Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Philip Scepanski's "Tragedy Plus Time"

Philip Scepanski is is an assistant professor of film and television at Marist College. He holds a PhD in media studies from Northwestern University. His work has appeared in the journals Television and New Media and Studies in American Humor, as well as edited collections, including How to Watch Television; The Comedy Studies Reader; Taboo Comedy: Television and Controversial Humor; The Dark Side of Stand-Up; Taking a Stand: Contemporary Stand-Up Comedians as Public Intellectuals; and Exploring the Edges of Trauma: 150 Years of Art and Literature. He has also taught at Vassar College, Northwestern University, and the University of Notre Dame.

Scepanski applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Tragedy Plus Time: National Trauma and Television Comedy, and reported the following:
Page 99 is from a chapter of Tragedy Plus Time that examines the ways comedy plays around with conspiracy theories about national traumas. This section discusses how African American comedians use humor to express mistrust of “official” narratives. As evidence, it looks at a Dave Chappelle bit where he jokingly expressed a belief that the U.S. government created AIDS and crack in order to harm black communities. Comparing this bit to an earlier example from The Boondocks, the section concludes by noting the tension between Chappelle’s “just kidding” stance and the way other shows use comedy as an alibi to express uncomfortable truths.

This excerpt is representative of the book in a few ways. It showcases the writing style which, while academically rigorous, should be accessible to an interested general audience. The Chappelle discussion also demonstrates how the book tends to zoom in on specific examples in order to make larger points about how comedy works through incredibly serious matters. However, it is unlike the rest of the book in that most of the national traumas I examine are more singularly catastrophic events like the JFK assassination, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina, to use examples from the rest of this chapter. By comparison, the AIDS and crack epidemics were more long-term, slow-building crises.

Usefully, this page also speaks to two major themes that organize this book. Chappelle floats these ideas in order to reconsider accepted history. Much of this book is about comedy in history and how comedy negotiates our understanding of history. Besides this chapter on the “alternative histories” of conspiracy theories, others examine how comedy impacts the way we feel emotionally about historical traumas, the history of how television allowed more daring forms of humor, and the ways in which television “edits” its own history when it censors potentially offensive humor. At the same time, this passage speaks to the ways in which groups of Americans use comedy to think through their relationship to the nation as a whole. To that end, there are chapters that look at how black-appeal comedies in the early 1990s responded to the 1992 Los Angeles Riots/Uprising, how different comedies responses to post-9/11 Islamophobia represented appeals to different audience demographics, and how left-leaning comedies used their platforms to register the sense that the Trump presidency was itself a trauma.

You could make me very happy by buying a copy!
Learn more about Tragedy Plus Time at the University of Texas Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue