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The Semiotics of comedy explained...

Arrested Development began in 2003 and ran for three seasons to critical acclaim, hailed by many critics to be one of the smartest shows that had ever graced television. However, unable to find a mass audience that agreed with that view, the show was cancelled in 2006 after 53 episodes.


In October of 2011 Mitchell Hurwitz announced that in an exclusive deal with Netflix, there would be 10 more episodes produced as a lead-up to a feature length movie for 2013. Arrested Development followers rejoiced. Due to the resulting backlash of the cancellation and a fanatically loyal following, Arrested Development will now join the upper echelon of the rarest of TV shows; to be reborn with original cast in something other than a ‘reunion special’.


Much of the show’s humor relies on missed messages between the active participants (the actors) which are realized by the non-active participants (the viewers). This is a discussion or dissection on three chosen Arrested Development ‘jokes’ that play on our understanding of communication theories as presented by major theorists of the discipline, Ferdinand de Saussure, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, and Stuart Hall to better exemplify why this particular form of comedy attracted as much attention post-cancellation as another famous return from the dead series; the completely opposite low brow humor of Family Guy.


To summarize Arrested Development for new viewers is to best describe it as being in the mockumentary style; the forerunner of shows such as The Office and Parks and Recreation. It follows a once prominent Orange County family, the Bluths. The patriarch, George Bluth, is arrested by federal authorities on the day of his retirement from the family real estate development business for suspicion of treason in the building of homes in Iraq. His middle, most responsible son, Michael, takes over the family business and the role of patriarch to his hyper-dysfunctional family. The following is a quick character breakdown of the Bluth Family.


It’s through the interaction of the family members and their use or misuse of communication theory that much of the humor and thus the mass subcultural appeal of the show is derived.


Tobias Funke, Ferdinand de Saussure’s worst nightmare.


Tobias Funke is a discredited psychiatrist from Boston who has moved to Orange County with his wife and daughter and now aspires to be an actor. Despite his continual pledge of a heterosexual marriage with Lyndsey Bluth, throughout the series he makes a series of statements that give hints of a preference for a homosexual lifestyle. Tobias is the antithesis of Saussure’s philosophy that the production of meaning depends on language, which in itself relies in the belief that all words are unique within their own meaning and function in a unique fashion. We are able to relate sounds to specific words and come up with a conceptual map of that word by using a system which relies on analyzing the sign or signifier (or form of the word/image etc) and then associating it with the idea or concept in the audience’s imagination. Tobias is a continuous example of the complexities of Saussure’s model of langue and parole, whereas although he uses the rules and conventions of sentence structures to construct understandable statements (langue), his practical use of those statements do not mesh with the audience’s concept of what those words/sentences mean (parole).


For example: Tobias has just returned from using a guest pass on himself for a romantic getaway with his wife. He justifies it by saying he wanted to try the experience alone first, to make sure it would be adequate for his weekend getaway with his wife. This results in him voiding the pass, as it is now considered ‘used’. This conversation follows his disclosure to Michael that he no longer has the pass for a romantic getaway…


Tobias Fünke: I’m afraid I prematurely shot my wad on what was supposed to be a dry run if you will, so I’m afraid I have something of a mess on my hands.


Michael Bluth: There’s so many poorly chosen words in that sentence.


Other classics include…


Tobias Funke: Michael, you are quite the cupid. You can stick an arrow in my buttocks any time.


Tobias Funke: So Anne, the question is, do you want a man or a boy? I know how I would answer.


This ongoing verbal tic is even addressed in an episode where Michael encourages Tobias to buy a tape recorder so that he can hear himself say everything he says. He does and over the course of a day Tobias hears himself say such statements as…


Tobias Fünke: [on tape] ... even if it means me taking a chubby, I will suck it up.


Tobias Fünke: [on tape] Oh, I’ve been in the film business for a while, but I just can’t seem to get one in the can.


Tobias Fünke: [on tape] I wouldn’t mind kissing that man between the cheeks.


In keeping with his character, Tobias fails to hear what we hear, instead coming to the conclusion that his big problem is that he is a complete blowhard.


So although Tobias does use the familiar constraints of the English language, his use of the phrases creates, to himself at least, the paradox of deniability. Yet to the audience it is clear that Tobias is in denial about wanting to have an alternative lifestyle.


Tobias’s business card vs. Roland Barthes


In another segment, Tobias proclaims that at one time he was a professional twice over; an analyst and therapist. Then his wife points out that his business card nearly got him arrested.


This segues into Roland Barthes’ theories of connotation and denotation with the power of myth. The set up is quite simple, again using Saussure’s langue principles to create a statement that sounds logical. However, once that sentence is deconstructed into a visual sign, through the common alphabet and medium of television, the problem becomes clear to the audience. This is only possible through the sharing of the same conceptual map that letters arranged in certain ways contain meaning.


The simple connotation is that it is a business card, a symbol of a successful professional. In this case, it connotes that the person, Tobias Funke, is a M.D., meaning he holds a doctorate in medicine and thereby also a leading member of society, a person of power and influence. He has included his contact information including phone number and address. However, in his wish to proclaim his double profession he has shortened the two labels of analyst and therapist into one word. Unfortunately, it reads: Analrapist.


