Popular Culture Research Paper: Comedy in “Color” Television

A young Asian boy sits down beside his classmates in a buzzing elementary school cafeteria. His white classmates converse with one another while eating burgers, sipping on Capri Sun, and munching on jojo’s. He takes out his lunch box, opens the lid, and the strong scent of Asian noodles drifts across the table. His classmates look over and display a look of disgust at the “worms” in his bowl. This is a scene from the pilot of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, a situational comedy about the struggle of an Asian immigrant family to fit into an American suburb.

Comedy television has come a long way since the black-and-white era of television sets. A variety of comedy forms have developed under the television branch of popular culture, such as sitcoms, television series, sketches, and more. The casts of these humorous shows have also diversified over the years, increasing laughter within the nation using relatable humor. More recently, the television industry advocated for racial diversity using a different approach: by creating new comedy series starring minority groups as the main cast. This trend is evident with the creation of breakout hits like Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat. Not only are we seeing more people of color (POC) on television, but we are seeing them tackle serious issues, such as racism, on screen. By discussing the racial conflicts within the country and diversifying character backgrounds, comedy television is spreading racial inclusiveness.

Many TV genres have touched on social issues, but comedy is often overlooked, because it seems like an unlikely genre to go into such matters. The lighthearted atmosphere of a comedy may strike as a distraction to viewers from the objective of emphasizing racism since it is sometimes difficult to interpret in media. However, comedy TV is effective for that exact reason. Its ambiance can create a powerful bond between people of all races with the share of a laugh. Because of that bond, those who are privileged can better understand those who are oppressed. J.P. Rossing, an expert in critical race comedy, stated: “Comic discourses on race provoke reactions that reveal important insights and understandings of this domain of racial knowledge construction” (qtd. in Fulmer 41). Comedy, like other TV genres, provides an outlet for viewers to discern the various forms of racism. The nature of comedy allows people to both learn and laugh. For example, in the pilot episode of Fresh Off the Boat, Louis Huang, the father of the boy mentioned earlier, attempts to hire a white host for his steakhouse restaurant. His reasoning behind it is that “Instead of people coming in and seeing a Chinese face…they see a white face and say, ‘Oh hello, white friend. I am comfortable’” (qtd. in Li 7). This is an illustration of racial comedy in television. The scene shows that racial tension can exist even in an environment as casual as an American restaurant. By portraying it in a light-hearted manner, the show is able to make the audience laugh while providing the lens of an Asian American for white viewers.

Although it may seem like a new concept, racial comedy has been on the scene for many years. According to Robin R. Means Coleman, an associate professor and the author of African American Viewers and the Black Situation Comedy, black narratives on television go through a cycle (quoted in Viruet par. 8).  This theorized cycle points out the sudden increase of black comedies every 20 years. Coleman uses the examples of The Cosby Show among other 90s black sitcoms to demonstrate the validity of her cycle.

Although this trend of multicultural comedy was already established in the TV industry, each revival of it proves to be an enhancement. With each new era comes new, progressive ideas. This is illustrated in comedy, which now remarks on more social issues than ever before. For example, comedies have become much more vocal about racism in recent years, especially with the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Television, like other forms of pop culture, reflects the problems the public encounters during that time period. Another reason why this supposed cycle keeps happening is because of the racial inequality of this industry. A former network program executive of the The Bernie Mac Show, a black comedy on FOX, revealed to the New York Times that “the show’s run was curtailed because advertisers would not pay high rates for the lower-income viewers who were a part of its audience” (Carter). Fortunately for these new shows, more people are speaking out about racial injustice, and the audience has expanded. The number of advocates for racial equality has also increased with the influence of multicultural comedy. Seeing how popular the topic of racial injustice is among these new comedies, it is unlikely that they will leave the small screen anytime soon.

