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Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Genre Studies: The African-American Situation Comedy, Part 5

I am now going to conduct an analysis of 3 texts as part of my genre analysis on sitcoms and through these findings, I will determine whether or not each text conforms to the sitcom genre, and those that do, how well do the aspects of the sitcom correlate to the conventions of the multi-camera situation comedy. 

The 3 sitcoms I have chosen are: The Jamie Foxx Show, The Jeffersons and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.  

In addition to this, the analysis of each of these shows will also answer the following question: 

*To what extent does genre theory, African-American experiences and identity, and sitcom humour contribute towards one's understanding of Black sitcoms and the underlining themes, plot- lines that are explored and addressed within the shows themselves? 

In order to answer these questions, I will be using representation analysis to study these texts and to decipher cultural and social ideas, meanings. 

Genre theory -

Genre theory is used to study films and on-screen media, to help facilitate the categorisation of the text. Genres are dependent on a number of factors: the storyline, the director behind the production, the intended target audience it is aimed at. Genre theory focuses on 3 ideas: audience, time period and marketing (Genre Theory). 

Audience - The intended audience for Black sitcoms is African-Americans & Black people outside the U.S. Black sitcoms from the 1950s were created to appeal to the Black demographic. 

The time period - In spite of African-Americans most successful decade on US mainstream television being the 1990s, its origins go as far as the 1950s and 1960s with the likes of Amos 'n' Andy & Julia. Shows were shot with a multi- camera, & the pacing of sitcoms were much more fluid and technology improved greatly that it allowed for continuity. 

Marketing of shows - Genres have become 'logos' of which movies and shows were marked and categorized for people to see. TV channels solely dedicated to sitcoms are an example of this marketing. Sitcoms are marketed through print and TV advertisements, trailers and promos.

As an audience and generally, we as individuals, do not differentiate between TV shows that place in one city or area, such as New York or Boston and those in Chicago. We don't normally identify programmes based on their geographical location. But we do differentiate shows in accordance to their actual setting. Be it an office, hospital, the home or at school (Mittel, 173). These texts contain many different components, but only some of these relate to their generic properties. Likewise, hospital dramas such as Grey's Anatomy and ER's components that infer to the hospital medical drama sub-genre are things like the hospital beds, doctors, nurses, stethoscopes, hospitals, medical instruments & cures used to treat and heal patients. 

Texts i.e. names of TV programmes themselves are not genres, but they are a member of a generic catagory. The Generic category being the 'genre'. Texts exist but only through production (i.e Hollywood, the main network in charge) and reception (the audience). Multi-camera sitcoms involve both the audience's participation (through laughing along with the jokes, canned laughter) and the TV stations televising the show to millions of people at home. Without production and reception, texts would cease to exist in the first place. 

For Mittel, the main aim of studying media genres from a media and cultural studies context, is rather than making assumptions and assertions about a particular genre they are referring to, to instead understand how genres operate within specific instances and their own framework, and how they fit into larger systems of cultural power (Mittel, 176). How does the genre, and the texts representing that genre, work in constituting our vision of the world and the events that take place in that world? 

Like I mentioned in the first part of this essay, genres all have specific ways of telling stories to the audience and in conveying them using their own sets of conventions. You can have 2 different genres: one Western and one Comedy and both texts representing these genres can have the same social, moral, cultural themes and narrative/plot. Heck, you can have a Western movie that has a story, and a comedy movie with exactly the same story. What distinguishes them from each other, is the conventions and iconography. 

The Situation Comedy 

The term, situation comedy, takes its name from properly Semiotic features of texts to which the expression is applied, but is better defined through technical traits of textual production which avoids the tautologies hidden in any definition of comedy (Savorelli, 132). In other words, the sitcom differentiates itself from other forms of comedy by means of the use of text and dialogue, music, actors and performers, props and scenery, production and narrative and story.  

