Fandom and genre: Comic distance and emotional attachment in Parks and Recreation fandom

I presented this paper at the Fan Studies Conference at UEA (4-5 July, 2015). The conference was excellent. Fellow On/Off Screen contributors Bertha Chin and Rebecca Williams are on the FSN board, and both Rebecca and Lori Morimoto presented papers at the conference. My attendance was funded by the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research, where I´m part of the Body Genres research cluster (formerly Screen Cultures).

Kamikaze

I´m currently working on a larger multi-text and multi-sited study of online audience engagement with screen comedy, and in this paper I´d like to focus on one of the issues I´m exploring, which is the role of comic distance. This concept informs a lot of academic work on comedy and it´s about how comedic texts use various strategies to distance audiences from the portrayed events, so that we can laugh when things go wrong, rather than just feel sorry for characters or worry about them. To me, there seems to be a tension between this idea of distance and the attachments that fans develop to their fan objects, and so I´m interested in exploring how comedic texts also invite audience investment and how online fan responses to comedy might negotiate this push/pull dynamic. So what I want to do here is to try to unpack the notion of comic distance and to use the case study of the Tumblr-based fandom of mockdocumentary sitcom Parks and Recreation to explore how these Tumblr posts articulate different affective registers.

Theoretical framework

To clarify my own approach to understanding comedy, I think of the experience of humour as embodied and performative. This draws on Ahmed´s (2004) theory of emotions, which argues that we inscribe objects or others with certain attributes through our affective encounters. So, when I perceive a sitcom as being funny, my performance of amusement constructs the show as having the essential quality of being funny, while also constructing my own identity as a comedy viewer with particular experiences and tastes. My individual encounters with comedy are situated within a wider “affective economy” (8) of cultural discourses around what is funny and what isn´t, and within this environment my repetitive performances of amusement reinforce cultural norms (194).

But amusement is of course not the only possible feeling in responses to comedy. Screen comedy can adopt different strategies to encourage viewers to read moments as exciting, sad or romantic, for example, and I think the semiotic concept of “modality” offers a useful way in for thinking about how that happens. I´m using the definition of modality provided by Hodge and Tripp (1986), which describes it as concerning “the reality attributed to a message” by a speaker and a listener (104).

A weaker modality is signalled by excessive performances, for example, or unlikely events, and it offers comic distance by reminding us that what we are seeing is not “real”. This encourages us to relax and laugh at characters´ failures and mishaps. In contrast, a stronger modality can invite us to care about characters and get invested in their relationships. Many narrative-driven comedies, including Parks and Recreation, will use subtle and more marked modality shifts to offer viewers comic pleasures while also including moments that are positioned closer to reality in different ways, to encourage other affective responses, to follow the narrative, care about what happens, and develop emotional attachments to the show.

 Data

So how were these shifts in comic distance negotiated through the fan responses on Tumblr? I collected and coded the 100 top posts tagged #Parks and Recreation about a week after the show´s final episode was shown in the US and then examined some of the blogs that were dedicated to specific characters and comedians on the show. Those of you who are familiar with Tumblr will be unsurprised to hear that the majority of posts in my sample were screenshots and animated GIFs and GIF sets, mostly with captions quoting the dialogue from those depicted moments.

Key practice: Quotation

A study by Hillman et al (2014) found that GIFs let fans post key scenes for discussion and creative reworking. In my sample, however, there was hardly any evidence of discussion. Most posts were just sharing particular moments from the show, a practice we can term quoting. This absence of analysis reproduces a cultural discourse that distinguishes between appropriate and inappropriate ways of talking about comedy. While analysis is seen to kill the joke or as taking comedy too seriously, quoting comedy stays within “the realm of humour” (Mulkay 1988: 21) and maintains comic distance. This practice is a key pleasure in comedy fandom.

Comedy quotations have traditionally entailed the spoken performance of comedic dialogue, which detaches lines from their visual context and reinforces the cultural privileging of verbal over visual humour. On Tumblr, though, the emphasis was on imagery as the screenshots and GIF sets draw our attention to performances, while also showing us costumes, sets, camera work, and so on. Within this quotation culture, posters are perhaps primarily rewarded for their ability to select textual moments or paratexts that resonate with other fans. Such resonance is indicated by the number of “notes” a post attracts, which comprises “likes” and reblogging by other users. As Abbott (2014) argues, Tumblr´s focus on “microblogging” foregrounds curation, sharing and annotation over longer, original content. And as popular #Parks and Recreation posts are shared with a widening audience, this repetition reinforces the salience of particular textual moments within that fan culture.

