Laugh in I It’s the cockroach of genres,” said Bambi Haggins, Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies at Arizona State University.





Haggins was speaking about the half-hour scripted comedy, the subject of the April 27, 2012 conference at the Pollock Theater, and her remark elicited a burst of laughter from the event’s sell-out crowd. In doing so, it not only established an appropriate tone for the series of discussions that followed, but introduced one of the event’s most prominent themes: scripted comedy, no matter how many obituaries we may read in mainstream media coverage, it is here to stay. And it deserves our attention.

All in the … Modern Family, a free public conference co-hosted by the Carsey-Wolf Center and the Film and Media Studies Department, focused on the social and cultural import of scripted half hour comedies and the creative processes that have kept the genre such a permanent fixture in media history—on radio, television, cable, and even the Internet. Scholars, entertainment journalists, and people who have worked in comedy, both in front of and behind the cameras, took to the Pollock stage for a series of panels, workshops, and screenings. Each session engaged with a particular set of questions—from the cultural role scripted comedies play to the ways jokes develop in the writers’ room—and offered an opportunity for those in attendance to reflect critically upon this popular cultural-industrial form.

“Scripted comedies can perform crucial ideological work, reflecting our hopes, anxieties, stresses and fears; but they can only do so if they’re also able to make us laugh,” said Richard Hutton, Executive Director of the Carsey-Wolf Center. “What’s the name of that web site? ‘Funny or Die?’ That’s pretty much the survival mantra for scripted comedies.”

modern family

The conference began with an iconic clip from All in the Family – the scene in which Sammy Davis, Jr. kisses Archie Bunker. All in the Family emerged as a touchstone against which conference participants debated the genre’s engagement with social, cultural, and political issues. That series successfully crossed the boundaries of what was considered suitable for network television in the seventies, exploring everything from racism, sexism, and homophobia to rape, miscarriage, and impotence during its eight-year run.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Maude warranted repeated mentions for similar reasons, as did more recent examples like Roseanne and Everybody Loves Raymond.

Yet, fittingly, the conference was one of those novel concoctions in which the “serious” affairs of cultural critique and ideological analysis seamlessly blended with humorous quips and funny anecdotes about life behind the scenes of television comedy.

An audience favorite was a panel of six experienced writers from successful comedies such as Cheers, M*A*S*H, Frasier, and The Simpsons, who shared both harrowing and humorous tales from the writers’ room.

“It’s very unhygienic,” writer and producer David Isaacs joked about the culture and cleanliness of the writers’ room. His fellow panelists agreed, alternately calling it “filthy,” “horrible,” “sexist,” “vulgar,” “inappropriate,” and “highly offensive.”

The panel spoke passionately and affectionately about the unique creative process the writers’ room engenders. They described an electric quality difficult to quantify, with a certain creative energy that drives writers through an endless game of one-upmanship, pitching joke after joke until the right one sticks.

It’s a process the writers on the panel clearly loved, despite the late nights, poor diets, and “dirty” environs, and it’s a process they hilariously demonstrated for the audience. After finding a brave volunteer to offer up a personal story, the writers transformed it into a series of exaggerated scenarios. In less than 15 minutes, they had crafted the general contours of a sitcom from an initial anecdote about a boy, a girl, and 23 angry text messages.

comedy panel

Other highlights included Jacob Smith, Assistant Professor of Radio-Television-Film at Northwestern University, who made the history of the laugh track both humorous and accessible. Lisa Kudrow, best known for her Emmy-Award winning role as Phoebe Buffay on the hit NBC comedy series Friends, brought some star power to the event as she discussed her transition from primetime to the web, focusing on the strategy behind her original web comedy series, Web Therapy. The event ended with a screening of the original pilot for Modern Family and a discussion with co-creator Steve Levitan about the genesis of the popular series and his role as show runner.

One of the most innovative aspects of the conference was its multiplatform presence. Leading up to the event, the Carsey-Wolf Center’s Media Industries Project hosted an online roundtable in which participants offered reflections on the popularity of scripted comedy (http://www.carseywolf.ucsb.edu/mip/comedyroundtable). During the event, FMS Graduate students Rachel Allen, Lindsay Palmer, Ethan Tussey, and John Vanderhoef tweeted remarks from each session. Their Twitter conversation was published under the hashtag #CWCtvComedy. The event was also broadcast live on the web, allowing guests who couldn’t attend to enjoy the day’s activities. An archived copy of the live video stream will be available soon on the Carsey-Wolf Center’s homepage www.carseywolf.ucsb.edu.





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