The problem with representation in any given media product or genre, is that is it is never 100% fully accurate. It always involves a construction of a version of reality, not of reality itself. Media producers decide to what to put in, what to leave out. Representation is about someone's own point of view of the person, place, thing - the people who make the TV show, movie; this is their perception, their image of what it is, but that view does not necessarily mean it is fixed or fully accurate (Media Knowall)

conventions/iconography (elements that make up visual aspects of text, westerns; desert, horses, cowboy hats) 

In general, Iconography is difficult to spot in sitcoms, given as it doesn't make use of props and visual elements that can be easily found in Westerns & Science Fiction, for example. Strings (short pieces of music linked to scenes) & incidental music that signals generic intent. The classic form of sitcom is shooting the 3 headed monster, aka the multi- camera sitcom (Putterman, 1995) developed by Karl Freund for 'I Love Lucy'. Freund used 3 cameras to establish a scene between 2 characters. The first being a wide- shot, the other being mid-shots of each performer. The shots allowed for quick editing between 2 actors in any given verbal/conversation-based scene (Mills, 39). 

The Jeffersons 

History and origins - The Jeffersons is a 1970s spin-off of the show, All in The Family created by Norman Lear. In contrast, the series is much more comedic in tone than its predecessor. George Jeffersons utters the word 'Honky' several times, as well as the 'N' word. The Jeffersons is one of the longest running sitcoms in U.S TV history with 11 seasons. The show focuses on affluent couple, George and Louise Jefferson who live in New York City & their relationships with their neighbours, interracial couple, Helen and Tom Willis, Mr Bentley, son Lionel and his wife, Jenny, who is the daughter of the Willis's. Other characters who have played a significant role during the series are Florence Johnston (the Jeffersons's maid), Mr Harry Bentley from England, Ralph the Doorman & George's mother, Mother Jefferson. Compared to many of Norman Lears's other sitcoms, The Jeffersons evolved more into a traditional sitcom, as opposed to relying on political story-lines or dialogue. It tackled issues such as racism, suicide, gun control laws (The Jeffersons- Wikipedia)

Synopsis/plot of the show - Louise, George and Lionel bid farewell to the Bunkers as they moved from the working-class area of Queens, New York into a luxury Manhattan apartment. 

Conventions and Iconography used in the sitcom - the apartment, the sofa, TV, table, living room, kitchen. 

  • representational analysis of The Jeffersons 

Louise comes across as sweet, gentle and polite, whilst George can be loud, confrontational and rather rude, especially to this neighbours, the Willises. The Willises are an interracial couple; White husband Tom and Black wife, Helen. They prove that it doesn't matter what colour a person's skin is, as long as you love them that is all that matters. Louise gets on well with the Willis's, unlike George who makes fun of them and even calls Tom words such as 'honkey' and Tom and Helen, 'zebra'. A zebra is a Black and White horse-like animal with stripes, hence the name zebra. Florence Johnson is a no-nonsense maid, who is deeply religious, and yet gets into slanging matches with George. Mr Bentley is a polite guy from England, who pays a visit to the Jefferson's apartment from time to time. He tends to show up, so he can borrow something from the kitchen to make dinner with. Ralph the doorman visits The Jeffersons, mostly to expect a financial bribe for his deeds. It was the first sitcom to portray a successful black, affluent family in Lionel, George and Louise Jefferson. It was also the first show to predominately feature an interracial couple, Tom and Helen Willis. Using a cast of characters with colourful personalities, The Jeffersons was a humourous social commentary about race and racism in the United States of America, in the 1970s (Danielle Cadet, 2012). 

Its use of humour was witty and inviting -yet confrontational also. Along with social issues that got America talking, the show eased racial, cultural and in the long run, social perspectives being discussed on U.S TV. 

And this was before The Cosby Show and A Different World came along; The Jeffersons invited mainstream audiences the opportunity to see Black culture and African-American experiences on television.  

It was a sitcom that dared to discuss about Ethnicity and racism experienced by the African-American community in a frank way. It made it acceptable to talk about race openly, as long as you weren't being racist or a bigot, by talking of one's social, cultural and personal experiences. At the same time, its funny script and dialogue made the audience laugh. But it also showed to people that although money can buy you class, material things, you can't ignore and dismiss your African-American and Black roots, as a person. 

The Jamie Foxx Show

History and origins -  aired in 1996 up to 2001 on the WB (Warner Bros) Network for 5 seasons. The show was originally piloted for ABC in 1995 but was later picked up by the WB a year later. 

Synopsis/plot of the show - Jamie King (played by Jamie Foxx) is an aspiring actor from Texas, who arrives in Los Angeles, California to pursue a career in the entertainment business. 

