Author Archive: Oscar Winberg

Comedy, Tragedy and the Rise of Trump

Since Donald Trump became the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party for President of the United States in early May , pundits and commentators have attempted to understand how this once unthinkable scenario came about. In fact, since his strong showing in the Iowa caucus this winter, people have tried finding the culprit for the rise of the reality television personality.

The old saying claims success has many fathers while failure is an orphan. In the case of Trump, however, it seems the failure of the political system has many fathers. During the past months President Obama has been blamed for the rise of Trump, so has the Republican Party, so has income inequality, and racism, and political science. The most usual suspect, however, remains the media. The case has been made that the media, and television especially, gave Trump unlimited airtime to peddle his particular brand of racism, xenophobia, nationalism, and conservatism. Leslie Moonves, executive chairman of CBS, articulated the relationship between media and Trump when he admitted that “it may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS”.

The lavish media attention given Trump includes late-night comedy, the former Apprentice host has appeared on all three network’s late-night shows, and even hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live on NBC. Showbiz politics is nothing new in American politics; celebrity has been a part of presidential elections for decades as historian Kathryn Cramer Brownell has shown. I have previously written on this blog about late-night campaigning and how integral comedy has become to presidential communication. What makes the appearance of Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live for example so controversial, however, is that his statements are far outside the political mainstream. Balancing the quest for ratings with the risk of normalizing the rhetoric of Trump, while keeping the comedic integrity, has made for very different late-night appearances.

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Donald Trump on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert in September 2015.

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When Archie Met Sammy

I recently stumbled across a very entertaining and thought provoking list of 100 jokes that shaped modern comedy. The article is a fun read, and if you take the time to watch the video clips it is a good way to spend your entire weekend. As a scholar working on the intellectual history of the 1970s sitcom All in the Family, I was happy to see the show represented on the list. The joke representing the sitcom was from the classic episode Sammy’s Visit (originally aired February 19, 1972 on CBS), in which Sammy Davis Jr. forgets his briefcase in Archie Bunker’s (Carroll O’Connor) cab and comes to pick it up from his home on 704 Hauser St.

allinthefamily-20

Archie: Now, no prejudice intended, but, you know, I always check with the Bible on these here things. I think that, I mean if God had meant for us to be together, he’d-a put us together. But look what he done. He put you over in Africa, and put the rest of us in all the white countries.

Sammy Davis Jr.: Well, he must’ve told ’em where we were, because somebody came and got us.

The joke managed to not only dress down Archie, but make a direct link between slavery and the continuing bigotry in America. The issue of Archie as a “lovable bigot”, a term used by Laura Z. Hobson to criticize him six months earlier in the New York Times, was also addressed head-on in the episode. The Bunker’s black neighbor Lionel Jefferson (Mike Evans) tries to explain Archie to their guest.

Lionel: But he’s not a bad guy, Mr. Davis, I mean, like, he’d never burn a cross on your lawn.

Sammy: No, but if he saw one burning, he’s liable to toast a marshmallow on it.

The episode is widely considered one of the most memorable sitcom episodes, and was ranked 13th on TV Guide’s 1997 list of the “100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time”. Yet, the episode almost did not come to be. When Davis guested the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the spring of 1971, some months after the premiere of All in the Family, he lauded the new, controversial show and introduced the idea of himself guest starring on it. Norman Lear, the creator of the show, and John Rich, the director for the first four seasons, both agreed that wasn’t going to happen but appreciated the kind words and welcomed the promotion. Davis, however, kept pushing the idea. His manager tried to convince Lear and Rich, while Davis himself told the press a guest spot was in the works. Finally, Lear and Rich bowed to the inevitable and set about to find a way to incorporate the star into the show.

