Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air vs. The Cosby Show

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air VS. The Cosby Show

After 8 years of being aired on American television, The Cosby Show became one of America’s most popular television sitcoms airing from 1984 to 1992. Starring an American comedy mogul by the name of Bill Cosby. Other major character that starred in this American television sitcom include: Phylicia Rashad ( as Clair Huxtable), Lisa Bonet (as Denise Huxtable), Malcolm Warner (as Theo Huxtable), Tempestt Bledsoe (as Vanessa Huxtable), Keshia Pulliam (as Rudy), and Raven Symone (as Olivia Kendall).

Image result for the cosby show

From top left: Denise Huxtable, Theo Huxtable, Clair Huxtable,
From bottom left: Rudy Huxtable, Cliff Huxtable, Vanessa Huxtable

Differences from these shows are obvious in the content of it. The Cosby show is more focused on the Huxtable family, an upper-middle class family living in Brooklyn, New York. Heathcliff "Cliff" Huxtable and his attorney wife Clair Huxtable presided over a loving household. In every way, they were an utterly typical traditional American sitcom family, with the notable exception that they were African-American. The topics of the show involved the usual difficulties of children growing up, an example being son Theo experiences of dealing with dyslexia, based on Cosby's real-life child Ennis who was dyslexic. The show was very much centered on Cosby's real life, and portrayed his children's lives as well.

  Bill Cosby having fun with his family as always in memorable episode.

Like The Cosby Show,The Fresh Prince of Bellaire became one of the most popular television sitcoms in American history airing from 1990 to 1996. This show was based off of a talented young actor by the name of Will Smith, who at the time was also at the top of his music career in the mid 1990s. Will Smith was by far the main and most important character in this sitcom, however there where also many other major characters they starred in this sitcom like, Alfonso Ribeiro (as Carlton), James Avery ( as Uncle Phil), Karyn parsons ( as Hilary), Tatyana Ali (as Ashley), Dj Jazzy Jeff (himself), Janet Hubert ( as Aunt Viv 1),  and Daphne Reid ( as Aunt Viv 2).

From top left: Hilary Banks, Geoffrey, Vivian Banks, Carlton Banks
From bottom left: Ashley Banks, Philip Banks, Will Smith

In The Fresh Prince of Bellaire, Will Smith is sent to live with his Aunt's family in Bel-Air to escape the dangers of inner-city Philadelphia. Of course, Bel-Air has dangers of a different type notably Will's uncle Philip who is a lawyer has quite a different outlook on life. More of a disciplinary and a controlled authority.  They clash just like any other two opposing forces would do. Will tries to find is identity in Bel-Air, while all the time he antagonizes uncle Phil and Carlton.

  Will Smith making fun of Uncle Phil’s authority.

Over the years of the both of the show’s production, the format has changed drastically. In the Cosby show, it starts off as a typical wealthy family lead by two parents raising their  four children. Bill Cosby was the centerpiece of all the drama in the shows, a father always wanting to take control and run the family in a funny way and having special relationships with all the characters. Obvious comedic obstacles for Bill Cosby where presented in the early episodes like when (in the picture below) Bill  or Cliff demands that his daughter (Denise) must go on  her first date in a more appropriate manner. In episode 1 of season 1.  Demonstrating how young Denise is and how young the kids are.

Following the original episodes, As the years of the show pass on, the family gets larger and new characters and more different personalities evolve. An evolution of the family is noticed more by the children of the show. Their appearance and comedic problems become more mature. As seen in this picture below Denise is noticeably a lot older than she was in the previous picture when the first pilot episode was aired.

Similar to The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince of Bellaire begins as a family with typical comedic issues. The family opens with Uncle Phil allowing star performer Will Smith to move in with the family. Will is a troubled young teen from Philadelphia loaded with street knowledge and swagger moving to Bellaire to try to find his identity and better his life from the troublesome streets of Philadelphia.  His immaturity and humor is apparent from the very first episode when Will first gets to Uncle Phil’s house and is singing and making jokes toward Geoffrey ( the butler) not knowing that Geoffrey is not uncle Phil at all.

Will like Cliff, (from the Cosby Show) has a very unique connection with all of the characters, especially the kids. Will always seems to atagonize Carlton because of his height. He seems to always give Ashley the wrong advice that Uncle Phil doesn’t like. Hilary is known as the pretty girl with no knowledge that Will always gets confused with. As the show gets older Will gets more mature and seems to be getting on his feet with his life. Still funny, but a tad more serious as far as his approach towards his identity.