Affective resonances

Betz (2014) suggests that fan screenshots and GIFs can be seen as a “continuous flow of affective images” (para. 2) that enable Tumblr users to align themselves with others who have similar affective interpretations of characters. So what kinds of affective resonances were indicated by posts in my sample? Of the 100 posts I examined, 65 clearly articulated amusement, but 25 did not.

Amongst the humorous posts I found an emphasis on moments where Leslie, Andy, April and Ron are behaving in ways that reiterate key comedic character traits: Leslie is being intense, Andy is acting as a fool, April is resisting social conventions and Ron is presenting stern verdicts. However, across these expressions of amusement there also seemed to be articulations of other affective responses, such as admiration for Leslie´s commitment, for April´s rebelliousness, for Andy´s exuberance and for Ron´s snappy authority.

These compound affective responses suggest to me that, while fans might sometimes laugh “at” characters and feel superior to them, this sense of superiority is destabilised because they also inscribe those characters with value and develop attachments to them over the course of the show. And as Mills (2011) has noted, the comedian´s position of power complicates this relationship further. A particularly interesting case here is the contrast between Andy as a chubby, sweet-natured fool and actor Chris Pratt´s persona as a buff, accomplished action star, developed through the blockbusters Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World. Chris Pratt´s stardom complicates readings of Andy as a buffoon. This incongruity was a focal point in Tumblr blogs dedicated to the actor, with posts frequently expressing bemusement, admiration and affection.

I think the interest in the comedian / character relationship also highlights a key issue in the push/pull relationship between comedic texts and audiences. While a comedic modality can distance us from a character´s misfortune, for example, the enjoyable sense of amusement might make us feel close to those who “gave” us that jokework or comic situation, which we might consider to be the characters but also the writers, the director or the performers, for example. We might feel a sense of shared understanding, maybe, or a sense of gratitude for the pleasurable experience. And while a comedic modality reminds us that the events we see are fictitious, it also draws attention to the “realness” of the performers and the “authenticity” of their displays of comedic skills in improvisation, comic timing and physical clowning, for example. So, comedy invites viewers to adopt reading strategies that shift between different orientations towards characters and performers (Cook 1982), which results in quite a complex interplay between proximity and distance that opens up for different kinds of emotional attachments.

Newman (2014) emphasises that what is “unquoted” is as important as what is included in quotation culture because the repeated process of selection can help form the meanings of texts. By circulating posts that focus on specific character traits, fans co-create a hierarchy of characters and inscribe certain traits with value. It is notable that Chris, Tom, Donna, and Gerry were peripheral in the #Parks and Recreation posts, despite some of them featuring prominently in the show. In contrast, Ben and Ann were only occasionally the sole focus of humorous posts but more frequently included in posts about their relationships with Leslie. I think this indicates the value placed on “shipping” and what we might call “friendshipping” in this fan culture.

While shipping often involves conflicts between groups of fans who support different romantic relationships, here there was a focus on the friendships between Leslie / Ron and Leslie / Ann as well as the two most stable romances in the show, which are April / Andy and Leslie / Ben. Both of these romantic couples meet, date, marry and have children over the course of the sitcom and there was no evidence of fans shipping these characters with alternative partners. This shipping practice, then, should be situated within the stability of the sitcom genre, where viewers tend to expect a happy ending. So while Ann leaves the show in season 6, her return for the show finale cements hers and Leslie´s friendship.

Interestingly, there was no evidence of fans shipping the romance between Ann and Chris, although they date briefly and are later reunited and have a baby. I suspect the marginalisation of this ship in the fan culture is a result of the way it is cued in the show. While the representations of the Andy / April and Ben / Leslie relationships do function as sources of humour, they also encourage viewers to invest in those romances through occasional shifts to more complex modalities (King 2002: 13) that position them closer to reality and invite “[a]ffective implication” (Purdie 1993: 85). The resonance of such moments were indicated by several posts in my sample, which included quotations of Ben´s proposal to Leslie and his suggestion that they start a family, as well as quotations of April expressing her love for Andy and giving him encouragement when he was worried about his job.

In contrast, the romance between Ann and Chris is nearly always cued as comedic in the show. While Ann is usually the “straight” character that we see reacting to the comic behaviour of other characters, Chris is represented through a modality of comic excess. His absurdly exaggerated behaviour invites audiences to feel superior to him, and the disparity between him and Ann constructs their relationship as a comic incongruity. This maintains the comic distance between the couple and the viewers, hindering the intense emotional investment or “feels” that is a key pleasure in shipping (Hillman et al 2014: 7).

