From Film Quarterly, Summer 2021, Volume 74, Issue 4
Season 8 of Friends (NBC, 1994–2004) included an episode in which Monica and Chandler, en route to their honeymoon, are detained by TSA agents after Chandler mocks a TSA sign forbidding jokes about bombs. By the time the episode aired on October 11, 2001, however, the scene had been excised, its humor nullified in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The scene’s later resurrection as bonus material for a DVD box set—and, inevitably, on video and social-media platforms—reflects the sort of time-sensitive relationship between comedy and context that Philip Scepanski explores in Tragedy Plus Time: National Trauma and Television Comedy. The book’s title refers to the period of latency that follows a tragedy before comedy is “allowed”—or feels comfortable enough—to address the ensuing trauma, and potentially redefine its discursive parameters.
Through elaborate analyses of television comedy since the 1980s that ranges from topical late-night and standup shows to skits and long-form narrative fiction, Scepanski unpacks how the medium and the genre must negotiate ever-changing notions of nationality and trauma in the United States. The rare times when television watching becomes a communal experience tend to occur when viewers believe they are witnessing consequential events unfold before their eyes. As was the case on January 6 of this year, as anchors and field reporters struggled to make sense of rioters invading the US Capitol, such negotiating necessarily plays out in real time. Moments such as these make visible just how much television frames and constructs the traumatic narratives it reproduces.
Much less obvious than the ways that news shows contribute to a collective understanding of certain events, however, is how comedy reframes these narratives—in some ways emphasizing traumas, in others working through them. If television helps define how tragic events are to be experienced as trauma, humor can expose the rules about acceptable discourse surrounding these events while breaking them. By profaning what is considered sacred, the best comedies have the potential to liberate viewers from the endurance of trauma (while others may distort and exacerbate its consequences, demonstrating that indeed some wounds need longer to heal). For this reason, Scepanski argues, television comedy plays an important—if often overlooked—role in negotiating, working through, and reframing tragedy and trauma.
Historically, the rise of cable television accounted for significant changes in the industry, including audience segmentation and specialization. Unlike Friends, which adhered to the least-objectionable-programming strategy to fit into a prime-time slot, the niche-targeted programs did not need to appeal to an imagined “national” audience, favoring content for specific demographics instead. This trend has also affected programming on network television, illustrated in Scepanski’s prominent examples from late-night talk shows and the animated series Family Guy (Fox, 1999–). Along with its own spin-offs and other shows like South Park (Comedy Central, 1997–), Family Guy is unapologetic about the shock value of its comedy. As Scepanski indicates, these are intentionally objectionable shows that do not miss opportunities to push the boundaries of acceptable speech—even if they sometimes go too far too soon, risking having parts of their episodes censored and brought off the air.
Scepanski effectively demonstrates throughout his book that the perceived status of television comedy as lowbrow entertainment, its ever-narrowing target audience, and its propensity to offend combine to place the TV comedy genre in an opportune position to address sensitive topics. While it negotiates the limits of acceptable discourses around national traumas, it also has the potential to affect how Americans see and understand themselves and their national identities. Scepanski is also quick to admit that the concept of national trauma is “a media ritual that frames certain events as both unusually negative and national in scope and character using emotional appeals” (12). Of course, so is the concept of national identity, which Benedict Anderson—one of Scepanski’s clear influences here—has demonstrated to be neatly entwined with the reach and ubiquity of mass media. 1
In his first chapter, Scepanski lays out the historical background for television comedy, highlighting the John F. Kennedy assassination as a key national trauma. It is a fitting starting point, not only because of the event’s impact on American culture, politics, and national identity, but also because it lays bare the relationship between industrial and discursive shifts in regards to comedy’s address of tragedy. As the sensitive topic par excellence before 9/11, JFK’s assassination maintained a sacred aura for two decades, protected from mainstream television comedy until 1983, when a Saturday Night Live (NBC, 1975–) skit alluded to it indirectly.