 Style and Content
In both sitcoms the main scene for drama stems in the living room and the kitchen. I believe the producers of both shows wanted the drama to be in those places because that’s where all of the family is most of the time. Most of the memorable scenes have either took place in the kitchen or in the living room. Space is needed in both houses because both families are so large. Both families obviously are wealthy so the living rooms and kitchens are a nice size which allows interactions between characters to happen. Coincidently both shows are products of NBC. So camera angles towards the events are pretty much the same.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Comparative Media Analysis: Sarah Silverman

Sarah Silverman rose to prominence in the comedy world during the 2000’s after struggling and paying her dues in the entertainment industry during the late 1990’s. Her career began with a rocky start marked by an unsuccessful one year stint as a writer and occasional performer on Saturday Night Live. After being fired from the show, she continued to climb the show business ladder by appearing on short lived sketch comedy and scripted television shows, giving popular stand up performances around the country and on several Comedy Central roasts, and developing a film career that consisted mostly of minor roles. Since then, she has found main stream success. Ms. Silverman has starred in her own television show as well as making popular appearances on other shows (most notably Jimmy Kimmel Live!), has had high profile film roles, a couple of stand up specials, and has won two Emmy Awards. In addition to her success in film and television, she has achieved and maintained one of the most popular and lucrative stand up careers today. Now Ms. Silverman is considered one of the most eminent, successful, and influential comics of her generation.

She is also widely considered to be one of the most controversial comics of her generation. Silverman’s sense of humor is typically described as provocative. In a video interview with TIME (shown below beginning at the 3:25 mark) upon being asked about the appeal of provocative comedy, Ms. Silverman said, “What makes comedy provocative is if it makes you think.” This statement beautiful sums up the style of her comedy. Silverman mines for her humor by satirically and ironically reflecting upon herself the worst aspects of our society. She jokes about racism, sexism, politics, religion, and any “hot button” issue she can dig into.           

She does this in the way that many comedians before and after her have done. She does this by not presenting herself onstage or onscreen and merely joking about these issues, but by adopting an alter ego. Ms. Silverman’s comedic persona, also named Sarah Silverman, is narcissistic, insensitive, racist, sexist, a bigot, and generally ignorant. “Sarah Silverman,” in addition to possessing all of these nauseating and horrific qualities, also possesses a self righteousness and genuine lack of self awareness. This character does not understand that what she is saying is offensive or cruel or ignorant. She is merely trying to voice her honest, and what she believes to be positive and interesting, perspective of the world.

By adopting this character, the real Sarah Silverman can hold a mirror to society and highlight all of the terrible things she sees in the world today. This is not to say that Ms. Silverman’s social commentary or activism, which she does pursue in more direct ways outside of her performances, supersede the goal of being funny. This brand of social humor is just the most potent form of comedy she can offer because it inspires a visceral reaction from her audience. They laugh at the joke because they are shocked that she went to such an “off limits” place. Their laughter comes from the need for relief because Silverman’s joke has touched a deep and typically controversial truth that they like to avoid in their day to day lives.

For example, a racist joke as told by Silverman is not as simple as Part 1) setup, Part 2) derogatory statement about a race of people. A racist joke from Silverman is more complicated because the character she plays is truly clueless about her racism. “Sarah Silverman” believes that what she says is harmless. The idea that referring to Asians as a certain racial slur, as she infamously did in 2001 on Late Night with Conan O’Brien (shown in the video below), is wrong or offensive has never crossed her mind. And Silverman’s character’s ignorance and “positive spin” makes the joke not about a particular race of people but about racism as a social disease. Granted, this style of joking about race can frequently read as pure racism, but the desired result is to poke fun at racism itself. Her character’s cluelessness highlights the thought process of most Americans who believe that they live in a racism free, politically correct country. By reflecting this idealism onto her comic persona, Silverman can show people how messed up, however inherently funny, they truly are. This kind of comic technique, to reiterate what Silverman said to TIME, makes people think.

Ms. Silverman’s career has included almost all avenues of entertainment. She performs in film, television, on the stage, in literature, through social media, and on audio recordings and radio. A major aspect of her success as a comedian and personality is her ability to seamlessly adapt her alter ego for all of these mediums. This assessment exempts her several serious acting performances and many interviews out of her typical character, of course.

Of course her persona is at its most biting and obvious in her stand up appearances. In the following clip from her stand up film Jesus is Magic, Sarah Silverman, through the character of “Sarah Silverman,” embodies many of our society’s negative traits.

