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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

March 29, 2017: Televised Fools: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

[For this year’s April Fool’s series, I wanted to AmericanStudy a handful of recent comic TV shows. Share your thoughts on these or other televised foolishness, present or past, in comments!]
On two characters who walk that fine line between humor and offensiveness.
When I wrote this post a couple years back, critiquing the very popular (and very funny) sitcom Friends for a few of its less admirable elements, I didn’t quite acknowledge the inescapable fact of situation comedy that would certainly provide an important context for any such critiques: that sitcoms, with few if any notable exceptions, rely on exaggeration and (to at least a degree) stereotypes for many of their laughs. I don’t know exactly what proportion of audience laughs to televised minutes is necessary to make a sitcom successful and keep it on the air, but I think the number is decently high; there’s a reason why so many sitcoms have used the laugh track to try to emphasize those many moments for desired audience response, after all. And to get those laughs quickly and consistently, more subtle or sophisticated humor (which many sitcoms have certainly featured) has to be balanced with exaggeration, slapstick, punchlines, and other kinds of humor that aren’t necessarily realistic (could anyone really stand to be friends with someone making as many sarcastic jokes a minute as Chandler Bing?) but that can get and keep an audience laughing.
One problem with humor based on exaggeration and stereotypes, though, is that it’s always perilously close to offensive (as, I argued there, were the anti-intellectualism and homophobia in Friends). Perhaps no current sitcom has demonstrated that challenge more fully than Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which chronicles the life of a 29 year old woman who escapes from 15 years in a doomsday cult and tries to navigate 21st century life and New York City with the mindset and experiences of a 14 year old. Kimmy herself, played pitch-perfectly by Ellie Kemper, is too innocent and naïve to be offensive; but the show’s two most prominent supporting characters are a different story. There’s Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess), a struggling actor who is so flamboyantly gay that he makes Jack from Will & Grace look like a wallflower by comparison. And there’s Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski), an elite Manhattan socialite who, we gradually learn, is actually of Native American heritage but passing for white. The identities of both characters are frequently played for laughs (at least in the first season; I haven’t had a chance to watch the second yet and welcome any responses in comments as always!), with Krakowski’s identity and struggles being the most potentially troubling as the actress herself is not Native American.
I can’t say for sure whether these characters and performances are or would be offensive to you, fellow AmericanStudier, and that’s of course part of what makes this question so tricky: humor is very much in the funny bone of the beholder, and what’s on the funny side of the line to me might well be on the offensive side to you (and vice versa). Similarly, I can’t speak for either a gay or a Native American audience member, and certainly believe that the perspectives of different communities need to be heard and engaged with when it comes to cultural representations of them. But at the same time, sitcoms can and should represent characters with different sexualities, racial and ethnic heritages, and all other aspects of identity; and as long as they also need to utilize exaggeration and stereotypes for at least some of their laughs, then their work with those and all characters is going to continue to occupy an uneasy space on that fine line. I suppose all we can really ask is that those most exaggerated qualities are balanced by some humanity, by a sense that these are extreme versions of real people (rather than pure stereotypes, as the worst kinds of sitcom characters have often been). And thanks to the talents of their respective actors, both Titus and Jacqueline do achieve those vital moments of humanity in the course of Kimmy’s first season.
Next TV fooling tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other TV comedies you’d highlight?

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