It was the writer Bill Dana who came up with the idea of Archie encountering Davis while moonlighting as a cab driver. Carroll O’Connor described the episode as a fun adventure but at the same time noted that it was atypical, being mostly “gags and jokes” and not “applicable” to anything broader the way All in the Family shows usually were. John Rich and Norman Lear, both pleased with the episode, also vowed never to do another celebrity guest episode. The show is great fun and ends with Davis kissing Archie on the cheek, as they are posing for a photograph. It is unclear whether Dana or Rich, who both claim credit, came up with that iconic television moment, which received what Rob Reiner called one of the longest laughs in history.

sammy-davis-archie-bunker-kiss-2

A final note to the story of when Archie met Sammy: Bill Dana, who wrote the show, was highly praised and perceived to be the favorite for an Emmy. As it happened, however, his agent’s secretary mistakenly sent the necessary paperwork to the Writer’s Guild instead of the Television Academy. Without even receiving a nomination, Dana watched as the show took home ten awards, including Outstanding Directing for Sammy’s Visit. There is a humorous side to such a silly mistake costing Dana, a comedy legend in his own right, an Emmy, though I doubt he saw it that way.

The Comedy of the Black Republican

While I am currently working on political ideology on entertainment television in the 1970s, I do enjoy watching more contemporary television as well. Often, however, I am struck by how apolitical network television entertainment today is compared to the 1970s. In fact, the 1970s constitute a very peculiar period in network television. Especially comedies reveled in a new politically relevant humor, and the ratings ensured them leeway. But by the 1980s, the proliferation and weight of a wide array of interest groups had hampered the comedic freedom. Modern Family recently spent a story arch on Claire (Julie Bowen), one of the main characters, running for city council. Yet, her partisan alignment was never identified. This tactic is quite common in an industry that strives for as wide an audience as possible. There are few, if any, upsides in offending parts of your audience with partisan identification.

This is why I was so surprised to come across an episode of the ABC sitcom Black-ish revolving entirely around the idea of the Black Republican. The episode starts with Dre (Anthony Anderson) stipulating facts of life, including:

 “Black people aren’t Republicans, we just aren’t. We vote for Democrats. And it’s not just an Obama thing […] black people also overwhelmingly backed this guy [photo of Dukakis in a tank], this guy [photo of Al Gore kissing Hillary Clinton], hell 91% of black people voted for this guy [photo of Walter Mondale holding boxing gloves]. Fact: 91% of Walter Mondale’s family didn’t vote for Walter Mondale. Sure, the other side may trot out a token black face every now and again, but the fact of the matter is being a black Republican is something we just don’t do.”

The show often deals with perceived cultural differences between black Americans and white Americans, Continue reading →

Late-Night Campaigning: Presidential Elections and Late Night Television

Since the days the Toast of the Town and the Texaco Star Theater late-night talk shows have, under the guidance of television legends like Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, and Merv Griffin, evolved into a humor institution in the United States. Late-night talk shows enjoy a very public and influential position in American life, which is why controversies within the subject have such a significant news value. When Carson, the King of Late Night, quit the choice of replacement caused a rift between Jay Leno and David Letterman that was covered by the press and actually resulted in a HBO film adaptation. Some two decades later, when Leno asked for his show back months after retiring and handing the show over to Conan O’Brien, the fight was again fought out in public. Given their roles as the nation’s public humor institutions, late-night talk shows are also attractive for presidential candidates hoping to form their image in a light setting.

Back in 2012 President Barack Obama joined Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight Show for an interview and a segment called Slow Jam the News, where he recited news while Fallon provided comedic commentary and his house band The Roots provided a smooth musical soundtrack. The appearance was hailed by the audience but criticized by conservative commentators. Gretchen Carlson on Fox News lamented how the appearance “lowers the status of the office” and called it “nutso”.

Similarly, when Obama recently visited Jimmy Kimmel Live! he participated in one of the show’s most popular comedy segments: Mean Tweets. The bit is very simple, a celebrity reads actual negative messages directed at them on Twitter while Everybody Hurts by R.E.M. plays in the background. While the appearance was incredibly popular, drawing millions of views on YouTube, some found it unworthy of the presidency.

johnnylocke • 7 months ago

When will we get a President who is more like a behind the scenes CEO and not a megalomaniacal elected dictator obsessed with fame and public image?”

