Tuesday, January 27, 2015

CORE RESPONSE #1: Bigot's Carnival: Power and the Public Forum in All in the Family

One of the features complicating and balancing Newcomb and Hirsch (following Turner) that we run across watching the Betty the Engineer episode of Father Knows Best and even more emphatically in the Jeffersons’ dinner visit in All in the Family is the function of the voice of the studio audience. Certainly, under the terms of liminality Newcomb and Hirsch describe, All in the Family seems to provide a demarcated space to voice, explore, and purge difficult and antiquated ideas about race and gender. The audience’s reaction often feels like a communal act of refutation: laughing in titillation at the transgressions of Artie Bunker’s slurs and then cheering their rebuke by other characters. But in it, something more seems to be happening.
It seems particularly important that these issues are explored in the context of comedy. Over and above liminality, in this context, the public forum function looks a lot like an exercise in Bakhtinian carnivalesque. The idea, developed by the critic, Mikhail Bakhtin, notably in his Rabelais and his World, holds that historically the dominant social order used the periods of carnival (first in the Middle Ages) to regulate dangerous and subversive ideas and to rehearse progressive notions by giving them a very limited space to invert norms and speak truth to power. He extends this permissiveness to the function of comedy and fiction, which help expel or at least attenuate transgression in a socially safe manner. Under either description, Bakhtin's or Turner's, comedy in the public space serves as a carefully circumscribed means for getting bad or risky ideas out. 
They have this much in common. However, it does strike me that listening to the tone of the audience’s laughter specifically and thinking about it under the terms that come from the carnivalesque, there does seem to be a flavor of ratification in the ritual of the show. We laugh extra hard at Archie’s joke precisely because they are dangerous. They give us a spike of adrenaline-fueled pleasure. He’s crossing lines that voice ideas that are close enough to our own historical patterns of thought to feel risky but are distinct enough that they feel like the voice of an outsider. But we then laugh in a different tone and cheer the rightness of the scolding that he gets. The audience sounds like the dominant social forces congratulating themselves for their shared values and using comedy as a release valve on dangerous ideas so as to maintain order. This seems to go beyond the terms of the public forum ritual Newcomb and Hirsch describe. It’s not purely a contradictory and disinterested undertaking, but a ritual of social regulation that maintains dominant values. 

1 comment:

  1. Such a great point. It's really interesting to look at the way that laughter serves social functions. Even in a darkened theater, it's a way for the audience to communicate with each other. Laughter can say, "Isn't this movie fun!" "I approve of this actor," or even "I'm smart, I know what that reference means." I showed a film at a festival in Houston and it got big laughs, and then I showed it at a festival in Boston and it got less laughs but in more unusual places. I asked my Boston friend about it, and he said, "Audiences in Boston only laugh to show you how smart they are. They're not going to laugh at something unless they think they're the only one who gets that reference." I don't think that's entirely true, but it does illustrate the strange, social function that laughter serves.

    You write, "The audience sounds like the dominant social forces congratulating themselves for their shared values and using comedy as a release valve on dangerous ideas so as to maintain order." This really hits home for me. As someone who does stand up comedy, I am obsessed with the way audiences react to jokes, and I've observed a phenomenon called "clapter." Clapter is when an audience agrees with some statement (usually social or poltical) the comedian made, but it's not that funny of a statement. So rather than force a laugh or be silent, they let their agreement be known by clapping and wooing.

    I'll admit, I appreciate any response from an audience that isn't hostile, but this particular version of "laughing" always has a sheen of smugness that makes it feel hollow. A comedian didn't make a truly funny joke, and the audience isn't laughing at anything surprising. We're just all sitting in a room, agreeing with each other and congratulating ourselves on how progressive we are.