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courses@JLR: ChristinaAmes's blog: Relevance Programming: Using Comedy in Television to Address Racial Issues

Relevance Programming: Using Comedy in Television to Address Racial Issues

April 20, 2012 by ChristinaAmes   Comments (0)

Television in the 1970s attempted to improve racial representation for the first time by improving television’s responsiveness to the “real” world.  Interestingly, the chosen vehicle was sitcoms.  The use of comedic programming to introduce important social issues was extremely effective because it used stereotypes as a light way of poking fun that was entertaining and appealing to audiences of a wider demographic.  Situation comedies and “relevance” programming, as discussed by Kristen Marthe Lentz in her article, “Quality versus Relevance: Feminism, Race, and the Politics of the Sign in 1970s Television,” completely improved television’s “bad” image of failing or presenting narrow representations of race because of its use of authenticity and playful humor.

Lentz explains that television was long thought of as a medium of inferior status to that of cinema and theater because of its degrading representations of race (and feminity).  In the 1970s, television sought to address this by creating “quality” and “relevance” programming, each associated with the two networks hired by CBS, MTM Enterprises, and Tandem/TAT Productions, respectively.  Lentz discusses MTM’s The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Tandem/TAT’s All in the Family as two sitcoms that were widely regarded as having improved television’s image in the 1970s.  Because it was sitcoms that were used to transform the medium of television into a more socially (and politically) conscious medium, “weighty” issues were presented in a less harsh, and therefore, more relatable, way to viewers.  TV addressed these concerns, especially those of young adults in the 70s, in a way that was entertaining, new, and sophisticated.

Lentz contrasts this new “quality” and “relevance” television programming as improving television’s image in two very different ways.  She says, “It is important to note, then, that while “quality” television’s images of liberated white womanhood tended to self-reflexively examine the politics of television’s own image (and its production of images more generally), “relevance” programming—concerned largely with representing race and racial problems—tended toward an extreme form of representational realism,” (62).  Lentz describes here that “quality” television examined conditions and contexts for image production, while “relevance” television effaced these conditions and contexts.  “Relevance” television and Tandem was thus associated with racial difference and politics of race, working-class culture, sexual licentiousness, and to some extent masculinity – more promiscuous and less “moral” or less “white” than “quality” programming.  As a result, these sitcoms of “relevance” programming made more direct and offensive jokes compared to those of “quality” programming.


For example, Tandem’s All in the Family was centered around a white family, but highlighted “whiteness” as its own racial category, thereby setting the stage for representing an extreme form of racial realism.  The main character, Archie Bunker, is depicted as ignorant and stubborn, which in its simplicity, lent to the show its comedic qualities.  In the episode watched in screening, “Lionel Moves Into the Neighborhood,” Archie is angered to learn that a black family has moved in across the street.  The Bunker family is already of a “lower” class, and the fact that a black family (that might even be better off than the Bunkers) has moved in, is very unsettling to Archie.  Archie’s total ignorance is demonstrated when he first meets the black woman from across the street and does not know how to interact with her because of her skin color.  He tries to make small talk, and can only say “How’d you like the Julie Show last night?” (a sitcom depicting an African American woman) to which she responds, “Fine.  How did you like Doris Day?” (a sitcom depicting a white woman).  His ignorance is pushed further throughout the episode when he mistakes the black woman for “a cleaner woman” and referring to Jews as “rich” and “that tribe.”  Archie’s comments become even more ridiculous when he complains to Lionnel about his outrage that a black family moved in across the street. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oStfHFSLOko (7:20–7:41, 10:05–10:24, 20:04–23:03)

The episode "Jolly Vindaloo Day" from Outsourced, also addresses racial issues through ignorant jokes.  Below is an exchange between the assistant manager, who is Indian, and his manager, who is white, describing the fictional holiday “Vindaloo Day”:

Manager: Is that why some people have that dot on their forehead? It’s like a symbolic cork?

Assistant Manager: You did not just say symbolic cork.

Manager: I’m sorry I just never heard of this holiday before.

Assistant Manager: Why would you?  This country is just a cash register to you.

The assistant manager manipulates the manager because he knows he is completely ignorant about Indian culture.  This is just another example of how the sitcom works to bring out racial issues in a somewhat exaggerated and ridiculous way that is entertaining, and in a lot of cases, that is nonetheless sadly representative of society’s true feelings.  An even more extreme version of this is the “Shit [fill in the blank with a race or stereotype here] People Say Videos.  The fact that these videos are extremely popular to the point of becoming viral shows how responsive people are to social issues in a comedic context.  These offensive jokes are also universally funny because they are made and performed by people making self-effacing fun of their own stereotypes.  Below is an example of “Shit White Girls Say to Brown Girls.”


Moving past the 1970s, Sasha Torres makes the point in her article, “Television and Race,” that racial issues were becoming a thing of the past, and by the end of the1990s people were no longer associated as strongly with these contexts.  Television in the1970s used comedy to associate people of “color” with these stereotypical contexts to appeal to audiences of a wider demographic.  Torres points out that by the end of the 1990s, “racialized bodies – black, brown, and yellow - seem to become decoupled from undesirable social contexts and instead become both themselves commodities and linked to other commodities.” (395)  The Cosby Show and a popular show today like, My Wife and Kids are more modern sitcom depictions of race, as they show the black families as “normal” as any other family without reference to TV’s previous associations with stereotypical racial contexts. 

Comedy in the 1970s therefore helped facilitate this transition of how social and political issues were addressed through the medium – changing the focus on poking fun at harsh stereotypes to poking fun on situations any person might experience regardless of race.  So, it is now rare for a show to associate a black family with racial stereotypes, confirming Torres’ point that these social issues became a thing of the past.