Awkward Conversations About Uncomfortable Laughter

Mary Douglas\' Implicit meanings

Mary Douglas’ “Implicit Meanings”

In her book, Implicit Meanings, the anthropologist Mary Douglas explores the roles jokes play in mapping points of tension or transition within a culture. Only a thin line separates jokes and insults. The joke gives expressive form to an emergent perspective within a culture — something which is widely felt but rarely said. When a joke expresses a view already widely accepted, it becomes banal and unfunny. When a joke says something the culture is not ready to hear, it gets read as an insult or an obscenity. The job of the clown is thus to continually map the borders between what can and can not be said. This is why a good comedy routine is accompanied as often by gasps as by laughter.

I was reminded of Douglas’s perspective on jokes when I recently participated in a screening and discussion of Sarah Silverman’s new film, Jesus is Magic. For those of you who have not heard of her yet, Silverman is a former Saturday Night Live writer who sparked national controversy in 2001 when she told a joke about “chinks” on Conan and when she defended the joke on Bill Mahr’s Politically Incorrect. The Silverman controversy has resurfaced in recent months both because of a rather memorable appearance in The Aristocrats and because of the release of a film documenting her standup comedy show. She has recently been profiled in The New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly and is currently shooting a pilot for her own series on Comedy Central.

To understand the controversy, we have to return to the now infamous joke she told on Conan in 2001. She was explaining that her various efforts to escape jury duty and her friend’s suggestion that she could try to come across as prejudiced on the questionnaire by writing “I hate chinks.” Silverman pauses, suggesting that she would consider being embarrassed to make such a comment, even in jest, and so instead she wrote, “I LOOOVE Chinks — and who wouldn’t.”

Greg Aoki, the president of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, argued that the network showed a double standard in allowing the word, “chink”, to air when it would almost certainly have bleeped “nigger.” The network and host later apologized for the decision to air the joke but Silverman refused to apologize, contending “it’s not a racist joke. It’s a joke about racism.” The controversy is one which looks differently depending on whether our focus is on the words used (Aoki rightly sees “chink” as a word deeply entwined in the history of racism in America) or the meaning behind them (Silverman is right that her comedy ultimately raises uncomfortable questions about how white people “play the race card.”)

Writing in Asian Week, columnist Emil Guillermo argues that rather than seeing Silverman’s joke as “fighting words,” they should use it as “talking words,” as the starting point for discussing the current state of American racism. This is not what Aoki experienced when he tried to challenge the appropriateness of Silverman’s joke during their mutual appearance on Politically Incorrect, where the host and guests questioned his sincerity, made fun of his name, called him names, and cut him off when he tried to link the jokes to recent incidents of racial violence. And it is not what Silverman experienced when her critics simply label her a “racist” without exploring what she was trying to say.

How can we distinguish between racist jokes and jokes about racism, especially with the deadpan irony that is Silverman’s hallmark? Most of us have no trouble thinking of cases where jokes have been directed against minorities as a racist exercise of power. Yet we should also keep in mind the many different ways that comedy has been used to challenge racism — think about the first generation of African-American comics who went into black, white, and multiracial clubs and confronted their audiences with words and concepts that were designed to create discomfort; think about the ways that underground comics like R. Crumb sought to “exorcise” the history of racial stereotypes in his medium by pushing them to their outer limits; think about shows like All in the Family which exposed the ways that previous generations of sitcoms had remained silent about the bigotry which was often at the heart of American domestic life. And then there are jokes which are funny simply because they are “politically incorrect,” that is, because they thumb their nose at anyone who would set any limits on speech whatsoever. Perhaps most strikingly, there are jokes which deny the reality of both race and racism simply by refusing to talk about it at all. When was the last time that you heard a joke on a late-night talk show (Okay — outside the Daily Show) that you remembered the next morning, let alone one which provoked debate four years later.

