has described it in an article. The term eventually emerged when people outside the Black freedom movements, such as Black feminists began to adopt the practice in the late 1960s (Heyes). Racial categories are perhaps most politically significant in their relation to racism. This attempt reduces members of social groups to their racial features, which draws on a complex history of racial stereotypes. One interesting point is that literature on multiculturalism takes up many questions of race, ethnicity, and cultural diversity in relation to the liberal state (Kenny 10-12). As mentioned before, the practice entails degrees of separatism.For the majority of groups embracing the perspective of oppression, separatism is only a means to an end. Sometimes the “identity” of identity politics appears to be the experience of the subject, especially ones’ experience of oppression and the possibility of a shared and more authentic and self-determined alternative (Heyes). Many times the meanings attribute to a particular experience that diverges from one of its subjects. First, David’s lack of knowledge towards Christians is a huge addition of comedy for Curb. In season two-episode nine, David and his wife Cheryl attend a baptism for David’s future brother-in-law. They arrive late to the ceremony, and as David gets his first glimpse of the river, he witnesses his future brother-in-law being held in the water by a priest. Since David isn’t familiar with baptisms, he grows confused and rushes to stop the ceremony. The brother-in-law second guesses himself and decides that he needs more time to think it over. The Jews and non-Jews congregate into the home and begin to debate whether or not the brother-in-law should convert or not. The Jewish people attending the baptism believe the brother-in-law should stay Jewish and not convert, while the non-Jews make their case and explain reasons as to why he should convert. This creates a huge uproar between both sides with the two religions throwing insults at one another. One of the Jewish guys states, “What he did was a wonderful thing”, then a Christian man follows up by saying, “What, being Christian isn’t a wonderful thing?” David stereotypes Christians as close-minded individuals who aren’t in touch with society. He states to Cheryl, “What’s the deal with Christians and Jesus? Everything’s always about Jesus.  It’s like, I love lobster but I don’t go around telling everyone to try the lobster!” (Dolan 16). Obviously, David doesn’t know much about baptisms, or the way Christians speak. He panics when he witnesses his future brother-in-law being dunked in the water and completely ruins the ceremony. Then he makes the comment on how Christians are always trying to convert people to Christianity. The fact that David had no idea of what’s going on and compares Jesus to lobsters makes this episode very funny. Although his bewilderment towards Christians is humorous, it can contribute of the dangers of identity politics, in that is may cast an authentic identity to ones’ self or an identity that in fact is defined by its opposition to an “other”. 

Another example is from season three-episode nine, titled “Mary, Joseph, and Larry.” In this episode, David accidentally eats Cheryl’s home-baked Nativity scene. In this instance, Cheryl’s sister yells to him, “You ate the baby Jesus and his mother Mary!” (Dolan 32). David doesn’t sympathize with Cheryl or her sister and makes his way outside to hand out Christmas tips to the gardeners. Later on in this episode, the gardeners hear him make a degrogatory comment about their Spanish heritage. When they confront David, he denies the comments and blames everything on his wife. When Cheryl finds out, she grows very upset and avoids him for the rest of the day. Feeling very guilty he realizes that he must make up for what he’s done. On his way home, David spots a group of actors from a church portraying a live Nativity scene. After negotiating, the group agrees to perform for Cheryl the next morning. David wakes Cheryl up early and the two walk outside to see the church group performing the Nativity scene. After Cheryl happily goes inside to make herself a cup of coffee, the group takes a break and David approaches the guy who’s playing Joseph. A little way into their conversation, David makes a comment about mother Mary’s breasts, which completely offends the guy playing Joseph. Joseph tells the group to pack up and moments later they’re gone. Once again, David’s confusion towards Christianity makes this episode very funny. He eats the Nativity cookies and treats the church group with absolutely no respect. An identity is established in relation to a series of differences that have become socially recognizable. These differences between David, the Jewish man, and the church group are essential to its being. If they did not coexist as differences, it would not exist in its distinctness and solidity (Coate).

