The Cultural Context of the Situation Comedy: Portfolio and Research plan

Abstract

Due to the phenomenon of globalization and its influence on the life of all nations worldwide, the field of media culture is characterized by the interplay between the global and local. In particular, American and British television situation comedies have spread worldwide and become popular in many cultures. Audiences in different countries, however, perceive the humor and issues of the sitcoms through their own beliefs, stereotypes, and cultural values. The present study will focus on the Australian audiences’ perceptions of the cross-cultural texts of the American progressive show Friends and the British A bit of Fry and Laurie. The research will draw upon cultural studies and active audience reception theory for analyzing people’s understanding and interpretations of the sitcoms as well as utilize the method of qualitative interviews and semiotic textual analysis.

Background to the Research, Its Significance, Research Questions, and Objectives

From the beginning of the 1950s, the situation comedy has been consistently popular in America and other countries. The significance and universal appeal of this influential television programming are evidenced by great numbers of culturally diverse audiences attracted to it. Undoubtedly, the reason for the immense and enduring popularity of this most widespread modern genre of television comedy lies in the conventions of the genre itself. Researchers commonly describe a situation comedy as “written by a team of staff writers, usually set in a fictional domestic setting, and filmed before a live audience and overlaid with a laugh track” (Bielby and Harrington 2008, 52). The important aesthetic goal of the situation comedy is to represent and reconstruct the real-life, “working as society’s mirror” (Cole 1998, 72).

Marc in The Sitcom ReaderAmerica Viewed and Skewed (2005) asserts that the television series achieve success with the audience because they manage to avoid extremes in psychology or politics. Instead, progressive programming focuses on human foibles and presents a person of moderate intelligence. The comedy shows are familiar with the social conventions and comprise the popular beliefs of a mass audience. On the other hand, the audiences belonging to different cultures understand situation comedies divergently and controversially (Bielby and Harrington 2008). On the whole, research has shown that culturally diverse population interprets representations of race, class, ethnicity, and sexuality in situation comedies differently. For instance, theorists investigated the way black and white audiences respond to black sitcom characters. They performed empirical analyses of the reactions of the Americans (black and white) to the popular shows like The Cosby ShowJuliaMe and the BoysFresh Prince of Bel-AirMartin. Afterward, they discussed the people’s attitudes toward the programs, as well as their understanding of racial and social class issues (Friedman 2014; Real 2003; Bodroghkozy 2003; Coleman 1998; Butcher 2009); Additionally, an analysis of relationships between media and audiences was made (Livingstone 1998); namely, the process of audience’s reception of a media text, the way people perceive and understand it, or the notion of encoding/decoding the model and the concept of active audience (Morley 2005; Morley 2006; Buckingham 1993; Biltereyst 2002; Simons 2014), a multidimensional model of mass media reception within the concept of audience discourses (Schroder 2000), audience modes of receptions in various genres in diverse national contexts (Michelle 2007; Michelle 2009); considered representations of gender, family, and nationhood in Australian comedy cinema (Barnett 2014). Some investigated the globalization of the media (Wang 2008) transnational audiences (Morley 2006), and the cross-cultural influences of widely-imported US media products on local cultures (Biltereyst 2002).

The major perspective of the current research deals with the peculiarities of the sitcom perceptions by varied audiences in Australian cultural contexts. Since this question is rather controversial and needs special scientific attention, the authors have made a decision to focus on it in the present study. In addition, the lack of detailed investigation of the cultural influence on the people’s understandings of the situation comedy, particularly, with the Australian cultural background, made it crucially important and interesting to explore this question in-depth. On the whole, previous research has shown that Australian audiences are able to embrace the class-bound humor of the American (as well as British) sitcoms. It can be explained by the proximity of the Australian audience to the cultural context and conventions of British and American series. However, scholars claim that that situation comedy is “situationally specific in the fullest cultural sense” (Bielby and Harrington 2008, 53). Additionally, Mitchell (1992) has discovered the presence of numerous Anglo-Australian negative stereotypes, influencing the perception of the comedy and its characters with Australian cultural background (1). Thus, the current research focuses on the analysis of the British A bit of Fry and Laurie and American Friends, namely, on the question of how the humor and topics raised in them are perceived by the Australian viewers.