Critics have read Silverman’s comedy as simply “politically incorrect.” There are plenty of times when Silverman’s jokes are, to use Douglas’s definition of obscenity, “gratuitous intrusions.” Yet, at its best, her comedy reflects on the problems of living in a culture where old racial logics are breaking down and new relationships have not yet taken any kind of definitive shape and where there seems to be no established language for speaking to each other across racial lines. Her most consistent target is a white America which is so busy trying to watch its step that it falls on its own face. Several deal with the challenges of negotiating mixed race or multi-ethnic relationships. For example, she gets upset when her half black boyfriend objects to her “innocent compliment” that he would have made “an expensive slave” because he has “self-esteem issues,” smugly insisting, “He has to learn to love himself before I can stop hating his people.” This is after she has suggested it would be more “optimistic” to say that he was “half white” rather than “half black.” At another point, she describes a particular audience as “black,” then corrects herself to say that it was “African-American,” then decides it was “half and half.” Or again, she talks about how she and her Christian boyfriend will explain their religious beliefs to any future offspring: “Mother is one of the chosen people and Dad believes Jesus is magic.”

Sarah Silverman

Sarah Silverman

Silverman’s jokes do not in any simple or direct way represent her personal views; rather, she has adopted a comic persona (perhaps multiple personas) through which she reflects confusions and contradictions in the ways that white America thinks about race and racism, much the way some hip hop performers have argued that the views about race, criminality, and sexual violence they express through their songs are attempts to make visible some of the issues confronting their community. In both cases, critics have tended to read such personas literally. There are no words to describe whiteness which have the same sting as “chink” or “nigger” and so she has to perform whiteness, against a backdrop of other racial identities, so that it can recognize itself in all of its insensitivity and self-centeredness.

Consider, for example, a Silverman routine about her lust for a jewel which is formed by de-boning and grinding own the spines of starving Ethiopian babies. There is a level to the joke which is simply funny because of the cruel and insensitive way she is speaking about human suffering; there is another level, however, which works not unlike the way that Jonathon Swift’s similarly-themed, “A Modest Proposal,” works, exposing the infinite flexibility with which we can rationalize and justify the exploitation of the third world. Silverman delivers the joke with what New Yorker writer Dana Goodyear calls “quiet depravity”: “The expression that lingers on her face is usually one of tentative confusion or chipper self-satisfaction, as if she had finished her homework and cleaned up her room, and were waiting for a gold star.” She doesn’t smirk; she honestly thinks she has no real prejudice or animosity even as she bases her everyday decisions on gross stereotypes. Hers is the face of what cultural critics have called “enlightened racism,” the smug satisfaction with which white Americans excuse ourselves for our own lapses in taste and judgment as long as they do not become too overt or openly confrontational. As she describes this jewel, she hits a moment of conscience, realizing that they probably exploit the “unions” which mine the babies’ spines, but then concedes, “you have to pick your battles.”

Early in the jewel routine, she describes her acquisitiveness as “so JAP,” then pausing to explain that she doesn’t mean “Jewish American Princess” (a stereotype which she has self-consciously embodied throughout the routine) but rather “Japanese.” Instantly, she moves from a stereotype which is more socially acceptable (if only because she would be making fun of her own group) and into one which is totally unacceptable (and the joke only works if we recognize the offensiveness of the word). Indeed, she plays often on the ambiguities of her own status as white and Jewish — sometimes speaking as a member of an oppressed minority, other times blending into a white majority, and often making this desire of Jews to escape their minority status a central theme in her work. It crops up for example when she makes bitter comments about contemporary Jews who drive German-made cars or when she tells a joke about Jews who want to escape racist charges of having killed Christ by blaming the Romans (and then pushing this historical scapegoating one step further by suggesting that personally she blames the blacks.)

Silverman’s comedy depends upon the instability created as we move from thinking of race in black and white terms towards a multi-racial and multi-cultural society. A previous generation of comics would not have made jokes about Asian-Americans or Hispanics because they simply were not part of the way they envisioned America. Much contemporary race theory has sought ways to move us beyond simple black/white binaries in the ways we think about racial diversity. As recent demographic trends suggest, America is rapidly moving towards a time when Caucasians will be in the minority but they are not being replaced by a new majority culture: rather, America will be more ethnically diverse — some would say “fragmented,” “balkanized,” or “disunified” — than ever before and there has been few successful attempts to build coalitions across those diverse populations.