Next, David’s confusion towards African-American stereotypes is an additional comedy boost for Curb. In season six-episode three, David is at a restaurant having lunch with his friend who is African-American. His friend realizes that he has to leave early so he pays his bill and leaves his tip. Moments later, David finishes his meal, stands up and as he begins to pay for his own tip he notices that his friend didn’t leave a tip that amounted to his standard. David then adds a few more dollars to his friend’s tip, but what he doesn’t know is that Cheryl’s African-American friend, Wanda, is witnessing the whole thing. She says to Larry, “Larry David, fixing a Black man’s tip, you must think we’re all cheap.” Larry hesitates and tries to make light of the situation by explaining to Wanda that he wasn’t being racist, and that his friend simply didn’t leave a normal tip (Dolan 23).  A few hours later, Larry parks his car and while he walks towards an office building he passes an African-American man. Seconds later, he looks back at his car and locks it. The African-American man looks at Larry and says, “What? You think I’m going to steal your car because I’m Black?” Larry tries to explain himself, but the man leaves in anger. Once Larry turns around, Wanda is standing there with her arms crossed, giving Larry a dirty look. Wanda says to Larry, “Larry David, first the Black man doesn’t tip, now he wants to steal your car.” When it comes to race, similar philosophies of race highlight the contingent and historic nature of “race” as a category of identity. Despite a complex history of biological essentialism in the presentation of racial typologies, the notion of a genetic basis to racial difference has been largely discredited (Coate).

Then in season one-episode nine, Larry makes a racial comment to an African-American dermatologist. Larry and Richard Lewis are standing by the beach talking when all a sudden, Richard’s dermatologist comes jogging by. The two say hello and when the dermatologist introduces himself, Larry says, “I can see Affirmative Action really helped you”. The dermatologist is obviously stunned and quickly jogs away. Larry realizes that his joke backfires and tries to apologize, but it’s too late. He proclaims to Richard Lewis, “I say stupid things to Black people.” Later on in the episode, Larry and Cheryl arrive at the dermatologist’s in order to cure Cheryl’s emergency skin rash. After apologizing numerous times, the dermatologist agrees to treat Cheryl. While the dermatologist gets the medicine, Larry is waiting in the living room with Cheryl and the doctor’s family. To David’s surprise, a young lady who tried to get a job on David’s movie enters the room. The drunk woman yells at him and lets everyone in the room know that the reason she didn’t get the job on David’s movie is because he is a racist. Right as she says “racist”, the dermatologist walks in the room and the camera cuts to David and Cheryl driving away, without the medication (Dolan 25). As an avid Curb viewer I understand that David is no racist. He just happens to find himself in awkward situations, which become very difficult due to his actions and the things he says. Racial categories are perhaps most politically significant in their contested relation to racism. Racism attempts to reduce members of social groups to their racial features, drawing on a complex history of racial stereotypes to do so. What got David into trouble with the dermatologist was his comment on Affirmative Action. For example, this requires statistics about the numbers of members of oppressed racial groups employed in certain contexts, which in turn requires racial identification and categorization (Heyes).