She points out our emphasis on labels with the gem, “I don’t want to be labeled as straight or labeled as gay. I just want people to look at me and see me…as white.” In her story about her ex-boyfriend, she not only shows her racist colors but, more importantly, her ignorance to those racist colors. She blames him interpreting her obviously bigoted “compliment” for what it truly is on him having “low self-esteem.” In addition to this highlighting modern racism and ignorance, it also perfectly exemplifies the entitled and pompous attitudes that exist in our contemporary generations. She also points out our image-obsession and vanity with, “I don’t care if you think I’m racist, I just want you to think I’m thin.”

In her television show, the Sarah Silverman Program, this persona is modified by being more absurd, but also more child like in her innocence and ignorance. This makes it easier for us to forgive her harsh jokes, which are undoubtedly made harsher in this medium because we are seeing them play out and not just hearing about them.

For example, the above clip from the pilot shows her wrapping up the events of that episode with her dog, Doug. The style of this ending was a part of the show’s format and was recreated for every episode. We hear her say very crass and potentially offensive things about drugs, sexuality, and race. These loaded jokes are juxtaposed by the light and twinkly musical score underneath. This music, combined with the idea that the main character is reiterating everything she learned this episode, creates the atmosphere of a children’s program. This contributes to her character’s innocence and allows the audience, or attempts to allow them anyway, to forgive her harsh and politically incorrect jokes.

This sequence is also in synch with the “Sarah Silverman” persona because she says judgmental and bigoted things out of ignorance. It should be noted that all of the things she “learned” come from a much skewed world view and, in most cases, do not correlate with the reality of the events that have transpired. This further asserts that “Sarah Silverman” is nearly incapable of learning. And since “Sarah Silverman” is a satirical character meant to reflect society, Silverman is making the statement that our individual and selfish perspectives inhibit us from learning or growing. From Silverman’s portrayal, we appear to just pick and choose which experiences to learn from and only retain the lessons that already apply to our belief systems.
Much of Silverman’s comedy is also filtered through music. Music is a reoccurring element in every facet of her career. She performs songs live in her stand up shows and frequently sang on her television show. The songs, of which she is both composer and lyricist, are often used to expand upon themes she discusses in her material. The song below explores racism, again via her alter ego’s simplistic and ignorant view of other groups of people (“I love you more than Asians are good at math.”), and the irony and hypocrisy of our society.

Ultimately, Sarah Silverman’s brand of comedy is driven by social commentary. And no matter what medium she is working in, as long as she is creating and performing her own material, it is safe to say that the commentary will be present. The character of “Sarah Silverman,” though controversial, is what defines Silverman’s career and contribution to modern comedy. While she is not the first to employ this technique of using a heightened alter-ego, you can see the tradition being carried on by comedians like Amy Schumer, Daniel Tosh, and Anthony Jeselnik. Silverman has been a major player and obvious inspiration in maintaining this style of comedic performance. This is because of, not only her mastery of the style, but her effortless translation and sustention of it no matter what medium she is performing in.

Irony and Abjection in the Meta-comedy of Sarah Silverman

Disclaimer: This column covers some explicit material. Readers may find some of the content offensive, but it's also essential for exploring the nature of Sarah Silverman's comedy.

            Sarah Silverman’s comedy has been somewhat of a guilty pleasure of mine ever since her sitcom The Sarah Silverman Program was released in 2007 on Comedy Central. It’s the only sitcom that I ever really watched on a regular basis. On the surface, her jokes may seem too juvenile and unacademic to be worthy of critical discourse. The incongruous manner in which she jokes about sensitive topics such as racism, religion and sexism with banal stereotypes have been both praised and criticized in entertainment media since she rose to popularity in the early 2000s. She’s been considered one of the most hated comics in America. However, this abject response that her shallow jokes provoke in people is clearly intentional and an important part of her role as a comedian.            
           Much like Stephen Colbert, most of what she says (even outside of her performances) is filtered through her insensitive, but innocent comedic persona, which functions as a kind of meta-joke in itself. This persona is woven through everything Silverman does as a comedian, which includes stand-up comedy, roles in television shows and films, and even her own sitcom on Comedy Central, The Sarah Silverman Program. Silverman highlights the ignorance of racial and sexist prejudices by satirizing these mindsets, and indirectly provokes the listener into thinking more deeply about the absurdity of those prejudices. In other ways, her persona also serves as a hyper-sexualized caricature of self-objectification in celebrity culture.

