Sitcom And "German-Bashing"
The representation of Germanness in the second season of the American sitcom Frasier with special regard to “An Affair to Forget”
Term Paper 2011 17 Pages
Table of Contents
2.1 The Genre
2.3 An Affair to Forget
3. German Stereotypes in American Media
3.1 Stereotype and Image
3.2 Historical Developments
3.2 Germany in the News
4. German Stereotypes in the Second Season of Frasier
Violence and its various forms of representation have been a recurring source of comedy and humour throughout the history of comedic literature. The instances of violence within comedic genres are countless, and the following examples are just some of the most prominent ones: In Aristophanes’ masterpiece Lysistrata women refuse to fulfil their marital ‘duties’ unless the belligerent men are willing to end war--i.e. reacting on the most explicit form of violence (war) by means of another, more subtle form of violence (refusal). Comedies of Molière usually result in a thrashing scene, and the way how the character Malvolio is treated in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is clearly violent. The slapstick from the Punch and Judy show gave a whole comedic sub-genre its name. The examples show that violence is and has always been an inhe- rent part of comedy.
The representation of violence in comedy, however, is by no means restricted to physical violent behaviour between two individuals or groups only. As Schneider et al. have shown (Schneider et al. 2004), violence can be interpersonal, collective, or even self-inflicted. Forms of violence can be both physical and non-physical. Whereas violence in its blunt physical or verbal appearance is usually easy to define and comprehend, this may not necessarily be the case with its non-physical and non-verbal forms. The mode in which characters or groups are represented within a narrative or a plot can be an effective form of violence, too, as Armstrong and Tennenhouse have proposed (Armstrong and Tennenhouse 1989: 1-26). This ‘violence of representation’ in comedy can serve to establish or reinforce a sense of ‘us’, i.e. the ones who laugh, as opposed to ‘them’, i.e. the ones who are being laughed at. “Comedy often involves an understanding of who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’, with them often forming the butt of jokes made by ‘us’; racist humour clearly conforms to such a pattern.” (Mills 2005: 11)
As racist humour may be considered an extreme form of how the antagonism of ‘us’ and ‘them’ works in comedy, there are other forms of humour following a similar pattern, which conform more to the notion of appropriateness than racism does. As comedy, especially in mass media, is usually linked to certain cultural groups, ‘we’ are the ones who belong to that group, whereas ‘they’ are the ones who do not. “For television, which is usually organised along national boundaries, the kinds of jokes which exist in sitcom reveal that nation’s mass conscious- ness and the aspects and events of the world which it deems acceptable to laugh at.” (ibid.: 8) One of these aspects is certainly the mocking of national stereotypes.
A good example of how a national stereotype is ridiculed in a sitcom is the Emmy-awarded episode “An Affair to Forget” from the sitcom Frasier aired in 1995. In this episode the protago- nist Frasier believes that his brother’s wife has an affair with her fencing instructor, who is Ger- man. This fencing instructor, named Gunnar, is portrayed in an assumed stereotypical way: He is blond and tall and he does not speak any English--although his wife does fluently. He seems to be hot-tempererd so that the accuse of having stolen a shoe (a misunderstanding) makes him attack Frasier’s brother with his fence. It may be the depiction of Gunnar as an alleged typical German, as well as the representation of Germanness in general, which have prompted the producers of the German dubbing to change Gunnar and his wife’s nationality from German to Danish in the German version of the episode. To a German audience this depiction of their own national stereotype may appear so grotesque that they would either not recognize them- selves or even feel offended. In addition, the bigger part of the jokes in this episode, which rely on mutual not-understanding, would not work if the whole episode was presented in just one language, namely German.
The question now arises whether such a depiction of a German stereotype is a deliberate disparagement of all Germans, and thus a representation of violence. Is it another form of German-bashing as it was popular among the British tabloid at the beginning of the millen- nium? This essay will examine the representation of German stereotypes in the American media in general and its depiction in the second season of Frasier in particular. It will present a short overview of the historical developments with special regard to the employment of German stereotypes in the United States.
2.1 The Genre
Only two decades after settling down in Hollywood a hundred years ago, the American motion picture industry was the most profitable and influential entertainment industry in the world. They have managed to maintain this position up to the present day, which can be seen in the fact that in the year 2000 American films held a market share of 73% in Europe, compared to 15% market share of domestic European films (Renner 2007: 435). American predominance, however, is not restricted to the production of blockbuster films. A simple look into any current German TV guide reveals the bulk of comedic episodic formats, many of which are sitcoms, being of American origin, too.
