Dave Chappelle and the Tightrope of Provocative Comedy

Comedy, despite popular opinion, is not an easy skill to master. As comedy depends on surprising an audience, no comedian can rely on the same tricks over and over expecting any kind of success. The audience will eventually get bored and cease laughing. Because of this, there can be no standard of comedy that comedians can follow. While there are some characteristics that remain for the most part true over time, comedy must constantly be reinvented in order to maintain its edge. This becomes especially true for comedians that attempt to make compelling statements about society or societal issues in their comedy, as what is considered provocative and what is considered over the line is constantly changing, and in reality is completely different for each individual. In this way, a comedian’s job of pleasing an entire crowd is literally impossible; there is simply no way of ensuring that your comedy will reach every member of an audience the way that you intend. I, personally, am of the opinion that there is no such thing as ‘over the line’ when it comes to comedy. Comedians should be given free reign to make any kind of statement they want because that is their job. In other words, comedians’ job is to be unrestricted and comment about whatever they please. However, while I do believe comedians should be allowed to make fun of whatever they want, I also believe that they have an obligation to do it in a way that is tactful, and more importantly, funny.

Dave Chappelle has always been a comedian that toes the line of what can be considered appropriate. His old hit show, The Chappelle Show, made a lot of striking commentary surrounding many issues, mostly race, and did it in a way that was extremely humorous and memorable. However I have to say, his new comedy specials The Bird Revelation and Equanimity lack the same kind of comedic edge that allowed viewers of The Chappelle Show to laugh along with his more offensive humor. Again, Dave Chappelle has never been one to shy away from controversial topics, and that has not changed. In these two specials, Chappelle tackles issues such as rape, sexual abuse among popular celebrities, and the #MeToo movement. And as expected, he does so very unapologetically, saying whatever he feels is pertinent without holding back any of his more controversial opinions. This is, too a degree, refreshing, and a reminder of what comedians are supposed to be: challengers of the social norm. However, they way Chappelle talks about these issues is often very hit or miss. On one hand, his sardonic wit hasn’t dulled, and his comedic timing is often impeccable. On the other hand however, his lack of tact and propensity to victim-blame often makes his jokes come across as offensive only for the sake of being offensive. In other words, a lot of his humor seems to be trying to to provoke a reaction out of the audience more so than actually attempting to have them question their ways of thinking. I know that, to a degree, this is sort of the point. Chappelle states numerous times that peoples’ ears are “Too brittle” these days, and he is attempting to challenge that notion by pushing people to their breaking point. However, by focusing on the controversy instead of the message, Chappelle risks making his stand-up come across as childish instead of provocative. But beyond all of that, Chappelle’s biggest mistake in these specials is that his jokes often simply aren’t that funny. I feel as though the audience would be much more willing to forgive the nature of these jokes if they found themselves laughing at them more often than they do. As it stands, the awkward silences that often separate his weaker material screams louder than any of the jokes that actually land, and that is a major problem. Perhaps the best example of this would be his joke about the Weinstein scandal where he states that if the criminal had been Brad Pitt, the situation would have been taken much less seriously. This joke is not only outdated and offensive, but also tired. As Jason Zinoman notes in his article about these specials, the joke has been done before by Chris Rock, and it wasn’t especially funny then either.

I believe that people should stop criticizing Dave Chappelle for his controversial statements and begin criticizing him for the real problem: his sudden inability to make us laugh. Because a comedian can’t be faulted for speaking his mind, but he can be for not being funny.

Netflix and the Advance of Multiculturalism

Times are changing for the better in a lot of ways. As modern thinking develops and flourishes, a lot of steps have been taken towards removing the inequality that has undeniably permeated western society for many generations. Part of the process of lessening the divide between cultures includes introducing people to different perspectives on racial identity. Luckily, Netflix, among other platforms, has recently taken great strides to offer diverse programming that provides these perspectives in entertaining ways. Dear White PeopleOn My Block, and Luke Cage all address issues of racial identity and tension in different ways and often challenge preconceived notions the audience may have about the characters and the lives they lead.