- conventions/iconography used in the sitcom - Hotel, workplace sitcom, hotel reception, work employees, sofa, lift

  • Representational analysis of The Jamie Foxx Show 

Jamie King is a would-be actor, who dreams of being famous and ending up in Hollywood. In the meantime, he works at his aunt and uncle's hotel, the King's Tower in Los Angeles to support himself, financially. He occasionally cracks jokes at Braxton's expense, flirts with Fancy and even attempts to court her, whenever she has a new boyfriend. Braxton P. Hartnabrig is a representation of the bourgeois elite; he has a stuffed -shirt attitude that Carlton Banks of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air would be most impressed by. He appears well-educated, well -spoken and doesn't use ebonics when he speaks. Braxton even got a few digs at Jamie during the latter seasons. Francesca 'Fancy' Munroe is one of 2 female characters on the show; she is attractive, smart and confident.  She doesn't take nonsense from nobody, but at the same time she is considerate, charming and graceful. Helen and Junior King are Jamie's aunt and uncle, who own the hotel. 

The Jamie Foxx Show takes place in a hotel, where Jamie works for the first 3 seasons. During seasons 4 and 5 he works at Jingles 2000 as a jingle writer, after failing to land a promotion at the King's Tower. The sitcom revolves around Jamie trying to earn a living whilst working as an employee at the hotel. Unlike the other characters, Jamie has fun and acts a fool, whilst Braxton, Fancy, Helen and Junior are taking their jobs seriously. Well, apart from Junior King, who occasionally enjoys cracking a joke or two with Helen.  

As the show progresses, the show's direction takes a turn as the latter 3 seasons focuses on Jamie and Fancy's relationship and the consummation of that relationship, after their transition from work colleagues, to friends then lovers. 

The Fresh Prince of Bel Air 

History and origins - Will Smith was a popular and successful rapper during the late 1980s, but he spent his money freely and underpaid his income taxes. The IRS fined Will $2.8 million, seizing most of his belongings, thus affecting his income. Resultantly, he was almost bankrupt, until in 1989 when US TV network, NBC approached Will who signed him to a contract and created a sitcom focused around him (The Fresh Prince of Bel Air - Wikipedia).

Synopsis/plot of the show - Will Smith (as himself) is a street-smart teenager from West Philadelphia, who moves to Bel Air to live with his Aunt Vivian, Uncle Phil in their wealthy mansion. Thus, this leads to his lifestyle clashing with that of his younger relatives, Hilary, Carlton, though in the earlier seasons, Will seeks solace in cousin Ashley. 

- conventions/iconography used in the sitcom - mansion, sofa, lamp shade, TV, dining room, living room, butler Geoffery to symbolise the Bank's social class and the fact they are wealthy enough to afford a butler. 

  • representational analysis of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air
Will is a young, edgy, streetwise teenager from Philadelphia. He acts silly, jokes around and often makes fun of Uncle Phil over his weight and physical appearance, which he doesn't take too lightly. Philip Banks is Will's uncle and husband to Vivian Banks. He works in the legal justice system by presiding as a judge. He is strict, authoritarian but has a soft side to his character, calm, caring. His anger is the wrath and fear of many, especially when he is being mocked, and is particularly felt by his children, Carlton, Ashley and Hilary, as well as Will. Vivian is Philip's wife and ex-teacher. 

During the first 3 seasons, Vivian was portrayed as a tough-talking, strong-minded and career-minded woman, who wasn't always co-dependant on Philip but was supportive of his decisions. By season 4 onwards, the casting change for the Vivian character meant she had to be re-written as a 'home-maker', who showed reluctance towards her husband's career ambitions and plans. She tended to side with the kids, even when they did something wrong, whereas in seasons 1-3, she would tell them off. 

Carlton is Will's cousin, who abides by Republican ideals. This, along with his bourgeois, often uptight attitude had him at odds with Will. He doesn't listen to rap and RnB, preferring music such as Tom Jones, & is well-educated. 

Hilary is Will's attractive -yet less intelligent & rather pretentious & spoilt cousin. She is very much the equivalent to the stereotypical White female, Blonde bimbo, who say words such as 'whatever' and who speaks before she thinks. Hilary and Carlton were created to dispel the idea that only highly & less- educated White males and females could behave and act that way, and were counter- representations, associated with Black people. 