The second chapter moves into a textual history of censored television programs. Here, Scepanski delineates the processes that determine the final form for potentially sensitive topics being aired on broadcast television, syndication, streaming, and DVD boxes. Tracing the multiple versions of different television episodes, Scepanski demonstrates with great clarity how such iterations reflect changes in both cultural discourse and industry practices, emphasizing that there is no topic either crass or safe enough to be either permanently censored or shielded from censorship.
Scepanski’s third chapter focuses its textual analysis on television programs whose humor arises out of emotional nonconformity. This kind of comedy performs its emotional work by diminishing the sense of threat from a particular national trauma in order to draw laughter from the audience. Bringing Bakhtin, Freud, Bergson, and Foucault to wrestle with shows like South Park as well as The Opposition with Jordan Klepper (Comedy Central, 2017–18), and The Sarah Silverman Program (Comedy Central, 2007–10), Scepanski addresses how comedy challenges and pokes fun at mainstream coverage of tragedies, but also criticizes, exposes, and often exaggerates the nationalist sentiments born in response to trauma.
In the fourth chapter, Scepanski analyzes political comedy’s ambivalent relationship with conspiracy theories, at times mocking them, at other times amplifying them. For the author, at the core of conspiracy theories lies a mistrust of institutions of power—a sentiment often explored in political comedy, especially when the latter addresses national traumas. Through a complex mapping of comic discourses that cover a range of political ideologies and subject positioning and illustrate comedy’s varying deployments of conspiracy theories, Scepanski assesses the cultural and political implications of such strategies. His explorations tackle figures as diverse as Dave Chapelle and Alex Jones and shows from King of the Hill to South Park, contending that in its rejection of orthodox narratives, this kind of comedy may sometimes help the spread of conspiracy theories within groups in positions of power.
Addressing comedy’s tendency to segment and silo its interlocutors, chapters 5 and 6 both focus on specific ethnic and racial minority groups and how their identities have been negotiated vis-à-vis American nationalism by way of television comedy. First, Scepanski focuses on how such black-cast comedies as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (NBC, 1990–96), Def Comedy Jam (HBO, 1992–97), and In Living Color (Fox, 1990–94) treated the 1992 Los Angeles riots following the beating of Rodney King. Scepanski suggests that the debates over cultural authenticity and racial justice prompted by the riots meant that African Americans on-screen used their unique position to address the aftermath of King’s beating by the police, and did so in varied ways. He then examines how television comedy addressed Americans’ renewed xenophobia toward Muslims and Middle Easterners following the 9/11 attacks: while some shows helped construct these ethnic groups as “Others,” the Comedy Central stand-up special The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour (Comedy Central, 2007)—featuring Arab American and Persian American performers—offered a more sympathetic and/or nuanced representation.
The book’s final chapter dives into recent television history and national trauma, which neatly coalesce in the figure of Donald Trump as president of the United States. With an increasingly fractured and fractious audience, television comedy provided a welcome respite for many during the Trump era, taking the place of news shows as key negotiators of national traumas. Scepanski discusses the role that late-night shows such as Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (TBS, 2016–) and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (CBS, 2015–), sitcoms such as Broad City (Comedy Central, 2014–19), and skit comedies such as Saturday Night Live played in framing (rather than reframing) national traumas as well as providing relief from them.
Scepanski’s Tragedy Plus Time concludes with an analysis of Trump’s first impeachment and an epilogue that discusses the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, reflecting the pressing relevance of television studies. Perhaps more than ever, this sort of historical and contextual perspective on television comedy is urgently needed for the complex mapping of the current American media culture and its ramifications. If comedy is an often quickly overlooked or dismissed genre, Scepanski proves that it should not be, given its significance in shaping Americans’ sense of national identity and history.
Bruno Guaraná: What was the origin of this project, and how did it develop into its current form?