            In Comedy (The New Critical Idiom), Andrew Stott discuses Charles Baudelaire’s essays on caricature, noting that “Caricature operates according to the principle that we are all potentially monstrous, as the prominently exaggerated or altered features communicate the identity of the subject depicted, and so caricature makes us identifiable by deforming us” (71). Caricature is a term that applies to painting and aesthetics, but the principles of visual caricature can also be applied to certain routines of modern comics like Stephen Colbert or Sarah Silverman, and how they ridicule hypocritical aspects of our culture. In the case of Silverman, these exaggerations and distortions clearly aren’t physical but her comically exaggerated representations of bigotry and racism can rather be considered a reflection of social “deformities”.
            However, the risk of using irony as social criticism with satirists like Silverman is that it will always be lost on some audiences. With her sardonic and self-centered demeanor, it is understandably easy for many people to be offended by much of the material in her sitcom or make the more grievous mistake of laughing at her joke because they identify with the character’s bigotry. This ambiguity between what is genuine and what is an act relates not only to her stand-up material, but also to the way she presents herself in interviews, on social media and even her fictional Comedy Central sitcom.
            The Sarah Silverman Program is an extension of her 2005 concert film, Jesus is Magic and expands on the inappropriate, narcissist persona that she established with her stand-up comedy in the late 90s and early 2000s. The bigoted caveat in the following clip from the sitcom is an example of how Silverman’s banal humor can also raise questions about language choice and political correctness. 

              On the other hand, it also arguably raises the question of whether her comedy actually reinforces some of the real bigotry that she aims to satirize, and demonstrates the slippery slope Silverman is regularly engaged in on the show. I laughed at the scene when I watched it as it aired on Comedy Central in 2007. However, upon closer scrutiny and in the context of her larger body of work, Silverman’s ironic pre-occupations in jokes like this just feel rather hollow to me. The joke lacks the necessary intellectual clarity required for me to consider it meaningful satire. Nevertheless, this ironic ambiguity just serves to intensify the shock value of the jokes and is clearly an important element of Silverman’s humor. Her twitter account is another example of this penchant for public controversy, with her most contentious tweets making gossip headlines on a yearly basis since she started her account.

               In contrast to comedians like George Carlin and Bill Hicks, Silverman uses a purely ironic and indirect delivery for most of her political observations, often leaving interpretation of her message up to the viewer. She’s one of the few comedians who manages to be both perpetually sarcastic and cheerfully up-beat at the same time. Tone and facial expression are important parts of the comedy in her stand-up shows and sitcom performances. Her most controversial jokes are often punctuated with a clueless smile and innocent demeanor. This creates an incongruity between her lucid, light-hearted delivery and the lurid content of her jokes.

            Bathos is another technique used frequently in both her stand-up and sitcom material, and is most commonly used in conjunction with tragedies such as 9/11 and the Jewish holocaust. Comedy theorist Andrew Stott defines Bathos as “a descent from an elevated discourse to a ludicrous one, a sense of deflation” (195). One popular example of this with Sarah Silverman is a joke that she makes about her recently deceased grandmother in Jesus is Magic. In one of several segments about the topic, she poignantly dedicates the entire film to her Grandmother, Nana. She then explains that her grandmother was a holocaust survivor and proceeds to joke about how her serial number tattoo was a "vanity number". A few segments later, she compounds the awkwardness by joking about how her grandmother recently died at the age of 96 after a suspected rape.

             In the feature films she’s appeared in, her roles are typically just variations of her stand-up and sitcom comic personas. Most recently, she played a devoutly religious prostitute in Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West, in which she mostly just jokes with her oblivious fiancé Edward about her sexual exploits (however, she won’t have sex with him because they’re Christians and they aren’t married).

              More recently, Silverman has used her comedy as a platform to speak out in favor of various feminist and political causes, mostly through several digital shorts that she’s produced in conjunction with JASH. Silverman partnered with JASH in 2013, a Youtube comedy channel committed to producing original content without intrusion from network executives.

            While I still admire Sarah Silverman and she remains a favorite comedian of mine, a deeper comparative media analysis of her comedy has left me with a sense of skepticism about the real intellectual depth of her work that I didn’t have when I started the assignment. I’m not personally offended by anything she says, but a closer examination of the satirical bigotry in her jokes makes me question whether they genuinely serve to undermine real cultural prejudices or just serve to reinforce them in some way. A quote from David Foster Wallace in an essay that he wrote on the role of irony in American literature sums up how I feel about similar issues that were raised for me with my research into Sarah Silverman’s brand of irony (and by extension, other satirists like Matt Stone and Trey Parker):
“I find gifted ironists sort of wickedly funny to listen to at parties, but I always walk away feeling like I’ve had several radical surgical procedures. And as for actually driving cross-country with a gifted ironist, or sitting through a 300-page novel full of nothing by trendy sardonic exhaustion, one ends up feeling not only empty but somehow. . .oppressed” (183).

Stott, Andrew. Comedy: The New Critical Idiom, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.
Wallace, David. (1993, June 22). “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”. The Review of Contemporary Fiction.