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Tragedy Plus Time

Tragedy Plus Time
National Trauma and Television Comedy

As the saying goes, “Comedy equals tragedy plus time,” but in the face of tragedies on a national scale, comedy becomes the medium through which audiences untangle accepted understandings of what it means to be American.

April 2021
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280 pages | 6 x 9 | 22 b&w photos, 14 b&w illus. |

Following the most solemn moments in recent American history, comedians have tested the limits of how soon is “too soon” to joke about tragedy. Comics confront the horrifying events and shocking moments that capture national attention and probe the acceptable, or “sayable,” boundaries of expression that shape our cultural memory. In Tragedy Plus Time, Philip Scepanski examines the role of humor, particularly televised comedy, in constructing and policing group identity and memory in the wake of large-scale events.

Tragedy Plus Time is the first comprehensive work to investigate tragedy-driven comedy in the aftermaths of such traumas as the JFK assassination and 9/11, as well as during the administration of Donald Trump. Focusing on the mass publicization of television comedy, Scepanski considers issues of censorship and memory construction in the ways comedians negotiate emotions, politics, war, race, and Islamophobia. Amid the media frenzy and conflicting expressions of grief following a public tragedy, comedians provoke or risk controversy to grapple publicly with national traumas that all Americans are trying to understand for themselves.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Broadcast Nationalism, National Trauma, and Television Comedy
  • Chapter 1: The Kennedy Assassination and the Growth of Sick Humor on American Television
  • Chapter 2: Censored Comedies and Comedies of Censorship
  • Chapter 3: Emotional Nonconformity in Comedy
  • Chapter 4: Conspiracy Theories and Comedy
  • Chapter 5: African American Comedies and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots
  • Chapter 6: Television Comedy and Islamophobia after 9/11
  • Chapter 7: Comedy and Trump as Trauma in Narrowcast America
  • Conclusion
  • Afterword
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Philip Scepanski is an assistant professor of film and television at Marist College. He holds a PhD in media studies from Northwestern University. His work has appeared in the journals Television and New Media and Studies in American Humor, as well as edited collections, including How to Watch Television; The Comedy Studies Reader; Taboo Comedy: Television and Controversial Humor; The Dark Side of Stand-Up; Taking a Stand: Contemporary Stand-Up Comedians as Public Intellectuals; and Exploring the Edges of Trauma: 150 Years of Art and Literature. He has also taught at Vassar College, Northwestern University, and the University of Notre Dame.


“Focusing on comedy programs from the 1990s and early 2000s, including Family Guy, South Park, The Simpsons, and In Living Color, the author adeptly explains how these programs not only offer a means of escape for viewers processing national trauma, but also create new narratives that bleed out into national dialogue, with perhaps unintentional but wide-reaching consequences reverberating in the United States today...A must for media and communication studies departments, this work will also appeal to many comedy fans, traumatologists, and the generally curious.”
Library Journal

“[An] insightful and innovative book...Scepanski is fairly thorough in his writing on both the general topic as well as its neatly-ordered subtopics.”
Houston Press

“This is a compelling book that weaves together a number of exciting, fascinating, and complex moments in American media history. The fundamental question—how do trauma and comedy interact in the construction of the US national imaginary?—is a deeply important one. Scepanski displays true mastery over both media history and the theoretical ideas that illuminate it.”
Matt Sienkiewicz, coeditor of The Comedy Studies Reader

“Scepanski leaves no stone unturned and impressively harnesses a rich cornucopia of primary sources to shape his arguments. The book offers a conceptually savvy, discursive analysis that spans the 1960s to the present, drawing from performance studies, sociological theory, humor studies, media studies, disaster studies, and nation studies to engage with humor as an instructive tool and social-shaping mechanism. No other text has proffered such an analysis over time and around so many national moments of trauma. This is not just a book about television comedy but a tool for understanding how comedy buffers trauma and shapes our sense of collective belonging.”
Rebecca Krefting, author of All Joking Aside: American Humor and Its Discontents


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This book may also be available on the following library platforms; check with your local library:
3M Cloud Library/bibliotheca