June 14, 2018
Interweaving discussions about the ethnic, racial, and linguistic representations of Latinas/os within network television comedies, Isabel Molina-Guzmán’s Latinas and Latinos on TV: Colorblind Comedy in the Post-racial Network Era probes published interviews with producers and textual examples from hit programs like Modern Family, The Office, and Scrubs to understand how these prime-time sitcoms communicate difference in the United States. Understanding the complex ways that audiences interpret these programs, Molina-Guzmán situates her analysis within the Obama era, a period when ethnicity and race became increasingly grounded in “hipster racism,” and argues that despite increased inclusion, the feel-good imperative of TV comedies still inevitably leaves racism, sexism, and homophobia uncontested:
Given the imperative to avoid controversy and broadcast programming able to attract the largest audience possible, the social and political context in which post-racial era comedy airs is central to understanding the role of colorblind ideology. For example, the first season of The Office was created, produced, and broadcasted at the peak of post–September 11th ethnic and racial tensions toward immigrants. Indeed, two months after “Diversity Day” aired, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the “Sensenbrenner Bill,” H. R. 4437, a bill targeting the U.S.–Mexico border and Mexican immigration as potential sites of terror. In this context, Carell’s deadpan delivery and Oscar’s angry but muted response potentially reinforce the show’s colorblind humor, a type of comedy that depends on audiences’ agreement, or at least familiarity, with the national anti-immigrant discourse and the white heteronormative values of the show. The network’s censorship decisions in this episode further illustrate the social boundaries of racial humor.
By the logic of the network’s censors, it is permissible to air comedy grounded in racist views about Mexicans, but it is not acceptable to equate racism with sexual aberrance and class on the air. Within the story arc of the series, Carell’s character is never demoted and rarely disciplined for his socially inappropriate and legally questionable actions.
The episode illustrates Doane’s (2014) observation that colorblind ideology in U.S. popular culture depends on the ability to see skin color and understand socially appropriate behavior even as audiences ignore the significance of color, race, or ethnicity to U.S. political and cultural life. As “Diversity Day” illustrates, the joke depends on Oscar’s ethnic identity as a Mexican American. The only two supporting characters originally written into the pilot were Kevin and African American office mate Stanley Hudson (Leslie David Baker). Although Nuñez is Afro-Cuban, the writers specifically developed his character as Mexican American. It may be reasonably concluded that the writers saw the actor’s and character’s ethnic identity as central to the production of the show. In another episode considered central to the development and success of the series, the character of Oscar, whom the writers decided to depict as a gay man after season 1, is accidentally outed by Michael (“The Gay Witch Hunt” 2006).
Colorblind humor is particularly effective for network television because it shifts social responsibility from the text and its production to the audience and its reception of the text. It is not the executives’ or producers’ problem, after all, if the biases of mainstream white audiences shape how they read the text. Yet, as Kristen Warner (2015) notes, colorblind ideology in U.S. popular culture depends on the everyday invisibility of white privilege, even as ethnic and racial inequalities persist. Changes in the writing of Michael’s character from the first season to the third further contribute to the erasure of whiteness and white male privilege. Throughout the first three seasons, the rudeness and more explicitly racial and ethnic prejudices of Michael’s character made him more culpable and less likeable to audiences. As the series progressed, Carell’s depiction of Michael softened, eventually giving way to a more sympathetic, well-meaning character who through no fault of his own is an ingénue when it comes to ethnic, racial, gender, and sexual difference. Michael’s character is, as Warner describes, the result of white prejudice as “rare and aberrational rather than systemic and ingrained” (8). Michael’s character becomes the symbol of implicit individual bias rather than the racist production of white privilege. By the end of the series, it is the character’s ridiculous behavior (and not his status as a white heterosexual man) that is the primary source of laughter. The success of The Office’s comedy depends on the mainstreaming of colorblind ideology on entertainment TV.
Post-racial-era TV comedy is characterized by the absence of the laugh track and the colorblind approach to ethnic and racial difference that provide the setup for the comedy of hipster racism, a colorblind form of comedy that depends on racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual differences. Hipster racism reinforces the colorblind values even as the characters’ differences are increasingly central to the production of laughter. The colorblind values of contemporary comedies together with the use of hipster racism make it possible for audiences to hold contradictory readings of television scripts, interpretations that release audiences of white guilt or social discomfort yet create a contested space of visibility and subversive pleasure for audiences of color (Doane 2014).
Returning to “Diversity Day” as an example, the ethnic, racial, gender, and sexual humor in The Office almost exclusively revolves around Michael’s socially inappropriate behavior and beliefs and the ensemble’s improvised responses or lack of responses to Michael’s prejudicial assumptions about race, gender, and sexuality. The focus on Michael’s individual ethnic, racial, and sexual transgressions is one of the main adaptations the U.S. writers of The Office made to the original British comedy. Throughout the series, the writers position Carell’s character in opposition to his unwilling antagonist, the socially conscious human resource officer Toby Flenderson (Paul Lieberstein, a writer on the show). In the series, Lieberstein’s subdued and apathetic Toby is routinely called in to legally intercede with regard to the racist, sexist, and/or homophobic behavior of Carell’s emotionally exaggerated Michael. In the series narrative, the hostile work climate created by Carell’s character is never depicted as the institutional result of white patriarchal culture and heteronormative privilege, but rather as another joke to illustrate the individual flaws of Michael Scott, the self-centered boss.