A musical number in Jesus is Magic self-consciously maps the fault lines in this new cultural diversity: dressed like a refugee from an Up With People concert, strumming a guitar, looking her most wide-eyed and innocent, she wanders from space to space, gleefully singing about how much Jews love money, how little blacks like to tip, how well Asians do at math, and ends with a particularly choice lyric about blacks calling each other “niggers.” Then, the little white woman looks over and sees two angry looking black men who glare at her for a long period of silence; then they start to laugh and she tries laughing with them; then they stop laughing and glare at her even more intensely and for an agonizingly long period of time. It is hard to imagine a comedian who is more reflexive about the nature of their own comic practices or more insistent that the audience stop laughing and think about the politics of their own laughter.

Much of the Silverman controversy centers around what anthropologists often call joking relations: in any given culture, there are rules, sometimes implicit, often explicit, about which people can joke with each other, about what content is appropriate for joking in specific contents. During times of social anxiety, these rules are closely policed and transgressions of these boundaries are severely punished. Yet, in times of greater security, cultures may suspend or extend the rules to broaden the community which is allowed inside a particular set of joking relationships. But who determines which jokes are safe and permissible? She openly courts such questions by appearing on The Jimmy Kimmel Show, doing verbatim versions of Dave Chappel skits. Can a white woman make the same jokes as a black man or does changing the race of the performer change everything?

Comedy in the 1990s seemed often about securing boundaries as comedians emerged who could articulate the self perceptions and frustrations of different identity politics groups: Asians made Asian jokes, Blacks made black jokes (and sometimes about white people), Jews made Jewish jokes, and white comedians mostly avoided the topic of race altogether. This places an enormous burden on minority performers not simply to speak on behalf of their race but to bear the weight of any discussion about racism. And of course, when black comedians made jokes about black people, they often did so in front of white or mixed audiences. Just as white comedians were uncertain whether they could joke about race and under what circumstances, white audiences were uncertain whether they could laugh about race and under what circumstances. Silverman has thrust herself out there, saying it is time for white comics to joke about race, and has faced the inevitable push-back for trying to change the rules of discourse.

Contemporary cultural theorists have been urging a move away from identity politics towards one based on coalition building: race will not go away simply because we refuse to talk about it and we cannot meaningfully change how we think about race as a society by remaining within our own enclaves. Consider, for example, Frank H. Wu’s Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White. Wu is an Asian-American professor who has chosen to teach at Howard University Law School, a historically black institution, because he wanted to create a context where Asian-Americans and African-Americans can learn to communicate across their racial and ethnic differences. Wu argues that for such coalitions to work, one has to put everything on the table, confront past stereotypes, examine historic misunderstandings, give expression to fears and anxieties. We can’t work through the things that separate us until we feel comfortable discussing them together. This isn’t simply something that has to take place between different minority groups: there has to be a way where whites can express their own uncertainties about the future without being prejudged.

Jokes may fuel such social transformations because they force us to confront the contradictions in our own thinking. They are valuable precisely because the same joke will be heard differently in different contexts and thus can help us to talk through our different experiences of being raced. As Wu writes, “Race is meaningless in the abstract; it acquires its meanings as it operates on its surroundings. With race, the truism is all the more apt that the same words can take on different meanings depending on the speaker, the audience, the tone, the intention and the usage.” Mary Douglas similarly suggests that the reason our culture has such trouble drawing a fixed line between jokes and obscenity is that unlike traditional cultures, we do not occupy “a single moral order” and there are no agreed-upon boundaries.

And that brings us back to Guillermo’s appeal that Silverman’s “chink” joke might be used as “talking words.” From my perspective as a white southern-born male, Silverman is raising important questions about race and racism which white audiences need to hear if they are going to come to grips with a multicultural society. From Aoki’s perspective, the same joke evokes a painful history, using words that many Asian-Americans hear too often. At the risk of sounding naive and idealistic, maybe that’s something we should be talking about, however awkward the conversation is apt to be.

Rotten Tomatoes
The New Yorker on Sarah Silverman

Image Credits:

1. Mary Douglas’ “Implicit Meanings”

2. Sarah Silverman

Please feel free to comment.

