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  • Humor and Satire on Contemporary Television: Animation and the American Joke by Silas Kaine Ezell
  • Peter C. Kunze (bio)
Humor and Satire on Contemporary Television: Animation and the American Joke.
By Silas Kaine Ezell. New York: Routledge, 2016. 168 pp.

Where might one find the literary tradition of American humor today? In his new monograph, Humor and Satire on Contemporary Television, Silas Kaine Ezell argues that prime-time animation carries the torch of the great American humorists of the past, including the southwestern humorists, Mark Twain, and Kurt Vonnegut. His four chapters, bookended by an introduction and conclusion surveying American humor and prime-time animation more generally, examine how Louis D. Rubin Jr.’s notion of the “Great American Joke”—the idea that much American humor is driven by the country’s failure to live up to its highest ideals—persists through television series such as The Simpsons, Family Guy, The Boondocks, and Daria. In so doing, he ably demonstrates how humor travels across time and across media, speaking to enduring anxieties, contradictions, and tensions within American society.

The heart of Ezell’s study draws on foundational theory to think through the social and cultural labor performed by prime-time animation. In chapter 1, for example, Ezell uses Mikhail Bakhtin’s work on the carnivalesque to trace the lineage of recent animated television to the southwestern humor-ists. Channeling “the language of the marketplace” (14), many animated sitcom series, much like George Washington Harris or Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, uncover the paradoxes of American life, skewering hegemony very often through their use of the grotesque. Extending the Rabelaisian critique of religion’s pervasive influence, animated sitcoms such as South Park mobilize the scatological—literally, with Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo—to extend this subversion in their own assault of consumerism and government institutions.

Chapter 2, perhaps the strongest chapter, considers how humor engages public memory in the national consciousness, memory commonly created and preserved after traumatic events. Rather than serving as nationalist cheerleaders, prime-time animation follows the tradition of the great [End Page 127] satirists in upending sacred cows and correcting self-serving delusions within history. Through a discussion of the often sharp, incisive commentary on the cultural memory and legacy of slavery in The Boondocks and The Simpsons, Ezell interrogates how animated sitcoms, veiled by their status as cartoons and even children’s stuff, can radically explore social investments in long-accepted histories that selfishly serve the hegemony’s political interests. In so doing, they can also upend received narratives and propose alternative accounts.

In its discussion of racial politics, chapter 3 attempts to navigate the tension between a desire for a postracial colorblindness and the political obligation to foreground the long-standing racial divides that continue to structure contemporary social dynamics. Ezell argues through an examination of The Boondocks and The PJs that prime-time animation by black satirists can simultaneously hold mainstream (white) society culpable for its historical oppression of blacks while simultaneously turning a critical eye to issues within the black community itself. As a result, the fantasy of a truly equal society is revealed to be, at best, a work in progress.

The final chapter stakes prime-time animation’s claim to postmodernism in its poetics, focusing on the frequent use of irony, intertextuality, and parody in The Simpsons, Family Guy, and South Park and showing how these features reflect the series’ position within consumer culture. Ezell proves himself to be a generous reader who clearly enjoys what he is also analyzing, a welcome departure from much cultural analysis. Although one might consider The Simpsons’ efforts to criticize Fox a brilliant example of commodified dissent, Ezell argues that we should understand it as a text at odds with its status as a commercial product on network television. Drawing on sociologist Herman Gray’s influential work on race and television, Ezell calls on scholars to move beyond textual analysis to consider “how [television] is scheduled, marketed, and sold to advertisers” (92). While such work is beyond the scope of his own study, Ezell nevertheless lays the groundwork for such necessary endeavors that demonstrate how discourse and industrial analyses can enhance our understanding of American...


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pp. 127-129
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