Thinking about Fans of TV Narrative Comedies

Fan Studies has become a more central discourse over the past twenty five years, just as fans themselves have become more visible and more important to today’s media, culture and society. Yet while tracking the practices which have moved fans from “the margins of society into the spotlight”, it appears very little research has attempted to tackle fandom’s which were never marginalised to begin with. This short post outlines some initial thoughts on fans of television comedy and sitcoms – genres whose popularity has remained constant throughout decades of television, yet whose fans have never had to endure the type of public deconstruction as Jenkins’ Star Trek fans, and countless others, have gone through.

Genre and Textual Gaps

The most prominent genres across fan studies – science fiction, fantasy, horror – are those which provide fans with greatest opportunity to take part in extending the text, through the sheer amount of textual ‘gaps’ the building of new worlds/universes inherently forms. These shows often include one or more elements that stretch beyond the physical, lived-in reality of life, and thus are in a sense “incomplete”. By this I mean in creating new worlds, producers rarely are able to document each and every element part of it – in fact, it is fandoms that often attempt this documentation.

In comparison to television comedy, telefantasy is thus a more accessible, flexible and malleable text – part of the attraction of the passionate, active fan to engage in creative reappropriation, extension or redefinition of the fantasy world. Television comedy on the other hand, particularly the sitcom, has a history of setting itself within more conservative, open-and-shut worlds. The classical three-camera sitcom rarely ventures from a small number of sets and locations; the “situation” is rarely under threat of permanent change; there are less extant, unstable elements in the narrative. This list can of course be opened up and properly discussed in a longer form of work, of course.

Even the standard element of the sitcom – the joke – is often presented as a completed work. The set-up and punchline nature of much television comedy doesn’t offer itself to much change – to do so might be to ruin the comedy. Characters and location are so inextricably linked in sitcom – especially in the classic form – that very often the text has trouble navigating any external or novel locations, even if they only appear for one sequence or one episode.

New comedy – frequently classed as single-camera comedy, lacking the laugh track of the classic form – instantly makes itself more accessible to reappropriation, yet the fandoms of The Mindy Project or Parks and Recreation are still not as visible as those of The Vampire Diaries or Star Trek. Either sitcom fandoms are not as ‘active’ in online spaces or, perhaps, they use online spaces in a different way to fans of science fiction and fantasy.

What do Sitcom Fans Do?

The above may have come out more cynical than I would have liked – in no way am I critiquing the decisions and directions of past and present research. Neither do I believe the lack of attention to television comedy fans has anything to do with the value of the sitcom genre, as I would like to believe we are past the point where we have to argue about the “worth” of sitcom both to society and to its interrogation in academia.

So what do Sitcom fans do, and what do they do online specifically? This is to be a central focus of the second year of my MA course and masters thesis, when I come about to collating the information and writing it. There is a great history to the research of comedy and sitcom audiences, but when it comes to investigating fans of these shows, I have found it hard to come by much work (if I am missing something crucial, please note it in the comments!). Certainly in what we might call the major works of fan studies, comedy fans do not play a major part to the construction of the theoretical frameworks.

Do sitcom fans join in cosplay? Yes. Write fan fiction? Yes. Attend community events? Yes. Mash-up texts, videos and audio? Yes. Fight against network or producer decisions? Yes. Take part in ‘fan activism’? Yes. Are all of the above viable topics of enquiry, and could they teach us something about contemporary identity and gender constructions, politics, and everyday life? Yes. Might our findings offer something different than similar investigations of science fiction fans? Quite possibly. And that’s what I see as exciting going into my second phase of masters work.

Next Steps

I see the start of this type of research as beginning with sitcom texts, and identifying the points of departure for the various fan responses and productivities. What gaps are there in comedy texts that fans can exploit? Do comedy fans read their favoured shows in different ways to science fiction fans? What elements make themselves available to fandom’s?

As ever, this blog post probably comes off a little rushed and ill-thought out. The main line of enquiry I feel needs addressing – what happens when we apply the theories of fan studies, which have been built up mainly from the analysis of telefantasy, to a genre which in both its classical and modern forms provide wildly different starting point for audiences and fans alike.

I’m always interested in any responses to my posts, so feel free to type something in below or contact me on twitter (@JMChadd).

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