Conclusion

So, to sum up, I think the push/pull strategy of comedic texts can be usefully examined through the concept of modality, through the idea of fans inscribing characters with value through affective encounters, and by thinking about how comic distance invites proximity to performers and other creative personnel. Approaching quotation posts on Tumblr as articulations of affective resonance, I found a marked emphasis on the expression of amusement at key character traits, along with feelings of admiration and affection, which complicates the idea that we are laughing at characters because we feel superior to them and indicates fan attachments.

I also identified a focus on the shipping of friendships and romantic relationships that are represented through shifting modalities within the text, and an absence of shipping of a romance that is cued primarily as comedic in the show. Finally, it´s worth noting that even shipping posts were overwhelmingly in the form of quotations, rather than discussion, which suggests that even though comedies can use textual strategies to decrease comic distance and invite audience investment, the notion of comic distance might still inform our understanding of appropriate ways to articulate such investment.

References:

Abbott, Daisy (2014) “Old plays, new narratives: fan production of new media texts from broadcast theatre.” In Huson Moura, Ricardo Sternberg, Regina Cunha, Cecilia Queiroz and Martin Zeilinger (eds) Proceedings of the Interactive Narratives, New Media & Social Engagement International Conference. http://interactiveconference.spanport.utoronto.ca/resources/InteractiveNarratives-proceedings.pdf

Ahmed, Sara (2004) The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

Betz, Stephanie (2014) “Affective Moorings: The Online Sociality of Fandom”. ASAANZ/AAS Conference, Queenstown, 20-13 November.

Cook, Jim (1982) ‘Narrative, comedy, character and performance’. In J. Cook (ed.) BFI Dossier 17: Television sitcom. London: BFI, pp. 13-18

Hillman, Serena, Procyk, Jason and Neustaedter, Carman (2015) “‘alksjdf;lksfd’: Tumblr and the Fandom User Experience”. DIS ’14 Proceedings of the 2014 conference on Designing interactive systems, pp. 775-784. h

Hodge, Robert and Tripp, David (1986) Children and Television: A Semiotic Approach. Stanford: Stanford University Press

King, Geoff (2002) Film Comedy. London: Wallflower

Mills, Brett (2011) “‘A pleasure working with you’: Humour theory and Joan Rivers”. Comedy Studies 2(1): 151-160

Mulkay, Michael (1988) On Humor: Its Nature and its Place in Modern Society. Cambridge, UK: Polity

Newman, Michael (2014) “Say ‘Pulp Fiction’ One More Goddamn Time: Quotation Culture and an Internet-Age Classic”. New Review of Film and Television Studies 12(2): 125-142

Purdie, Susan (1993) Comedy: The Mastery of Discourse. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf

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Miranda, performance and online audiences

I am currently working on a study of online audience engagement with screen comedy, and have just completed three case studies that examine evaluations of sitcoms. One of these case studies focused on discussions of Miranda (BBC2/1, 2009-2015) on the discussion board of a popular British media and entertainment site.

 

Miranda is written by comedian Miranda Hart, who also stars as title character. Miranda is an uncommonly tall and clumsy single woman in her thirties. The show is mostly set in her joke shop, which she runs with her friend Stevie. Interestingly, Miranda bucks the current trend for single-camera sitcoms. It is shot using the traditional three-headed monster in front of a live studio audience, and so it also includes a laugh track.

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This device is designed to give viewers the sense of being part of a communal viewing experience, where they are laughing along with the rest of the audience. However, the laugh track has been contentious since the early days of television, with critics constructing it as noisy, intrusive, annoying, fake and as a manipulative strategy to tell viewers when they should laugh. Recently, it has become quite rare in British sitcoms, to the point where critics and audiences seem slightly surprised when a new show does use this device. As Brett Mills (2009) notes in his book The Sitcom, not using a laugh track has become seen as a marker of quality in itself, and so Miranda seems to stubbornly position itself against the form that is currently favoured by critics.

 

It is not an entirely conventional sitcom, though. Prior to the opening credits we get the title character´s brief, introductory monologues, which resemble stand up segments, while each episode also combines traditional slapstick and broad humour with Miranda´s self-reflexive asides to the camera.

 

My analysis of the message board discussions examined debates around performance and quality. I´d here like to concentrate on talk about Miranda Hart´s performance style, which one poster described (positively) as “non-acting”. Some contributors clearly enjoyed her performances, praising her comic timing and her pratfalls, while others described her as “fake” and a “bad” actor.