Yet late-night television appearances have long been a part of the political sphere. Going back to 1960, both John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon visited Jack Paar on the Tonight Show. Ronald Reagan appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the run-up to his campaign to unseat Gerald Ford as the Republican nominee in 1976. When Bill Clinton came on The Arsenio Hall Show and showed off his saxophone talent, political commentators accused him of demeaning the presidency, yet the appearance came to shape his image as a relatable leader. The same quality helped George W. Bush 8 years later, as he showed off his folksy side in late-night chats.

Like it or not late-night television is an appreciated domain for politicians seeking or holding the highest office. This has been especially clear this autumn as the race for the 2016 election is moving into high gear. Since the end of August a presidential contender has appeared on one of the main late-night talk shows a total of 14 times (as of October 28, 2015). The number can be viewed as both high (roughly every third night of late-night, there is a candidate campaigning) and low (when combining the Democratic and Republican fields the candidates, including the ones who have now dropped out, exceed twenty). There is clear patterns visible in these appearances; the bulk of them are on Stephen Colbert’s new Late Show (5) or Comedy Central’s two late-night shows (3). Neither James Corden nor Conan O’Brien have hosted any candidates this fall and Kimmel has only had Bernie Sanders on. It is clear that Colbert is staying with what he knows and is making his domain one far more political than his late-night competition (besides the presidential candidates he has hosted the First Lady, Secretary of State John Kerry, Senators John McCain and Elizabeth Warren, and even Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer). Despite the far broader Republican field they have only one more appearance on late-night thus far this autumn, with five candidates appearing twice; Secretary Hillary Clinton, Governor Martin O’Malley, Senator Bernie Sanders, Governor Chris Christie, and of course Donald Trump.

With the exception of the late-night veteran Trump, the only candidate from the conservative wing who has entered the lion’s den is Senator Ted Cruz. For late-night remains a space that can be uncomfortable for conservatives, and indeed Cruz was booed by the studio audience for his conservative views. Stephen Colbert pleaded with the audience to show Cruz respect as an invited guest and has taken decisive steps for partisan balance among his guests. But it is clear that the arena is far more risky for conservative candidates than moderate or liberal ones.

For more commentary on the 2016 elections, check out the interdisciplinary election podcast Campaign Context at www.campaigncontext.wordpress.com.

“There you go again”: Humor in Presidential Debates

In early August, Fox News and Facebook organized the most watched primary debate ever, in Cleveland, Ohio, where 17 Republican presidential hopefuls gathered in two debates in hope of emerging as the star of the field. The pundits are still out on who exactly ”won” the debate, curiously there seems to be something of a correlation between the ideology of the pundit and whom they declare the winner. Among much post-debate think-pieces, media bickering, and inappropriate comments by Donald Trump, the perhaps best, and certainly funniest, piece was a bit by Funny or Die featuring kids reenacting the debate.

Jimmy Margulies cartoon on the Republican Debate

Jimmy Margulies cartoon on the Republican Debate

Since presidential debates became a staple of the election season following the 1976 debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, they have been the source of much comedy fodder. Saturday Night Live has over the years, since 1976, provided such gems as this Bush-Clinton-Perot debate, focused on Arkansas as backwater, this Gore-Bush sketch, Will Ferrell as Bush became a long-time favorite, and the instant classics of Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, like this. The Funny and Die bit, however, highlights the inherent humor in the actual debates. For while it might be more fun to just catch Dave Letterman’s recap of the debates than actually watching hours of political posturing, even the politicians drop some funny lines.

Historically, the presidential debates debuted with the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, but as both Lyndon Johnson and Nixon then avoided debates in their 1964, 1968 and 1972 runs respectively it wasn’t until the 1976 campaign they returned. Since then they have been a crucial part of any election cycle, including the primary cycles. The humor in presidential debates consists mainly of inadvertent gaffes or advertent zingers. The perhaps foremost example of the first category dates back to the 1976 debate where incumbent president Gerald Ford claimed there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Max Frankel of the New York Times, serving on the panel of moderators, can barely conceal his grin as he in disbelief asks if the president is actually saying Eastern Europe is not within the Soviet sphere of influence. The blunder by Ford enhanced the impression of him as somewhat dim, and was used to great extent by the Carter campaign. A more recent example of a humorous debate mistake would be Rick Perry’s inability, in a Republican primary debate in 2012, to remember the third government agency he would do away with if elected to the White House. Falling back on his Texan charm Perry tried to brush it aside with a nonchalant “oops”, which only made the whole exchange sillier. Speaking of silly, Mitt Romney’s attempt at humor when proposing to cut funding to PBS, saying that he likes Big Bird (of Sesame Street fame) but would still axe it, also misfired as it gave more than ample ammunition to editorial cartoonists, meme-ers, and comedians all over the country.

