Book Review: Tragedy Plus Time: National Trauma and Television Comedy by Philip Scepanski

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

Cover of Tragedy Plus Time

Philip Scepanski’s truly excellent new book examines the myriad of ways that television comedy addresses national tragedies through humor resulting in opportunities to define and redefine the boundaries of American identity by breaking taboos and identifying what is acceptable speech to some and unacceptable to others. Scepanski analyzes a broad body of television genres: sitcoms, sketch comedies, late night, animation, stand-up, focusing mainly on recent television from the 1980s until the present and addressing great national events from the Kennedy assassination through the Trump administration. Beginning with the premise that “television has been the most significant medium in defining the experience of American nationalism”, Scepanski persuasively argues that the easy access to televised clips makes television humor one of the most relevant and influential sources of a genuinely national culture of political and social humor. (4)

The book begins with the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on the United States and the subsequent televised Friars’ Club Roast of Hugh Hefner which aired less than three weeks later. Several stand-up comedians made jokes about the attacks, several of which were quite tasteless and could have easily been perceived as being “too soon”. Yet, the intent and general response from those within television and comedy was that the jokes alleviated national tension and helped Americans feel more united in part because the stand-ups often mocked the terrorists which served to draw clear lines as to who was American and who wasn’t, thus defining Americans’ sense of self, experience and memory as well as clearly delineating the Other. Scepanski believes that the risks taken by these comedians, although upsetting  to some viewers, expanded the limits of acceptable discourse and helped Americans talk about this national trauma more freely and with less fear. Throughout the rest of the book, the author returns to this analysis showing that comedy very often ameliorates the horror and tension around national tragedies and provides a much needed release for personal and public stress and fear. Collective viewing of comedic parodies of such terrible events as the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, the Iran Contra Scandal, Whitewater, the murder of Rodney King, 9/11, and the many scandals of the Trump presidency differ from watching news reports of these events as they allow viewers to feel less doomed and discouraged by the national tragedies and disappointments that many Americans feel in the wake of incomprehensible violence, corruption and atrocity. Political jokes also allow American viewers to reconfirm their Americanness as they are able to appreciate the humor and enjoy the privilege of being allowed to laugh at these risky jokes. Scepanski believes that while it is important to recognize that humor opens up unexpected and necessary spaces to help Americans understand the significance of these events and problems by alleviating the horror and emotional trauma that accompany them, the power of political humor rests on its ability to give Americans permission to laugh at the shocking jokes on Family Guy and South Park without feeling unpatriotic or deviant and to police those who are NOT allowed to laugh.  

Scepanski lays out his argument perfectly. Drawing from the theories of  Benedict Anderson, Habermas and Durkheim, he then moves his theory forward by applying their arguments of identity to the digital age and to the era of divisive partisan identity politics. His analysis feels like a great update to Anderson’s theory about identity and imagined communities as he presents the evidence for a digital and televised community of viewers/citizens who are often seeking out solidarity with other viewers and commentators through anonymous online media. Although many viewers watch television alone, the large-scale presence of the medium in addition to the live Tweeting, blogging and commenting that accompany such isolated viewing does create a sense of community and of connection with an online group of unknown viewers who also share in the joke. These ties exist for viewers of shows focused on overtly political humor such as The Daily Show, The Colbert Report or Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and also on popular sitcoms such as Friends or Seinfeld or Parks and Rec that are not known to be grounded in political humor. While building his argument, Scepanski also writes a tight, concise history of television comedy, brilliantly demonstrating how television’s influence has grown and frequently shaped national discourse and social parameters of acceptable interpretations of major national events. 

Scepanski’s book is well organized, and his argument flows logically and effectively. Every chapter is well introduced, well organized, and solidly substantiated with great evidence and strong analysis. Each chapter makes clear reference back to his main argument but does not leave the reader feeling overly saturated. He draws examples from a wide breadth of shows and comedians and platforms. Chapter 5, which focuses on the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, handles race deftly and with great compassion. He acknowledges the limits, misinterpretation and contradictions that can sometimes arise from political comedy and satire but believes that its ability to facilitate public discourse about enormous national tragedies lends it great value.  

This book would be an excellent reading for courses in History, American Studies, Communication, Political Science or Popular Culture. Because his writing and organization is so excellent, I would also recommend this book for any undergraduate course on composition. Tragedy Plus Time is sophisticated, compelling, timely and well-written. It has a wide appeal for readers of all generations and backgrounds- just like television itself. 

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