With an audience’s conception of what an M.D. is, and the myth that goes with such a person who presents those initials on his business card, one certainly does not expect it to be followed up by our denotation of what the letters ‘analrapist’ stand for in our imagination, much less have it on a business card. The representation of Tobias Funke is linked between the first stage of reading the card and then applying a broader knowledge of what these letters in these formations mean. The underlying humor is that it falsifies the myth of how a doctor should present himself in society, even if he is only trying to relate that he is an analyst and a therapist.


In a later episode after Tobias hands out this business card to someone and he does try to clarify the matter by stating “It’s pronounced ‘ah-nal-rap-ist’ “to which the response is ‘It’s not the pronunciation that bothers me.’. Tobias naively believes that a man in his position of power can boldly claim to be an Analrapist on his business card without any negative repercussions if he just clarifies the pronunciation.


This essay has now jumped the shark… Foucault’s discourse in action…


In the ‘90s, a subcultural buzz phrase was coined in the television lexicon: “jumping the shark”. Wikipedia has credited this phrase to Sean J. Connolly, who used the term in the presence of Jon Hein, the creator of the now-defunct website www.jumptheshark.com. It’s basic definition is a subjective description of the point when a television show has reached the pinnacle of it’s creative and popular success and is now on it’s downward trajectory to inevitable cancellation. It was based on an episode of the early ‘80s TV show Happy Days, when the show’s leading character, the Fonz, in a season-ending cliff-hanger, tries to jump over a shark on water skis in his trademark leather jacket to answer a challenge to his bravery. At the start of the next season, he lands the jump and the expression is not exactly borne, but impregnated into the general psyche of one person to become a generalized idiom decades later.


This phrase has gone on to cross boundaries to describe not only tv shows but also actors, brands and institutions such as (albeit subjectively and open to personal opinions) NHL video games (NHL 94), Friends (the Ross/Rachel hook-up), and Facebook (Farmville). Everything is susceptible to the jumping the shark phenomena, however a 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll reported that 83 percent of Americans didn’t know what the phrase meant.


This phrase and the figurative meaning has helped create a subcultural discourse in pop culture that would do Michel Foucault proud. Although he may have advocated the use of discourse to discuss a particular topic at a particular time in history, he may not have realized that one day people would take a certain phrase and use it so effectively in trying to subjectively clarify a point in history for a TV series. So when Arrested Development writers decided to create a joke of the idiom, it not only was including it for a minority of Americans who knew the phrase (less than 17 percent), it was also treating it as an homage to a few of the Happy Days cast members that went on to become large parts of Arrested Development; Ron Howard (aka Richie Cunningham) became narrator and producer of Arrested Development, Henry Winkler (aka the Fonz) was the Bluth’s original lawyer, Barry Zuckercorn and Scott Baio (aka Chachi) who in a further nod to it’s own self-reverence played Bob Loblaw, the lawyer hired to replace Barry Zuckercorn, a move that was acknowledged by Scott Baio/Bob Loblaw who states in his first meeting with the Bluths that ‘this is not the first time he has been hired to replace Barry’.


Cut to an Oceanside dock, where the Bluth brothers and Barry Zuckercorn are standing over a small, dead shark that had been found to contain a seal’s flipper, identified as belonging to the same seal that had bitten off Buster Bluth’s hand in an earlier episode. The men are discussing what to do next. Barry Zuckercorn states that he skipped breakfast and is ‘off to Burger King’ (not coincidentally a major sponsor of the show) and so leaps over the small shark at his feet. Arrested Development has literally shown the original Fonzie jumping another shark, jokingly foreshadowing for the writers/producers and audience the end of a creative arc and the beginning of the end of the show.


The joke relies on an audience understanding of a non-verbal message through action (jumping the shark) and what that action’s connotations mean in the television medium. It was produced for the enjoyment of a small segment of their audience that would get the joke, thereby creating discourse amongst TV critic circles (as most would be familiar with the term) about how clever a show Arrested Development was. By also addressing controversial issues such as the invasion of Iraq, incest, white collar criminals, Osama Bin Laden, the Patriot Act and the concept of Free Speech zones, Arrested Development was a welcome and topical change of subject for those who wanted to discuss something more culturally relevant than who should win Survivor or American Idol.


Arrested Development, by continually creating scenes that involve audience participation in which we must understand the illogical connotation of the action or conversation of the scene, created a hugely involved fan base that was inversely proportional to the numbers involved in making it successful in terms of ratings and series renewal.


Its cancellation in 2006 caused so much discourse over the years among critics (both professional and armchair) that when it was announced in October of 2011 that a green light has been given for 10 new shows as prequels to a feature length movie in 2013, many felt vindicate in the notion that there will always be a demand for intelligent humor, even in the endangered television medium.


To quote Tobias Funke, after covering himself in blue body paint in case the Blue Man Group called for an understudy (although he had yet to be even offered the position): “I’m afraid that I just blue myself.”

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Torn apart, but narratively stitched back together through the affection of its fans and creators, the Bluths and Arrested Development hang suspended in a moment of disrepair, the beating heart of their sorrow exposed, but yearning always to reconnect.
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