Ashley is the youngest child of the Banks household, and as such, Phil would be very protective of her and show concern with regards to the situations she finds herself in. Will's arrival in Bel Air had made an impact, and as a result she become somewhat rebellious and not being like her older siblings. She was the more sympathetic and understanding out of all the Banks members towards Will. Both Ashley and Hilary pursue entertainment careers in the latter seasons; Ashley becomes a singer, whilst Hilary moves to New York along with the family, as her talk show moves from Los Angeles to the Big Apple

Geoffrey is the sarcastic butler from London, UK. He sees himself as working-class, despite speaking the Queen's English and being in a relationship with a rich woman. His sarcasm is exemplified when he comments on Phil's size, his low wage, Will's silliness and the family, who being affluent, are lazy (The Fresh Prince of Bel Air- Wikipedia). 

The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, along with NBC's The Cosby Show attained a high multi-racial viewership, because despite these shows having a primary Black cast, the values and social themes they were evoking in the shows themselves, were universal to everyone. Not just to African-Americans and Black people of other countries, but to Whites, Asians, Latinos etc. 

The commonalities shared between the shows

The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and The Jeffersons seem to share a lot in common, more-so than with The Jamie Foxx Show. The first 2 shows address the concept of being Black and wealthy, or be it in the Fresh Prince's case a working- class kid born and bred in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania living with his family, as well as class. The supporting characters play a bigger role in the advancement of the series, whereas The Jamie Foxx Show concentrates on Jamie King and his dreams of stardom in Hollywood, whilst working at his aunt and uncle's hotel. At the same time, an on-going romantic sub-plot develops between Jamie and his female co-worker Fancy, known as Francesca Munroe. They fall in love and get together at the end of season 3 . 

It is a Cinderella - type love story that hinges on the 'will they, won't they become a couple' scenario. 

A 'will they/won't they?' occurs in film and television shows where 2 characters (generally, it is 1 male, 1 female), often at polar or binary opposite ends with each other through an unrequited relationship and with obvious unresolved sexual tension, resist entering into a full- blown romantic relationship together for a long time (Will They or Won't They? -TV Tropes). At first, they meet up as say, employees at work (perhaps get on one another's nerves), then over time, become friends (date other people), and afterwards, become lovers. In sitcoms, depending on the length of the show, this takes 3, 4 or 5 seasons for the relationship to be consummated. Additionally, in some respects, sitcoms with an on-going romantic sub-plot, can be seen as a romantic comedy. 

Usually, the 2 characters involved in the sitcom will be presented to the audience; once they are presented, we get to know more about them and understand them as individuals and their personalities. That XYZ 'they will become a couple' is the conclusion we root for. As fans of the couple, we are rooting them to get together. The only real doubt comes from the writers, who may believe otherwise and have other ideas, as to whom certain characters ought to be romantically involved with.  

The two main stars of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and The Jamie Foxx Show, are Will Smith and Jamie Foxx. Before they starred in their respective shows, Will was a hip- hop rapper, whereas Jamie was on the Fox sketch series, In Living Color for 3 seasons until it ended in 1994. He starred in The Jamie Foxx Show in 1996. Both later advanced as performers and made the transition from television to Hollywood movies as actors. 

The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and The Jamie Foxx Show are similar, in the sense that the plot revolves around the younger relative moving in to live with their relatives. I.e., Will with uncle Philip and aunt Vivian Banks, Jamie with uncle Junior and aunt Helen King.  

The Jeffersons is one of the very few African-American sitcoms with supporting White characters; Ralph, Mr Bentley, Charlie, Tom Willis. All of whom are male. 

Genre Study and Why It Is Significant in the Cultural Study and Analysis of Black and African-American sitcoms  

The main disadvantages with genre theory and study, is that by analysing sitcom shows, though they are in many respects similar, they are also different. Different in that it has to continually re-define itself and having to change and adapt to modern times, in order to cater towards the current generation, technology, & to reflect social and political issues and ideas. 

Genre theory, Black experiences and identity & sitcom humour all contribute to ones understanding of Black sitcoms and the underlining themes and story-lines explored and addressed, by means of using sitcom conventions to highlight the ways in which African-American life and culture is depicted to audiences. Furthermore, it showcases how those characters resolve situations and the problems that arise out of it. 

