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Serial Absurdity: Arrested Development and Wartime Comedy in the United States

by Anne Hart

This essay explores the contrast between American wartime cultures of the 20th and 21st centuries by examining two popular comedy television shows in each century: Larry Gelbart’s MASH and Mitchell Hurwitz’s Arrested Development. While Arrested Development uses many of the comedic devices employed in MASH, it deviates in critical ways that expose the atmosphere shift of a 21st century disillusioned by and removed from its previous century’s traditionally presented attitudes.

Both the Vietnam War and the Iraq War were fraught with homeland unrest and disapproval. Some of the anxieties surrounding these wars seeped into Hollywood comedy television shows, which both highlighted the anxieties and alleviated them through cathartic laughter. This essay focuses on two wartime comedy shows: Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds’ successful MASH (1972) and Mitchell Hurwitz’s original TV series Arrested Development (2003). There are commonalities and distinctions between both shows that demonstrate the tidal shift of attitudes about war. While MASH by no means glorifies war, its comedic devices maintain a general sense of optimism, camaraderie, and hope. Thirty years later, Arrested Development demonstrated new perspectives in a particularly media-ridden and ironic time in America’s history. Though during its broadcast it did not gain high viewership, Arrested Development re-contextualized a wide array of 20th century American comedic devices found in MASH, such as slapstick, screwball, and dark satire, in order to describe an American national mood of irony, apathy, and embedded distrust at home and in the family in the early 21st century.

Arrested Development relies heavily on 20th century comedic devices such as those found in slapstick, screwball, farcicality, and especially dark satire, but it departs from these traditional devices in critical ways. It takes all of those comic maneuvers to new levels of absurdity. In The Theatre of the Absurd, Martin Esslin notes,

The Theatre of the Absurd, however, can be seen as the reflection of what seems to be the attitude most genuinely representative of our own time. The hallmark of this attitude is its sense that the certitudes and unshakable basic assumptions of former ages have been swept away, that they have been tested and found wanting, that they have been discredited as cheap and somewhat childish illusions. (Esslin, 23)

The consequences of analyzing MASH and Arrested Development may seem trifling, but as Esslin remarks, media’s representations of the absurd go far in both describing and prescribing cultural attitudes. Media scholar John Fiske explains the use of television in helping us gain understanding concerning important historical moments. He notes, “The world of television is clearly different from our real social world, but just as clearly related to it in some way. We might clarify this relationship by saying that television does not represent the manifest actuality of our society, but rather reflects, symbolically, the structure of values and relationships beneath the surface” (11). I would further add that the world of television symbolically represents a particular society’s frustrations, fears, and political discourses. It is true that fiction is often referred to in this way, but comic fiction adds multiple layers through satire. Comedy describes how people cope with everyday problems. When a war is on, it becomes an everyday problem for entire nations. During both the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, media coverage ensured war to be an everyday problem for citizens. Thus, Comedy TV shows provided everyday relief.

Successful comedy sitcoms gain viewership because they are pleasing, offer a release of tension, and provide some escapism. MASH certainly falls into this category. Dark comedies can offer this in a peculiar way that can polarize the audience. Arrested Development was critically acclaimed but, unlike MASH, did not gain much viewership while it was on the air. Perhaps its brand of dark comedy involving a cast of unlikable and caricatured personalities, who desired attention yet had no self-awareness, was still too close to home to a nation of viewers who did not want to come to terms with their own selves. Despite its dark tone, Arrested Development garnered a cult following and subsequently a more mainstream following that has since resulted in a fourth season and endless rumors of a film. The delayed popularity of Arrested Development adds another layer to its cultural significance. Why, only later, did audiences find the show appealing? Perhaps, unlike MASH, the comedy of Arrested Development needed some time and space away from the realities of war to become palatable to a wider audience. This could be due to Arrested Development’s use, and perhaps to the mainstream, abuse, of the wildly popular comedic devices found in MASH.

The essential comedic devices of Arrested Development can be compared to those in MASH, which stylistically can be traced back to Joseph Heller’s dark comedy novel, Catch-22. Both MASH and Arrested Development take place in comparable carnivals that include a dark satiric tone, absurdity as a reaction to anxiety, and a wide variety of comedic devices from puns to slapstick. However, where classic screwball and slapstick comedies of the 20th century, including MASH, produce resolution at the end of episodes, indicating an overarching sense of stability, confidence, and optimism, Arrested Development makes no such attempts and instead opts for perpetual absurdity and pessimism that speaks to the American zeitgeist of the early 21st century.