The Los Angeles Misanthrope

A Cover of Entertainment Weekly

A Cover of Entertainment Weekly

In my book, Engaging Film Criticism, I argue for the importance of academic critics intervening into the reception of films while they are still being attended to by the general population. One of the terrific things about on-line publication is that it allows for such interventions, since the normal channels of refereed academic publication are simply too slow to allow for it. Of course, popular film reviewing has the benefit of such contemporaneous intervention, but its function is to serve taste culture — will Roger Ebert’s readership find spending money on a particular film worthwhile — rather than to generate knowledge and understanding.

Of course, when it comes to television, there is not nearly so well developed a critical apparatus. Popular film reviews are ubiquitous, while television reviewing is limited to a few newspapers. Entertainment Weekly is really the only major popular publication that treats television as thoroughly as film. However, the same problems with academic interventions into the critical landscape of television exist as they do with scholarly film reviewing. Academic journal articles and books on television take far too long to intervene into discussions about the potential meanings of shows while people are watching them with enthusiasm. While there are websites, like Television Without Pity, which analyze each new episode of favorite shows, such as The Simpsons, the discourse on these sites is not necessarily bound by the rigor of scholarly analysis. This is not to say that the reception of shows on these web sites is without value; on the contrary, these sites provide tremendously valuable data about the reception of television, data which any film reception studies scholar would drool over were it available for, say, the 1930s films of Frank Capra.

As with film reviewing, we need a middle-ground institutional space where today’s television shows are discussed using the historical and theoretical tools of academic media studies. I think the success of FLOW will lie in its ability to produce such middle-ground criticism about shows that are usually too new to be engaged by academics at the time when such interventions would actually matter. The extensive thread that has developed in response to Jason Mitell’s two articles about Lost is, I think, a very encouraging sign about the success FLOW is having. I have been sharing these discussions with my friends outside of the academic circuit, people who love to watch and talk about Lost with me. If I were to have these conversations with these friends three years from now, when the academic articles on Lost will finally start circulating beyond the ephemerality of academic conference papers, these interventions would be far too late.

It strikes me that one of the repercussions of the academic delay in writing about television is an emphasis on the overall structure of the show rather than the individual episodes through which we actually encounter it, and about which the internet fans predominantly write. I think we’ll see a number of academic studies of Six Feet Under, for example, now that the series finale has aired, and that its entirety can be assessed. At the very least, the academic will wait for the end of a season in order to speculate on the structure of the show beyond the individual episode. For example, Mittell’s articles about Lost come after the season one finale, anticipating the premiere of season two. I am not arguing against either seeing the entire series as a complete text, nor the segmentation of television into seasons. However, I think there is another aspect of television’s segmentation and flow that can be attended to if we take our reception of television shows at their most discrete level, that of the individual episode. In order to pursue what can be gained by doing so, I want to do a close textual reading of the most recent episode of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, “The Bowtie,” which aired this past Sunday, October 2, 2005. I think Curb Your Enthusiasm is one of the most important sitcoms ever on television. Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld created in Seinfeld (NBC, 1989-1998) a highly literate version of George Etherege’s The Man of Mode (1676), a comic critique of “civilized” social relations. In his new show on HBO, David strips his earlier work of its network-induced hedges, producing the boldest examination of social dysfunction since Moliere’s The Misanthrope (1666). If I were to write the typical academic analysis of the show, that is, do what I am trained to, I would select out some of my favorite episodes and piece together an argument about the show’s overarching meaning. For example, I think the show is boldest when it tackles religion in contemporary American social life. This would lead me to the analysis of an episode like “The Baptism” (aired 11/ 18/2001) where Larry stops the conversion from Judaism to Christianity of his potential brother-in-law, much to the chagrin of his wife Cheryl’s Christian family.

Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm

Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm

Academics always cheat in this way, stacking their argument with the best possible textual evidence of their position. Instead, I propose that we put our money where our mouth is and see if our methods can be brought to bear on more randomly selected material. When I teach film criticism, for example, I have students select the film that they want to see at the movie theatre over the weekend. My challenge is to then go to the film cold, select academic reading material to illuminate it, and teach that material to the students the next week. I intend my analysis of “The Bowtie” in this “put up or shut up” spirit.