Furthermore, David’s confusion among homosexuals is both shocking and humorous. In season two-episode four, David and Cheryl attend a poker game with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and a few HBO executives. As the group plays poker, David begins to notice that one of the executives is showing traits of homosexuality. Throughout most of the game David keeps quiet, but on one hand he feIt the executive made a weak move and quickly blurted out the c-word.  Moments later, he looks up to see everyone at the table completely shocked. The effeminate male’s wife blasts David and orders him to leave (Dolan 19). When the camera turns to the executive, it’s clearly obvious that he’s upset about the comment. When driving back home with Cheryl, David kept making his case as to why he thought the HBO executive was gay. As an avid viewer of Curb, I was completely shocked by his judgment here. In previous episodes David has always treated homosexuals with an enormous amount of respect. Clearly, he wasn’t thinking and made a huge mistake by using that word. The use of the word was by no means funny, because it’s very offensive to women, homosexuals, and basically everyone in general.  What I found funny was David’s stupidity in saying the word. In all my years I’ve never heard anyone just blurt that word out, and without any thought, David screams it out in front of a friendly game of poker. As this ties into identity politics, nowhere have conceptual struggles over identity been more pronounced that in the lesbian and gay liberation movement. The notion that sexual object choice can define who a person is has been profoundly challenged by the advent of queer politics. An exemplary conflict within the identity politics of sexuality focuses on the expansion of gays and lesbians organizing with those with other queer affiliations, especially bisexual and transgender activists. Skepticism about inclusion of these groups in organizational mandates, community centers, parades, and festivals has origins in more traditional understandings of identity politics that see reclaiming lesbian and gay identity from its corruption in a homophobic society as a task compromised by those whose identities are read as diluted, treacherous, ambiguous, or peripheral (Mohanty 14-16).

Later on, in season five-episode two, David once again insults homosexuals. As he and Cheryl prepare to attend a party for his buddy, Marty, Cheryl informs David that Marty’s sister is no longer a lesbian. When they enter the party, David approaches Marty’s sister, Jodi, and starts rambling on about how great it is that she’s no longer a lesbian, and a few of her gay friends overhear becoming insulted. What viewers were not previously informed about was that David was generally considered very well liked by homosexuals. He tells his manager, Jeff, “Lesbians love me” (Dolan 55). After the party, David finds himself on very thin ice due to his attitude towards Jodi. Throughout the episode, he faces belligerent phone calls, numerous insults, and a wide range of guilt. By no means was he trying to insult homosexuals; David displayed his emotions the wrong way by overreacting – for which he paid the price. While early lesbian feminists had very different politics, oriented around liberation from patriarchy and the creation of separate spaces for woman identified women, many still appealed to a more authentic, distinctively feminist self.  Heterosexual feminine identities were products of oppression, yet the literature imagines a utopian alternative where woman-identification will liberate the lesbian within every woman (Kenny 34-35).

In final consideration, Larry David and Curb Your Enthusiasm is not racist.  As a comedian, David makes light of many situations, and although the wrong things may come out of his mouth (such as the time he called the HBO executive the c-word) he is not bigoted in any way.  As an avid viewer, I understand Larry never bas the intention to make anyone feel separated from the bunch due to their race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. As Curb Your Enthusiasm continues to move into the 21st century, the continuing intellectual crisis surrounding identity politics paradoxically marks its importance to contemporary political philosophy and practice. As I continue to watch Curb, I eagerly await to witness the new ventures David will get himself into. From making racist comments to African-Americans, to offending Cheryl’s Christian family, I know Larry David will undoubtedly say the wrong words to somebody and find himself getting into trouble. I believe his confusion towards those who are unlike him will always create laughs in the show. Identity politics is an important theory to understand, because we’re all living in one society, yet the majority of us are all different. Television and identity politics will continue to progress together through time, and although times change, the laughter will always stay the same.

Works Cited

Coate, Roger and Thiel, Markus. Identity Politics and Political Identities in the Industrialized and the Developing World. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the ISA’s 49th Annual Convention, Bridging Multiple Divides – Hilton San Francisco, San Francisco, CA, USA, Mar 26, 2008.

Dolan, Deirdre. Curb Your Enthusiasm: The Book. New York: Gotham, 2006.

Heyes, Cressida. “Identity Politics.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 16 Nov. 2002. 3 Dec. 2008

Kenny, Michael. The Politics of Identity: Liberal Political Theory and the Dilemmas of Difference. New York, NY: Polity, 2004. 3-56.

Mohanty, Satya P. Identity Politics Reconsidered. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. 5-31.