Luke Cage present’s it’s story from the perspective of a man with many powerful positive qualities. The titular character is noble, intelligent, and pensive, fighting crime while withholding many of the bombastic qualities superheroes tend to have. This makes his character come across as wise and easy to respect while also still maintaining a heroic sense of justice that he is not afraid to back up with force. But even though his character contains so many positive traits, he still has to put up with negative opinions and uncalled for discrimination in his quest to fight crime and corruption. In Luke Cage’s backstory, he was a simple city cop before being framed for a crime he didn’t commit. With all of the recent news stories regarding unjust racial profiling from law enforcement, it becomes easy to see how the law could turn against the honest Cage so bluntly, and how this racial perspective factors in to his complex character. In other words, his character becomes much more sympathetic and understandable once you take into account his racial identity and how it has affected his life, for better or worse.

In contrast to the superhero action presented by Luke CageOn My Block takes a more intimate look at the lives of four kids from different backgrounds in a coming-of-age sort of storytelling way. In the first episode of the show, it becomes clear that all four of the main characters are facing their own unique challenges regarding their race, class, and/or background. Cesar, for example, finds himself being dragged into a gang due to his family history despite the fact that wants nothing to due with it. The feeling of being trapped and stuck within a situation that you have no control over I imagine feels very familiar to anyone dealing with their own racial injustices, and the show does a great job of making sure his story is presented sympathetically. Another character, Jamal, seems to be struggling with similar issues regarding the differences between himself and his father, and I look forward to watching more of the show and seeing where that story arc goes. Overall, On My Block does a great job of addressing the frustration many people, especially teenagers, feel regarding the injustices they face due to factors they have no control over.

Finally we have Dear White People, which takes a much more direct approach in its view on racial relationships and perspective. Dear White People addresses the concept of modern racism very shamelessly, starring a group of black students attending a college made up of mostly white ones. In the first episode, a girl named Sam goes up against a ‘blackface’ party that has begun to take root within her college campus. The premise and its execution are definitely powerful and bring up issues that I believe a lot of people would often prefer to ignore, and I found its direct, blunt approach to be refreshing in a lot of ways. However, there are drawbacks to this way of confronting issues. In its attempt to be unapologetically clear about racial injustice, there are times when the show begins to display and even promote an ‘Us vs Them’ mentality between white people and minorities. Even the title of the show evokes a focus on separation, and while I can see why they chose such an evocative name, challenging racial issues by directly calling out certain groups can lead to members of those groups closing their minds and hearts entirely. They do this because they feel personally blamed and attacked, and no matter where the fault actually lies, tact must be utilized to ensure that real communication can occur.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reality TV: Often Anything But

I, like many others, have always looked upon reality TV with some degree of disdain. From the moment I was introduced to shows like American Idol, Survivor, and any of the dozens of home makeover shows on HGTV, I knew that the reality television genre was not for me. That is not to say that there are no reality TV shows that I have watched and enjoyed. There was a time in which I would catch an episode or two of Pawn Stars daily, as I enjoyed seeing what strange and interesting antiques and collectibles would find their way onto the show. However, even as I watched the few reality shows I liked, I could never shake the feeling that everything I was seeing on screen was ironically extremely fake. I cringed (and still do cringe) whenever I saw the plastered on smiles and heard the canned, dull jokes people on reality TV shows always wielded. Now I have seen the first episodes of two of Netflix’s attempts at re-imagining the reality TV genre, Queer Eye, and Nailed It!, and, I have to say, it has not changed my opinion so much as it has slightly adjusted it.

If there’s one thing good I can say about the two shows mentioned above, it is that they manage to remove a lot of the ‘trashiness’ that was often inherently involved in a lot of reality programming. And when I say ‘trashiness’, what I mean is mean-spirited or low-brow attempts at entertaining viewers. In other words, an appeal to the lowest common denominator that ends up making the show, at best, a guilty pleasure for many people. Now, not all reality shows always relied on this kind of content, but many of them forced a competitive edge into their shows in order to create fake conflict and drama. In contrast, Queer Eye does not promote any kind of conflict, instead focusing on life improvement and actual home design in a positive manner. Nailed It!, on the other hand, does have a competitive aspect to it, but tones down the conflict between the cooks to focus more on what they are actually cooking.