“The Bowtie” begins with Larry sitting in the office of Omar Jones (played by Mekhi Phifer), a private investigator. In the season opener, “The Larry David Sandwich” (aired 9/25/05), Larry thinks he heard his father, while lying sedated in the hospital, whisper that Larry was adopted. Larry desperately wants to know if this is true, so that, as in Freud’s “Family Romance” fantasy, he can disavow his dysfunctional parents. However, Omar is a Black Muslim, and only works for “his community.” Larry comically suggests that he could volunteer calling out bingo numbers for this community, but Omar is unconvinced: “Bingo is a distraction.”

Larry then borrows Omar’s key to the restroom in his building. There, Larry has an encounter with a man in a wheelchair. Like the best of Seinfeld episodes, Larry’s encounters will all build nuance around this theme of “community,” finally culminating in an ending scene which clearly states the show’s liberal political position. In the bathroom, the man in the wheelchair chides Larry for using “his stall,” the larger one equipped with accessibility railings. Larry tries to defend himself, arguing that “I haven’t seen a handicapped person in the bathroom, maybe ever.” After a fight about the politically correct term for the man’s condition, “handicapped or disabled,” the man wheels himself into the stall, muttering that Larry is “a douche bag.”

In yet another encounter with members of a “community,” Larry and his agent, Jeff, walk through a parking lot where they discover a man walking away from his car, parked in a handicapped spot. Larry confronts the man, “What’s with the walking?” to which the man replies, stuttering, arguing that his disability makes it appropriate for him to park in the handicapped spot. Larry loses this encounter as badly as with the man in the wheelchair: this man stutters that Larry is a “fucking prick.”

Once Larry and Jeff arrive at the restaurant, Jodi Funkhouser (played by Blossom’s Mayim Bialik), treats him very nicely, rudely ignoring Jeff. When Jeff asks Larry the reason for the differential treatment, Larry explains that “The word got out that I am a friend o’ lesbians,” that they love him “moreso than any other community, including Jews.” However, Larry soon spoils this goodwill, when Jodi’s father, Marty, explains that she is now engaged to a man. Larry responds too enthusiastically to this news, causing the lesbians of Los Angeles to scorn him publicly.

In the meantime, Larry has picked out a dog at the pound. Cheryl’s African-American friend, Wanda, comes over to their apartment to see the dog. When the dog barks aggressively at Wanda and a black workman, but not at Cheryl, Larry, or the white workman, Wanda tells Larry that he owns a racist dog. Wanda hilariously observes that Larry has chosen a perfect name, Sheriff, for “a Klan dog.”

Things continue to deteriorate for Larry’s reputation with the episode’s various “communities.” At a dinner party, a table of African-American people is being boisterous. When Larry asks them to be quiet so that he can order his food, he is ignored and ridiculed. One of the men at the table accuses Larry of being a racist because of his dog. When Larry inquires as to how the man knows about the dog, he responds, “Because we talk, Larry.” Here the episode sets up its comic critique of identity politics, building a paranoid sense of Otherness in which the members of these “communities” really are in direct contact, conspiring against Larry. A bit later, Omar calls Larry, chiding him for his behavior at the banquet, having gained a direct report from the people at the table because: “We talk, Mr. David, we talk.”

However, in a pastiche of a Seinfeld episode, the narrative of “The Bowtie” redeems Larry in the eyes of the “communities.” As Larry is talking to Jodi’s new fiance Dan, he prattles on about not understanding women’s “equipment,” arguing how brave Dan is for not being intimidated by Jodi having had sex with women. “That whole area is mysterious to me,” Larry argues, directly replicating a famous conversation between Jerry and George on the earlier show. When Larry meets Jeff the next day for lunch at a restaurant apparently staffed and attended by the lesbian community, Larry is offered dessert “on the house.” Jeff observes, “You, my friend, are back in the lesbian busom.” Larry meets his friend Rosie O’Donnell on the street, who stood up for him “at the meeting” of Los Angeles lesbians. Rosie informs Larry that now “all lesbians love you” because he caused Jodi to be “back on the team,” again replicating the sports metaphor used by Jerry and George on Seinfeld to absurdly describe heterosexuality and homosexuality as opposing sides on a baseball field.

