Dioramas of Dioramas: Metamodernism and Comedy in Community

Written by Anna Romanska.

“I’ve spent almost four years here, growing and changing and making dioramas.”
-Jeff Winger, Community (Season 4)

Many fans of the hit cult TV show Community1(2009) will empathise with this statement, having spent several years of their life in a constant emotional whiplash over the series. Never-ending doubts as to whether Community would return to regularly scheduled programming plagued its supporters, as the show’s critical success attracted a passionate, albeit limited, audience. What is it that makes Community such a stand out comedy show? Is it simply its employment of clever referential humour, or can we look at the narrative and stylistic forms through the lens of a metamodernist discourse? Or, to put more simply, why is it important that Community is so endearing and so funny all at the same time?

Viewing attitudes since the early 1990s have changed significantly, with writers shifting from more cynical parodies of mass-market consumerism and mainstream society to creating next-level pastiches that transcend this basic mockery. Amidst all the stylistic changes and trends, it becomes difficult to pinpoint specific moments at which monumental changes to comedic delivery occurred. A good place to start in the case of Community, however, is the emerging discourse around metamodernism. The term first emerges as early as 1975, with Zavarzadeh describing it as “a cluster of aesthetics or attitudes which had been emerging in American literature since the mid-1950s” (75). Essentially, critics began to see metamodernism as similar to post-postmodernism, using the term to organize a fracturing, subverting, and transcending of postmodernism’s values. Cliff then expands on this term several decades later, claiming that metamodernism is “the mercurial condition between and beyond irony and sincerity, naivety and knowingness, relativism and truth, optimism and doubt, in pursuit of a plurality of disparate and elusive horizons” (The Fader). A key feature of the term in relation to understanding cultural and literary phenomena is the need for “constant oscillation between and revision of various states” (Dumitrescu 27). It is not enough to simply reject the existence of binaries or linear structures, but these structures have to be constantly challenged and their interconnectedness recognized.

When analyzing comedy, we need to adjust our lens (forgive the pun) somewhat, in order to see how the idea of oscillation and postmodern political correctness have affected the way we as mainstream audiences respond to comedy in recent years. A great example here is the Norwegian comedian, Harald Eia. The “epitome of Norwegian television comedy” (Rustad), Eia was accused in 2010 of elitism and offensive humour in his stand up for performing a sketch that a decade earlier had earned him huge laughs from the audience. Hiding behind conceptual irony and relativism, Eia’s audience now realized that offensive or bullying humour behind the veil of irony was still offensive, and became more vindictive in their criticism of his comedy. Similarly, we can look at Steve Coogan’s 2011 article on The Guardian Observer, where he openly vilified Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond for their flippant racist jokes towards Mexicans on Top Gear. Coogan made the remark that good satire does not degrade others, but makes an audience laugh at the absurdity of its offensive characters who stupidly subscribe to flawed systems of belief – “[comedians] are laughing at hypocrisy, human frailty, narrow-mindedness…we are laughing at a lack of judgment and ignorance.” A huge part of this involves connecting with the audience on a basic level, to elicit empathy and therefore, a sense of relating to the humour.

Coogan’s remarks hark back to a generation of writers in the 1990s and early 2000s that were writing shows to provoke discussion of social issues through witty satire and sharp critique of cultural iconography. These shows had the same veiled irony that Harald Eia exploited to express what we now consider problematic opinions, yet in the modern day period, audience’s new sensitivity to political correctness has rendered this veil entirely see through. As Coogan notes, “part of the blame must lie with what some like to call the “postmodern” reaction to overzealous political correctness. Sometimes, it’s true, things need a shakeup; orthodoxies need to be challenged. But this sort of ironic approach has been a license for any halfwit to vent the prejudices they’d been keeping in the closet.”

Here is where Community and metamodernism comes into play. As attitudes change, writers have begun to abandon the technique of writing their characters and narratives to voice blunt, cynical criticisms of socio-political minutiae. No more do we see the wealthy and corrupt Lucille Bluth (from Arrested Development) drinking excesses of alcohol, casually throwing around racist comments, and verbally abusing her daughter – “you want your belt to buckle, not your chair” – because this derisive behavior manifests without any emotional resolution or sense of closure. Audience members are amused by Lucille’s incredulous comments, yet we feel absolutely no affection for her or the majority of her family, as we are constantly seeing them as objects of ridicule. The premise in both Arrested Development (2003) and Community is a prevalence of meta humour, and whilst there are many similarities in the style of their jokes, the emotional level on which we experience each show and identify with its characters differs greatly.

