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Stand-Up Comedy: An Enduring Television Tradition

9 Dec

        I love stand-up comedy. There is just something about observational humor delivered by the cripplingly depressed that has entertained me my entire life. My favorite method of finals week procrastination has always been listening or watching some great stand-up comedy (anyone looking for someone funny these days should check out Hannibal Buress). So in the traditional fashion I was watching old Louis CK bits this weekend (inspired by Eric’s paper topic) when it occurred to me that stand-ups have actually had a fascinating relationship with TV in that it remains one of the last vestiges of a kind of more old-school TV programming that has generally disappeared. Simple filmed productions of stage shows have largely disappeared from TV, despite the one time dominance of comedy hours and variety shows. Even filmed theater pieces are completely absent these days. yet stand-up specials have managed to remain, almost entirely due to the strange success of Comedy Central. Comedy Central continues to air and sponsor stand-up specials as part of its brand, something it has done since its inception. Indeed stand-up and comedy news like the Daily Show and Colbert, which also feature low production values and the power of one or a few people simply making you laugh without the need for narrative, have managed to sustain this network even when its scripted comedy offerings have not. My question is simple: what is it about stand-up comedy that it is still a profitable and mainstream television phenomenon?

        This might seem like a strange question at first, but the fact is that most stand-ups still make a living primarily by touring around and performing in comedy clubs. The comedy performance at a club that serves alcohol is I imagine still a staple of most towns in America, and is definitely something that benefits from a live viewing. If we drew an analogy to music for instance, concerts and tours have also remained profitable, to the point that MTV and VH1 have largely been forced to seek out other revenue streams instead of relying on just broadcasting taped performances, and music videos gain far more from the editing and pre-planning than most comedy specials do these days. If comedy is still alive and well out in the world why are people staying at home to watch it alone? All comedy specials are performed in front of live audiences because everyone knows comedy is more enjoyable with others, but you would think that a corresponding fact would be that going to a show would be even better, and it is certainly also true that the slow turn-out of specials on cable couldn’t possibly satisfy a true fans’ need. So it seems instead that there is a demographic that likes comedy but only so much as it is free on their T.V. and doesn’t require leaving the house.

          Furthermore, it seems the comedy special has also resisted any trend towards embracing or requiring tele-visuality, instead continuing to often remain low-fi to the point that old George Carlin bits on youtube watch about as easily as modern comedy specials, a claim that cannot be made for comparing old and new televised dramas or even news broadcasts. This is certainly curious in the face of much of the reading we have done that attempts to locate and identify a certain progress in television that has certain expectations for novelty and visual growth. In accordance with this, one of the great stylistic details of Seinfeld was the fact that the show’s low-fi approach mirrored the shooting of the comedy scenes, which themselves were framed just like the contemporary stand-up specials, giving the show an earthier feel even as other shows around it were trying more aggressive and slick production styles.

         There is a classic feeling to the comedy special, an amount of expectation as to how the genre will play out in its normal role in the medium, that implies that maybe this is one of those T.V. relics that survives precisely because it doesn’t attempt to change itself. Perhaps the illusion of being in the crowd is the key element that can keep an old form alive. Perhaps if MTV had shown more live concert DVD’s it would still have music? Liveness, not as simultaneity but as the successful doing of something in one take, still clearly has an appeal. Just look to the shocking survival of SNL, or the popularity of the 30 Rock live shows? If there is one thing these stand-up specials do provide, it is the (supposedly) authentic reproduction of the pacing and feel of the comedy specials delivery and reception, a kind of communal experience that is likely lost to many people in their modern lives, but retains an appeal. Maybe some T.V. produces should take a nod from this and produce some content that is real but not reality T.V., instead a celebration of the kinds of performative artistry that is still so fascinating to us, with or without some additional modern trappings.