Romney, Debate, PBS, Big Bird, Jim Lehrer, political cartoon

Jeff Danziger cartoon of Mitt Romney proposing to cut funding to PBS.

When the candidates in the debates are consciously humorous it is more often by a joke on the opponents account, a zinger. These certainly seem to have decreased in recent years, and the defining debate zinger remains one from 1988. Irritated of continuing criticism of his inexperience, vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice presidential debate explained that he had as much experience as John F. Kennedy had when he sought the presidency in 1960. His opponent, long-serving Texan Senator Lloyd Bentsen, saw his chance for a put down and clearly took pleasure in delivering the zinger of the century. “I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”, Bentsen replied with a smile hardly hidden. Increasing the comedy, Quayle’s face dropped to the floor and clearly hurt he said the comment was uncalled for. Bentsen’s comment was immediately viewed as bold; if he wasn’t crossing a line he was at least approaching that line. The risk with crossing the line is that you come off as mean, which is a reason most of the best zingers hail from vice presidential debates – the designated hatchet men. Back in 1976 Republican vice presidential candidate Bob Dole showed off a sharp wit, repeatedly making cracks about his opponent Walter Mondale and presidential candidate Jimmy Carter. Viewers found Dole lacking in seriousness and coming off as a wisecracker, making him unappealing.

Ross Perot, debating with Bush and Clinton in 1992, similarly highlighted his comedic chops with repeated jokes and zingers. As a candidate from outside the political establishment the strategy was risky, it was crucial for him to appear presidential, and ultimately a failure. “It’s nice that someone has some humor and lightens things up, but now it seems like every opportunity he had to speak he had a quick one-liner”, was the verdict of one focus group. The risk of not appearing responsible and mature enough for the White House actually led the naturally witty John F. Kennedy to tone down his humor in the 1960 debates. As Kennedy was struggling with the perception of him as too young and his reputation as witty aldready widely appreciated the strategy seemed good. Still, sense of humor remains a key factor for voters in determining the character of a candidate, not to mention likability. Moreover, a well delivered zinger or joke is almost certain to reach a larger audience by making it to post-debate coverage – especially on television and today YouTube. To find a balance is vital, yet difficult.

The only president who ever truly mastered humor in presidential debates was Ronald Reagan. “The Great Communicator” had a good sense of humor and a background in delivering lines and presenting himself appealingly. In 1980, as Jimmy Carter laid out his case against Reagan, he smiled confidently and good-naturedly said “there you go again” before defending himself. The almost laughing Reagan uttering the “there you go again” is as close to iconic as presidential debate moments get. It was a part of Reagan’s debate strategy to throw Carter off with humor and smiles. When facing Mondale four years later, Reagan delivered another classic when he ironically answered a question by promising not to make his opponents age an issue of the campaign – his own age was of course what had been questioned in recent weeks. The joke not only drew large laughs from the crowd but from the moderator and Mondale, again highlighting Reagan’s affable personality. By mixing self-deprecation with irony and a message, Reagan showed off presidential debate humor at its best; if even the opponent is getting a good laugh you know you’re doing something right. Apropos irony, we still have some twenty debates in the 2016 cycle to look forward to!

For more commentary on the 2016 elections, check out the interdisciplinary election podcast Campaign Context at www.campaigncontext.wordpress.com.

