The 2 Great TV Contests of our Time (or at least the weekend)

Today was a day of watching heated contents with slim margins. Of the two, I’m vaguely familiar with one, and completely clueless but strong opinionated about the other. Let’s start with the one I’m more familiar with.

The NCAA tournaments for basketball are going on right now. Indeed, if you aren’t swept up in March Madness, you’re probably pretty normal. There’s a lot of hubbub about the tournament with many drawing up brackets and participating in big pools, but I haven’t met anyone so familiar with all of the match-ups to have put together a completely well-reasoned and researched bracket. Once past the top 30 teams or so, who really knows how Cornell or UNT did this season and what they’ll look like matched up a Kentucky? I can’t even imagine having followed all of the 64 teams up until now, which is likely why I haven’t participated enough to even get brackets put together.

That of course doesn’t keep fans from being entertained by watching the games. I didn’t know a one of the players I saw play yesterday, but by the end of each game, I was pulling for someone to win. You kind of have to have stakes in the game for watching to be any fun. In the end, you just kind of do some satisficing to figure out which team winning benefits you more and start screaming at the TV.

Perhaps one of the best parts of the tournament, though, is the underdog story. The charm of Northern Iowa beating Kansas (the #1 ranked team in the nation) was the fact that no one was paying attention. You can look at all the statistics and listen to all of the analysts, and no one is going to call that upset. But as they say, “That’s why they play the games.” At some point, all that discussion has to ground out in something happening. Besides, there’s just nothing like watching the lead change twice in the last 10 seconds to be capped off by a buzzer beater.

And on that note, I want to move on to the other great television spectacle: the House and health care. Now don’t run off in fear of this blog turning political: I’m too ignorant to offer anything substantial. I want to talk about its portrayal and why I was so entertained.

My mom, my sister, and I turned on the TV just before dinner to watch MSNBC when I got wind that the health care bill was going to the floor for debate. Frankly, I find a lot of the coverage not particularly interesting, but I came back in the middle of Nancy Pelosi’s speech to what was going on.

When they started counting votes, I was gripped. I mean, I knew nothing about the process,s the deals, the formalities, the motions, but the guy on MSNBC told me that exciting things would happen when that number got to 216, and I kept looking back at the NV column to guess how far away the House was from doing or not doing something. I certainly didn’t stand up and scream when they hit the magic number, but I could believe that someone on the planet did (likely a nerd wearing pajama pants, no less), and that’s a big deal.

I honestly didn’t wake up a happier person today because of the health care bill (though according to some, maybe I should have). For me, it was just a series of 3 15-minute contests where both sides were trying to have a higher total count on their side after months of work. And sure, the commentator can talk all he wants, but I can’t become an expert after watching for an hour or two. There’s just too much going on to understand, and I’m not nearly dedicated enough to follow all of the details and numbers for this to be a momentous occasion for me. I’m just as happy as anyone else to have watched a good show.

My TV schedule

The big news is my sphere of pop culture is that “Dollhouse” has been cancelled. I think it makes Joss Whedon look like a sucker for going back to FOX after they cancelled “Firefly” on him, but at least we got more than more one season and a chance for closure. At the end of the first season, we were worried that FOX would cancel the show after only one season, so perhaps this entire season is a gift. It’s not the end of the world, but it is disappointing. FOX couldn’t have expected much in ratings by airing it on Friday nights; even my group of friends no longer watches it when it first airs, especially since it’s so convenient to watch it online.

On the plus side, we still have “30 Rock.” In its 4th season, the show has hit its mid-life stage. The characters are familiar, the same gags are repeated, and episode setups are getting predictable. I’m okay with that. I love the first season too much to ever expect anything better, and it’s just a sitcom. As long as I keep laughing, the DVDs will continue to be instant purchases.

My last regular TV has been the “Clone Wars” CG cartoon show. If anyone remembers back to the release of “Star Wars: Episode 3,” George Lucas talked about wanting to do Star Wars TV shows, and this is it. There’s no overarching structure as a classic myth or dramatic theme of galactic proportion, but it’s what I imagine old sci-fi serials were like. They’re cheap, exciting, quick mini-arcs with all of your favorite flashy weapons and villains who cackle and barely escape capture at the end of each episode.

I’m okay with soon only having an hour of TV a week to keep me entertained, however, because I need to catch up on movies. Lunch and dinner conversations have far too many movie allusions that I am only barely familiar with, and although “Top Gun” may not be a classic, I feel I should have seen the “volleyball scene.” I was working on puzzles yesterday where movie trivia was very important, and although I think I’m familiar with a lot of movies, I haven’t actually seen a lot of them. My list of movies to watch is long and goes up with each dinner conversation, but I still have movies from 2 summers ago that I have loaded but not watched.

I think I’ll get around to them after I’m done watching “Avatar.”

Buying a TV

I’ve spent the past 3 weeks easing myself into my summer life of job work, cooking, and commuting. Out of our college possessions, Leland and I produced a few nice items among a trove of trash, including cooking equipment, a few musical instruments, and some posters. Before we moved in, Lee had mentioned last quarter that he had a Wii sitting at home, and a mental image of his parents playing Super Mario confirmed that no one was using it. Just last night, I played Mario Kart for Wii with our 3rd roomamate, Andrew, on 32 inches of flat panel entertainment. It’s one of my first major investments in a new item.