Those Old Classics

9 Dec

Having been researching adaptation theory for my final project, I have come across many an adaptation that would fit the “norm” of televisual adaptation with which I would compare with the strange adaptation that is The Corner. There were very few that were from a non-fiction source like The Corner. What I did find interesting was how many were drawing from well established sources.

The first that comes to mind is the two adaptations of Sir Conan Arthur Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series. Holmes is a work that has often been adapted (particularly in movies), but what makes it interesting is that American television would choose to do one that was not in fact a reimagining of the British Sherlock, but would rather producing a series that would draw heavy comparisons with that critically acclaimed series. Particularly so soon after Guy Ritchie’s two offerings of the text so recently being released in theaters. On top of that, the producers of Once Upon a Time, which itself borrows heavily from well know fairy tales– having branched out recently to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein– especially of the Disney variety, were asked if they were thinking of including their own Sherlock Holmes. As if there weren’t enough readily accessible to the viewing public! These two adaptations are not the only ones currently airing that are drawing from other sources. What is interesting is how many of them are drawing from well established sources such as Beauty and the BeastMerlin (re-imagining the King Arthur myth), and Revenge (drawing on The Count of Monte Cristo). I realize that these might seem flimsy, but there is definitely something to be said about the fact that these shows are tying themselves so closely to these sources. Shows like Gossip Girl are constantly referencing these works, also. To me, this sort of with the trend of “teening” Shakespeare that happened particularly in the late 90s and early 2000s with 10 Things I Hate About You, o, She’s the Man, and the like films. I don’t understand it. Is it because there is nothing more interesting to make a film/show out of? Or is there some desire to share these works with teenagers by making them “cooler”? Has this now progressed to getting the common man to enjoy the classics by making a procedural Sherlock Holmes show?

internal consistency, music, and singing teens

9 Dec

Kinda riffing off Eric’s post from earlier this week, and also off the fact that I’ve been watching Glee all weekend, which is not even a show I like at all, but, like, “watching TV can become malignantly addictive,” etc.

The level of a certain kind of “realism” in episodes or scenes that deviate from the norm of a series (so, like, musical episodes in nonmusical series) can depend on whether those deviations fit easily within the rules/worldview that the series has set up. This is a “realism” within diegetic reality rather than real-reality (whatever that is). Anything that strains credibility within the rules of what is or is not normal or plausible within the show is what is “unrealistic.”  (This is just stuff about a type of consistency, and thus I’m not being that insightful, apologies. Also, that’s a tvtropes link, which internet culture wants me to attach a warning to (itself a trope), so, like.) For example, when supposedly-set-in-the-real-world show Felicity [omg, spoilers] decides suddenly in the fourth season that magic is real, it’s very weird and disconcerting and doesn’t play well.

On to Glee (sorry).* There are a couple ways that musicals treat the relationship between music and not-music (these are really really not solid, definitive categories, just broad ideas of possible diegetic/nondiegetic relationships): the music can be integrated in the form of diegetic “performances” (musicals about people putting on musicals often do this), the music can sort of just happen and the world of the narrative is one in which people burst into song, or the music can be “explained away” (as in the Buffy episode) by some other “real” thing within the fictional world, like a spell or a series of fantasy sequences (I think House did this?). Glee, however, does all of these. Sometimes the music is performed, sometimes imagined, sometimes both performed and imagined at the same time, and sometimes it just comes out of nowhere for no reason and then everyone kind of pretends it didn’t happen. This is kind of consistent with the “reality” of Glee, which is one that oscillates wildly between total absurdity and saccharine sincerity. The series has little to no tonal consistency—the story-world shifts to accommodate anything and everything that the writers want to put in the show (A tragic car crash? Yes! Everyone dresses like a superhero for an episode? Sure!) so it makes sense that they would do this with the music as well, making Glee a show that can handle every level and type of music/narrative integration.

Glee’s only norm is its lack of a norm—its lack of a consistent tone or a stable diegesis. This creates (in me, at least) a weird kind of dual effect, where technically anything is possible and nothing really strains credulity, but at the same time, everything comes across as weird and out of place.