Packaging the Presidency, with Laughter

Even though it is still some 16 months to the 2016 presidential elections the campaign is already well under way with most candidates officially declared as candidates. With any presidential campaign comes great humor, something Jon Stewart has brilliantly reminded us of for the last 16 years. One aspect of the campaigns which often provide a few chuckles are election adverts. Most of these laughs seem to be inadvertent, like that of Senator Ted Cruz who claimed to almost have fallen out of his chair laughing when he saw a pro-Hillary ad made by a Super PACs in which an unidentified cowboy sang a country song about standing with Hillary. Or when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell released video material online in 2014, apparently for the use of Super PACs, and Jon Stewart pounced on the opportunity to create the trending hashtag “mcconnelling” where the video is set to a humorous choice of music. In her authoritative book on presidential campaign advertising Kathleen Hall Jamieson points out an earlier example where Eisenhower proclaimed that his wife, Mamie, “gets after me about the high cost of living. It’s another reason why I say, it’s time for a change.”

Yet, as long as there has been political television ads, there has also been attempts at deliberatively funny election ads. Among the first is an ad by Adlai Stevenson’s campaign in 1952 where he suggests a bromance between the moderate Republican candidate Dwight Eisenhower and defeated conservative candidate Robert A. Taft. The ad is meant to link the former to the latter’s policies by having two syrupy voices infatuated call out the names Ike and Bob to each other.

The most common use of humor in campaign ads are attempts at ridicule. The most notable example, and probably the most effective example as well, is the 1988 ad that showed the Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis driving around in a tank while a voice-over details his weak record on defense. The ad, which The Washington Post recently described as “the stuff of legend in campaign circles”, made perfect use of the juxtaposition of the visual material and the message. Dukakis is driving around in circles in a tank in what appears to be an empty field. Most damning, Dukakis, smiling broadly, looks inescapably silly with a funny-looking helmet and an army-green jumpsuit over his, still visible, suit and tie. Attempts to replicate the successful ad include one from 2004 featuring Democratic candidate John Kerry windsurfing while the narration portrays him as a flip-flopper. Since at least the days of Abraham Lincoln the issue of changing positions and thus poor credibility has been politically dangerous and with the advent of television the issue has been the source of many humorous ads. One of the best known is visually simple, putting the face of Republican candidate Richard Nixon on a weathervane while a narrator lists his changing positions. Four years later, Nixon returned the favor by putting a poster of Democratic candidate George McGovern on both sides of a pole and turning it around after every changing position the voice-over details. The same idea was driven home in an ad by the George H. W. Bush team in 1992 that explains the contradictory positions of two undisclosed candidates before revealing that both are Bill Clinton. Making the ad extra funny is a zinger at the end of the ad, Clinton commenting that “there is a simple explanation for why this happened.”

Another prevalent theme in humorous campaign ads, especially during the last two decades, is to present statements by the opponent and then question them in a style reminiscent of the popular SNL sketch “Really with Seth and Amy”. The best example is an ad from the 2000 election that features a snippet of Al Gore stating “I took the initiative, in creating the internet.” The female voice-over comments “Yeah, and I invented the remote control, too.” The line “Oh, really?” returns in a curious 2004 ad produced in the visual style of the spy comedy Austin Powers, with the film’s star Mike Myers providing a narration questioning John Kerry’s comments. A Kerry ad from the same election features the “Oh Really?” in bold letters in response to George W. Bush’s claims about the turning the corner.

As with editorial cartoons the humorous ads work best in cases where they only need to remind voters of worries they already have about a certain candidate, instead of actually planting new ideas. I will try to illustrate this last point with two ads. In 1956 the democrats aired an ad with a picture of Vice-president Nixon and a narrator asking “nervous about Nixon? President Nixon?”. The ad is short and to the point but neither humorous nor very persuasive. Making the same point, an ad from 1968 features a man laughing while a pan-out of a television screen reveals the question “Agnew for Vice-President?”. In the end the man’s laughter turns into violent coughing and the text “this would be funny if it weren’t so serious” appears. By adopting laughter the ad illustrates the silliness of the idea of the inexperienced Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew a heartbeat away from the presidency in a way far more convincing than the Nixon ad from 12 years earlier. This shows how and why humor, while hard to wield, can indeed be a useful political tool.