The comedic writing that surrounded Carell’s character points to a key characteristic of the post-racial TV era: the normalizing of hipster racism. A central component of the normalization of hipster racism is the development of sympathetic yet socially flawed white lead characters. Using racism as a form of comedy is not a new convention. As Angela Kinsey, who played Angela on the show, recognized of “Diversity Day”: “Whenever I read our scripts, there were so many that we did that were part of the cringe humor. I think Archie Bunker did that on All in the Family, which is a super old call-back because I’m an old lady [laughs]. But one of your lead characters is inappropriate, you get to call them out on their crap. Say, ‘No, that’s wrong, dude!’” (Burns and Schildhause 2015b). Evoking All in the Family as a referent is interesting because communication research on the program documented the way audiences read the show as both a critique of racism and as an affirmation of racist views (Wilson, Gutiérrez, and Chao 2013). The primary difference is that while the laugh track on All in the Family (1971–79) directly cued audiences to when it was socially acceptable to laugh, post-racial era comedies do not provide any explicit cues. In The Office there are no such explicit cues, and Michael’s character is rarely explicitly called out for his assumptions. Indeed, most of the time his transgressions are met with silence and stares of disbelief by the characters.
Instead, the use of racism, sexism, and homophobia as humor in post-racial era comedies depends on a more ambiguous set of codes to signal socially appropriate laughter. For example, the humor around the famously improvised kiss between Carell and Nuñez is dependent on the actors’ physical performance, audiences’ familiarity with the narrative and character history of the show, prior knowledge of the relationship between the characters, and their own experiences and ability to relate to the characters in the scene (see figure 2). In the season 3 episode “Gay Witch Hunt,” Michael is unaware of Oscar’s sexual identity until Toby disciplines him for using the word “faggy.” The next scene cuts to Michael’s confessional interview: “I would have never called him that if I knew. You know. You don’t call retarded people retards. It’s bad taste. You call your friends retards when they are acting retarded. And I consider Oscar a friend.” The creative decision to depict the show’s lead character as equating gay people to people who are developmentally delayed is an example of the normalization of hipster racism.
Carell’s emotionally sincere delivery of the potentially offensive monologue effectively produces sympathy for Michael. Where some audience members might cringe at the comedic use of the socially charged term “faggy,” others might welcome the term as a critique of progressive demands for “political correctness.” Published interviews with the show’s creators, writers, and actors make clear their awareness of the social boundaries around diversity and inclusion. For audiences familiar with gray-and white-collar workplace policies regarding sexual harassment and discrimination, Carell’s performance pokes satiric fun of the institutional privileging of multiculturalism. At the same time, the effectiveness of hipster racism depends on a shared agreement that the white lead character’s flaws are socially innocent and not institutionally and intentionally systemic. Doing so reaffirms television comedy’s commonsense logic of colorblindness as it reduces racism, sexism, and homophobia to individual pathology rather than the effect of systemic and structural inequalities.
Hipster racism in a workplace comedy provides the producers increased agency to portray socially unacceptable and legally actionable behaviors and language, and it is that cultural transgression that produces the humor. The production of hipster racism depends on scripting potentially controversial or politically risky moments of humor, such as having Michael apologize to Oscar for calling him “faggy” in front of his fellow office workers, thereby outing the socially conservative Oscar. The editing and nonverbal performances of the ensemble cast reinforce the transgressions. First, the camera cuts from Carell to observe the religious and socially conservative Angela sanitizing her hands as she glares at Oscar. Then the camera pans to Oscar’s silent response of disgust and disbelief. In published interviews on the improvisational nature of The Office, Nuñez points to the above scene as an effective example of the ensemble’s collaborations around socially inappropriate comedy. For the socially conscious humor embedded in the nonverbal interactions between the actors in this scene to work, it depends on some audiences’ familiarity with homophobic stereotypes of gay men as diseased and homosexuality as physically infectious. In this reception context, Angela’s display of prejudiced ignorance is the butt of the joke. But it is the silence that also produces hipster racism, or in this instance hipster homophobia. The writers’ decision to make the interaction nonverbal enhances the comic ambiguity necessary to produce hipster racism or in this case hipster homophobia. In the episode’s concluding interview, Oscar reveals that he was more amused than offended by Michael’s public apology and that he filed a grievance against Michael for which he was compensated with paid leave. The scripting of the episode and the way that Nuñez’s character ultimately benefits from being the target of homophobia further justifies post-racial values by shifting the social burden of prejudice and discrimination to the individual and highlighting the ways the system benefits and protects minorities.
Colorblind comedy produces a marketable interpretative ambiguity through contradictions in the show’s writing and character development. Indeed, part of NBC’s investment in The Office was the program’s ability to bring in a young, highly educated audience, similar in profile to the Scrubs audience but consistently larger. Such an audience might not care about or be concerned with contemporary social norms and mores, but these audiences are at least aware of socially appropriate behavior and contemporary identity politics. It must also be recognized that audiences of post-racial era comedies are not likely to identify as white supremacists, because white supremacist audiences do not generally watch mainstream television programming (King 2014). Rather, audiences of post-racial era comedies are the type that understand hipster humor is socially inappropriate and see themselves as socially conscious, even though they may also be equally uncomfortable with changes in sexual culture, ethnic and racial demographics, and the ever-shifting terrain of identity politics in the United States. Much the way All in the Family did for its audience, post-racial era comedies allow white audiences to laugh at or even sympathize with racist, sexist, or homophobic language and behavior as these are normalized as the result of individuals’ inability to adjust to the “new” mores of a more socially conscious culture.
Isabel Molina-Guzmán is an associate professor of media and cinema studies and Latina/Latino studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. Latinas and Latinos on TV: Colorblind Comedy in the Post-racial Network Era was published this spring through our Latinx Pop Culture Series.