I still have to say that I did not enjoy watching these shows, however. While Queer Eye did leave me with positive vibes, I simply am not very interested in the “makeover program” (Roxborough) genre to the extent where I am willing to sit through a full episode of it. Similarly, I am not very interested in the “talent contest” style of show either, and I had some problems with the way that Nailed It! occasionally seemed to take a mocking tone towards its contestants. Despite this, I do believe that in changing the places where these shows hold their entertainment value, Netflix has succeeded in removing a lot of the “disposable nature” (Roxborough) present in a lot of reality television. Furthermore, I think that Netflix has even been able to bring in some aspects to these shows that hold value above and beyond entertainment. Queer Eye in particular held, I believe, intelligent lessons on open-mindedness and concepts of masculinity. While I do not believe that the show manages to say anything ground-breaking or revolutionary, and the morals it provides is somewhat lessened by the fact that Tom’s (The subject of the first episode) struggle is being aired publicly, it does challenge the viewer to think and apply lessons from the show in their real lives. They have, in other words, brought some reality to reality television.

The Problem With Documentaries

Documentaries can be somewhat of a niche genre of film for a lot of people. While there are many people who love watching television and movies for educational purposes, documentaries often appeal less to mainstream audiences than groups interested in specific topics or issues. There are several reasons for this. One is that documentaries are often based around a particular and specifc topic, limiting its potential viewer base to those who are interested in learning about the focus of the film. Second is that documentaries are educational, and while there are a lot of people interested and entertained by learning more about certain subjects, there are plenty of people who would rather spend their free time engaging with programs that are more suited directly towards making sure that the viewer is having a good time.

But what does this mean in regards to the creation and more importantly the distribution of documentaries? It means that, in a lot of cases, documentaries are simply not profitable. And because of this, many major networks and streaming services do not offer many documentaries to watch, preferring to avoid programs that may end up being liabilities in favor of ones that will appeal to a wider audience and therefore guarantee revenue. Because of this, extremely well made, entertaining, and enlightening documentaries are often limited to being released in small theaters and film festivals, finding praise but not much in the way of popularity or financial success.

However to a degree, this has begun to change recently. Netflix, responding to consumer interest, has begun to offer more and more documentaries as part of its streaming service, from feature length offerings like Icarus and 13th to episodic series like Making a Murderer and Evil Genius. This has been a great boon to the documentary genre, as having a documentary be hosted on Netflix ensures that many people will have a chance to see it. This helps documentary creators find an audience and make money off of the projects that they have invested countless time and money into creating. However, some people have noticed and expressed concern over the fact that the catalog of documentaries Netflix offers is very limited in specific ways. Specifically, Netflix has shied away from the more niche, original programs that target very specific demographics in favor of more traditional offerings that appeal to a wider array of audiences.

The reason for Netflix’s focus on more traditional documentaries is entirely a financial one. With Netflix’s consumer friendly image and focus on entertainment it is easy to forget that, when it comes down to it, Netflix is and always has been a business with the goal of making money. As Sudeep Sharma states in her essay Netflix and the Documentary Boom, “Netflix provides access to various materials, but purely on the basis that access to the material will in some way improve profits for the company.” (144) Sharma goes on to compare Netflix with both a library and a newsstand, deciding that it is much more similar to the latter. Because of this, Netflix does not want to risk turning off potential subscribers by having them see programs that do not interest them, and would much rather fill its library with documentaries that many people would enjoy. While I do think that, to an extent, it is a shame that Netflix cannot offer many brilliant, unique documentaries a home,  I also understand that Netflix would not have the resources to offer any programs a home if it made bad business decisions that put the company at risk. It is hard to accept, but commercial companies will always have to prioritize financially viable options over risky gambles. I believe that it is up to the consumers to make what they want to see financially viable for the company.