The rest of the episode is devoted to Larry’s victory over the communities’ conspiracies against him. Larry enters the bathroom again in Omar’s office building. Having learned his lesson, he waits to use the regular stall, even though the handicapped one is free. However, when the same man in the wheelchair emerges from the regular stall, Larry takes the moral upper-hand and chides him. When the man explains that the “normal” stall was free, so he used it, Larry turns the tables on his politically correct language use: “We don’t like to be referred to as normal. We’re able-bodied.”

The show ends with a bravura statement of its liberal political position and its critique of radical identity politics. After having agreed to take Larry’s adoption case, Omar emerges out of his building to retrieve his bathroom key, which Larry keeps forgetting to return. When Larry sees Omar rushing toward his dog, he is petrified that the racist canine will ruin his goodwill with the Muslim private detective. However, Omar pets Sheriff, who is gentle. The episode ends with the dog attacking Rosie O’Donnell instead! The scene itself has already made its point against the atomization of social life into a set of restrictive communities by emphasizing that the assumption of the dog’s ability to replicate human racism was built on circumstantial evidence. But even more interesting is that this entire ending scene takes place in front of what film scholar Tom Conley, invoking Derrida, calls a written rebus, a piece of writing inside the image which provides the allegorical key to its meaning. In this case, the rebus is the name of a food vending cart in the background of the image, “Selma’s.” Here the show invokes the liberal Civil Rights movement; the fight in Selma, Alabama being one of its greatest struggles-against the bowtie-wearing black Muslim, Louis Farrakhan, whom Omar clearly parodies. The show argues for the value of liberalism over the radical and false separation of people into monotheistic identity categories. The dog, alas, has more sense than the people. Whatever Sheriff’s behavior at Larry’s apartment, on the street, he has the good sense to bark at Rosie O’Donnell, the giver of craptacularly bad talk shows, over Mekhi Phifer, a wonderful actor; as acerbic, and correct, a comment as Curb Your Enthusiasm has ever made.

Image Credits:

1. A Cover of Entertainment Weekly

2. Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm

Please feel free to comment.

I Love Lucy in the Sixties

The Lucy Show

The Lucy Show

My grandmother had made it clear that she wanted the items on her shopping list soon, as in the next day. It was 10:00 at night, in Biddeford, Maine, and where the hell was I going to find Jarlsberg cheese, a small watering can, skirt hangers, Danish butter cookies, Miracle Grow, peanut butter, Stayfree maxipads (extra-long, with “wings”), and bedroom slippers? I boarded Grandma’s boat-sized 1991 Lincoln Town Car and headed towards my inevitable, unenviable destination: Wal-Mart.

Entering the frigid belly of the consumerist beast, I meekly wondered, as long as I’m here, maybe I could pick up a copy of the South Park anti-Wal-Mart episode? So after getting my assigned shopping done, I decided to check out the DVD department. It turns out that DVDs are a loss-leader at Wal-Mart, and soon I was up to my elbows in the $4.99 bargain bin, sifting through crappy transfers of Glenn Ford World War II movies, miscellaneous Brat Pack flicks, and the entire Tom Arnold oeuvre. Then, jackpot! Creepshow, Frogs (Ray Milland, 1972, killer amphibians, why not?), and numerous episodes of The Lucy Show (CBS, 1962-1968).

Lucille Ball’s 1960s TV show ran in the afternoons when I was a kid, and I found it infinitely superior to I Love Lucy (CBS, 1951-1957), which was too stressful for me. On her 50s program it seemed that Lucy was always afraid that she would get caught for doing something she had been cruelly forbidden to do, and that Ricky would punish her. Though Ricky’s actual spankings were infrequent, the threat of domestic violence loomed large for this young viewer. On the post-Ricky series, Lucy was a widow, and her blustery boss Mr. Mooney did not seem to represent a true threat. Mooney hollered a lot, but Lucy remained insouciant about taking two hour lunch breaks. The Lucy Show was friendlier than I Love Lucy. And guest stars were frequent. Luminaries included Ethel Merman, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Edward G. Robinson, Kirk Douglas, Dean Martin, Don Rickles, and Sid Caesar. Already well past being “une femme d’un certain age,” Lucy wore smashing outfits and had dates with Dan Rowan, Robert Goulet, and, to her great dismay (in the show’s later incarnation as Here’s Lucy), Don Knotts. It’s hard to imagine a sitcom about such a cool, sexy old lady making it onto TV today.