Not to say a used one wasn’t available to us. At the beginning of the school year, my drawmate Ben found a 50 inch TV on craigslist for $100. With Dave’s rolling bedroom, we actuallly had enough space to drive it back to campus on our own. When we met our buyer, he mentioned the glare as his primary gripe and reason for sale. The TV sat in a garage converted into a den, with a window opposite the TV. Apparently, when the sun hit that window just right, you couldn’t even make out a purple cow on the TV. The TV was a little old as well, and the factor of 10 discount counted each year of its life.

At the end of the school year, no one wanted to–or even could–take the monstrosity home. Lee and I got the offer to take it with us across the street to our summer dorm, and we firmly (but politely) refused. It was no fun to carry up the stairs, and absurd amounts of video games had turned the screen red. An attempt to recover all $100 on craigslist failed, but an offer to take it for free (assuming that the taker did the physical work of taking it) got 15 calls of great enthusiasm. In the end, someone took it down those 3 floors and away to a women’s shelter where they will have to deal with the glare.

Our next option was to buy another TV. At the end of each school year, many students have 26 to 30 inch back projection TVs of mysterious brands to sell. While certainly an option, Leland pointed out that those not only weighed their worth in rocks but also waste precious dorm space. Instead, we agreed a new flat panel would be a better investment than buying a throwaway to use for just a year. Assuming nothing catastrophic happens, TVs can last for a long time, and a decently sized flat panel TV could become an establishment in a future living room.

We began our search online. I’m sometimes astonished by how much shopping has changed; I remember my grandpa’s shop with rows of TVs in his quiet Gravenhurst shop. There, the best bargain was on the shelf. Today, it’s listed on some website. Instead of having to cross town to compare prices, we can now go to other websites that mine those websites for the shiniest deals. A particularly good one was an eco-friendly Vizio TV from the Dell store. With a coupon code, it would cost under $400 (before tax). Had we known standard market prices, we would’ve taken the deal right away, bt we didn’t want to commit so soon. Good advice says not ot fall in love with any particular house, especially the first one. We trusted caution and for a couple more days we watched for alternatives, keeping that TV in mind. It seems that the Cupid of LCD displays was hoping we’d be foolish lovers as after a couple days, including Sunday ads, we never found a deal as good as that first one. When we went to buy, the coupon code had been used up to its limit.

At first, we denied it by redoubling our efforts to find something just as good. We even tried the old ways and went to the local Best Buy to look at TVs. Side by side, the difference was noticeable, but I double I would ever notice with just 1 sitting in a dorm room. The limited selection and generally higher prices swept away my doubts for why store shopping has been swept away, we went back to the internet.

A few days later, we settled on a different Vizio from Dell. Despite it not being quite as good as the first, we realized we could wait forever on a deal, agonizing as each gem passed. With only an 8 week summer, it seemed more worthwhile to have the TV for longer. After overcoming a most bizarre method of screening orders where our TV was only shipped after canceling the order, we got notice that it would come in the following Monday. And seeing a new TV in your living room helps a lot when coming back from work on a Monday.

Since then, it’s been what we wanted from it. I now have Sportscenter with my Fruit Loops, Super Smash Brothers to fire up with company, and a legitimate display for movies. And every time I look at it, it seems just as good as any one I saw on the shelf at Best Buy

High and Low Culture

Living, eating, and hanging out with the same people mean that one eventually learns a lot about the interests of others. When we really enjoy something, we want others to enjoy it as well, probably out of some instinct of community. And sharing interests makes it easier to enjoy the company and avoid awkwardness.

For example, I’ve been a huge “30 Rock” fan ever since I randomly turned on the TV my senior year in high school. My current drawmates would make fun of me for constantly listening/watching to the same episodes over and over, but now, I have them to share the jokes with. On the flip side, Jordan (a drawmate) happens to have the DVDs for “Firefly,” which almost all of my drawmates have seen and thoroughly enjoyed. I myself am currently watching it at a very slow, but very enjoyable pace.

But the most interesting part to me has been the destruction of my belief of culture classes. It’s very easy to understand the nuances within one’s own tastes, but I think we also tend to generalize others into groups. The classic example is the typical response to “What sort of music do you like?”. Most people will respond with something like, “I listen to a lot of different things,” perhaps pointing to their iPod with its many genres. We might similarly ask what type of movies someone watches, or their favorite tv channel, but that’s no easier. (I think it’s funny, though, that while we often can’t say what we do like, most people can rattle off a couple genres which they absolutely hate).