13th was a supremely engaging and enlightening watch that opened my eyes to many injustices regarding America’s treatment of African Americans that still go on to this day. However, there is no doubt in my mind that Netflix chose to host this program has a clear means of profit. While the mistreatment of African Americans in our country has been a huge problem for many generations now, over the last couple years there has been a large spike in interest over the subject. Netflix, by hosting 13th, is very clearly attempting to capitalize and profit on this trend. I have to admit that while I am very happy to see media addressing these issues be made available to many people, there is something uncomfortable to me about the way Netflix is cashing in on real pain, suffering and injustice. In this case, I do believe that the ends justifies the means however.

Evil Genius, on the other hand, markets itself easily as the insanity present in both the documentary and the real life crime it covers is undeniably fascinating and mesmerizing. Evil Genius, as I mentioned above, is an episodic documentary, and I believe that this is extremely fitting. While it is based on true events and does take its subject matter seriously, Evil Genius is at the same time, quite sensational, drawing on the uniqueness and morbidity of its subject matter to draw its audience in and keep them hooked on cliffhangers. By making the series episodic, it sacrifices a bit of its comprehensiveness for a better entertainment value, weaving more of a narrative which fits what the show is going for more. Feature length documentaries on the other hand often feel less like a narrative and more like a lecture, foregoing attempts at hooking the audience in exchange for a more encompassing look at a topic.

 

The Animation Age Ghetto

Animation, and as an extension animated works, have a certain stigma attached to them. Every time a major, groundbreaking piece of animated media is released, there is always critics clamoring to observe that, yes, this animated movie or TV show is not limited to just being enjoyed by kids and yes, even adults should go see it. As Randell and Randell-Moon state in their essay ‘The Man from Isis’, animation “is generally perceived to be less serious than its live action counterpart.” (136) It is as if animation as a concept is inherently suitable for children instead of any self-respecting adult. But why is that the case? Why is there a preconception in the West that animated movies and TV shows cannot be enjoyed by discerning viewers looking for deep plot or rich characterization? This restrictive view on animation is often refered to as the “Animation Age Ghetto”, and only recently has the West begun to move away from this line of thinking.

It is hard to pin down exactly how the Animation Age Ghetto came to be, but a common theory is that it is a by-product of low quality animation being present in 50s and 60s television. Due to the fact that the poor animations could often only be enjoyed by children, the association between television animation and kids began to develop. Eventually, animated works began to be written exclusively for children, and animation marketed towards adults was seen as unprofitable. It is important to note, however, that the ghetto was not as prevalent in other areas in the world like Japan, a monolith of animated entertainment. In Japan, animated programs (often referred to in the West as ‘anime’) were very often produced with mature themes and writing meant for adults. This could often cause problems when companies attempted to import and distribute anime to Western audiences. These companies would often cut and censor shows in an attempt to market them towards children, with often disastrous results including completely unrecognizable plots and confusingly retconned character arcs. Perhaps this difference can be attributed to the work of Osamu Tezuka, creator of Astro Boy and forefather of modern anime, who added mature themes and ideas into his work from the beginning.

Nowadays the Animation Age Ghetto has begun to collapse in the West thanks to breakout animated adult hits such as The Simpsons, Archer, South Park, and BoJack Horseman. All of these shows provided smart, cutting satirical comedy that often went deeper into issues than many of their live-action counterparts, and found great success in doing so. They go beyond what is typically expected of animated works in the West and put great effort into utilizes the strengths of animation to tell complete, adult stories while not often relying on cheap gimmicks or clichés to deliver their message. These shows are completely unwelcoming to children, as their subject matter and comedy often depends on an adult level of understanding and experience to fully realize themselves. It is important to note that while the Animation Age Ghetto is breaking down, there are still some leftover stigma attached to animation that still lingers. Almost all of the big name animated shows in the West are, at least partly, comedies, although many of them mix in other genres as well. This shows that animated works are still being pigeonholed to some degree as lower entertainment, although some shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender as well as the growing popularity of anime in the West have proven that there is a demand for quality non-comedic animated works as well. The Netflix shows BoJack Horseman and F is For Family break this trend to some degree. While both can undeniably be considered comedies, they focus more on dramatic elements that separate them from typical comedy tropes. BoJack Horseman, before being a comedy, is an intense and realistic look at self-destructive behavior, while F is For Family explores the effect returning from war can have on a man and his family. Big Mouth, while focusing on its comedy more so than my other examples, still does a good job of defining and showcasing some of the many problems people face in adolescence.