Philip Scepanski: In my PhD program, I was taking a media-theory class where the professor presented her own work on how television “returned to normal” in the days, weeks, and months following 9/11. In the discussion, I brought up a Daily Show interview where Jon Stewart and Steve Carell discussed the challenge of doing comedy after 9/11, and I asked her whether she had done any work on this topic, which she mostly had not. 2 Meanwhile, I was bouncing around various fairly untenable dissertation ideas having to do with television comedy, and faculty were rightly sending me back to the drawing board. It was some months later when it dawned on me that I had asked a pretty good research question, and things blossomed from there.
At the same time, I wanted to expand my scope in order to give some sense of industrial and cultural history as well as the variety of ways in which comedy engages and works through “national traumas” of various types. So while 9/11 functions as the prototypical trauma that I use to set the discussion in motion, I really tried to think through different ways mass media creates and comedy then works through these moments. One such example that I think is both consistently relevant and of a different type than 9/11 is the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising. Unfortunately, racial injustice, and police violence against Black men in particular, are ongoing crises, which means that this work will remain relevant. I guess the hope for society is that my book becomes less relevant over time, but unfortunately, I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon.
Guaraná: Your sets of comic discourse cover a wide range of comedy formats: sitcoms, animated series, late-night talk shows, and stand-up performances, to name just a few. What was your strategy for managing such a broad corpus?
Scepanski: My tendency as a thinker and writer is to throw multiple examples at a concept in order to illuminate its different facets. I also tend to think that if I can demonstrate that a particular phenomenon is widespread, it functions as a tacit argument that it is worth thinking about. That is also somewhat of a defensive strategy for doing television studies. Despite the increase in stature of the medium, I still don’t think people immediately assume that it’s worth critically examining television in the same way that those working on cinema, art history, or literature can take for granted the value of writing about fairly esoteric topics.
I used to keep notebooks of examples I could bring into the discussion. I watch an unhealthy amount of television, of course, so that helps. Other times, I just suspected that there would be something worth talking about on a certain show or group of shows, so I wound up buying 15 Def Comedy Jam DVDs so I could gather all routines on Rodney King and the 1992 Los Angeles riots, though only one routine made the book. More recently, though, the expansion of streaming services and the circulation of clips online makes it comparatively easy to find examples. For instance, for the chapter on how comedies treated the Trump administration itself as a trauma, I knew I had seen plenty of stuff like this, even if I didn’t have the immediate examples in mind. I had a vague memory that Samantha Bee was working this angle on Full Frontal. That TBS makes clips of old shows available makes it relatively easy to find those segments.
Guaraná: What is the social function of television comedy vis-à-vis national traumas?
Scepanski: That’s the big question, isn’t it? Like any mode of expression, comedy is complex, so I would not want to boil it down to a single function. Comedians get on TV in difficult moments to comfort us. Sometimes these shows, including old reruns, are there to distract us. Other times, comedy is the place where the limits of acceptable discourse can be tested and stretched. As a genre less beholden to strict realism or even narrative causality, comedy is also a site of play, where artists imagine alternate histories and different ways of viewing and experiencing the world. It also does a lot of work marking off and policing the boundaries of in-group/out-group identity. That’s a partial list of its social functions.
Guaraná: Are there risks associated with them?
Scepanski: It is easy to look at that list and say, “Comfort sounds good, so comedy is good!” or “Separating communities is bad, so comedy is bad.” But there are dangers associated with each, and even some of the less appealing functions can have prosocial purposes. Marita Sturken discusses the ways in which the attempts to comfort lead to discourses of infantilization and innocence. 3 After 9/11, she argues, the broad sense of national innocence prevented Americans from asking important questions about the foreign policy that causes such strong anti-American sentiment. This is not in any way to suggest that 9/11 was deserved, but such acts probably should raise questions about whether our government is being a good neighbor worldwide.
Moreover, comfort sometimes comes in the form of mocking perceived enemies, to suggest that they don’t really pose much of a threat. This, along with the tendency to test the limits of acceptable ideas, can often lead to racist or otherwise prejudicial humor, especially when the perceived enemy is a clear Other, as was the case with 9/11 as well.
