The sitcom, we were told, is dead. And yet at the 2011 network upfronts, 17 of the new shows commissioned were situation comedies. In the previous season, many of the most highly-rated shows were comedies, including Two and a Half Men, Glee, Family Guy, Modern Family, and The Big Bang Theory. Steve Carell’s departure from The Office and Charlie Sheen’s (spectacular) departure from Two and a Half Men were two of the most talked-about stories in television news. And that’s just the network sitcom. Elsewhere, Adult Swim continued to hold court with a young male demo; South Park’s depiction of Mohammed threw the show into controversy yet again; Tim and Eric, Louie, and It’s Always Sunny offered laughs on and off cable; Showtime’s dramedies served as tentpoles for much of the rest of the channel; and The Daily Show and The Colbert Report brought out one of the largest crowds the Mall in Washington, DC has ever seen, as approximately 200,000 people marched for sanity (and/or fear).
Yet, despite comedy’s central and dominant place in contemporary society and culture, it has a rather low profile in published scholarship. If the sitcom was once a key object of television studies, today serial drama is often more excitedly referenced in academic circles. Thus, while the canon of television studies offers a great deal of work on comedies, this work is in need of updating for a post-network era in which satire, animation, sketch, singlecam, and convergent comedy live alongside the multicam sitcom, and in which sitcoms themselves address various niche demographics and adopt a wide variety of looks and feels.
The University of Wisconsin at Madison’s Television Comedy Conference aims to be a space in which we can take stock of comedy’s place in contemporary television and television scholarship. How does comedy “do” politics? How do comedy and irony in particular complicate notions of televisual representation? How are comedies made, and under what industrial conditions? What are audiences doing with these comedies? What’s at stake in the battle between singlecam and multicam, and how do we see the politics of taste play out in other areas of comedy? How can we study comedy, both past and present, and what role does the archive play in this exploration? What can comedies tell us about gender, race, ethnicity, class, nation, and sexuality? What is and isn’t acceptable or allowable in comedy, and why does this matter and to whom? These and many other questions will be fodder for our discussion.
Our hope is that by uniting a small group of scholars, small enough to avoid overlapping and hence clashing sessions, and small enough to allow vigorous discussion that can build from panel to panel with the same group present, we will find some answers to the above questions, and map out the beginnings of future research.