By the time I got to college, I had gotten over my snobbish high school phase and realized that not all TV is junk, though I certainly had my same perceptions about the junk. For example, I had thrown a lot of animated comedies off as trashy gutter humor (though I hypocritically had enjoyed a lot of “Family Guy”). I certainly hope that I’m not wrong in believeing that the typical population sees a lot of these shows as low culture. And maybe I’m just a sucker for good targeting by advertisers, but I soon became much more impressed with what the writers are doing. Last year, I spent a good bit of time sitting in Tom’s room, usually doing a combination of watching “Futurama” and playing Magic. I had never thought much about “Futurama,” but after watching it, I was somewhat more impressed. Granted, a large amount of the humor isn’t particularly complex, relying on a combination of slapstick and profanity, but I was impressed by the parody they actually managed to mix in. We might’ve been laughing at the absurdity of a giant trashball coming back to destroy Earth, but it’s even better when we realized that the absurdity was really a reflection of our current environmental policy.

I think one of my bigger turnarounds has been my attitude towards “South Park.” I had heard about the show since elementary school, and perhaps it was the comprehension level of my peers and me that locked me into a belief that it was a pretty contentless show. So it was a minor surprise to me when I found out that Ben (who has what I consider a few pretty classy tastes) was a huge “South Park” fan. Again, a lot of the show is mindless comedy, consistent with what a 4th grader can and does understand. I certainly was laughing much harder, though, at the “Cloverfield” and “World of Warcraft” parody aspects. I guess that Peabody wasn’t a mistake.

Just like the writers for Disney movies, I have realized that the writers for a lot of shows are smart enough to have those two tiers for high and low appeal, and it’s hard to just lop all of some group into one or the other for that aspect. We’re all hopefully good enough to be more discerning than that, whether that’s Ben not liking “Family Guy,” Jordan not liking “30 Rock,” or my shift away from “House.” And while I certainly don’t know any better exactly what goes into those groupings, it’s not as easy as I once thought.

As a final point, I figure I’d bring up the topic that motivated this. As I mentioned before, my draw group loves “Firefly,” so we knew about Joss Whedon’s new show, “Dollhouse.” The premise is that there’s a “dollhouse” where the “dolls” are people who have their personalities erased and are sold to customers after being imprinted with any mental image desired. Particularly, Echo (played by Eliza Dushku of “Buffy” fame) is one of these dolls who has been programmed so far as a date, a backup singer, and negotiator, yet also seems to have a real consciousness manifesting between imprints.

The show is certainly more “Buffy” and less “Firefly,” but 9:00 Fridays is certainly now reserved for “Dollhouse” watching between us. Two years ago, I probably would’ve never watched it, throwing it in with the rest of the tv dramas like “Lost” and “Heroes” without much value. But it’s a great little event for us from week to week, and there really isn’t a better classifier for culture than whether you enjoy it.

中国的 Olympics

Once every two years, my desire to be anywhere other than in front of a TV evaporates. I tough out the repetitive, vapid commercials in that desire to watch sports I would never even consider watching otherwise.

It’s been awhile since Turin, but I remember sitting in my living room at home, watching NBC late at night while I should’ve been doing homework. Now, I’m sitting in Tressider Union in front of a much larger TV with maybe five or six others. My roommates and I were unable to secure a TV for our apartment, but coming here isn’t too inconvenient. And the TV is nice.

It helps that NBC has embraced the shift towards internet-streaming as well. The US v. China basketball game felt different without the commentary, but likely not significantly less enjoyable. The real benefit, however, are the off-sports that don’t seem to hit prime-time here in the US. I’ve watched handball, air pistol, archery, fencing, judo, and more, and now, I just feel bad for not supporting Stanford athletes in these very enjoyable sports.

And on Friday night, I was at an amazing jazz concert*, but I watched the entire 3 hour opening ceremony broadcast from a computer screen this afternoon. And boy was that impressive. The pageantry used scale in such an impressive manner, without losing any of the artistic design.

The most interesting part of the opening ceremony, however, came from Bob Costas, Matt Lauer, and Joshua Cooper Ramo in the NBC voice-over commentary. Regardless of actual, or even perceived, current political conflicts, China presented a welcoming, neutral, hopeful ceremony without any sinister undertones. In unusual juxtaposition, the commentators made several comments about anticipated controversy, such as Iraq coming onto the field, and current events, such as the Russia-Georgia conflict, that didn’t quite fit into the spirit of the event. And even a possible jab from Cooper Ramo, who said that the greatest point in China’s history was the Tang dynasty for its “openness.”

But I confess, it might have just been me looking for a point of controversy in an otherwise uncontroversial showing. Let me know if you noticed the same thing as well, or I was trying too hard. I would hate to be the person hearing subliminal messages in rock songs played backwards.

*the Stanford Jazz Festival All-Star Jam, including Delfeayo Marsalis, Joshua Redman, and Barry Harris; it was absolutely amazing, but I don’t think it’s writable

Trekking Back

From the contents of my blog, one might think I’ve spent my entire summer either journeying, working, or cooking. And while I’ve happily done a lot of that, downtime appears often enough, and I’ve had passive activities I’ve wanted to tackle there as well.

CBS has been kind enough to upload all of Star Trek: The Original Series to their video site, and since spring break, I’ve watched an entire season (and some) of classic Trek and been amazed that people ever watched this show. Warning: the rest of my post is all about flaws in Star Trek. I highly recommend that you stop if you don’t care.