The success of the sitcom began after the Second World War and it went alongside with the establishment of television as a medium available for the majority of households. Although the sitcom is often considered to be an American ‘invention’, similar forms of entertainment have emerged in Britain, too. Various shows have been proposed by different scholars to be the first ‘real’ sitcom ever, and the truth probably depends on the respective definition (Mills 2005: 38-39). However, it is certain that in the early years the “developments in British broad- cast comedy were often ‘an attempt to emulate American-style comedy formats’ [Neale and Krutnik, 1990, p. 221]” (ibid.: 39) The dominance of American comedic formats in Britain lasted until the 1950s when the BBC came up with sitcoms having a special ‘British tone’. This tone comprises characters often being self-obsessed, pretentious or stubborn as opposed to the “witty, intelligent heroes of American sitcom” (ibid.: 41). The differences between British and American sitcoms may lie in a different understanding of what is funny and laughable and what is not. This can be well observed when comparing British shows like Faulty Towers or Absolutely Fabulous with American shows like Friends or Seinfeld. Due to these differences British sitcom is often referred to as Britcom considering it as a discrete sub-genre of sitcom with its own tradition and following its own principles. As this paper deals with the American sitcom Frasier, general statements about sitcom will refer to the American variant.
The average American sitcom show is usually aired once a week, unless it is a rerun or broadcast in syndication. The average length of a single show is twenty-three minutes plus advertisement breaks. Twenty-four shows form one season, which is also the average bundle in which the shows are sold on DVD. American sitcoms often have popular stand-up comedians as their protagonists, like, for example, in Seinfeld. Many scholars see the American sitcom in the tradition of stand-up comedy, which had existed long before television. Another assumed tradition from which sitcom has emerged is the music hall entertainment (ibid.: 34). Both the stand-up comedy and the music hall entertainment share two distinctive features: they are funny, and they require a live audience.
The origins of sitcom in live entertainment can still be seen in a property most sitcoms have in common: the laugh track. Early sitcoms were performed in front of a real audience and also broadcast live. This character of a live performance has been maintained by most contemporary sitcoms, although some series in recent years have abandoned it. The laugh track contributes to the notion that enjoying comedy originally is a collective experience. It is “an attempt to recreate the social experience vital to humour and most obviously a leftover from the theatre.” (ibid.: 50) That is, comedy is usually perceived as more entertaining when shared with others. “So, while the sitcom is resolutely a broadcasting form, it has not fully escaped its music hall origins, and still attempts to recreate that kind of experience.” (ibid.: 38)
Another feature that has become distinctive of sitcom is the way in which a show is filmed. The audience--no matter whether real or virtual--usually functions as the fourth wall. This, again, can be seen as resulting from the origins of the genre. Presenting comedy on television with an audience as the fourth wall, however, raises a serious problem: the visual aspect. Al- lowing for more than just one single camera angle is one of the main assets of television, which contradicts the notion of an audience staring into only one direction. When two characters talk on a stage or a TV-set, a member of the audience is able to turn his or her head quickly, according to who of the actors is speaking. A camera cannot do that. This problem was soon recognized by sitcom producers, and it was solved through a concept as simple as brilliant: the so-called Three-Headed-Monster. This means that three cameras are engaged when two peo- ple are talking. One camera shoots both characters together the other two being reserved each for each one. It thus “enables performers to get two laughs out of a joke; one from the funny thing that is said and another from someone else’s reactions to it. The reaction shot is far more central to the sitcom than many other genres, and shooting comedy in this way highlights the cause-and-effect nature of the comic sequence.” (ibid.: 39)
In the United States the sitcom is the most popular television genre at all (ibid.: 54), and American sitcoms are produced first and foremost for an American audience. It is not surprising that the representation of topics or characters in a sitcom is primarily to meet the expectations of an American audience reflecting their points of view, and how they see the world. Media historians see “the genre as serving little purpose other than reflecting attitudinal developments in American society.” (ibid.: 102) As the long-term success of a sitcom in the U. S. is defined purely commercially, it is not surprising that American sitcoms are not known for being progres- sive or experiemental when it comes the representation of delicate social matters or extreme character traits. The undisguised (and extremely funny) depiction of drug and alcohol abuse in a series like Absolutely Fabulous, for example, would be unthinkable in a sitcom made by an American production company for an American mainstream-audience.
