CFP: Chaos, Order, and the Power of Fun in Early Television Panel for the 2014 American Studies Association Conference

full name / name of organization: 
Anne Berke / Yale University
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CFP: Chaos, Order, and the Power of Fun in Early Television
Panel for the 2014 American Studies Association Conference
(November 6-9, 2014; Westin Bonaventure, Los Angeles, CA)

This 2014 American Studies Association Conference panel aims to explore how early television comedy negotiated cultural and industrial tensions through the critical and transformative power of "fun." The "fun genres" of the variety show and the sitcom were foundational within 1950s and early 1960s programming as television became the national medium of communication, entertainment and community-building. As television's reach grew rapidly throughout the decade and beyond, so did network programming conform and react to the ever-changing status quo with much of the programming as seemingly homogeneous as a Levittown development. However, from the fear of the blacklist to the advance of the Civil Rights Movement and the beginnings of second-wave feminism, television in the post-war moment was designed to treat widespread cultural anxieties and the ever-present threat of social unrest. While in 1961, Newton Minow famously dubbed television a "vast wasteland," that fluff-filled "wasteland" had long been serving the ideological purpose of ordering the upheaval of changing social structures and reassuring the white, middle-class suburban nation.

In most cases, popular television comedies like Father Knows Best, The Andy Griffith Show, and Leave It to Beaver assured and assuaged particular audiences' fears in the face of change. At the same time, other programs allowed for the inverse: sitcoms and comedy-variety programs that served, as David Marc writes, as articles of "comic mitigation." Television, then, can mask tensions in society, but it can also confront them through the ingratiating, "mitigating" form of humor. Shows like I Love Lucy and Your Show of Shows presented subversive sentiments around race, class, and gender, which in turn pushed the boundaries of respectability and creative expression under the guise of being "all in good fun."

With the advent of the countercultural movement, such programs and their antiquated notions of wholesome television "fun" would outlive their usefulness, ultimately replaced by the explicitly political comedies of the 1970s, such as Laugh-In, The Smothers Brothers, and the sitcoms of Norman Lear. The ideological tension of what fun can and should do reverberates up through the contemporary moment. Of shows then and now, we must ask if fun is ultimately a conservative or a progressive force, and, by extension, how fun can serve the dual purposes of maintaining and interrogating the mechanisms of the American social order.

We welcome abstracts on subjects including, but not restricted to:

-Individual case studies of comic or "fun" television from this period (1950s-1960s)
-Comparative studies of television programs from this period, or across film, television, and other popular media (literature, advertising, etc.)
-The study of "fun" and identity politics on early television
-Television "fun"'s relationship to particular historical or cultural upheavals in this period

Abstracts of no more than 350 words are due by January 6, 2014 to Anne Berke ( and Phoebe Bronstein (