African-American and Black sitcoms aren't just shows with Black characters, Black actors aimed at the Black demographic. They are not just called Black sitcoms because of those reasons; they are Black sitcoms, in terms of showcasing to the audience watching at home the Black experience in American society. They depict characters who work, who raise families, who have fun, who are happy and of whom fall in love. Things that White characters on other sitcoms, TV shows and in real life do, as well. Therefore, one can say African-American sitcoms are a representation of the Black experience, not just of cultural and racial representation. 

Nicole E. Jackson states the Black sitcom is an important genre to investigate within the Black community, as Blacks consume situation comedies at a higher rate, in comparison to other TV genres (Abrams), not to mention they are particularly attentive towards programming that is aimed at the African-American audience (Representing Black Authenticity, 73). 

I agree with these statement; however, it is of note to mention that whilst African-Americans are incredibly attentive to shows that are aimed at the African-American audience, they are also immensely wary of the negative stereotypes and screen representations that demean and ridicule their own community, whilst eliciting and reinforcing implied racist connotations and ideals through other notable television genres, such as dramas and reality TV. These of which are brought on by ignorance and the sheer lack of education and knowledge. 

It is important, therefore, to understand that positive representations of Blacks and African Americans is stressed more often than ever, but that through the sitcom genre, we continue to turn to and resort to Black sitcoms that a) are truly almost representative of the African-American community and b) they depict characters that the audience can either look up to, or sitcoms that have wholesome stories and plots viewers can take inspiration from. 


For TV producers and networks, genres are extremely important in media production because programme makers will continue to produce and create more shows for that genre to meet audience demand and interest for it. With sitcoms, many of them all operate in terms of binary oppositions, which help highlight the narrative structures found in television genres. More genres mean more choice, more options but as equally important, more ways to tell stories through its own set of conventions and iconography. 

Genre theory is one of the number of key concepts in media and film studies. Its aim is to study the history and origins, in addition to the codes, conventions and iconography of that genre, whilst emphasising the purpose as to why it exists and how those conventions and iconography is applied to attract audiences. 

Out of instinct, we do not identify and point out what those shows are in terms of their location or its setting, i.e.. the hospital, police force, magazine company. Rather we identify programmes according to their iconography such as the props used, home/work environment, family/workplace sitcom for instance. Henceforth, this is one of the aims of genre theory itself.

Sitcom characters are created and operated in terms of binary oppositions, for the purpose of demonstrating and signifying their different character traits, behaviourisms and attitudes within their own social context or setting. It also helps to identify key themes addressed in those shows. 

African-American and Black sitcoms are not just called Black sitcoms for the sake of being Black sitcoms. They are what they are because they illustrate the Black experience, with regards to showing African-American characters behaving in certain ways and going about their lives and living them. But through the concept of comedy and humour. Plus, African-American audiences pay particular attention to programmes that contain characters of their own racial make-up and see their existence as something to which it indicates that they too can live the same lives as people of other ethnicities, just like Whites. 

As a final note, though whilst it is important to stress the positive nature of African-American and Black sitcoms and why they need to be shown on television, we need to take heed to the sitcoms, especially the likes of The Cosby Show and A Different World, that promote and illicit positive imagery of Blacks, that the African-American community will see as a future indicator towards their own personal successes and achievements in life. 


  • Will They or Won't They? - TV Tropes 
  • The Sitcom, Brent Mills, Edinburgh Press, 2009 
  • Media Knowall, GCSE Media Studies - Introduction to Representation, Karina Wilson, 2010 - 2012 
  • Beyond the Sitcom: New Directions in American Comedy, Savorelli, Macfarland & Co Inc, 2010
  • The Jeffersons: How Sherman Hemsley and the Sitcom Changed The Landscape of American Television - Huffington Post, Danielle Cadet, 2012 
  • Genre Theory
  • The Television Studies Reader, ed. Robert Clyde Allen, Annette Hill, Routledge, 2003
  • Interpreting Tyler Perry: Perspectives on Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality, Routledge, 2013  
  • The Fresh Prince of Bel Air - Wikipedia 
  • The Jamie Foxx Show - Wikipedia 
  • The Jeffersons - Wikipedia 

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