Milton Berle on Here\'s Lucy

Milton Berle on Here’s Lucy

Mary Richards gets a lot of credit as a pioneering working woman, but Lucy was a plucky career gal some years before Mary, and she faced a number of workplace crises, though these were always played for laughs. Lucy had constant money problems, and Mr. Mooney frequently made her work overtime and on weekends without compensation. For Lucy, there was no union to turn to, no solidarity with other “girls” in the office, and no possibility of a raise, or of raised consciousness. Gloria Steinem’s influence clearly did not extend to this particular television universe. Helen Gurley Brown’s impact, conversely, could certainly be felt. Though Lucy would never use sex to get ahead at work, the flirty substitute hired when Lucy goes on vacation wraps Mr. Mooney around her little finger, almost stealing Lucy’s job. Lucy uses elaborate and decidedly unglamorous disguises to sabotage the sexpot. In another episode, Lucy explains how other secretaries in the office get raises, but she “is not the type of girl to wear sweaters two sizes too small.” Lucy may not think she’s a feminist, but she knows that she is being exploited, and that Sex and the Single Girl would not provide palatable solutions to her problems. So she remained broke.

In one episode, the penurious Lucy meets her friend Dottie for lunch and, to the great irritation of the cranky waitress, orders nothing but a bowl of hot water. Lucy adds free condiments-ketchup, steak sauce, lemon wedges, and a handful of sugar cubes-and then tucks into her bowl of free soup. Dottie exclaims, “Congratulations, you’re winning the War on Poverty!” and Lucy replies, “We all have to do our part.” Viewing this episode again for the first time in over 30 years, I remembered the hot water shtick very clearly, but not the quip about the War on Poverty, which would not have meant much to a five year old middle-class suburban kid. Certainly, no one who has read Aniko Bodroghozy’s Groove Tube will be shocked by my insight that The Lucy Show was, like most 1960s TV shows, more political than it appeared at first glance.

Allison McCracken has recently argued convincingly for the cultural and political significance of The Partridge Family. While The Brady Bunch stuck to the confines of the suburban home, the Partridges dealt with the outside world, encountering hippies, feminists, and other countercultural character types. In fact, the Partridges were themselves, in some limited ways, countercultural character types. Reading McCracken’s essay, it would be hard not to admit that The Partridge Family was “better” than The Brady Bunch. Be that as it may, I’ll admit to being a hard-core Brady booster. I always thought the Partridges were dullsville. Maybe it was just the submerged incestuous tension, but The Brady Bunch was always more compelling to me. Watching the Bradys and the Partridges today, I still prefer the former. My current viewing self matches my image of my past viewing self, and this is somehow reassuring.

But thawing out frozen TV memories by revisiting the shows of one’s youth can also be quite disconcerting. I fancied myself quite the feminist at age nine, which was why I wore a Farrah Fawcett t-shirt. Since I had never seen a woman solve crimes on TV, I thought Farrah was liberated. At age twelve, I carried a Ms. bookbag. (If anyone else in Alabama had actually heard of Ms., I might have gotten quite an ass-whipping.) These memories make me feel pretty good about myself and my past media tastes, but, of course, they have been frozen into consciousness at the expense of other memories less flattering to my grown-up self. Me, a huge fan of Family Ties? Impossible! The danger of being a TV studies scholar is that one is forced, eventually, to revisit the fetish shows of one’s youth, only to find that the affection one felt for a show was a screen memory covering up for a less-than-spectacular primal scene: Bob and Carol Brady, in bed, trading incredibly feeble quips about the impossibility of Sam the Butcher ever proposing to Alice. The writing just doesn’t seem as clever as it used to. So, did the 1960s Lucy live up to my high expectations? Yes and no.