At the same time, comedy’s ability to define identity is not all bad. When Aasif Mandvi on The Daily Show uses similar rhetoric to draw the boundaries of American identity to include Muslim Americans while criticizing Islamophobia, that’s prosocial to me. I also think comedy’s ability to allow us to imagine or experience other emotions around certain events is ambiguous. If politicians take advantage of a national trauma to push bad policy like the Iraq War, then giving people the ability to move past the anxiety and sadness is potentially a good thing for national politics. On the other hand, with cases like school shootings or COVID-19, anxiety and sadness seem like valuable tools in preventing actual deaths, so I would not champion comedies that discourage those feelings.
Guaraná: You use examples of jokes about JFK’s death as a litmus test for assessing the limits of what is deemed appropriate for television comedy across a few decades. What new practices and standards allowed the networks to embrace a more “daring” comedy during prime time, and when does that shift take place?
Scepanski: This is again an issue of television’s demographic logic shifting as it moves into the postnetwork era. The earliest example that I found of a TV show joking about anything to do with the Kennedy assassination was Saturday Night Live [SNL] in 1983. They restaged the Reagan shooting, except they kill Eddie Murphy’s character Buckwheat instead. 4 Buckwheat dies and the funeral coverage hints at Kennedy’s, but then they directly visually quote the moment that Lee Harvey Oswald was killed. This is taking place in late night, and even then it is pretty cautious about how directly it engaged with these images.
Later, Seinfeld references Kennedy’s assassination in its “second spitter” routine, but the episode seems to make direct fun of Oliver Stone’s JFK —parodying one of its famous courtroom scenes—rather than the former president. 5 Finally, you get to stuff like Family Guy, where they reimagine Kennedy as Mayor McCheese so that after he is shot, Jackie crawls onto the back of the limo to eat his hamburger brains. 6 In 1999, when that bit originated, Family Guy was airing at 9 p.m. Eastern on Sunday—right in the heart of prime time. But it had tons of competition. On the networks, CBS was aiming for an older demographic, while ABC has typically held Sunday nights for families. And that doesn’t even consider the hundreds of channels on cable.
Since then, streaming services have blossomed. Standards and Practices [departments] probably just figured the audiences likely to be offended weren’t watching. Advertisers certainly were aware of what Family Guy was by this time, and sponsors like Xbox and Mountain Dew would have wanted the young male demographic that is into that stuff. Through all this, though, the assassination also becomes more distant in the way that making jokes about World War I must have stopped ruffling feathers at some point. But then again, 9/11 jokes were pretty much on the table by the beginning of 2002. I think it is really more about who is not watching than anything else.
Guaraná: What is the relationship between narrowcasting and comedy’s relative freedom to address trauma on television?
Scepanski: There is something of an expectation that every American needs to be aware of these traumatic moments—that journalism consistently frames these in nationalistic terms. In reference to the Parkland school shooting, for example, NBC’s Lester Holt explicitly describes “the nation” witnessing events at “an American school” rather than a “Florida” school. But our viewing practices are so narrow in ways that affect not only entertainment culture, but politics as well. Television’s engagement with these events typically moves through this evolution where the event is first defined through nationalistic discourses in journalism. Then, as entertainment programming begins to engage these events, the event becomes more narrowly targeted: 24 addresses its neoconservative audience, while The West Wing speaks to its liberal audience.
I think comedy is even more subdivided than drama, not just in terms of politics, but in terms of its audience’s tolerance for formal experimentation: you get everything from really stylistically conservative sitcoms to Adult Swim’s playful Theater of Cruelty and Dadaism. In this sense, you get a range of options even within comedies that appear to appeal to similar demographics: Broad City addresses Trump’s alleged sexual assaults with an episode that is hilariously profane and formally experimental at the same time that Full Frontal is doing fairly unadorned talking commentary on the same topic. Comedy shows do tend to lean toward Democrat-style liberalism, with a few notable conservative exceptions. Dramas seem to speak more evenly across the political spectrum. Of course, there are types of conservatism on issues like gender and capitalism that are more ubiquitous across American politics that comedy might not question as readily.