*Also sorry to people who like Glee and are offended by me being mean to it. If you do like it, though, you should def tell me why because srsly idk.

MTV’s Reverb

9 Dec

MY final paper is on advertising in MTV—however, 1980’s pre-reality series MTV. What I wish I could consider despite narrowness of scope is MTV in its entirety. In researching, I’ve found a few interesting themes and elements of the relationship between consumer and network in terms of modern MTV, including MTV’s new advertising product, Reverb. These coincidentally coincide with topics brought up in the last few classes before presentations.

Reverb is a tool that allows potential advertisers to simultaneously advertise on both MTV’s website and airwaves; it debuted during the 2012 VMAs. It is meant to target the multi-tasker—Wall Street Journal article I looked at (ambiguously) claimed 76 million social media comments were made about TV shows in July 2012, up from 8.8 million in July 2011. This article also said 84% of smart-phone users used their device while watching TV in the last 30-day period. So, when a commercial pops up on the network for a company, ads for that company will simultaneously appear on MTV’s website. Companies like Pepsi, Verizon, and Kraft have already bought into this advertising tool.

This brings me to the question of the future of television, and the intended audience of MTV. MTV assumes most of their audience active in both social media and using mobile devices; this makes sense as the MTV audience is a young audience (the “Millennial” audience). However, the existence of Reverb is clear evidence for the convergence of social media and internet-use and television.

Earlier in November, there was apparently conference, to address “the future of television.” What was made evident was the awareness of TV executives to “develop content to ‘live on all [digital] platforms.’” The conclusions were basically the same ones examined in class last week—specific advertising to niche markets rather than the largest demographic (like point-casting), the importance of YouTube as a television medium, etc.

An interview with Kraft VP of Global Media and Consumer Engagement, Bonin Bough, links up MTV with the Millennial customer and use of Reverb:

Adweek: How did this MTV deal come about?
As we looked across the partnership landscape, clearly MTV is one of those partners that provide a unique view into the Millennial consumer. They also provide a unique view into a multi-channel constant approach. That is one of the cornerstones of the partnership, which is “OK, how do we look at the Millennial consumer in a completely different way?” How do we continue to use and leverage the research around their behaviors? And then how do we develop multi-channel content engagement experiences?

The future of television is partly the ability to create new approaches in advertising, and the technology available to do so. Most recently this has hinged on the multi-media approach targeted towards internet and mobile device using Millenials. Advertising both helps to develop the future of television, while at the same time adapting to the changing audience and medium.

Found Photos: Television and a Shared Past

9 Dec



Last week at her talk, Lynn Spigel discussed her new project of amassing found photos of TVs as a body of historical evidence about TV, nuclear family life, and the rise of the suburbs. By taking photos from a wide variety of sources like Tumblr, Flickr, eBay, thrift store bins, and owner submissions, she is creating an archival record of TV from roughly the 1960s to the 1980s. At one point she referred to the project as reconstructing a shared past that displays a massive range of class and taste not captured in mass media ads.

Using photography to create a historical record of TV, she has been able to look at the interplay between TV, photography, and the expectations created by advertisements during the period. A sharp distinction comes to light in comparing the candid shots of families and their TVs and the mass-market ads that inform most memories of TV in the period. Some repeated features that began to show up include the subjects of the photos looking out at the camera rather than at the TV in the frame, the TV as an “electronic hearth” (TV tops as the new mantle place), and the TV as a framing device (the subject of the image is not the TV, but the people posed near it). She actually rejects the idea that the TVs were being used in photographs as a status symbol – a conclusion that seems reasonable to me given that by the early 1960s something like 90% of American households had at least one TV. 