I can’t vouch for why, but the style of classic Trek varies significantly from my conception of Star Trek. Having watched Patrick Stewart and Armin Shimerman deliver meaningful, authentic performances in (usually) equally meaningful episodes, I was somewhat surprised by the artificiality of classic Trek. Barring the less advanced special effects and the premise that little green men travel in intergalactic spaceships that are frisbees glued onto engines, classic Trek lacks the compelling, convincing aspects from dramatic presentation. Before commercial breaks, William Shatner flatly delivers a stilted summary of the plot in a desperate attempt to make often simple situations seem more suspenseful.

These situations usually are a consequence of Captain Kirk’s tactless approach to interspecies diplomacy. In “The Squire of Gothos,” a god-like–yet childish–being takes hold of the Enterprise and forces several crew members to join him in a recreated castle. Instead of acquiescing to humor Trelane, Kirk decides that he’ll keep his pride at the risk of having his entire crew destroyed.

But it’s not entirely his fault because apparently only the most oblivious beings are allowed to be in the Enterprise crew. In “Shore Leave,” the crew finds a planet where anything one thinks about is created, from WWII bombers to medieval dresses. In fact, the crew faces 6-7 very real (but normally impossible) situations they had just thought of before they manage to realize that they won’t get killed if they think happy thoughts.

And with the mention of medieval dresses, Kirk always decides to beam down a single, random (new; different each episode) female crewmember as well. Instead of being as strong as her fellow male crewmembers from tough academy training, she usually ends up being eye-candy and almost entirely feminine. The crew-woman in “Shore Leave” thinks of and decides to wear a medieval dress despite its impracticality and the situation’s dangerousness. And in “Who Mourns for Adonais?,” the crew-woman is only a love interest for the Greek god Apollo (and also goes through a wardrobe change).

Delving deeper, the episodes either come off as in-your-face or meaningless. Deep Space 9 gives us episodes like “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” where we watch Nog, a young Ferengi Starfleet officer, deal with losing his leg, even going as far as to live largely in a holodeck to escape reality. Classic Trek gives us “The Changeling,” where Kirk ends up talking a robot to death because it is cleansing everything that is not perfect, and it itself cannot be perfect. Obviously, a sample from the extremes of both series, but I’ll trust that the distributions are also separated.

The hollowness hurts even more because some episodes had potential. In “Operation — Annihilate!,” Spock risks his own sight to be an experimental target for a radiation burst meant to destroy the parasites in his system. They even add a twist when they learn that the visible spectrum wasn’t necessary as part of the radiation to destroy the parasites. Yet instead of adding blindness to his character and developing him, we learn at the end of the episode that Vulcans have second eyelids that protected him and allowed him to retain all of his vision

But all of this–the fortieth time Kirk talks a computer to death (“The Return of the Archons”), Kirk’s fighting technique like an overhead two-handed fist slam (“The Arena”), the painfully cheesy monsters (“The Galileo 7”), the complete unreasonableness of some characters (“Court Martial”), the dramatic close-ups of Shatner, the pointless ending where everyone laughs at a dumb joke (“Galileo 7”)–just manages to work in a charming way now. I ask myself why I’m still watching after every episode. Maybe it’s because I’m a trekkie. Or maybe it’s just really entertaining in a way that they didn’t intend.

I’ll have to look into why Star Trek is as it is, though. As bizarre as the show seems to me now, many of the elements were likely familiar parts of shows from the 60s. And I’ll bet the portrayal of females has changed a lot in these couple decades. Sounds like good material for a PWR paper.