Guaraná: Are there any “sacred” events or traumas that have remained untouched by television comedy?
Scepanski: Every time I think there’s something that escaped, I either find something new or realize that something old was riffing on a trauma in ways that I didn’t realize. This didn’t make the book, but my favorite episode of The Simpsons growing up was an episode where NASA sends Homer into space as a publicity stunt. It wasn’t until after my dissertation was finished that I realized that this episode was a criticism of the Teacher in Space program that not only put Christa McAuliffe on the space shuttle Challenger and got a bunch of kids to watch the launch live, but also possibly led to the explosion (the weather was too cold for safety, but they didn’t want to delay the launch with so many children watching)…. I don’t think that there is any trauma too big or severe for television comedy to joke about.
However—and this gets at the fuzziness of the concept of collective trauma—there are perhaps traumas that are too “small” to garner attention. I take pains to define national traumas in Tragedy Plus Time as events that receive a specific type of totalizing media coverage, but there are certainly ways that other scholars could define this concept differently. For a certain American community, the Sikh temple shooting that occurred in 2012 was certainly a trauma. However, due to competing news events and a significant amount of racism, the event did not get the traction in mainstream (white) American media to really become a national trauma by the definition I lay out in my book. I’m not aware of any examples of television comedies engaging with this … because too few people in the comedy industry cared, although Hasan Minhaj did address it in a YouTube video. 7
Guaraná: Throughout the book you note a shrinking grace period before comedy is “allowed” to discuss and often profane the sacredness of trauma on television. The Trump era in particular has been marked by this kind of whiplash, but have you seen a continuation of this in light of the events at the Capitol on January 6?
Scepanski: Because of television’s production schedules (and mine, writing this in early February), the only places that have really had a chance to joke about the Capitol insurrection are late-night comedies, both nightly ones and topical weeklies like Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and Saturday Night Live.
There’s an interesting ritual that goes with the nightlies where the host will do a mostly serious episode in response to a moment of crisis or catastrophe. The earliest example I’ve seen was after the post-9/11 hiatus, when David Letterman and Jon Stewart came back apologizing for being comedians. Over the summer of 2020, a number of these shows also dedicated fairly serious segments to the issues raised by George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent protests, although some addressed them with a mix of humor and seriousness. On January 6, though, Seth Meyers, for example, canceled his guests so he could instead speak to journalist Nicolle Wallace and rapper-activist Killer Mike.
Eventually, these shows started joking about it. Some of the more satirical hosts like Samantha Bee and Seth Meyers have used their platform to make fairly trenchant political critiques. Others, like SNL, mostly just kind of joked about how dumb and weird the insurgents were. 8 I don’t want to totally dismiss the significance of that kind of humor, though, even though SNL was pretty lazy about it. Comedy can be really important in these moments in the way it symbolically abuses those that it perceives as the enemy. Especially when it comes to terrorists, it’s actually pretty notable that comedy can make them seem less threatening. That goes for white domestic terrorists as well as al-Qaeda.
Guaraná: Which of the comedy shows that you personally enjoy have effectively addressed national traumas in your view?
Scepanski: My actual personal preferences in comedy tend away from topical and more toward absurdist, experimental humor, so although I try to keep up with a variety of comedies, my personal fandom veers more toward stuff like Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! [Adult Swim, 2007–10] and I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson [Netflix, 2019].