She also noted some physical changes that occurred in the household that the photographs documented. Items like pianos were being displaced by TVs in the living room, their most common location well into the 70s. Additionally, the expectation that family’s would not only have a TV but would place it in their living room reconfigured the logic of plug placement to adhere to the belief that objects shouldn’t “get in the way.” The flipside of this is that the placement of plugs by architects created a preordained organization of the home space around TV.

Web Series or Film?

8 Dec

I’ve spent quite a bit of time looking at Film to TV adaptations over the past few weeks in preparation for my final research project and I thought I would share one I found that relates to our recent conversations about TV content on the internet. While researching the crossover between film and television, I came across an award-winning indie film that is currently being released as a web series. The film, “Hand of Glory,” won awards at multiple festivals and has been nominated for many more. Rather than releasing their film in DVD format, the filmmakers have chosen to release it in the form of a web series throughout the month of December. The filmmakers claim that the film was originally planned as a web series and was later spliced together into a film. As a result it follows the form of a web series very closely including distinguishable “episodes.” While it is obviously a web series at heart, the film has made a great showing at film festivals, winning awards for it’s special effects, directing, and acting. In one case it was even considered for a Best Feature award, which indicates its success as a cohesive unit despite its original intent as a web series.

Here is a link to the film/web series Facebook page if any of you want to check it out:

I can’t say I like the film/series but I find it interesting that the filmmakers think that the most effective way to distribute their film to the public is through a web series. Also, the fact that the web series form did well under the label of “film” really blurs the line between the two mediums and raises the question of whether there is a line at all? I will be curious to see if the film is as successful in webisode form or is entered in any web series festivals.

Before Suffering: Nickelodeon Nostalgia

8 Dec

4297264_origSince I didn’t really get to anything important in my presentation, I figured I’d make a blog post out of it.

The Teen Nick programming block, “The ’90s Are All That”, runs from midnight to 2am, then repeats until 4am. For rare special events, particularly holidays, the block runs 4 hours of unrepeated content. Since many of the programs selected for the block don’t have enough episodes to air in consistent syndication, the block cycles through the most popular shows (airing All That and Kenan & Kel for a few months, then replacing them with Rugrats and Rocket Power, for example). The site “filters the social data inputs from Twitter, Facebook, GetGlue [what?], Miso [what??], and others by location, influence, sentiment and anticipation to output real-time insights” ( This model is particularly useful for looking at “The ’90s Are All That” because the aforementioned social networking sites generated virtually all of the support for the return of ’90s Nickelodeon. The block also panders to the nostalgic with ’90s Nickelodeon network IDs, cameos of fictional programming “hosts” (like Face and Stick Stickley), and the ability to vote online for which shows will be the next part of the block (the first two aggressively establish a broadcast aesthetic, while the last undermines this work).

Using this block as a case study, but also referencing the network histories of Disney Channel, MTV, and Noggin/Nick Jr., as well as the general history of popular syndication runs, I will look at this new brand of media-exclusive (yet transmedia-enabled) nostalgia that the Millennial generation has revealed—if not engineered—with its incorporation of the Internet as a ubiquitous, everyday medium (rather than a workplace or mail tool) after being raised in a televisual world. The demand for syndication is unprecedented, and complicates the traditional diachronic pacing of nostalgia, a word whose etymology implicates a forgotten time, a time not experienced, or a time that never existed (Ignorance, Kundera). The frequency of cultural digestion, which the internet allows and accelerates, actually relocates nostalgia from a social experience to an individual one. Meme culture defines the psychology behind nostalgia—the yearning for a lack.

There are several economic questions as well. How important is the Internet in determining both volume and quality of viewership? Are Nielsen ratings more or less valuable for shows that are not only highly intertextual, but intertextual across different media? Is a broadcast aesthetic possible on the internet? To what extent does the success of “The ’90s Are All That” depend on this broadcast aesthetic, rather than the actual shows? And of course, do these (we) nostalgic Millennials watch and enjoy the reborn shows as much as we enjoy missing them?