On May 20, 1993, an era ended with the last episode of the highly rated sitcom Cheers being aired on NBC. The show had run for eleven years and was one of the most successful sitcoms of the Eighties and early Nineties (Keller 1999: 185). The producers soon came up with the idea of creating a spin-off, a new sitcom with one of the wacky characters from Cheers as its protagonist: the psychiatrist Frasier Crane. “Unlike most sitcoms, whose lead character is usually a straight man reacting to the loonies around him, on Frasier our hero was saner than he was on Cheers, but still rather crazy after all these years.” (Graham 1996: 4) The idea was both promising and risky, as most attempts in the past to create a successful spin-off from a highly rated sitcom had failed.1 Yet NBC took the risk and ordered thirteen episodes of the new sitcom, sight unseen, the first of which was aired on September 16, 1993 (ibid.: 25). The audi- ence loved it, and--probably more important for a new series--it received rave reviews in the newspapers. The new show had been simply named after its protagonist, Frasier, and it was a hit from the beginning.
In Cheers the character Frasier Crane was married and the entire show was located in Boston. For the new show, the writers had him divorce and move back to Seattle, the city where he was born and raised. In the frame narrative of the show Frasier Crane lives in a fancy apartment at the stylish Elliot Bay Towers with a big terrace and a phantastic view over downtown Seattle. He has to take his father, Martin Crane, a policeman who was shot on duty having a bullet in his hip ever since. Being a case for nursing now Martin needs permanent care, and thus moves in together with his dog Eddie and his physical therapist, a young Englishwoman. Frasier has a younger brother, Niles, who is also a psychiatrist. Niles is married to Maris, an eccentric character often mentioned in the show but never to be seen. Frasier has come to Seattle to take a new job as the host of a radio call-in show, The Dr. Frasier Crane Show, in which callers are helped with their psychological problems. Each epsiode usually starts with a studio scene in which Frasier is on air giving advice to some caller over the microphone.2 The producer of the show is Roz Doyle, a witty and self- confident woman, who becomes a close friend of Frasier’s .
The character Frasier is in his early forties and very aware of his good education, his achieve- ments in life, and his distinctive sense of style. He drives a black BMW, speaks French and Spanish, plays the piano, loves fancy food and wine, and is utterly fond of classical music and operas. Although he is divorced and ‘back on the market‘, he is not really successful in his love affairs. Frasier tends to patronize the people around him, his bonhomie and pomposity are often sources of jokes in the show.
Frasier’s brother Niles drives a Mercedes E having ‘S·H·R·I·N·K’ on its vanity number plate (ibid.: 75). Whereas Frasier has studied in Oxford and Harvard, Niles attended Yale and Cam- bridge (ibid.). His sense of style and refinement is similar to his brother’s, and they both often seem to compete who is the more eccentric. Although being married, Niles is infatuated with Daphne, which, however, he would never confess to her until the last season. Both Frasier and Niles have been ‘special‘, i.e. eccentric, since they were children. They “didn’t have a typical childhood of Little League, soccer games, and pizza parties.” (ibid.: 77) Instead, they were in- trigued with ‘odd’ activities, which is commented by their father: “If one of you had someting, the other one always had to have it, too. I had to buy two Balinese lutes, two decoupage kits, two pairs of lederhosen... When you finally moved out of the house, that was one embarrassing garage sale!” (ep. 40, “The Club”: 05:00)
There is hardly any resemblance between the characters of the two sons and that of Martin Crane. He embodies an average, down-to-earth American, wholoves football, beer and television-- most preferably in combination. This is not to say, however, that he is a redneck. He has a subtle sense of humour and holds up traditional values such as friendship, trustfulness or common sense. Although he is usually a sociable and peaceloving chap, he often mocks Frasier’s pomposity.
1 The only true spin-off success in American television history was probably Lou Grant, named after a main character in the highly rated sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Lou Grant itself, however, was not a sitcom but a drama series.
2 The voices of the people calling in were often spoken by celebrities. They were just heard, but never to be seen.