As Real (2003) has demonstrated in his Critiquing the Sitcom: A Reader, the comedy interpretations of the issues such as multiracialism and racial pride are associated with the absolute human perception of humor, without ethnicity or racial boundaries. In this respect, it seems valuable for the present study to explore the categorically opposing views on humor by different researchers. They range from recognizing the absolute quality of humor of all cultures at all times to the diametrically opposite perception of humor as culturally and socially determined (Friedman et al. 2011). On a related note, researchers regard the sociological perspective on humor in relation to gender, race, and ethnicity (Lockyer & Pickering 2008; Mills 2005; Bore 2012). Specifically, the work will examine the crucial role the jokes’ quality constituting sitcoms plays in identifying the scope of its popularity among the Australian audience, on the examples of A bit of Fry and Laurie and Friends.

With the purpose of investigating the aforementioned research questions, the authors have identified the following objectives to be fulfilled in the course of the study:

· to consider the theoretical background of the research questions of the current study;

· to explore the question of different comedy audiences’ perceptions depending on the cultural backgrounds represented from different perspectives, including media studies, cultural studies, as well as various scientific theories and approaches to the question (for instance, the feminist theory or the reception theory);

· to critically and profoundly consider the theoretical approach of cultural studies that will shape the current research;

· to examine journal articles and books on sitcoms with a view to make a review of the research on the relevant issues and topics associated with the situation comedies;

· to determine the range of social issues and topics (such as ethnicity, racism, social class, sexuality, motherhood, and others) raised in situation comedies; discuss the ways representatives of American and Australian cultural backgrounds perceive these issues in the shows.

Methodology

Many methods and theoretical frameworks have been used to explore television in general and situation comedies in particular. Feminist theories and the gender analysis explore the concepts of masculinity (Battles and Hilton-Morrow 2002) and femininity (Miller 2000; O’Briend 2011; Dykes 2011; Nickel 2012) in the popular progressive shows. Research in the field of situation comedy also utilizes textual analysis (along with semiotics) of the media text in sitcom episodes (Fiske 1998; Miller 2000; Butcher 2003; Giuffre 2015). Additionally, the critical theory and reception theory are frequently applied to investigate the impact of the sitcom on the audience, its interpretations and perceptions of media culture (Creswell 1998; Battles and Hilton-Morrow 2002; Hammer and Kellner 2009; Michelle 2007; Michelle 2009; Livingstone 1998; Morley 2005; Morley 2006; Kunert 2012; Biltereyst 2002; Simons 2014). Cultural studies and social-historical examinations investigate the socio-cultural peculiarities of sitcoms and their perceptions by people with different cultural backgrounds (Williamson 2008; O’Briend 2011; Dykes 2011; Kunert 2012; Peckham 2006; Mittell 2001; Biltereyst 2002; Dines & Humez 2003; Bore 2012).