Not All Parody: The Treatment of Musicals in The Simpsons and Family Guy

Not All Parody: The Treatment of Musicals in The Simpsons and Family Guy

After a long, tough day, you come home to your couch and television just in time for The Simpsons: good humor, with both high parody and dirty jokes from the outrageous Simpsons life. Instead, the episode “All Singing, All Dancing” begins, a clip show filled with the exact content of the title. While cartoon sitcoms such as The Simpsons and Family Guy ridicule the conventions of other sitcoms every episode, the writers include special musical episodes as more than another target for parody. The writers make the musicals a vessel by using both the nostalgia of older audiences and the excitement of discovery in younger audiences to explain the larger themes of episodes.
The main success and focus of The Simpsons and Family Guy comes from their sitcom parody. Currently, people use several different definitions for parody. Today, general usage has transformed parody into a derogatory, derivative style intended to attack and make fun of another work. Harries, however, defines it as “the process of recontextualizing a target or source though the transformation of its textual (and contextual) elements, thus creating a new text” (Gray 44). Harries’ definition differs from the conventional definition in two major ways. First, the emphasis is on “elements,” which includes conventions, setting, and setup, but not content. Second, he does force a parody to mock another text. Extending Harries’ definition, Linda Hutcheon notes that “parody… is not always at the expense of the parodied text” (7). Within this broader definition, any parody includes reincorporation of one work in another is a parody, such as a musical in a sitcom. In this paper, I will argue from and use the narrower definition of parody (as a mocking device), though with a focus on conventions, which these animated sitcoms use with sitcoms.
The primary strategy of parody is to have the shows target and make fun of themselves as the audience realizes the connection between the source material and new argument from parody. Mittell comments, “Most critics… call attention to [the show’s] hyper-reflexivity and self-awareness” (15). The writers are painfully aware of sitcom conventions and do not avoid them in any way. Knox agrees on the importance of self-reflexivity, saying, “The Simpsons invests its parodic energies so that it always simultaneously is and observes/analyzes itself” (79). For example, the writers often target the triviality and simplicity of problems. For more complex plots, the writers intervene with convenient deus ex machina; for example, The Simpsons episode “Trash of the Titans” solved a garbage crisis by moving their entire town five miles down the road. Audiences might find this solution unacceptable on other shows, but it works in a sitcom because the plot is not the primary focus (Gray 51). The parody draws an easy laugh, but the humor ends there. Without meaningful extension of a possible “half-assed job” theme, the parody lacks deeper meaning. Also, with the pressures of a twenty-two minute episode, writers focus on the humor over a complete plot. Sitcoms also often reset each episode, with characters forgetting events of previous episodes. In the Family Guy episode “Da Boom,” the Y2K bug destroys the world with nuclear weapons, yet in the next episode, the Griffin family continues on as if nothing had happened. The self-reflexivity is a regular presence and expected by the audience.
In addition, the lack of restrictions from reality allows these animated sitcoms new methods of parody. According to Gray, The Simpsons alters the visual conventions of sitcoms subtly, but with parodic consequences. Instead of the unrealistic action in many cartoons, it “is ‘filmed’ like whatever genre it happens to be mocking… so visually almost everything… is potentially parodic…” (66). The shots maintain a familiar interface that audiences can relate to but still stretch the possibilities of action. The audience easily recognizes the parodic elements because they are so close to the original source. Gray explains that “an animated world is one of perpetual transposition,” where the transposition is the parody technique of first anchoring in the original source, then shifting to a new work (66-67). The exaggeration of the camera movements and other framing methods causes the audience to laugh at sitcom tricks. Knox claims that Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, initially wanted “to mimic live-action representation as much as possible,” yet since then, “the show’s animation style has turned to exploiting the possibilities of the form of animation more fully” (74). The style attacks live-action filming with its animation by showing the limitations of real filming. For example, in the episode “Deep Space Homer,” the “camera” spins around just behind a potato chip as Homer reaches to eat it. The sequence mocks the style of 2001:A Space Odyssey, though the scene has little importance to the episode theme of family relations. The Simpsons recognizes its place with a “sense of ironic knowingness, often considered a quality of postmodern television” (74). Knox focuses on the self-reflexivity as the method of reframing the sitcom. The sort of teasing reaction to modernism exhibited in postmodernism fits well with The Simpsons, yet the most common parodic sources of live-action and sitcom with simple parody are not well-integrated into the theme. Regardless, the constant reminder of live-action is the essential parody for these shows.
Another step deeper, The Simpsons and Family Guy uses shows within their shows to deliver more parody. Family Guy never fixates on a particular show, referring to shows from I Love Lucy to The Honeymooners. The Simpsons, however, focuses mostly on the cartoon show “The Itchy & Scratchy Show” to express parodic aspects more directly. Knox analyzes the episode “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show,” where the “The Itchy & Scratchy Show” must find new trends to continue its success (75-77). By the eighth season, when this episode aired, The Simpsons faced a similar problem after exhausting the classic plots of sitcoms in its earlier seasons. The catastrophe of a material shortage is entirely self-reflexive. It parodies itself, yet extends it to parody all sitcoms for having so few plot frameworks. Mittell interprets “The Itchy & Scratchy Show” differently and considers it an exception to the style of The Simpsons (20). While the rest of The Simpsons avoids impossible exaggerations of reality, “The Itchy & Scratchy Show” has the cartoon explosions and gruesome scenes. Because it restricts itself to only cartoon conventions, the audience sees Bart and Lisa Simpson laughing at mindless violence without other intervening factors. Thus, “The Itchy & Scratchy Show” acts as both an internal reflection of The Simpsons, and as what The Simpsons is not, and both of these aspects continue the emphasis on sitcom parody. As a mainstay of television, the sitcom presents an immediate target for these shows.
The effectiveness of this careful parodic use depends upon the ability of its audience. Gray notices a “Socratic” presentation because the audience must also recognize the altered parody material without direct explanation. Gray explains that it can “shift our frame of reference” as the audience must see the source material in a different way (47). The audience becomes a part of their own education and launches it in seemingly innovative¬–yet laboriously constructed–perspectives on other works. Groening says, “The Simpsons is a show that rewards you for paying attention” (Knox 75). Unlike many other shows where the audience passively reacts to situations, the writers integrate many hidden jokes that the audience must analyze to understand. When they understand the joke, a bond forms where the writers seem to reward that person for being “culturally conversant” (75). Knox thus sees these allusions as a way of bringing the audience into the parody as opposed to necessarily being actual parody. The requirement of knowing popular culture, however, returns to Knox’s main argument: The Simpsons works because it is new. It is strongly seated in current events, and it is successful because it is self-reflexive in popular culture. Music, however, occupies a slightly different space and is treated differently because of its extensive history as critical to the two base genres these shows work from: sitcoms and cartoons.