To pinpoint the change in variation of Arrested Development from its 20th century dark comedy ancestors, I will first briefly outline the motives and context of MASH during its heyday. MASH had a strong social and political commentary that was evident from its beginning in the early 1970s. Americanist Will Kaufman notes that the show “coincided with nightly news broadcasts of burning villages in Vietnam and footage of body bags and flag-draped coffins being off-loaded at Stateside airports,” and further cites Asian-American scholar Darrell Hamamoto’s suggestion that “the denial of the war in Vietnam in combination with intense domestic discord became part of the psychopathology of everyday life in the United States…the fictional wars played out in military situation comedies internalized the turmoil of the times and relieved the resultant anxiety through the use of humor” (57). The national mood surrounding MASH was still focused on the physical; family members and friends were being cut down in Vietnam and domestic worries were still being fueled by the threat of nuclear war. As a result, MASH reflects this mood through highly physical comedy mingled with sober moments. The show nurses (no pun intended) a worldwide dark atmosphere with jokes.

Americans in the 1970s were able to vicariously relieve their anxieties in a carnival-esque, fictional medic camp in Korea (the show was actually set in the Korean War, but as it was on the air during the Vietnam War, the parallels are hard to refute). Importantly, this relief space was outside of the United States, away from the responsibilities of domestic action. This vicarious removal adds to the reassurance of the show. Despite the ongoing carnival and war, the never-ending influx of choppers carrying wounded soldiers, and each episode beginning with the deceptively sweet style of the song “Suicide is Painless,” each episode charmingly ties up its 30-minute plotline in an encouraging manner. MASH’s characters are likewise comforting and likeable. Hawkeye (Alan Alda), Trapper (Wayne Rogers), and Radar (Gary Burghoff) are the everyman, the boy scouts at camp, and the guys with antics who in the end always make the proper moral decision. Their problems are imposed upon them, which was relatable to a society confused and angry at its own government’s decisions regarding foreign policy. The boys (and the few girls) in MASH are clowns, but they were clowns in a positive, relatable way. Hawkeye often writes home, beginning his letters and musings with “dear dad,” indicating a safe haven with family and home life. Finally, the show offers high levels of reassurance through its use of a laugh track. There are moments of sarcasm or dark humor that could be very disheartening without the omnipotent laugh track giving the audience the cue to laugh instead of cry.

This reassurance is not offered to viewers of Arrested Development, whose cultural and political contexts were perhaps just as problematic as those of the 1970s, this time exaggerated through the advancements of the information age. There was a war on overseas during both shows but in the early 2000s the helplessness of the American citizen in stopping those wars provoked a new level of apathy. That apathy promoted domestic problems, not only in a national sense but also in a home and personal sense. America’s self-perception in the early21stcentury was framed and influenced by a variety of social, political, economic, and cultural factors that were spread rapidly and in large quantities via the Internet and mass communication. The national mood was radically informed by a national disaster that would eventually set or perhaps reaffirm an already disillusioned cultural and national identity. The September 11th attacks in 2001 catalyzed a political climate that polarized the country and set citizens’ confidence on edge. Dick Meyer, editorial director for digital media at NPR, describes this cultural shift: “A year after the invasion of Iraq, polarization was again the Big Idea that pundits used when describing the country. Civic distemper was back, with exaggeration and animosity common to fresh disenchantment. An unpopular war, a corporate crime wave, and an economy that was great for the rich and hard for the rest combined to put the country in a foul humor” (Meyer 5).Statistics according to Harris and Gallup polls reported that the levels of trust and confidence in national leaders and organizations plummeted in the early 21st century. In 2007, one year after Arrested Development’s third and quasi-final season (the show was resurrected in 2013), a CBS poll indicated that “just 19 percent thought the country was going in the right direction, the lowest percentage in the history of that poll” (Meyer 11). This American discord was further aggravated by hyper-communicability. Though the Internet had been present and in use in the decade previous, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that its prolific use became more understood by every American citizen. This new connectivity introduced a spectrum of sociological facets, some of which were negative, to the way Americans saw themselves and each other.

One key consequence of America’s hyper-communicability and connectivity was that Americans simply saw themselves more than they had in previous decades. Ironically, this in many ways led to a greater lack of useful self-awareness. Reality TV shows, social media networks, and channels for self-exploration, self-exploitation, and showcasing configured a twisted mirror stage in which Americans discovered a new kind of self-awareness that induced addiction to attention. This attention-seeking behavior led to drastic measures as “keeping up with the Joneses” took on a whole new meaning. Façade and fakery seeped deeper into the American culture, coupled with heightened disillusionment. This cultural shift inevitably led to comedic outlets. It wasn’t long before the distorted mirror on society was recognized as a warped fun house mirror and Meyer’s “foul humor” was capitalized upon in Hollywood.

