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Understanding film, television and radio comedy
Authors: John Mundy and Glyn White

This book is a wide-ranging introductory academic book for students and teachers interested in studying comedy on film, television and radio (and for anyone else with an analytic interest in these media). It discusses key issues around comedy through analysis of significant and revealing comedy texts from these media. The first part of the book looks at how comedy works. In order to do this, it considers the nature of comedy as manifested in specific media forms, from the exploitation of the non-visual in radio to the familiar, domesticated settings suited to television's small screen. It examines the historical, industrial and cultural contexts in which British and American comedy in film, radio and television developed (in that order). The book also deals with gender, sexuality and comedy, ranging from the depictions of femininity and masculinity in romantic comedy film to the representations offered of gay and lesbian characters across our chosen media. Studies of low British comedy and American gross-out comedy underpin work on specific examples which directly challenge standards of taste and cultural taboos. Whatever the nature and effect of racial and ethnic humour, it is clear that there have been some significant shifts in the ways in which radio, television and film comedy have presented or inflected it over time. The book deals with broad case studies of British and American culture.

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John Mundy and Glyn White

This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book examines the historical, industrial and cultural contexts in which British and American comedy in film, radio and television developed. It discusses silent comedy, including the classical comedian comedies of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. The chapter addresses comedy in broadcast media and focuses on the industrial context and practices that flow from and reflect national attitudes to these media. It also discusses the disrespect with which comedy treats generic boundaries, looking in particular at musical comedies and mockumentaries. The book deals with gender, sexuality and comedy, ranging from the depictions of femininity and masculinity in romantic comedy film to the representations offered of gay and lesbian characters across our chosen media. It evaluates various examples of screen and radio comedy which have picked their way through the cultural minefields.

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John Mundy and Glyn White

This chapter discusses silent comedy, including the classical comedian comedies of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. The history and evolution of silent film comedy from the mid-1890s to the coming of commercially viable synchronised sound cinema in the late 1920s mirrors changes within cinema itself during that period. While recognising the diversity that characterised developments in silent film comedy, Peter Krämer identifies some distinct phases in the development of American silent film comedy. American slapstick comedy, reliant on fast and furious physical activity, became associated with Mack Sennett's Keystone Company from 1912 onwards. The importance of character and costume to Max Linder's success proved hugely influential when American film comedy began to challenge the dominance of European companies and comedians in the period just prior to the outbreak of the First World War.

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John Mundy and Glyn White

This chapter focuses on the work of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, who moved successfully from silent to sound film comedy within Hollywood. It then focuses on the cinematic work of the Marx Brothers, who came to Hollywood via vaudeville and Broadway. The chapter examines the dynamics of their verbal humour while focusing on the key early sound period of 1927 to 1930. Analysis of the opening section of Beau Hunks will show how Laurel and Hardy's humour works. Films such as Ask a Policeman show how the first decade of sound film comedy established the basis for British slapstick, the institutional Carry On comedies of early 1960s, and the surrealism of some Britain's best radio and television programmes. The chapter also examines the idea of the anarchistic film more fully by taking examples from the Marx Brothers films.

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John Mundy and Glyn White

This chapter focuses on 1930s development of the sound romantic comedy film. It summarises how the genre of romantic comedy developed through the first decade of sound film with three selected examples illustrating the industrial background, the relationship of film to self-regulation and critical reactions. The three selected examples are It Happened One Night, Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story. It Happened One Night achieved stratospheric box-office success over other significant romantic comedies in 1934 and can be seen to initiate the genre in sound film properly. While Bringing Up Baby focuses to the exclusion of much else on the psychologies of its protagonists and their readiness for romance, The Philadelphia Story keys in to the social implications. While its ending clearly is conservative, of the two films it is the one to engage with a range of social positions and antagonisms and at least flirt with class-crossing romance.

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John Mundy and Glyn White

Just as silent film comedy developed in ways which overcame the absence of speech and other aural effects, radio comedy developed techniques which circumvented the medium's lack of pictures and which emphasised its own distinctive codes and conventions. Early radio comedy in Britain and America had relied on performers from vaudeville and music hall, not all of whom came to terms entirely with the demands of the new medium. While American radio comedy was increasingly influenced and perhaps diminished by Hollywood and the rapid development of television from the late 1940s, British radio comedy thrived throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The boom in internet provision and the relative ease with which audio material can be streamed has lead to significant developments in radio listening, including radio comedy.

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John Mundy and Glyn White

This chapter focuses on the situation comedy, the most clear-cut and the most studied sub-genre of television comedy. The situation comedy is the predominant comedic form in television, being the favourite television genre in the USA and second favourite in the UK. David Grote makes the point that even the most successful films at box office would be cancelled for low audience figures if they were sitcoms appearing on television. The BBC poll and historical survey show considerably more complexity in sitcom sub-genres than the basic models of domestic, family and workplace sitcoms. These sub-genres reveal significant differences and commonalities in British and American cultures. Recurrent variety show sketches gave birth to the sitcom on radio. Variety is also the ancestor of the television sketch show which packages, with or without a few remaining variety elements, comic sketches for its audience.

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John Mundy and Glyn White

This chapter attempts to examine how genre and generic hybrids have been mobilised and appropriated for comic effect across the decades in radio, film and television. It examines some examples including comedy westerns, the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby Road series. The chapter also examines the more recent tendency, both in film and on television, to engage with genres associated with 'realism' such as news, current affairs and documentary in order to produce comedy. Comedic parodies of the documentary genre, often called 'mockumentaries', are now an established format in film and television comedy in which documentary techniques are imitated for comic effect. One of the most popular and successful mock-rockumentaries has been This Is Spinal Tap. It was Rob Reiner's spoof which purported to chart the comeback of 'England's loudest heavy metal rock group' Spinal Tap as they tour America to promote their album Smell the Glove.

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John Mundy and Glyn White

This chapter is concerned with understanding the contribution that animation has made to comedy in film and television since the early twentieth century through an examination of specific cartoons and focuses on American animated comedy. Animated comedy is often targeted at a family audience. This trend has become very evident in contemporary comedy both on television, with series such as The Simpsons, and at the cinema with Toy Story, Shrek and a host of other computer-generated (CGI) films. Toy Story was the culmination of a series of increasingly sophisticated computer-animated shorts produced by Pixar Animation Studios from 1984 onwards, and marked a landmark in the development of animated comedy. The dominance within the American cartoon tradition of Walt Disney and other American studios including Warner Bros and MGM has influenced the aesthetics, technology and commercial production of animation, and the ways in which animation is perceived and viewed.

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John Mundy and Glyn White

This chapter focuses on the ways that film and television comedy have presented gender and sexuality. To examine what comedy tells about Anglo-American attitudes to gender and sexuality, it also focuses initially on the representation of femininity in film romantic comedy, picking up on the genre after the Second World War. The chapter discusses masculinity and representations of sexuality in film and television comedy. Having decided that homosexuality is a defective version of masculinity, homophobic culture prescribes against it by representing it as effeminate. Mainstream Hollywood's ongoing ambivalence towards male homosexuality can also be seen in American Pie 2. Like male homosexuality, lesbianism should not be reduced to a single approved version but understood as 'a space of overlapping, contradictory, and conflictual definitional forces'. Rather than adding entertainingly positive depictions of homosexuality to their attractions, mainstream comedy films have remained largely ambivalent about gay characters.

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