While the television musical today is often a special and rarity, music has been evolving on television since its conception. Early animation relied heavily on music to help present the story. Without distinct actors with lines, the producers instead added music and sound effects (Debruge). Beyond only variety shows, musical programs have been critical to television’s development (Forman 6). In the early days of television, before distinct television genres had been developed, the entertainment business did not know what to air. On early television, Arturo Toscanini led the NBC Symphony Orchestra on broadcast television to bridge the music of radio to television. Musicals, however, had more difficulty moving to television because of the audience mismatch; musicals are associated with a more elite audience than the general population of broadcast television. Television series, however, became an easy seat for musicals, “since television demands a certain familiarity with the characters not required by film or stage productions, and parody has become an effective means of incorporating new and familiar material” (Thorburn). I Love Lucy began special musical episodes with “Lucy in Scotland.” Thorburn points out, “While this episode may have owed its inspiration to the movie musical, it is in no way a parody of Brigadoon.” Even at the style’s inception, the sitcom honors the movie musical more than it parodies it. The writers maintained the situational humor of the sitcom over a parody. Similar musical episode followed later, prominently by The Dick Van Dyke Show, Gilligan’s Island, and Happy Days.
Considering the other major genre of The Simpsons and Family Guy, cartoons have also used music extensively. Walt Disney’s first attempted to integrate music into cartoons with the 1928 cartoon short Steamboat Willie (Care 22). Most audiences are familiar with the accompanying music in cartoons and do not have to stretch to accept music in animated sitcoms. Music adds another feeling to television to draw the audience closer emotionally to the action. Animation is an inherently distancing style; without the subtle cues from real humans, both the animators and viewers depend on imagination and interpolated characteristics to believe the reality of these characters. Music can create feelings within viewers and excite connections, such as sounds that relate to the taste of cheesecake (Debruge).
Later, Warner Brothers aired the famous Bugs Bunny short What’s Opera, Doc?, a parody of Wagnerian opera. While the music comes specifically from Richard Wagner’s original operas, the situation and archetypes range all of opera, including the Viking helmet and stormy weather (Goldmark 110). Alf Clausen, the composer for The Simpsons, draws a distinction from that work to his, agreeing that, “because The Simpsons is not Looney Tunes… the music can therefore be less in the Looney Tunes vein…” (Goldmark 242). While television cartoons may generally owe much to the Looney Tunes, Family Guy and The Simpsons must deal with a different audience and the other genre of sitcom.
Although the American musical and American sitcom are treated as distinct genres, they do converge on similar themes. Teachout describes, “And just as most Americans are both optimistic and idealistic, so do golden-age musicals, with their romance-driven plots and happy endings, reflect those twin attitudes” (48). Similarly, Gray judges the American sitcom by “its more glowingly optimistic and artificial, utopian versions…” (49). The “domesticon,” an American sitcom focused on domestic family life, has been associated with a happy life. While both of these genres have notable exceptions, such as the musicals Rent and Sweeney Todd, and the sitcoms Roseanne and Married…With Children, the stereotypes that most associate with the genres largely fits; more importantly, they are the ones that The Simpsons and Family Guy target. These archetypes are particularly useful as they reflect the attitudes of the American people. The genres, then, become more directed criticisms of American ideals.
While the settings of musicals often provide important frameworks for episodes, the music itself is a serious, non-parodic part. Ron Jones, a composer for Family Guy, says, “The music on ‘Family Guy’ essentially plays the straight man to the wacky dialogue and visuals” (Longwell). The music, then, cannot be the subject of parody because it is necessary for the credibility of the episode. The ridiculous nature of the show requires that the music be serious, lest the audience become entirely unwilling to connect to the show. When Peter Griffin goes into a cut-away gag as a ballerina, real ballet music must play, or the audience will reject the music and the scene. Mark Steyn explains, “Funny music requires a certain amount of seriousness, which is why genuine examples of it are so rare.” Carl Stalling, the original composer for the Looney Tunes, largely wrote inherently silly music because the style of a complete cartoon required it. Family Guy and The Simpsons, however, are also sitcoms, intended to mock live-action elements. The audience must be willing to treat these animated characters as real people. If the writers descended into complete cartoon silliness with funny music, they would lose that edge to their shows.
The scenes, however, are not absolutely serious because the writers do shift the humor into the lyrics. In the Family Guy episode “Peter, Peter, Caviar Eater,” the Griffin family moves into a mansion, where the staff greets them with a song parodying “I Think I’ll Like It Here” from Annie. The cuts, dance, and music all match the style of the movie adaption of Annie closely, and the writers only majorly change the lyrics, adding lines such as, “Now that you’re stinking rich, we’ll gladly be your bitch.” Seth MacFarlane, the creator of Family Guy, commented on this musical number, “The lyrics are just so absurd and so filthy and yet such care is taken to make it a legitimate number otherwise.” The show is a sitcom and needs humor, but changing the lyrics instead of staging or dancing maintains the quality of the musical. In The Simpsons as well, Clausen mentions, “…the producers don’t want the music to make a statement–no musical jokes” (Goldmark 245). The lyrics are cheap laughs, but the writers integrate musicals for more important reasons.
When The Simpsons and Family Guy use musicals, they extend towards social commentary with the music. The Family Guy episode “When You Wish Upon a Weinstein” refers to the Pinocchio song “When You Wish Upon a Star.” In the episode, Peter Griffin begs for a Jew to manage his money and tutor his son. The episode, however, caused much controversy, and originally was not even aired. While the episode actually attacks anti-Semitic beliefs, FOX executives read the episode itself as anti-Semitic. The high satire of this matches the parody of the show as a whole, where the elements are so strongly embodied (and ridiculed) that the parody risks parodying itself (Terjesen 132-133). During this episode, Peter sings “I Need a Jew,” a parody of “When You Wish Upon a Star.” He sings desperately of his need for a Jew to do his taxes in spite of the fact that “they killed [his] lord.” The musical number is set up familiarly: Peter is caught in a dream-like state, where night instantly falls when the song begins and day returns when the song ends, and a giant dreidel carries him into space and the stars. These exaggerations are familiar aspects of tradition parody, but the cheap parody passes quickly. In the meaning of the entire song, the sad, desperate style of the song lessens the shocking impact of his words. Without the grounding of the song in the peaceful musical style, the words are just offensive. The song, however, fits within the larger issue of anti-Semitic belief. The larger issue in the episode, however, is anti-Semitic belief. The writers have Peter as the vehicle for this simply because he is an idiot (Samet 52-53). Peter, who has tried to feed Tom Selleck soup through the television screen, is established as a man unable to understand reality. The whims of the writers control his bizarre, narrow-minded attitude. Thus, the musical aspect, more than the constant sitcom parody, presents the larger theme of the episode.