There are a couple of things that are really great about Lucy in the 60s. First of all, she knows when to steal the show and when to sit back and let her brilliant guest stars do their thing. She is the center of attention when she dumps a bowl of Caesar salad on Milton Berle’s head, but afterwards he takes over, mugging it up while the audience virtually ignores Lucy. There is likewise an exceptional give and take when Carole Burnett guests as Lucy’s roommate. These winsome natural redheads (ahem!) do song and dance numbers at the drop of a hat, but it is Burnett, playing an introverted librarian, who steals the show when, after downing a few glasses of Chianti she shakes her booty through a spirited performance of “Hard Hearted Hannah.”

Carol Burnett on The Lucy Show

Carol Burnett on The Lucy Show

The Lucy Show is most compelling when all pretense of the fourth wall is dropped and performers (many of them with roots in vaudeville or other live theatrical forms) put on a show for the audience. Narrative is just a pesky intrusion: no one really cares why Ethel Merman is in Lucy’s living room-we just want to hear Lucy sing badly and Merman belt out a trademark tune. Likewise, the climax of Lucy’s trip to Palm Springs is not her successful explanation to Mr. Mooney of why she is there, when she was supposedly at home with the flu, but rather Lucy’s terrific “Up A Lazy River” song-and-dance routine. It turns out that Lucy was almost as good at singing and dancing as she was at pretending she could do neither.

When pure spectacle takes over-Lucy pretends to be a high-falutin’ interior decorator, Lucy babysits baby chimps, Lucy thinks she is hallucinating that Mr. Mooney is a monkey-these shows are everything I remember them being. When hippies, politics, the draft, and other ’60s realities appear, the show takes an unexpected turn towards the dispiriting. When Lucy and Viv go to the Sunset Strip dressed up like hippie chicks, they are repulsed by the longhaired weirdoes. After some crazy dancing, I guessed they might realize that there are some fun things about being a hippie, but they remained disgusted by the whole scene. When Lucy gets drafted, having received a letter meant for “Lew C. Carmichael,” it is oddly poignant to see her fight the draft board, the military doctor, and finally her drill sergeant, all of whom agree that she should be disqualified for being a woman, but none of whom have the authority to let her off the hook. The show’s critique of the military is tepid at best-the military’s not bad, just too bureaucratic-yet the “comic” spectacle of someone trying to get out of the Marines (and implicitly out of going to Vietnam) is more than a little disconcerting.

Ultimately, it is striking how much The Lucy Show is like the Wal-Mart bargain bin, mixing together big, medium, and little stars, some at their peak, some past their prime-like Joan Crawford, who got in trouble on the set for dipping into her hip flask. To older viewers in the ’60s, Lucy’s guest stars were not cultural detritus-Jack Benny, Jackie Gleason, and Kirk Douglas were still “major stars.” Yet to many younger viewers at the time, these were hopelessly square old-timers who already belonged in a bargain bin, if not a trash bin. You couldn’t get much more counter-counter-cultural, after all, than the George Wallace and John Birch Society booster John Wayne, whom Lucy worshiped like a god when he appeared on the show.

A showbiz pro, Lucy tried to come up with a wide variety of guests so that there was something for everybody, but that didn’t mean that she was going to host the kind of “radicals” that would show up on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour! Here’s Lucy (CBS, 1968-1974), unfortunately, could not maintain the energy and pace of the earlier Lucy Show. How reassuring, though, to see that Eve Plumb (Jan Brady) was a guest, with Donny Osmond, on Here’s Lucy in 1972. The great Jan Brady was not exactly countercultural, but she wore braces and glasses, had a fake secret admirer, and was fed up with “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!” She was cool. Alas, the Biddeford Wal-Mart doesn’t sell Brady Bunch DVDs. Or the anti-Wal-Mart South Park episode. Or Jarslberg cheese, for that matter. They do, however, have computer stations set up for creating personalized shopping wish lists and sending letters to the troops in Iraq. John Wayne would have been proud.

Image Credits:
1. The Lucy Show

2. Milton Berle on Here’s Lucy

3. Carol Burnett on The Lucy Show

The Lucy Show episode guide

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