In terms of which have most effectively dealt with national trauma, it’s hard to criticize the moderately left-leaning shows like Late Night and Last Week Tonight in terms of the kind of ethics they tend to bring to these problems. At some level, though, I find this kind of straight engagement with topical issues less interesting than the more narrative shows, especially those that experiment more with form and style. At the same time, the animated shows I follow are hit-and-miss in terms of how willing I am to defend their ethics. South Park tends to be the most interesting in the ways it, intentionally or not, seems to reflect a kind of Baudrillardian understanding of media culture. But then the show does a 24 parody that largely excuses Islamophobia. For all its many ethical problems, Family Guy also makes positive ethical arguments. It’s ideologically inconsistent. It’s also stylistically inconsistent, which leads to what I often find to be interesting little experiments in timing, duration, anticomedy, and so forth. Although I don’t actually write about it in Tragedy Plus Time, I do think that It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia [FX, 2005–12; FXX, 2013–] has done pretty interesting episodes around these issues as well. As long as one reads that show as satirizing the worst impulses of our society, I think its ethics are pretty defensible, too.
Guaraná: What are you working on for your next project?
Scepanski: I’m trying to write some supplemental articles that make sense of the recent rash of traumas in the same terms as my book. I have a brief afterword about COVID-19, but George Floyd happened after it went to press, so I just didn’t get a chance to address those events very thoroughly if at all. I’d been hoping to put collective trauma aside as an area of study, but these are things I feel an obligation to keep writing about now, so I think it will be with me at some level for the rest of my career.
In the longer term, I’m working on a book about the ways that film and television create humor out of conflicting senses of temporality, partly to indulge my interests in comedy’s formal experimentation and humor theory in a way that is somewhat subdued in Tragedy Plus Time. I also want to do some work with editing as a comic technique, the influence of absurdism, and to work with philosophies of time, among other aspects of comedy that have interested me for a while. However, I realize that my theoretical noodlings may not prove terribly relevant, so I’m tying them to sociopolitical issues, like the rhetorical strategy of comedy shows that edit together clips of politicians to make them look hypocritical.
I’m also salvaging some of the research I did in preparing for Tragedy Plus Time that didn’t get significant discussion in the book. I did so much reading on PTSD and clinical trauma, but only got to tie it briefly to concepts of collective trauma. Now, I want to think about how PTSD operates both psychologically as a kind of memory dysfunction and socially in the way that trauma studies are so heavily gendered around issues like sexual assault and military service. I’m thinking here specifically about “traumedies” like The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt [Netflix, 2015–] and Barry [HBO, 2018–] for how they use lost memories, flashbacks, and so forth for laughs.
I’ve also noticed a tendency in how comedies made fun of Middle Eastern culture, especially after 9/11, using the Orientalist trope that non–Western European cultures are temporally “backwards.” Edward Said points to this sense of timelessness in Orientalist representations, but in the latter half of the twentieth century it seems to be more about the Other being a few years or decades out of step with the West’s “now.” For instance, Soviets get mocked for thinking blue jeans are cool and rebellious in the 1980s after Americans had pretty much normalized denim over the previous decades. More recently, American comedies tend to mock Kim Jong Un for being a fan of the Jordan-era Chicago Bulls. I’m expanding in new directions, too, in thinking about Luddite tendencies in comedy since the silent era, time-travel comedies, and so on. Keep your eye out for Timing Is Everything: Temporality in Film and Television Comedy (or whatever it ends up being titled)!
1. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (New York: Verso, 2006).
2. The interview is available at https://www.cc.com/video/7gqp9x/the-daily-show-with-jon-stewart-steve-carell.
3. Marita Sturken, Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).
4. See https://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/buckwheat-dead-america-mourns/n9076.
5. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PA5HRW4DWz0&ab_channel=TBS.
6. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UI4CazJp3x0&ab_channel=TheStikanator.
7. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NousD6QgFZU&ab_channel=goatfacecomedy.
8. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rSTu1I5t700&feature=youtu.be&ab_channel=SaturdayNightLive.
BOOK DATA Philip Scepanski, Tragedy Plus Time: National Trauma and Television Comedy. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2021. $50 hardcover. 280 pages.
Read the introduction to Tragedy Plus Time here.
© 2021 by The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.