The Simpsons’ “Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala(Annoyed Grunt)cious,” based on the musical Mary Poppins, also intimately links songs to a classic theme. Shary Bobbins, a copy of Mary Poppins, comes to help Marge Simpson maintain the household. She sings with the Simpsons family as she tries to reform them. During her stay, their appalling nature bring her to despair, and they end by reversing roles in a song to her about their inflexible nature. The episode has several musical numbers, and they all closely match the original work. The audience laughs at the mismatch between the song and their memories. The episode has many parodic elements, including identical staging when the children present requirements for a nanny and a milk carton singing with Apu, yet the musical has deeper integration than parody. Shary Bobbins frames the real problem with the American way of life. Her comments on cutting corners and doing a “half-assed job” reflect the complacent and lazy image of Americans. Instead of a generous woman feeding the pigeons, she sings about Barney Gumble, the town drunk, in “A Boozehound Named Barney.” Her romanticized image of him even entrances Bart, who asks Homer if he can be like Barney. The cartoon style and singing distance the audience from the shocking presentation of values. The distance, however, is tempered, as it pushes the audience from reality, but brings them closer to the message: the corruption in the American way of life. The writers also did not arbitrarily pick Mary Poppins as the musical basis. The central conflict in the episode is Marge’s difficulty in raising her children. Similarly, Mary Poppins deals with Mr. banks’ difficulty in prioritizing his children over his work. While the connection may not come immediately to the audience, the writers made a deliberate effort to match themes.
Admittedly, I draw a fine distinction between the parody of sitcoms and musicals in these shows. The essential “Socratic” style is just as necessary with musicals as sitcoms. Friedwald argues that The Simpsons relies on this structure. As he examples, “…the parody element, while not essential, serves as a great framework for the writers to salvage any piece of pop culture that strikes their fancy” (254). The poignancy of musical episodes depends on familiarity from the audience. For example, in The Simpsons episode “Marge vs. the Monorail,” a man named Lyle Lanley comes to town offering to build a monorail, though he is soon exposed as a fraud. While the episode without context is funny, the audience appreciates it more when they realize that it parodies The Music Man, where a fraud named Harold Hill comes to sell musical equipment. “The Monorail Song” matches the spoken style of “Ya Got Trouble” as a way to set up the issue that gives Lanley his break in Springfield. For the laughs and nostalgia, the musical parodies are just like sitcom parodies; anything added to these shows is subject to parody. The surface parody, however, is not the distinction being explored.
The overall style of musical parody, however fits more closely with general, classic musical parody than the modern, mocking style. Giuseppe Verdi, a 19th century Italian composer, is known for his romantic Italian operas, but his final opera deviated from the set convention. Critics today see Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff, as a parody of the genre. After the critical success of Otello, Verdi decided to write a comedy “with music that sounded both the same (for it echoed earlier operas) and yet sufficiently different from anything of Verdi’s that had preceded it” (Hutcheon 751). The explained form should be familiar; Verdi has worked from past musical work and put it into a comedic setting, just like the animated sitcoms. The setup is “highly ironic, and therefore not simply nostalgic or repetitive,” which matches the self-reflexivity of animated sitcoms (754). By changing keys and inserting ironic moments of tragedy into this comedy, Verdi morphs and parodies all operatic work, particularly his own. And his ultimate purpose in writing Falstaff was not to insult at Italian operas, but to “to influence the future of Italian opera and its hallowed tradition that he felt was increasingly under threat from what was called ‘Wagnerism’” (752). Therefore, the goals of parody can extend beyond cheap laughs into true social commentary.
Ultimately, musical episodes work at the same level as much of the humor: it is a fun, nostalgic, familiar way to present an episode. Instead of actively mocking the musical genre for parody, Family Guy and The Simpsons celebrate the contributions of musicals. While the shows may, at times, seem very aware of the nature of musicals, their reflexivity implies a deep familiarity of the culture. To build upon another work, one must know the original material. The difference of sentiments is noticeable in the presentation of musicals compared to that of sitcoms. While the writers constantly aim at the limitations and problems of sitcoms, as described above, the musical numbers are presented similarly to their original design. In the Family Guy episode “Mr. Saturday Night,” the Griffin children are set up to each sing a verse of “So Long, Farewell” from The Sound of Music, with an almost identical situation to the original. The only sign of the sequences’ self-awareness is when Stewie calls himself “Liesl.” Steve Callaghan, the writer of this episode, said, “When you do something like this of this caliber, you can’t make fun of it.” Such nobility may seem incongruous with the generally coarse and flagrant humor of Family Guy, yet the music is taken quite seriously. Clausen says, “I always take the approach that we’re paying homage to these things… rather than trying to totally poke fun at it” (Goldmark 246). Episodes such as “Road to Rhode Island” and “Brian Wallows and Peter’s Swallows” integrate original music without direct reference to previous musicals. Pure embodiment, more than imitation, is the sincerest form of tragedy. The song “You’ve Got A Lot to See” maintains the upbeat style of a musical number, with the only humor in the text. Quick cuts into a montage sequence are well-crafted and maintain the style–without exaggeration–of musicals.
While celebrating the genre, The Simpsons and Family Guy have further intentions. According to MacFarlane, “What truly made the musical numbers subversive wasn’t their naughty lyrics but their ability to expose an audience of mostly young male viewers to a wider world of musical styles” (Itzkoff). Verdi wanted Falstaff to champion the Italian operas against German operas, and MacFarlane wants Family Guy to champion musicals against popular music today. While a strong connection between their intentions seems tenuous, the more noble purpose proposed by MacFarlane emphasizes the greater meaning of musical parody in animated sitcoms
My primary interest in musicals has likely come from the upbeat musical tunes on Family Guy, after which I discovered the actual sources of my delight. Having produced music CDs for both Family Guy and The Simpsons, the producers of these shows take musicals seriously for both their artistic and thematic merits. While the sitcom is a familiar cornerstone of modern entertainment, musicals have, in many ways, slipped out of primary entertainment into a niche audience. The treatment of musicals in The Simpsons and Family Guy is an unusual change from the typical attitude of these shows. While they are known for their social commentary and sitcom parodies, musicals particular highlight a particular perspective on popular culture. By looking fondly backwards to favorite American musicals, they reintegrate musicals back into common entertainment and shape its future presence in society.