Nerd Prom and Presidential Humor

Last Saturday the Washington glitterati gathered at the Washington Hilton for what has become a major political event; the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. The draw has over the years become the president doing a stand-up bit followed by a professional comedian roasting more or less everybody in the room. This year’s invited host was Cecily Strong, a Saturday Night Live cast member known for playing The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With. Strong, only the second female to host in the last 20 years, did not go soft on those attending, pun intended. In twenty minutes she made sure to joke both left and right. My personal favorite was when she went after Obama: commenting on criticism that Senator Elizabeth Warren is “too idealistic and her proposed policies are too liberal,” she told people to look at President Obama “people thought the same about US-POLITICS-OBAMAhim and he didn’t end up doing any of that stuff.” Obama’s jokes also hit home, especially his jab at Hillary Clinton: “I have one friend, just a few weeks ago she was making millions of dollars a year and she’s now living out of a van in Iowa”. Indeed, the White House Correspondent’s Dinner has become something of a comedic highlight of the year for those interested in politics, giving it the nickname “Nerd Prom”.

The modern classic of the annual dinners is from 2006 when Stephen Colbert appeared as his signature parody of a conservative media pundit and brutally criticized George W. Bush and the media’s failure to confront his administration. Among the zingers was when he tried to reassure Bush not to pay attention to approval ratings; “we know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in reality. And reality has a well-known liberal bias”. Reports after the dinner claimed that Bush was furious over Colbert’s jokes and especially conservative media pundits agreed that Colbert had gone too far. However, seeing the comedian take on the president as close to mano a mano as you can get is something the audience longs for. In medieval times it was said that the only one who could speak the truth without fear of repercussions was the court jester. Today the court jester is often invisible, even if Jon Stewart is still on the air a couple of months, Larry Wilmore has done an excellent job with the former Colbert Report, and cartoonists like Ann Telnaes of the Washington Post is fighting the good fight. At the White House Correspondent’s Dinner the court jester speaking truth to power should be the main attraction.

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Thanks to Obama You’re Paying for It: The Politics of Sitcoms

The scene is a hospital room where Luke Dunphy, at age 14 the youngest of the Dunphy children, is being treated for an allergic reaction. His young cousin looks at the IV drop hanging by his bed and asks what it does. Without missing a beat Luke replies: ”I don’t know but thanks to Obama you’re paying for it”. This scene from an episode of the popular sitcom Modern Family, which aired the day after Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term in the White House in 2012, was greeted with cheer among conservatives. Several conservative bloggers and news outlets commented on how Modern Family ”mocked” the president’s signature health care reform, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act from 2010. The conservative website RedAlertPolitics expanded, writing: “even liberal Hollywood writers can’t escape the reality that is the expensive repercussions from Obamacare”. Others took to social media, within days several clips of the scene had been uploaded to YouTube and comments written on Twitter.

Commentators connected the joke to earlier reports of advertising plans in connection with the roll out of the online marketplace for the medical coverage in California. The New York Times had reported that suggestions from the Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide agency included having prime-time television shows, explicitly naming Modern Family and Grey’s Anatomy, incorporate the health care law into their storylines. The news of the plan was initially met with skepticism among conservative news outlets, criticizing viewers being “force-fed pro-Obamacare propaganda”. Following the Modern Family episode with the comment on the health care law these same voices gleefully saw it as a backlash towards the attempted marketing campaign.

Nolan Gould, who plays Luke Dunphy on Modern Family

Nolan Gould, who plays Luke Dunphy on Modern Family

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The Laughter of Millions: Finding your Material in the “Vast Wasteland”

In the introduction to The Sitcom Reader: America Viewed and Skewed (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005: 12) Mary M. Dalton and Laura R. Linder conclude that while entertaining, “[sitcoms] are never just entertainment”, but rather a fascinating window into the conventions, structures, and discourses of American culture. Given the genres popularity, longevity, and consistent formula from the early days of television onwards, American sitcoms form a highly interesting source material for historians. Needless to point out, sitcoms feature discourses often consumed by tens of millions of people. The main problem for historians, usually taking on television material qualitatively rather than quantitatively, is the “vast wasteland” this archival treasure amounts to. Thus, to use the immense material television sitcoms constitute the historian must find a way to select the shows that represent the culture, or find himself buried in one-liners, laugh-tracks, and opening themes.

