What’s So Funny About Tragic Things?

Scepanski’s Tragedy Plus Time takes a serious look at how comedy and satire in American media make light of dark matters.

Tragedy Plus Time: National Trauma and Television Comedy
Philip Scepanski
University of Texas Press
April 2021

Tragedy Plus Time takes on a curious question: how does comedy television in the United States use national tragedy as a source of humor? Further, what enables audiences to find this funny rather than tasteless?

Media theorist Philip Scepanski argues that the use of national trauma as a source for television humor began in the post-network era, inspired in part by late-night parody on Saturday Night Live. He demonstrates the ways that the breaking news segment in which Eddie Murphy’s Buckwheat character is assassinated draws on the framing of televised shootings from John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald to Ronald Reagan. Murphy’s parodic representation of Buckwheat, along with SNL’s long-running Weekend Update, created a context to effectively deploy this critique of mediated tragedy.

Kennedy’s assassination is widely considered as the defining traumatic event for the Baby Boomer generation, making it both surprising and natural that–as a nearly universally familiar trope–this murder could be a source of parody. After the 1991 release of Oliver Stone’s film JFK, Larry David’s Seinfeld series also used the Kennedy assassination as a source of humor, although not directly. The Zapruder film, which captured Kennedy’s assassination and which Scepanski sees as used excessively by Stone, is parodied in a Seinfeld episode where series characters Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards) and Newman (Wayne Knight) claim that Yankee’s first baseman Keith Hernandez spat on them at a game. The grainy, slow-mo trope of the footage of Kennedy’s assassination is used in recalling the baseball incident.

MacFarlane and Zuckerman’s series Family Guy, which Scepanski describes as both self-consciously risky and among television’s “sickest and most iconoclastic comedic moments”, also parodied the Kennedy assassination, providing a timeline to compare changes in the willingness to broadcast and appreciate objectionable programming. Scepanski notes that the JFK gag on Family Guy was likely motivated by the desire to attract key younger demographics. The shift to narrowcasting, he argues, has segmented audiences in a way that televised comedy can target viewers demographically, based on ethnicity, age, gender, socioeconomic status, and political leaning.

While focused primarily on how television comedy impacts public discourse about national tragedy and how it is remembered, Scepanski also takes up a study of the Comedy Central series Derek Waters’ Drunk History. The first two episodes of the series focused on Watergate and the Lincoln assassination, questioning the extremes for shifting serious history into comedic memory. What are the emotional implications for audiences when you turn trauma on its head?

An impact that Scepanski addresses is that comedy makes space for reframing the sanctified images of individuals created through tribute and commemoration in the immediate aftermath of an unexpected death. Michael Jackson, for example, was appropriately remembered as “the king of pop” when he died in 2009 and granted a period of grace before accusations of child molestation became part of public discourse once again. Television series South Park (Parker, Stone, and Graden) notoriously poked fun at Jackson, both before and after his death.

The idea of emotional nonconformity figures significantly in Scepanski’s study. He notes that comics who rely on shock value will deliberately violate the expected somber tones employed by media in the aftermath of a national tragedy. Examples include Lenny Bruce, Bill Maher, and Gilbert Gottfried.

Another approach for comedians to undo the sense of decorum deemed appropriate for tragedy is through conspiracy theories. Scepanski explains that conspiracy theories are used to shift the narrative of an event in order to make sense out of chaos and to counter the unexpected. Dave Chapelle deploys this strategy not only in his role as the oft-memed character “Conspiracy Brother”, but also in his stand-up and on Chappelle’s Show. As is the case throughout the book, the analysis of Chappelle’s use of comedic spin here is thorough and engaging.

With Islamophobia on the rise In the aftermath of September 11, Scepanski looks at how comedy constructs the apparent Other, a rhetoric move common to comedy for decades. He discusses Islamophobic comedy from Carlos Mencia and Jeff Dunham, then argues that many of the animated series and sitcoms cited for what he calls “sick” comedy took a liberal pluralist approach post-9/11. Drawing from historian and filmmaker Ethan Thompson’s work, Scepanski defines sick comedy as that which takes a critical stance toward staid cultural norms.

The Simpsons (Brooks, Groening, and Simon) is the primary example, with an episode in which Bart befriends Bashir, a Jordanian classmate, and Homer works diligently to identify any kind of terrorist behavior from Bashir’s family. They were, of course, model immigrant subjects, leaving Homer frustrated then momentarily embarrassed before he hangs up a banner decrying “pardon my intolerance!”

In the final chapter, Scepanki looks at how the 2016 presidential election was not initially tagged as a national trauma but quickly constructed to be one. When news coverage failed to portray events during the Trump presidency as outrageous and traumatic, comedy stepped in to fill the gap. Scepanski shows how this is a shift for comedy’s role in national trauma, as the previous analyses demonstrate instances of comedy working to normalize trauma. Samantha Bee, for example, spoke out after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida (2016), asking on Full Frontal if a seven-minute scream would not be far more meaningful and appropriate than trying to make jokes. 

Tragedy Plus Time is an analysis of media history. Scepanki’s study is useful to understand the ways that comedy constructs a view of the past, thereby influencing perceptions of historical events. Those lessons do not disappear but become integrated into worldviews going forward, shaping how national trauma plays a role in both national and individual identity. 

RATING 7 / 10