This week we continue our series of reports from the Humanities Research Seminar on the topic of humor. Here, TU student Tracy Kinealy explores contemporary television shows that seek to transform the everyday into something funny and use funny things to transform our day-to-day lives.
Humor is the new cool: a social tool, a badge of honor, and a method of both confrontation and avoidance. At times, it is a substitute for depth of communication or thought. Alternatively, humor can provide commentary on current society and politics. In other cases, it may be used as a defense mechanism, a shield for deflecting criticism or ridicule. Still elsewhere, humor can help mediate moments of discomfort, uncertainty, and tension. Yet, I frequently find that several of these uses collide in 21st-century employment of humor. In fact, some contemporary audiences choose only to confront certain issues and events if they are cloaked in humor—otherwise, they are content to ignore or suppress them, maintaining the status quo or their own peace of mind.
In order to explore this hypothesis, the Humanities Research Seminar explored three popular TV shows: The Office (US Version), Parks and Recreation, and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Each of these programs tackles potentially mundane elements of everyday life through a comedic lens. In doing so, they both mock and showcase the tedious yet essential elements of our workaday world.
Often, The Office is referred to as a mockumentary—“a facetious or satirical work (as a film) presented in the style of a documentary” (Merriam-Webster). NBC Universal’s own synopsis of the sitcom supports this claim, describing the show as, “a hilarious documentary-style look at the humorous, and sometimes poignant, foolishness that plagues the 9-to-5 world.” By showcasing the day-to-day events of Dunder Mifflin, Inc.’s Scranton, PA branch, The Office pokes fun at the various antics, feuds, and inefficiencies the viewer might come across in their typical office environment. Thus, a mockumentary, such as The Office, can serve as a means of interrogating the frustrations or absurdities we find in our contemporary society, in this case seen through the microcosm of the average white-collar workplace.
Likewise, Parks and Recreation, which initially employed the mockumentary format only to drop it later on in the series, “documents” the adventures of “a mid-level bureaucrat [Leslie Knope] in the Parks and Recreation Department of Pawnee, Indiana, and her tireless efforts to make her quintessentially American town just a little bit more fun.” In the show, Knope and her coworkers must sift through the at-times conflicting agendas of public opinion and government efficiency (or lack thereof). Through the use of comedy, these issues are resolved in a light-hearted and endearing way whereas, in reality, they might have more severe consequences and would certainly not be considered as amusing as they are made to appear in the show. In this way, Parks and Recreation also uses humor to mediate the problems we face in our everyday lives.
Lastly, HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, too, incorporates humor into the everyday, this time as a filter through which to approach current events around the world. One of several comedy news shows that have appeared in the last couple decades, Last Week differs from similar programs in a few key ways. Airing only once a week, for a single half-hour, Oliver chooses to unmask topics that are habitually those left by the wayside by regular news outlets and other comedic commentators. Despite this, he delves into these issues with investigative zeal, emphatic delivery, and the research muscles to back it up. The result: astounding success.
In fact, some of Oliver’s videos might be the catalyst for public activism. For example, his segment on net neutrality, which aired June 1, 2014, took the time to break down this complex and crucial issue, which many found, as Oliver phrased it, “the most boring thing I’ve ever seen!…even boring by C-Span standards” (Bauder). The next day, the F.C.C.’s website was overwhelmed with comments. Yet, Oliver maintains that he is in no way a journalist, staunchly declaring himself a comedian and nothing more. Nevertheless, his palpable passion for and investment in the problems he chooses to address is evident. We are left, therefore, with a conundrum: if this is all just fun and games, what do we do when we come back to our daily lives, rife with these same—quite serious—problems?
By considering these examples of 21st-century comedy, I want to explore how we are using humor to engage with our contemporary everyday world. What do we make of comedy that plays at previously considered “serious” arenas of documentary and journalistic work? Does humor preclude sincerity? And, most of all, why do some of us feel that we must mediate our everyday world through the lens of humor in order for it to be palatable?