Edith (Jean Stapleton) and Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor)

Edith (Jean Stapleton) and Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor)

The strengths of sitcoms as historical source material lies in their ability to on the one hand reflect the culture they are a product of and on the other hand shape the culture they are consumed in. That is to say, sitcoms are never produced nor enjoyed in a vacuum.

 

While the effects sitcoms have on audiences attitudes and believes hardly can be empirically proven it remains clear that, as John Fiske puts it in Television Culture (London: Routledge, 2010), “Social change does occur, ideological values do shift, and television is a part of this movement”. So, as historians we must find the shows that best captures the zeitgeist of a specific period in time.

This part is rather clear, what is harder is locating a methodologically sound way to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. Depending on your research question material selection can of course sort itself out, if you’re looking for say Asian-American families in the lead you are pretty much left with All-American Girl (ABC 1994) and the upcoming Fresh off the Boat (ABC 2015).

If, however, there are no content requirements on the show beyond them being sitcoms (I will not venture into debates of any authoritarian definition of sitcoms here) you will need clear selection methods to find the canon of sitcoms that most saturated the specific times.

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There’s a Political Cartoonists behind Every Successful Political Cartoon

I dare to venture a guess that most history scholars have at one time or another used a political cartoon to make a historical point, be it in class, in a publication, or even privately in discussions with laymen. In fact, walking through a history department you are bound to find a political cartoon adorning a wall or a professor’s door. Political cartoons are indeed excellent historical source material. The problem is that most of the above uses are superficial and seldom live up to the standards of source criticism historians work by. Reading a cartoon, especially a historical one, is not a “natural” process; it takes work and an understanding of not only the period in question but of visual analysis, of the artist, and of the publication.

With proper methodology cartoons can be even more valuable material for historians than their neighbors on the op-ed pages of daily papers. This stems from the cartoons wide circulation among the readers (studies have found political cartoons to be among the most read parts of the paper), from their encapsulation of salient issues of the day, but perhaps most of all from the fact that a successful cartoon captures the contemporary mentality by essentially using already accepted, or at least, widespread ideas. A few more words on this last aspect; many scholars argue that cartoons have to communicate known ideas for them to be understood and appreciated. Cartoonists tend to agree; “the idea contained in a political cartoon must not only be easily understood but even be already widely established before the cartoonist uses it”, British cartoonist Nicholas Garland explains. Essentially the cartoonist encapsulates the public awareness of an issue and then adds a recognized commentary. This is one of the reasons Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed cartoons to be “often the truest history of the times”. As communication scholar Janis L. Edwards concludes; “political cartoons historicize the present and form a collective record of the social imagination regarding events in political life”.

Considering the frequent use of individual cartoons and the potential of cartoons as source material it is striking how limited historical research of political cartoons is. In fact, Kent Worcester goes as far as comparing the existing scholarship on cartoons to that on political campaign buttons. The most frequently cited reason for this lack of scholarship is methodology. In increasingly inter-disciplinary academia this is, however, no longer an acceptable position; historians must be able to utilize the theories and methods of art history as well as of humor studies and communication studies. A more pressing concern is the limitations the existing lack of scholarship on cartoonists constitutes for any research on their work.

Thomas Nast's famous depiction of Boss Tweed (Harper's Weekly, October 21, 1871)

Thomas Nast’s famous depiction of Boss Tweed (Harper’s Weekly, October 21, 1871)

Thomas Nast, the cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly who “took down Boss Tweed”, is generally accepted as the Great American Cartoonist, and indeed of him there are a few historical biographies ( I review Fiona Deans Halloran’s recent Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons in the upcoming issue of Studies of American Humor). Beyond Nast, the proverbial Hall of Fame for cartoonists is populated by talents such as Joseph Keppler, Homer Davenport, Rollin Kirby, Edmund Duffy, and Ding Darling. Of these earlier cartoonists and influential members of the American press there is some, if limited, historical research; Richard Samuel West’s work on Keppler and Darling, Leland Huot’s book on Davenport, and S.L. Harrison’s research on Edmund Duffy stand out among the few.

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