As mentioned previously, the current trend of comedy television is family shows. Family-based comedies are gaining popularity due to the fact that they are marketed toward the many television consumers living at home with their families. As family comedies have almost always been networked toward a white audience, ABC’s addition of multiple comedies featuring diverse families has done two things: 1) successfully draw in viewers next to its competitors’ shows and 2) expand toward a bigger audience. Not only is the network giving new faces more screen time, ABC’s writers are also implementing racial relations into their shows. For instance, an episode of Black-ish showed the Johnson family discussing the controversial police shootings in Ferguson, Missouri. The show’s producer, Kenya Barris, revealed that this particular scene was produced in order to “have that conversation” (Ellwood).

Returning to the scenario from Fresh Off the Boat, ethnocentric behavior was clearly showcased when the American boys were picking on the Asian boy for eating his Taiwanese meal. This is further demonstrated when they tell him to leave. His foreign food indicates that he is different and inferior to them because they have standard American food. By asking him to leave, the boys are implying that he is not qualified to sit with them. In addition, it is important to note that these are only kids. People may not understand cultural norms at an early age, but they are already aware of the many social norms within their communities, especially the ones passed down in the family. In this case, the boy does not fit into their social norm, so he does not belong in the group. In American society, many view foreign foods as “exotic” or “weird.” Stereotypes of certain cultures often make minorities feel discriminated against due to their cultural differences with the American lifestyle.

Whether it is comedy or another genre, television provides perspectives on current events that influence the audience more than they are aware of. The difference with the comedy genre is that it comes with an expectation to make the audience laugh, so viewers may watch these shows with less of a critical lens than that of a documentary. Racism is a sensitive topic, but that is why comedy is the perfect genre to tackle this issue. Comedy television is no longer black and white. There are gray areas that show how far society has come in visualizing colorful ideas.

 

Annotated Bibliography

Carter, Bill. “Diversity in Action, as Well as in Words.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 3 Sept. 2014. Web. 12 Nov. 2016. <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/07/arts/television/abc-aims-for-diversity-with-shows-like-black-ish-and-fresh-off-the-boat.html?_r=0>.

This news article gives a brief overview of ABC’s new trend of comedy television shows, concentrating on non white American families. Several of the new shows’ creators are interviewed to clarify why ABC has decided to diversify their network. Carter states that these new shows have emerged, because the audience wants to watch shows that are personal and relatable.

Quotes from Carter’s sources can be used in my paper to explain why ABC and an increasing number of television networks are creating more inclusive television shows. This article also offers a perspective on the political and marketing side of the TV industry, which are topics I can touch on in my paper when discussing racial conflicts portrayed on screen.

Ellwood, Gregory. “How ‘Black-ish,’ ‘Transparent’ and More Comedy Series Tackle Racism: “We Just Can’t Run From Having These Conversations”” The Hollywood ReporterPrometheus Global Media, 9 June 2016. Web. 13 Nov. 2016. <http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/how-black-ish-transparent-more-900346>.

Ellwood’s article discusses how modern comedy shows address important issues by creating racial and sexual identities for characters to enter a new dimension in comedy television. The article also gives insight from the creators of these new shows about what real-life events prompted them to become more socially-aware on screen.

The trend of minority-family-based comedies will be interesting to analyze. The episode of Black-ish, in which the family discuss police shootings, is an example I can use to show how television comedies help minorities voice their opinion on racism. Modern Family‘s interracial couple are also an example of how shows can connect people of all color, rather than segregating us the way whitewashing shows do.

Fulmer, Ellie Fitts, and Nia Nunn Makepeace. “”It’s Okay to Laugh, Right?”: Toward a Pedagogy of Racial Comedy in Multicultural Education.” Penn GSE Perspectives on Urban Education. The University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education’s Online Urban Education Journal, 2015. Web. 16 Nov. 2016. <http://www.urbanedjournal.org/archive/volume-12-issue-2-fall-2015/%E2%80%9Cit%E2%80%99s-okay-laugh-right%E2%80%9D-toward-pedagogy-racial-comedy-multicultu>.