The particular scene of this dark carnival was at its most critically acclaimed in Arrested Development. The series’ characters, gags and comedic techniques hearken to the previous century’s comedic traditions in wartime comedy as found in MASH, though Arrested Development deals with war in an illusionistic way, rather than directly. The allusions to war in Arrested Development find a place in the context of characters. An examination of each character reveals parallels between their comedic roles and the roles typically found in earlier slapstick comedy, but as those parallels continue, there is always a crucial deviation that marks the change in cultural attitude. Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman), the man taglined as “The one son who had no choice but to keep [his family] all together” (Arrested Development opening credits), at the outset represents the everyman of any slapstick comedy. He is downtrodden from the state of his family and their assets. However, the audience soon learns that his heroic attempts are just as often motivated by self-interest, much like the other people in his life whose motives are much more transparently self-absorbed. Michael’s fakery lies in his half-hearted attempts at being “the good guy.” His need for attention is housed in threats to abandon his family and the failing family business that appropriately builds expensive, but shoddy, McMansions in California’s Orange County. While his role as the everyman, strait-laced and “sane” character is somewhat convincing as a nostalgic kickback to the comedies of the 20th century such as MASH, further exposure to the series reveals that Michael’s character is morally polluted along with the rest of his culture.

The moral pollution is significantly more overt in the rest of the Bluth family, who represent the destruction of the perceived last safe place on earth: home and family. Unlike the characters in MASH, who not only place their hope in family at home but act like a family themselves at their medic camp, the Bluth family members use and abuse each other in a domestic setting. These characters may be relatable to a 21st century audience, but they are relatable in a negative way. They mirror something in us that we don’t want to see: selfishness, lazy attitudes, and insensitivity to the world around us, especially to those closest to us.

G.O.B Bluth (Will Arnett), the oldest brother, blends the slapstick roles of hapless fool and carnival clown to be both humiliated as well as exaggerated in his attempts to fulfill his own interests. G.O.B as a dramatic magician is the ultimate symbol of the addiction to attention that branded the early 2000s. Lindsay Bluth (Portia de Rossi), the penniless sister, maintains a false image of herself as a wealthy, aristocratic woman. She is prone to the latest fads in fashion, political issues, and parenting as long as they further her goals of not only self-preservation but self-inflation as well. Lindsay is a parody of the trends that claim to support political and sociological causes; Lindsay is constantly, arbitrarily, and loudly voicing her support for environmental groups or pro-gun laws, as she is swept along by whatever social movement crosses her path. In “Whistler’s Mother” (season 1, episode 20), Lindsay, outraged at her hairstylist’s call to war, begins to protest the Iraq War. She is forced to advocate her cause in the darkly comic and ironic “free speech zone,” which is a small cage in the middle of nowhere. Some brutish locals gather to watch her protest and eventually hose her down. To this disgrace, Lindsay inexplicably decides she feels like dancing and what began as a war protest quickly breaks down into a sleazy cage dance. This instance, among others, demonstrates the swiftness with which Lindsay goes from advocate to easy. The cultural significance is not lost; many Americans during the Iraq War felt upset, but the efforts to change were very often watered down.

Tricksters became a familiar comedic character in MASH and they abound in Arrested Development as well, particularly in the roles of Lucille Bluth (Jessica Walter), the mother, Maeby Funke (Alia Shawkat), Lindsay’s daughter, and to some extent George Bluth Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor), the father. These characters are master manipulators. However, despite the traditional slapstick reputation of a trickster as smart and clever, these characters lack some serious sense. Their trickster natures only function with egocentric and selfish motivation, not in an overarching stab at communal justice, as is the case in MASH.MASH’s tricksters, mainly Hawkeye and Trapper, pull pranks against the out of touch bureaucracy and any of its stooges, such as Frank Burns or Major Houlihan (Hot Lips). In “To Market, To Market” (season 1, episode 2), in an attempt to acquire desperately needed medicine for the medic camp, Hawkeye and Trapper attempt to sell Colonel Blake’s antique desk to the black market. Their trickster roles involve removing an entire wall, a covert truck, and plenty of sneaking around, but it is all for a greater cause; the monetary value of the desk means nothing compared to saving lives of soldiers. Both MASH and Arrested Development employ trickster characters, but while MASH’s tricksters are essentially “good,” Arrested Development’s are entirely self-interested.

Other traditional comedic devices are skewed in Arrested Development that indicate a shift in cultural attitudes towards war, and also towards the self. One interesting carryover from classical comedy is the cross-dressing of Tobias Funke (David Cross), Lindsay’s husband. In MASH, Corporal Klinger also cross-dresses, but his motives are to evade serving in the army by appearing to be crazy. Tobias’ motives are possibly another form of desperate plea for escape, but it is an escape from the gender constructs surrounding him. The United States Army does not repress him; his own culture and self repress him. These character devices and deviations describe a perpetual disillusionment and hopelessness that is a reflection of Arrested Development’s culturally pessimistic context.

