The classification of individuals into social groups is reflected in within popular culture in the new contemporary social institutions. Comedy is a persistent feature of popular culture that apparently demonstrates the social class difference and yet the sociologist so far have overlooked the importance of art of comedy ironically. The present essay aims at developing an understanding of mass mediated comedy entertainment’s reflection of social classes and its importance in the cultivation of social identities.
The lacking part of sociological research is that how comedy can create an understanding and environment where race and class apparently can be spoken about which is harsh often. Ethnic and racial comedy serves as a reinforcement of social ethnic and racial stereotypes, differences and similarities. The comedy acts often utilize social themes strengthening the stereotypes and perceived truths, sometimes, ethnic comedy is offensive towards other social classes. Self-proclaimed colorblind societies have comedy as a facet of popular culture heavily drown in social classification.
Bourdieu in 1984 explained that children if dominant upper-middle class and middle class are oriented towards “legitimate” tastes of cultures and a way of seeing art is cultivated in them by instilling them dispositions ( Bourdieu, 1984). These perceptions and tastes, when activated in social life act as signals for symbolic differences among social classes.
Television comedy has often been found ridiculing the characteristics and complexities of social classes, structures and identities associated. Television comedy has constantly been used as a significant channel through which questions, anxieties and serious sort of concerns about social identities of classes are contested and constructed in the minds of the viewers.
A study Conducted by Freidman has shown that people belonging to middle-class use comedy to assert a sense of cultural superiority. It is concluded in the study that working class people usually everyday life observational humor that serve gratifications for them, such comedy is generally straightforward punchlines. Complex and sophisticated comedy is a preserve that middle class holds, claim experts. A sociologist from the University of Edinburgh carried out the study suggesting that an individual’ s taste in comedy , to a certain extent indicates his or her social class identity. He posits that “Far from illustrating crumbing class hierarchies, the increasing popularity of comedy among the middle classes simply shows how the privileged are now using their superior cultural skills to distinguish themselves in pop culture as well as the high arts.” The researcher claimed in the study that middle-class people‘s taste of comedy is underpinned by their social class standing, elite education and a privileged family background.
In American comedy films the portrayal of social classes has always been a topic of debate among sociologists and anthropologists from the comedy in silent movies to today’ s films of comedy and humor genre the comedy has focused on common issues of contemporary social classes of America. For instance, the famous comedian from the silent era movies Charlie Chaplin has been shown as a man belonging to a lower-middle class who struggles to cross the lane of social class and reach a better position in the society.
He dresses like a person from higher social class in an attempt to give an appearance of holding high social status. He ties to outfit like a gentle man from a high class but gets ridiculous as the clothes do not fit his body well and it gives a comic look to his character. In his another film “Immigrant” he is shown as an European who arrives in America and struggles to adopt a new life, he is poor and attempts to appear as from high social class and impress the woman. Such portrayals indicate a cultivation of thoughts about lower-middle class people struggling to climb the ladder in order to reach the upper class.
The pattern of the movies show that the comedians belong from lower class and try to impress women from a higher class such as the characters of Charlie Chaplin and Mrs. Moneybags, Peter Warne and Ellen Andrews , and Groucho and Mrs. Claypool. The conflicts and break ups between lovers and other characters are also shown based on the social class differences and issues.
The portrayal of minorities in the comedy entertainment has also been under study since the emergence of new mass media and contemporary society. For instance, African –Americans have always been portrayed in comic roles that’s totally reverse of their portrayal in violent action genre. Such representation has evolved a general stereotypical concept about the blacks in the mass audiences as comic figures. One of today’s most famous African-American comedians, Chris Rock seems to attempt building bridges between the two racial social classes, “whites” and “blacks”.
However, the critique says that his portrayal of blacks contributes only to strengthening of negative black stereotypes in the society. His comedy has even divided the black into two social classes “blacks” and “niggers”. While directing to the non-black audiences, his works define niggers as blacks who are the trouble makers within the black community and the society overall. Though the comedian tries to convey that not all the blacks are as they are stereotyped but it only reinforces the existing stereotypes. Comedy by Chris Rock and some works of Hughes’ brothers when speaking to the racial relations need to highlight the positive images of blacks and their culture in the society and give a proper identification to the criminals in black community, also the causes of these social problems as did the movies of Eddie Murphy and John Singleton.
Comedy entertainment has relatively a lower representation of women as leading comedian roles, hardly is the case a women does standup comedy for instance. There is an interesting phrase posited in an article by Smith in “Global Comment”, “TV comedy has a woman problem”. Women’s representation in comedy is depressingly low in general and specifically on television comedy entertainment programs. Linda Martin and Kerry Segrave in 1986 asserted in their “Women in Comedy”, “that female comics are a rare commodity”. There is a general stereotypical perception behind such assertion that “women are just not funny…they don’t laugh at jokes, nor do they create them.” The audiences generally don’t expect hilarious performance from the female comedians and such expectations are based on their strong beliefs and prejudice about women’ s social and entertainment roles.
On a conclusive note comedy is a form of entertainment that provides a platform where the social class boundaries can be stretched and broken. The case is truer in stand-up comedy acts where the stereotypical norms of the society are ridiculed and contested. The prevailing conventions of social classes and their stereotypical identities are generally ridiculed in the stand-up comedy acts. The race, social status background, sexual orientation and impression of all these on the audiences is very important to the stand-up comedians. The comedians have a strange power to construct and deconstruct the social identities of classes in the society with their words as apparent in the case of Chris Rock’s works. Mass mediated comedy entertainment programs are a powerful vehicles that carry the potential of cultivation of social classes and associated symbolic identities.
Sharon Lockyer (2010) Dynamics of social class contempt in contemporary British television comedy, Social Semiotics, 20:2, 121-138, DOI: 10.1080/10350330903565758