Li, Quince. “Asian Americans as Leading Men: Reexamining Masculinity in Situational Comedies.” Discover Archive. Discover Archive, 17 Apr. 2015. Web. 12 Nov. 2016. <http://hdl.handle.net/1803/6971>.

Li’s paper analyzes the masculinity portrayed by Asian American television actors. He looks at several leading male characters, including Henry Higgs of Selfie, Louis Huang of Fresh Off the Boat, and Dong Nguyen of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Li infers that all of these men conform to Asian stereotypes portrayed in Western culture. However, he also points out the ways in which these characters reestablish their Asian masculinity. Examples from specific episodes are provided to support this claim.

Of the three shows discussed, I am most familiar with Fresh Off the Boat, so I will be focusing on the characterizations of Louis Huang. This allows me to present more of my own interpretations and personal experiences with the show. Li’s critical lens will be useful in discussing Asian stereotypes on TV.

Rose, Lacey. “Comedy Showrunner Roundtable: Reunions You’ll Never See (Sorry, ‘Friends’ Fans!), Diversity and How to Write Sex Scenes.” The Hollywood Reporter. Prometheus Global Media, 9 June 2016. Web. 13 Nov. 2016. <http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/features/comedy-showrunners-discuss-diversity-sex-scenes-900826>.

Rose’s article features an interview with six comedy writer-producers: Kenya Barris, Nahnatchka Khan, Marta Kauffman, Aline Brosh McKenna, David Mandel and Alan Yang. The interview covers concerns within the television industry, such as bringing up racial issues in shows. Rose also prompts the guests to talk about restrictions placed upon their writing in older shows. 

Interview responses will likely be used to compare the ethical differences in comedy TV then and now. The writers’ push for new, racially progressive narratives highlight the fact that comedy is a discreet platform for diversity not only in the entertainment industry (by hiring more minorities in the field) but everywhere (by portraying minorities on screen as normal people like us).

Ryan, Maureen. “Why TV Is Finally Embracing the Realities of Race.” Variety. Penske Media Corporation, 23 Feb. 2016. Web. 13 Nov. 2016. <http://variety.com/2016/tv/features/television-race-diversity-ratings-1201712266/>.

Ryan’s article mainly focuses on interviews with people behind the popular TV shows that send a positive message. They talk about how people of color have moved from the sidelines to the front in many new shows, exhibiting a new generation of comedy. Ryan also discusses several television shows that have tackled racism using characters who come from a variety of backgrounds.

Although this article covers television several genres, I will be using comedy specifically to show how a genre with the purpose of laughter can also provoke questions about our nation’s racial issues. Quotes from Ryan’s sources will be used in relation to specific shows that I write about, such as Black-ish.

Taflinger, Richard F. “Sitcom: What It Is, How It Works A History of Comedy on Television: Beginning to 1970.” A History of Comedy on Television. Washington State University, 31 May 1996. Web. 16 Nov. 2016. <http://public.wsu.edu/~taflinge/comhist.html>.

Viruet, Pilot. “Are This Season’s Diverse Shows Ushering in a New Era of Multicultural Television?” Flavorwire. Flavorpill Media, 04 Mar. 2015. Web. 12 Nov. 2016. <http://flavorwire.com/507088/are-this-seasons-diverse-shows-ushering-in-a-new-era-of-multicultural-television>.

This article discusses how multicultural television has progressed, its impact on social media, and whether the motives of creating diverse television are genuine. Viruet offers statistics on the ratings of these new shows, examining the longevity of them in the long run. Robin R. Means Coleman, an author and professor, is introduced later in the article to analyze this “new era” of television; she claims this is not a new trend but a cycle that repeats itself every 20 years.

Coleman’s theory of a multicultural TV cycle offers more depth for my research paper. It opens up room for me to delve into television history, specifically in relation to people of color. Viruet’s data on television ratings can be used to analyze how popular the new shows are in comparison to traditionally white comedy shows.

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