It is not only the characters of Arrested Development that demonstrate an American collective mentality during the early 2000s. The camera work, the props, the plots, and the actual gags themselves also contribute to a larger cultural reading. Not a moment of the series is wasted and not a word is spoken without purpose. This is ironic, considering the absurd nature of the program in contrast to the definition of absurdity according to Ionesco as “that which is devoid of purpose” (Esslin 23). This post-modern layering of the purposeful purposelessness is vital to the show’s comedic success. Again, each prop or line is used as wholly as possible and perhaps even sustainably, as the series is riddled with allusions to jokes from previous episodes. In this way, each joke is capitalized upon again and again, wrung out for every possible laugh. Other postmodern approaches include the home-camera cinematic technique, which emphasizes the all-too-real notion that everyone’s life is a documentary of sorts. The documentary aspect is an additional crucial difference between the cruel realities shown in Arrested Development versus the narrative, linear nature of MASH.

Film historian Erik Barnouw describes this difference in terms of the fictional narrative being seductive. He writes, “It [fiction] pictures a world that makes sense, in terms of cause and effect. It is internally consistent, in contrast to the world shown in many documentaries—a world that may be full of contradictions and loose ends, and that seldom offers neat endings” (346).Though MASH was founded on principles of the absurdity of war, it contextualized those absurdities into episodes of mental survival and relief, rather than keeping the crazy door wide open, as Arrested Development episodes do. In addition to this function of the documentary format, Arrested Development’s homemade style acknowledges the pervasive recording of lives, whether through video or digital photographs sprayed across social media pages or other forums. This societal impression informs the self-consciousness of image that bred phoniness.

The theme of façades is rampant in Arrested Development, with the Bluths building a house of four walls without anything on the inside in order to make a public appearance with a ribbon-cutting thereby invigorating their client’s and investor’s trust in the company (blatant reference is made here to the United States government’s handling of the Iraq War). The Bluths themselves do not live in a real home, just a model home. Everything surrounding them is a sham. In the first episode of the first season, Michael and George Michael take their boxed cereal breakfast out from inside a fake turkey, pull their bicycle helmets out from behind a fake television and spray the model home to smell like baking cookies. All of the fakery is indicative of a social-image survival technique that many Americans faced in an economic downturn during the early 2000s mixed with an embarrassing war, and it is cruelly matched with heightened self-consciousness that begs for validation through attention.

The Bluths reflect a 21st century society that will do anything for attention and image preservation. During the early 2000s, reality TV shows spiked. These shows that depended on petty human drama often depicted individuals at varying degrees of humiliation and viciousness. As this kind of entertainment boomed, the Internet followed suit and became a veritable hive for the lowest kind of self-projection. Any attention was good attention, which in Arrested Development translates into a ridiculous stair-car, extravagant benefit parties with no beneficial purpose, and flashy leather jackets. The series’ early cancellation was like fuel on the fire; the show pulled out all the stops in order to gain attention. No joke was highbrow or lowbrow enough to escape the dark carnival and puns were employed as often as sophisticated and nuanced humor, such as the very title of one episode, “S.O.B’s” (season 3, episode 9) which is referred to as “Save Our Bluths.” The joke goes both ways: save our Bluths from bankruptcy in the show, or save our Bluths from the show’s cancellation. Further layering the joke is the vulgarity that “S.O.B” can stand for. The show drew upon and bombarded us with every joke and comedic device in the book, but this unapologetic and unsentimental approach to a serial comedy moves it away from its 20th century comedic roots.

The 20th century TV serial comedies, though filled with slapstick of the physical and verbal variety and screwball characters, were almost exclusively grounded in optimistic resolution. It is ironic that The Andy Griffith Show was Ron Howard’s initial claim to fame. Howard’s persona, once punctuated by narratives of charming foibles that in the end resolved to uphold the moral fiber of the community, became the sarcastic voice of disillusion as the narrator, producer, and creative mind behind Arrested Development. The narrative voice that courses throughout the series, whether literal or philosophical, is indicative of the skepticism attributed to Esslin’s “unshakable basic assumptions of former ages” that despite chaos and trouble, things work out in the end. This was the underlining message in many comedy sitcoms of the 20th century, including the comparably dark comedies such as MASH. However, in Arrested Development, there is no resolution, no encouraging laugh track, no evolution, and no sentiment. Despite this, over time and with the help of a cult following, the show acted as a cathartic release for the disquieted audience of its time and like its comedic ancestors, cheered up a troubled society.

Works Cited

Arrested Development. 2003. DVD.

 

Barnouw, Erik. Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. Print.

 

Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. 3rd ed. Middlesex: Penguin, 1980. Print.

 

Fiske, John. Reading Television. London: Routledge, 2003. Print.

 

Kaufman, Will. American Culture in the 1970s. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009. Print.

 

Meyer, Dick. Why We Hate Us. 1st ed. New York: Crown, 2008. Print.