Works Cited

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Goldmark, Daniel. “An Interview with Alf Clausen.” Goldmark and Taylor 239-252.

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Deus Ex Machina

So if you know me, you know that I don’t watch much tv at all. For the past year or so, it’s been 3/2 hours: 1 of House, and 1/2 of Family Guy (I recently picked up 30 Rock during the lull known as “exam week”. I think it’ll make it into my schedule). Even so, I’ve managed to whine a lot about both.
Family Guy is starting to suck. The first 4 seasons were great, but I’m not really seeing the same depth as years past. One of the reasons I like that show is more than just the ridiculous part, but the really clever jokes thrown in (one of my favorites is a reference to the famous court case “brown vs board of education” in this episode). Now, either I’m getting dumber, the references are getting more obscure, or they aren’t there. In ‘ne case, I’m not enjoying the show near as much as I used to.
House has come off as a real disappointment recently, as well. House is centered around, uh, Dr. House, who is a misanthropic doctor addicted to Vicodin. Of course, the true charm comes from him being sarcastic, caustic, while still brilliant. This, of course, creates a constant conflict as people around him try to change him, and this is a really great storyline… the first time. As far as I can tell, the reason why he keeps on lapsing back is that if he were a happy, nice guy, the show would be ridiculously boring. If he was thrown in jail, then Fox would effectively be double-booking “Prison Break”. If he went through successful rehab, we’d have a throughly one-dimensional character. In essence, the driving point of the series is the one thing that they really can’t afford to touch.
Which is where the title comes in. See, the just-ended plot line involved House being badgered then prosecuted for his drug use by a policeman. In today’s episode came the grand finale, when House enters rehab to prove that he’s willing to change, and then has his court battle. Of course, neither of those can go against his character: so, in the court battle, he’s saved by a last minute lie by his boss, and in the latter, he’s apparently been using drugs throughout the program.
How convenient.