Overall, animation is a deeply misunderstood medium that still has a lot of stigma to break through before the West is ready to appreciate it fully in the mainstream. It is important for the future of mainstream animation that a level of quality be maintained as low-brow animated comedies such as Family Guy and American Dad can often have negative effects on the public perception of animation. However, change is happening fast thanks to pioneering, quality titles being produced by talented writers, actors and animators. If you couldn’t tell, I am a huge fan and critic of animation myself, and I cannot wait to see the heights Western animation can reach when unnecessary limitations are removed.

The Multi-Camera Sitcom: A Love-Hate Relationship

Sitcoms, or situational comedies, are a genre of comedy that I have always had strong opinions on, for better or worse. There have been periods of my life in which I would binge watch Friends or How I Met Your Mother for hours at a time while browsing the internet or playing games. I always enjoyed the light plots and sense of community and family that develops between the characters and the viewer as well as the humor and ridiculousness of some of the plots. There have also been periods in my life in which I hated sitcoms and actively avoided them. During these periods, I would mock the genre for it’s repetitive and “easy” humor, it’s inconsequential and episodic plots, and it’s grating and almost insulting overuse of laugh tracks. The main object of my distaste was the sitcom The Big Bang Theory, which added on a heaping helping of mean-spirited nerd stereotypes to ensure that every episode would act as digital repellant for me. I still hate The Big Bang Theory, and still think that there are problems with the sitcom genre that often keep it from rising above the status of  low brow ‘junk food TV’. However, recent shows I have watched, most prevalently the beginning half of the first season of One Day at a Time, have done great jobs at changing my point of view and helping me come to an understanding of exactly what goes into making a sitcom, and what a good sitcom is attempting to accomplish.

One Day at a Time is a multi-camera sitcom. This means that it is filmed using more than one camera in front of a live studio audience that provides the laugh track that these shows are so infamous for. This is in contrast to single-camera shows, which, of course, use one camera and no audience. Reading the assigned articles on the subject and watching “The One that Goes Behind the Scenes”, a short documentary about the filming of an episode of Friends, has given me a new understanding of why this format exists and the strengths it provides to the genre.

To begin, I never realized how much effort goes into filming just a single episode of a show with this method. According to Pili Valdes’s article on going to a taping of One Day at a Time, it took them four hours to record an episode, and “The One that Goes Behind the Scenes” states that it would take them five hours to record twenty-two minutes of showtime for Friends. That is an incredible amount of work, and that doesn’t even acknowledge the massive amount of man hours spent before the taping on writing, set design, lighting, practice, and a million other things. All of this is done in specific ways so that the show can take full advantage of the multi-camera format. They do this because having a studio audience (and with it, a laugh track) helps create an important relationship between the viewers at home and the show. I mentioned before that one of the things I enjoyed most about sitcoms was the bond that develops between the viewer and the characters, and I now understand that the inclusion of a studio audience goes a long way to further this. As Manuel Betancourt states in his article about One Day at a Time, a laugh track implemented well “quite literally allowed viewers at home to feel as if they were there, laughing alongside those in the audience. Their own laughter was there in the show’s soundtrack, as were their gasps and their cheers.” This sense of community is key to making a sitcom work, and gives me a new appreciation for the laugh track beyond a cheap gimmick to make unfunny jokes funny.

