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The Funny Professor

Man smiling with tv on his head

WRITTEN BY: JAKE STUMP
PHOTOGRAPHED BY: JENNIFER SHEPHARD

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Despite the popular cliché, sitting in front of the TV may not rot the brain. For Jay Malarcher, associate professor of theatre history and criticism, consuming episodes of classic TV sitcoms helped him launch and maintain a career in researching television and comedy at the intersection of real life. Malarcher has published a book, “The Classically American Comedy of Larry Gelbart” and served a Fulbright lectureship teaching American comedy as a cultural mirror in Croatia.

How does comedy fit into the college classroom?

Everybody wants to teach our students to think critically. Nothing gives you a workout on critical theory like comedy. I taught an Honors course a couple of years ago on comedy and cognitive dissonance where we looked at the psychology of comedy and how it forces your brain to hold two opposing ideas simultaneously. Here’s an example from my misspent youth: I was reading a magazine at 8 years old about a city slicker talking to a rancher. The city slicker says, “That’s a
nice bunch of cows you got there.” The rancher says, “Herd of cows.” And the city slicker goes, “Sure, I’ve heard of cows.” I thought, “Wait. You can do that with words?” 

Comedy and sitcoms say a lot about our society. How do sitcoms tackle such issues?

Comedy has to have an audience present. A stand-up comic or you telling a joke to friends is comedy, but if it's written down, it takes on less of a social contract. The social angle of comedy is very important to me because comedy talks about things that we can correct. Like politicians. Larry Gelbart (best known for creating “M*A*S*H) said, “I write political comedy because I want to tell our leaders we’re upset.” Good comedy will help people see the truth of what they're given. So comedy can correct things like politics, or more trivial, social mores like dating rituals.
It has to be said that the “Munsters” and “Addams Family” occurred in the 60s during the period of civil rights. We can think about it in racial terms with a white, middle-class family living in suburbia and the paranoia of a different-looking family moving in next door. A lot of sitcoms from that era played into a gentle way of correcting people's mindsets. Things got less subtle in the 1970s with “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons” and “M*A*S*H” with important social commentary.

Man smiling with TV on his head

Jay Malarcher, associate professor of theatre history and criticism consuming TV sitcoms to better understand research of TV and comedy of real life.

What was learned from teaching American comedy in Croatia?

I showed them an episode of “Green Acres.” They install a gas meter on the side of the house but it’s already been running before they connect the gas lines. Because the meter’s running, they’ve been charging them money but there’s no gas involved. He (Oliver) goes to complain to the utility office and is asked to take a number. He looks around and says, “There’s nobody here.” But they insist he use the numbering system. He takes a number but they skip over it, and the man at the counter says they lost his number. I showed that to my Croatian students as an example of surrealism. But they looked at me and said, “But this is how bureaucracy works. That’s not surreal. It's exactly the way our lives are.”

To me, that was a great lesson in itself that one culture may have a number of innate jokes that other cultures don’t get. Only if they understand the situation, they get it.