On Thursday, September 19, 2019, Department Chair Yeidy Rivero introduced Jen Celotta, writer/director on The Office and The Newsroom, and Dr. Ethan Thompson, Professor of Media Arts at Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi, who joined FTVM community members in the Rackham Amphitheater for the fourth iteration of the department’s Critical Conversations: Media Studies at the Intersection of Theory and Practice.
Celotta and Thompson were brought together around the topic of contemporary television comed -- Celotta as a successful practitioner, and Thompson as the author of How to Watch Television (NYU Press, 2013 & 2019), Parody and Taste in Postwar American Television Culture (Routledge, 2011), and Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era (NYU Press, 2009).
Celotta shared her experience coming up in the industry. She grew up as the comedic “black sheep” in an academic family and got her first big break through a TV Academy internship, which put her on the set of Home Improvement. From there, Celotta tried to learn as much as she could while performing random PA tasks, such as procuring twigs for props. She was eventually able to land a job as a writer on The Office as it was starting its US version. A particularly captivating story Celotta recounted was the epic debate over whether or not to record sound during the scene in which Jim finally proposes to Pam. According to Celotta, the sound/no sound controversy had the entire set debating for weeks as to what would produce the more meaningful impact. The controversy was finally put to bed after consulting with a security guard who didn’t even watch the show.
Celotta also gave advice to young writers, emphasizing “be kind to yourself” and “be your own friend.” She encouraged writers to find out how their own brains work best, rather than trying to chain themselves to their desks for ten hours a day—a mistake she herself had made. Celotta revealed she might visit up to five coffee shops a day while writing.
Thompson’s presentation was humorously titled, “TV Comedy in the Multi-Platform-Peak TV-Post-PC-Trump Watch Whatever Whenever Wherever-(or just The Office) Era.” Thompson noted that we are witnessing definitive shifts in cultural sensibilities around gender, sexuality, and race, while at the same time experiencing media in a new way—we can expect it to suit our tastes at anytime, anywhere. Thompson suggested that this may pose a conflict for comedy’s ability to expose us to new sensibilities. He shared a series of questions, including, “If we care about how comedy represents and articulates points of view and values, then where is that comedy? What genre or format of shows? What networks or platforms? Who is saying/performing/creating it?” These questions were left for the audience to consider.
FTVM postdoctoral fellow Melissa Phruksachart moderated the conversation between Celotta, Thompson, and audience members. Students asked a number of compelling questions, including whether the idea of “political correctness” was “diluting” comedy, and whether the tension between the Writers Guild of America and the Association of Talent Agents would affect aspiring writers. There was also much interest in Celotta’s new project Space Force, both in regard to Celotta’s jump to working with Netflix and in regard to the project’s open jab at Trump’s hyperbolic desire to Make Space Great Again. In closing, it was clear that the future of contemporary television comedy is an unknown, multi-platform frontier in a politically unpredictable era.