I very much enjoyed watching the first few episodes of One Day at a Time, and I believe that a big factor in that was how the show addresses modern issues. Tackling issues prevalent to their time is a common thing for sitcoms to do, but I’ve never seen a show that does it so directly in this day and age. I enjoy some early sitcoms, but the issues they address have lost some of their meaning over time. Furthermore, a lot of them take weak or mostly passive stances to avoid offending people. One Day at a Time, on the other hand, makes clear stances on the issues of modern feminism, homosexuality, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is incredibly refreshing, and makes me more inclined to take the show seriously as a piece of social commentary rather than simple mindless entertainment. I particularly enjoyed the character of Elena. While I know that she can probably come across as annoying to viewers who may not like her persistent progressivism, I found her to often be a driving force for some of the most interesting and powerful issues explored in the show. Sitcoms aren’t dead yet, and One Day at a Time, at the very least, has helped revive one viewers interest in a genre that he thought may have been obsolete.

Netflix and Genres

For my Evaluating Contemporary Television class I recently watched three Netflix original series. These series are Godless, Lost in Space, and Santa Clarita Diet. While I watched these shows, the concept of genre was hard not to think about, as all three of them (with one possible exception) defined themselves very clearly in that regard. To begin, Godless is a western, and does nothing to disguise this fact from the viewer. In just the first episode, many of the common themes of westerns are immidiately prevalent, from trains and outlaws to ranches and showdowns between gunslingers in a canyon. Heck, the very first scene of the show features a cowboy riding into a western town torn apart by violence. As Sophie Gilbert states in her article ‘What Godless says about America’, “Westerns have long played a part in building the lore of American history”, meaning that the western genre is deeply rooted in American values and traditions.  However, that does not mean that the viewer needs to be a fan or even very familiar with westerns to enjoy the show. This is mostly because of the fact that westerns are often structured in regards to thematic binaries. In other words, a clear opposition between two organizations or idealogies like law versus chaos in the case of Godless.

I personally am neither a huge fan of the western genre nor a detractor, but I am fairly interested in science fiction, the genre of the next Netflix original I watched: Lost in Space. I have seen a few episodes of the original Lost in Space from 1965, and while I did enjoy it, I believe that the new re-imagining of the series manages to update its themes and tone to something that modern viewers may enjoy more while still maintaining the family friendly spirit of it’s predecessor. Science fiction, or sci-fi, has changed a lot over the past few decades. Gone, for the most part, are the campy dialogue and shiny spacesuits of the past, being replaced by more realistic depictions of space travel and explorations of the human condition. Lost in Space does a great job of toeing the line between these two methodologies. One of the biggest changes between the new Lost in Space and the old one regards one of it’s most iconic characters, the robot. The robot from the original series is a goofy, emotional character despite the fact that he is a machine. The newer design emphasizes his humanity more, giving him more of a humanoid shape that allows the audience to take him a little more seriously, which I think is a good idea, despite the fact that it may displease some diehard fans of the original. As Jeff Spry says in his article on SyfyWire, “fortifying the tonal middle ground was of primary concern in this project,” and the older design of the robot would have compromised that middle ground completely.

Finally, I also watched Santa Clarita Diet, my least favorite of the three shows. Santa Clarita Diet is a horror-comedy, a difficult combination of genres to have work well. This is because the intentions of the two genres are almost exact opposites of each other, with horror shows attempting to scare the viewer while comedies are trying to make them laugh. I believe that Santa Clarita Diet fails to find this delicate balance, instead leaning very heavily on the comedy while substituting excessive gore for actual scares. This doesn’t mean that the show doesn’t work in some truly disturbing and unsettling moments here and there (the scene where Sheila bites off a man’s fingers comes to mind), but I can’t help but wonder if the show would be better off abandoning it’s attempts at cheap horror entirely in favor of completely embracing the humor. Instead of the contrast between the gore and humor making for a “delightfully uncomfortable watch” as Jacob Oller states in his review for Paste Magazine, I believe that they both distract from each other, creating an imbalance that weakens the entire show.

I believe that genre can be a very useful tool to help guide creators in utilizing tropes that fit a theme properly. In other words, I believe that genres, when not perceived as unbreakable laws, help creators avoid conflicting tones and narrative devices that displease audiences. For audiences, genres help them realize their own preferences so that they may avoid watching shows that do not match their interests. It is a fact that some shows will not be to certain viewer’s tastes despite their quality. At times, an entire society’s taste in genre may shift based on real world events, breathing new life into styles of shows untouched for many years.