 

I think these negative responses can be linked, in part, to the show´s self-reflexivity. Viewers are frequently reminded that they are watching a show because Miranda looks at the camera or addresses the audience at home. These asides transgress the boundaries of the story world, and can be seen as attempts to cement our focus on Miranda as both central character and comedian. Sometimes she draws our attention to her joke-telling (for example to demonstrate her awareness that a joke was highly conventional), while, at other times, she uses asides to reveal secrets or share her feelings about situations she finds herself in. This address to an extradiegetic audience is also used in Netflix drama House of Cards, where it works to demonstrate the ways in which Frank Underwood deceives other characters (Klarer 2014), but Miranda´s asides always set up comic incongruities while positioning the viewer as a privileged confidante.

 

This invitation to be Miranda´s understanding friend was embraced by many posters, who described their affection for the character or the comedian, and sometimes explained that they related to her clumsiness or dating disasters. In contrast, some of the posters who disliked the sitcom described the character as “hyperactive” or complained that she was “posh”. “Jolly hockey sticks” was a recurring phrase that the Internet tells me refers to an annoyingly enthusiastic posh girl/woman.

 

Miranda Hart´s performance style breaks with conventional sitcom acting, but also with the more naturalistic performance styles associated with more recent sitcom trends. Writing about The Trip, Walters (2013: 114) notes that shooting “on location breaks from comedy performance as a rehearsed and choreographed theatrical event”. In contrast, Miranda Hart draws attention to this theatricality, uses it for comic effect, and blurs the boundary between character and comedian. So I wonder if Miranda Hart fans might be enjoying her performance of her persona, while some other viewers see an unconvincing performance of an annoying character.

Using satire in climate change communication

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I’ve just finished co-writing an article on the use of satire in climate change communication and wanted to share some of our findings here. Back in 2010 my former Cardiff University colleague Grace Reid (now at University of Alberta, Canada) invited me to work with her on a science communication project that was focusing on the satirical stage play U: The Comedy of Global Warming. Despite being busy with developing the play, writer / director Ian Leung was happy to take an active part in our project. As such, this is what is often termed a knowledge transfer or knowledge exchange project. Ian helped us learn about some of the political, creative and practical issues involved in such a production, and we got to share our research findings with someone who could use them in their work.

So, here’s what we did: The play ran for nine days in Edmonton, Alberta, and we conducted one interview with Ian beforehand and a second one after it had finished. We also did a performance analysis of the play itself, based on Grace’s observations from attending multiple performances, and on two DVD recordings provided by Ian. Finally, we did questionnaires with 87 of the 180 or so people who saw the play, and two follow-up focus groups with six audience members in each.

U: The Comedy of Global Warming has a local setting and deals with some of the issues around living in an oil-rich province while being aware of debates around climate change effects. It focuses on the gay love triangle between oil executive Albert A. Oyl (Al), Tuvaluan climate change refugee Tivo, and TV presenter Clinton Carew. The premise is that the island nation of Tuvalu is disappearing into the ocean because of climate change, and Al has “sponsored” Tivo so that he can come to Canada. This turns out to mean that Tivo lives in Al’s house as a servant, and we also see Al making forceful sexual advances towards him. Tivo then ends up dating Clinton, who presents a TV show on climate change. This show-within-a show device involves big screens displaying video interviews with real-life scientists and politicians discussing climate change issues. The love triangle narrative is interspersed with these interview segments, as well as speeches addressing the audience, musical performances and audience participation. The play also has a companion website (www.albertaville.ca), which includes information about its interview subjects, as well as recommendations for various resources on climate change issues and suggestions for how citizens can get involved.

Our project was concerned with several key issues, but here I want to focus specifically on what we found in terms of how satire might be used in climate change communication. We hope this can be generalised beyond our particular case study, and that it might be helpful for communicators interested in using satire (or other humorous modes) to engage audiences in climate change debates, whether through theatre, screen media or other cultural forms.

The current ideal in science communication is to encourage citizens to engage actively with science. This has replaced the one-way model of scientists trying to transmit factual information to lay people. With that in mind, we want to highlight two important benefits of using satire to promote active public engagement, and two significant challenges.

First of all, because humour tends to involve comic incongruities of some sort, these conflicting discourses create a certain textual ambiguity. That doesn’t mean the joker’s intentions can’t be completely obvious to anyone from a similar cultural context, but humorous texts can leave quite a bit of room for interpretation. It depends, in part, on how much creators want to anchor the meaning, and how skilful they are at doing so. I’m sure we can all think of numerous occasions where jokes have fallen flat or been misunderstood, though, so this is tricky territory. For climate change communication, such textual openness can be used to encourage audiences to make sense of representations based on their local context and their own experiences. It can also invite audiences to question what they’re seeing, to reflect on ideas and look for more information. That would help prolong audience engagement with climate change issues beyond the moment of reception.