Sure, we still get the extensive referential humour in Community, arguably another important factor in attracting a specific audience of those that will understand the clever witticisms that are peppered throughout each episode – this could come down to Bourdieu’s idea of “culture capital”, and the individual valuing challenging subject material over mainstream comedy. For example, The Big Bang Theory (2007) enjoys wide commercial success; however, critically, the show’s humour plays off of the same several tropes in each episode and quickly becomes a tired charade of laughing at Sheldon’s social shortcomings. Community’s Abed has a similar comedic appeal, with the audience feeling a deliberate distance towards the autistic character. In this universe, however, we are invited into Abed’s perspective through his metanarrative and constant self-awareness, endearing us more to his character. As Rustad claims, “Community balances its many and frequent pop-cultural spoofs and cynical behaviour with a real sense of, well, community and human warmth”, which lends the humour and intelligence of the show a new dimension for the audience to experience.

Focusing on two specific episodes of Community, it is possible to analyse the degree to which the pastiche of the show is centered on a metamodernist discourse. Season 1, episode 21 (Contemporary American Poultry), is almost a direct spoof of Goodfellas (1990), from the “(freeze) framing and camera movements to the doo-wop music and the voice-over” (Rustad). The comedy of the situation arises when the episode centres around the study group taking control of the cafeteria’s chicken fingers supply, a very ironic twist on a typical gangster motive. The entirety of the episode would simply be a banal parody of a classic film trope, yet because of the final scenes where Abed and Jeff connect and bond over their shared insecurities – Abed about his undiagnosed Asperger’s and Jeff about his anxiety and lack of control – the Goodfellas pastiche takes on a transcendent meaning. The episode suddenly becomes about character development, and the once ridiculous (and very funny) satire, is now focused on connection, affect, and sincerity, all crucial elements of the metamodernist lexicon and analysis.

Another narrative that highlights the degree to which Community leans on clever pastiche is in season 2, episode 21 (Paradigms of Human Memory), where the show takes the format of a clip show2. The irony of the episode is that all the clips they switch back to are previously unseen moments from the study group’s shared history. This is intended as a direct self-parody of this kind of sitcom trope and emphasizes the difficulty in creating authentic human connection in modern media-saturated culture. Hampton Stevens asks the question, “In an age when even the simplest human interaction is colored by media-created expectations, when our flesh-and-blood romantic relationships are judged against the standards of TV and movie love affairs, Community asks if it’s even still possible to make an authentic connection?” (The Atlantic); Community plays on this idea very cleverly, showing its audience moments that we as viewers have not been privy to, but that have fundamentally impacted the group dynamic – “real human relationships take more than 22 minutes of witty banter a week” (Stevens).

Despite these examples seemingly exhibiting characters that are hyper-real or hyper aware of their circumstances in a negative light, the endearing fact is that they never stop trying to create these connections. We can see this even in shows such as Modern Family (2008), where we see the characters of Mitch and Cam confront gay stereotypes and mild homophobia from both strangers and family. They fight back with a sense of humour, and because the individuals that challenge them are either dismissed as ignorant or redeemed through satirical, yet simultaneously emotional, closure, the jokes resist the potential for insensitivity and offensiveness. When audiences see Abed playing a campus-wide game of hot lava with his study group as an attempt to keep his best friend Troy from leaving on a solitary cruise around the world and not as a childish game, the trivial parody element becomes an intelligent pastiche. Community thrives because we crack up laughing when Britta and Jeff battle with mops and poorly executed trash talk – but we tear up when Abed sacrifices himself in the ‘lava’ so that his best friend can leave to pursue his dreams.

(1) A short summary: Community is a TV show revolving around the fictional community college Greendale, and the eclectic characters that attend it and end up forming a study group. All of the characters have their own insecurities and flaws, and the show relies heavily on clever cultural references and meta-humour to portray their various adventures and plotlines.
(2) A clip show is defined as an episode where there is significant use of flashbacks/memory to remind audiences of highlights of past episodes. This is often used to depict the passage of time, emphasize character history, or remind audiences/characters of their shared experiences.

Works Cited:
Cliff, Aimee. “Popping Off: How Weird Al, Drake, PC Music and You Are All Caught up in the Same Feedback Loop.” The Fader. 8 Aug 2014. Web. 24 Jan 2016.

Coogan, Steve. “I’m a huge fan of Top Gear. But this time I’ve had enough.” The Guardian: The Observer. 5 Feb 2011. Web. 23 Jan 2016.

Dumitrescu, Alexandra. “Interconnections in Blakean and Metamodern Space”. On Space. Deakin University, 2011. Print.

Rustad, Guy. “The joke that wasn’t funny anymore…” Notes on Metamodernism. 10 Feb 2011. Web. 24 Jan 2016.

Stevens, Hampton. “The Meta, Innovative Genius of Community.” The Atlantic. 12 May 2011. Web. 23 Jan 2016.

Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van der Akker. “Art Criticism and Metamodernism.” ArtPulse Magazine. N.d. Web. 23 Jan 2016.

Zarvazadeh, Mas’ud. “The Apocalyptic Fact and the Eclipse of Fiction in Recent American Prose Narratives.” Journal of American Studies. 9.1 (April 1975): 69-83. Print.

Cover Image:
By Keith McDuffee from Northborough, MA, USA – FlickrUploaded by CennoxX, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26386516