The methodologies of cultural studies and feminism will help shape the current research, examine interpretations of the media text by the audience as well as investigate the peculiarities of the Australian cultural phenomena, beliefs, and values, which could influence local audiences’ perceptions of humor and issues presented in the American sitcom Friends and British A bit of Fry and Laurie. Further, the qualitative analysis implies the examination of the data collected through interviews with people of different backgrounds (cultural, ethnical, or racial). Through the analysis of the themes distinguished in people’s statements during interviews, it is possible for researchers to explore their reactions, attitudes, and understandings of the comedy characters, issues, and type of humor (Creswell 1998; Kellner and Hammer 2009; O’Briend 2011; Peckham 2006; Simons 2014; Bore 2012; Xu 2012). To illustrate, O’Briend (2011) used in-depth interviews with women of different backgrounds to explore real mothers’ and daughters’ engagement, sense-making, and interpretation of fictional portrayals of mother-daughter relationships in sitcoms. Further, Kellner and Hammer (2009) investigated comprehension by African American men through the analysis of focus group interviews, which helped to distinguish how media images and stereotypes influence people’s perceptions, conversations, consciousness, and unconsciousness. Similarly, Xu (2012) scrutinized how Chinese audiences interpret the cross-cultural text in the American sitcom Friends. By the same token, Simons (2014) utilized focus group interviews to study audiences’ reception and engagement with the TV comedy, as well as Pickham (2006) interviewed a number of individuals to examine audience interpersonal identification with popular sitcom characters in Friends.

Drawing upon feminist and cultural views, along with with with television critical theories, by applying the method of a qualitative interview, the authors will attempt to explore the interpretations of the humor and various social issues raised in Friends and A bit of Fry and Laurie by Australian representativesFor instance, their perceptions of female representations in terms of the cultural status of women in a society will be analyzed in-depth(Dykes 2011; Peckham 2006; Nickel 2012) along with the people’s perceptions and understandings of motherhood in Friends, presented through the images of various types of mothers (Nickel 2012). Similarly, other social phenomena will be investigated as perceived by the interviewers, such as the notion of “twixters” in Friends (Peckham 2006) or a racist theme in A bit of Fry and Laurie (‘Is Stephen Fry a Racist?’ n.d.), and others. To investigate these topics in the media texts of the chosen situation comedies and determine the range of social issues raised, the methodology of semiotic analysis will be utilized. Semiotics with its codes and signs were conceived of and used by John Fiske in his studies of television texts. According to Fiske (1987), signs, which comprise an image and a concept, carry meanings shared by the members of culture while codes imply associations acquired in the life course by people through learning, education, and socialization. These codes affect how a person interprets these signs. Thus, the above-revealed theoretical approach could help the current study to reflect on how the semiotic signs and codes of the media text function together and describe the themes.

Further, through qualitative interviews (Cresswell, 1997; O’Briend 2011; Hammer and Kellner 2009), the study will explore the Australian people’s perceptions, understandings, and attitudes to these themes. Besides, it is productive for the research to discover through cultural studies methodologies the way how people of Australian background perceive the social construction of reality, its order, and disorder in the programming text, as well as the disruptions and exaggerations of the comedian reality. These can come either from the narrative (the situation) or characters. Additionally, dress, speech, and physical surroundings also serve to construct reality, as well as reinforce the norms and exceptions from the norms (Miller 2000).

Having reviewed a number of studies that focused on the analysis of issues associated with situation comedies, the present paper has distinguished the methodologies most relevant to the current research project. Since this project deals with the problem of the cultural background impact on the audience’s perceptions of sitcoms, the most appropriate methodological approaches are as follows: cultural studies, active audience reception theory, as well as qualitative interviews and semiotic textual analysis. Consequently, this synthesis of methodologies has been chosen for planning my research project.

Timeline and Outcome

At the first stage, the study will conduct the textual semiotic analysis of episodes from the American sitcom Friends and British A bit of Fry and Laurie for two months. As a result, the author will single out the issues raised, characters portrayed, and cultural peculiarities of humor in the aforementioned television comedies. In the next three months, the distinguished themes, issues, and cultural phenomena will be discussed in focus group interviews as well as the online interviews in Australian cities. Finally, the collected data will be analyzed based on cultural studies and active audience reception theory during the following two months. Lastly, the study will interpret the results and draw conclusions about culturally-linked peculiarities of Australian audiences’ perceptions of American and British situation comedies.

Required Facilities and Resources

To hold interviews, I will need three focus groups of different age participants, ranging from 18 up to 30 years old. The people from these groups, as well as participants in online interviews, will be from different cities in Australia.