The second benefit we want to highlight is that using humour can help avoid what is known, in the parlance of our times, as freaking people out. Climate change effects are pretty scary, and telling people about them can make them feel so overwhelmed that they end up concluding that we’re all doomed and there’s no point trying to do anything about it. But humour can help us explore difficult issues in a “safe” space, and that might make it easier to get audiences interested in what is happening without frightening them too much.

However, that leads me onto the first of the two challenges we want to focus on. The comic distance that can cushion us from these scary things can also prevent us from taking them seriously enough. For climate change communicators, this could clearly undermine the primary purpose of their text. The ideas that they are presenting cannot remain confined to the realm of humour – they must be more than jokes, and they have to include productive proposals to climate change debates. In the case of U: The Comedy of Global Warming, Ian’s use of video interviews with scientists and politicians kept disrupting the humorous tone, while the website also offered audiences practical means of finding information and taking action.

Having said that, if you’re going to sell something as satire, audiences will expect laughs. And while predicting what people will find funny is always going to be difficult, getting people to laugh at satire tends to require that they both enjoy the particular humour style(s) adopted in the text and that they (at least to a certain extent) sympathise with the underlying critique. This means that satirists will need to consider their target audience’s attitudes towards climate change as well as their humour preferences, and those may depend on factors such as age, class, education, gender, previous cultural consumption, and so on. This means that satire may be less useful for targeting diverse publics and more suitable for communication specifically tailored to niche groups.

Funding:

This research was funded by the CRYSTAL-Alberta Science Education Centre.

Why am I laughing at New Girl?

Season 2 of New Girl (Fox, since 2011) has started on E4 in Britain, and I’ve been trying to reflect on what it is that I find funny about this show. Because, although I study comedy, I don’t actually watch a lot of current sitcoms, because I don’t find them very funny. Girls is another exception, and I’m still hoping they’ll do another season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. But those are both quite innovative sitcoms, in terms of form and content, while New Girl feels pretty conventional to me. The other night, while we were fast-forwarding through an ad break, I asked my partner if it has a laugh track. I couldn’t remember any audience laughter, but it seemed like the kind of show that would have one, and I thought I might just not have noticed because I was laughing myself. But it doesn’t. It’s also a single-camera sitcom. So how does it still feel so conventional to me?

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I think it’s because the premise seems so familiar – a group of straight people (Jess, Schmidt, Winston and Nick) in their late twenties or early thirties sharing a big flat, struggling a bit with figuring out what they want to do with their lives, and dating various attractive people. The representations are rarely particularly challenging, and the characters are generally pretty nice to each other. Pretty comforting viewing, really. I do feel like it’s safe to laugh here, while Schmidt’s (Max Greenfield) enthusiasm for “brown people” would probably have been awkward in a sitcom with a more “naturalist” style. And it’s a reasonably snappy show that is unapologetic about its frequent use of jokes and visual gags. It doesn’t tend to dwell on uncomfortable or emotional bits, so I don’t have the time to get too invested in characters or storylines. As a result, I don’t really care if Jess (Zooey Deschanel) embarrasses herself, and I’m someone who’s otherwise easily uncomfortable on other people’s behalf. I actually smile politely during scenes where fictional characters meet and greet new people, as if I can help keep things running smoothly. But while watching this show, I feel comfortable and I’m ready to laugh.

I found the season 2 premier particularly funny. Jess had lost her job (I have no idea why) and followed Nick’s advice to “go off the grid”. So, completely out of character, she got drunk in a bar in the middle of the day, gave her phone number to one guy and pretended to another (Sam) that she was the “Katie” he had arranged to meet via a dating website. Plenty of academic studies on comedic representations of femininity will tell you that this kind of behaviour is usually punished within the narrative, and I was fully expecting Jess to embarrass herself or just feel terrible about her deceit. But no. Instead, Nick (Jake Johnson) and Schmidt told her this was a fantastic and unique phase in her life during which she was somehow irresistible to men, and she happily continued to have casual sex with Sam. This jollity was even maintained when she told an unwanted date that she was feeling poorly, only for him to catch her with Sam in a public toilet shortly after. And when Sam found out she wasn’t Katie? He just turned up at her door for more sex. I think this comic incongruity made me feel quite relieved. It was “no hugging, no learning”, and the lack of responsibility felt refreshing.

Of course, the second episode saw things returning to normal, with Jess struggling to have sex with Sam without engaging in any romantic activities. Oh well.