humor case study: modern family, curb your enthusiasm, it's always sunny in philidelphia

Incongruity and Superiority Theories of Humour in Modern Television
            In modern television series humour is used as a popular way to capture large audiences.  Realistic situations are key in relating to the viewers. “Contemporary humour researchers often divide accounts of humour into three main theoretical traditions, focusing on respectively, incongruity, superiority and the release of energy” (Lippitt, 147), this essay will consider the both the incongruity and superiority theory in this paper. Pioneers such as Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld are experts at bringing to light the humour in everyday occurrences, using mostly the superiority and existential humour theories.  They commonly use everyday situations amongst friends, family and others and bring out the existential humour within it. In one episode of Seinfeld, Jerry (the main character and co creator), discusses ‘the close talker’, a person who talks to close to one’s face. There is both superiority and existential humour at play. The viewer finds humour in the situation, but sides with Jerry, poking fun at the close talker. The existential humour is found in the situation, in one case or another everyone can relate to having a ‘close talker’ in his or her face. The beauty of this type of everyday humour is everyone at one point or another can relate. The following essay will examine three American shows currently aired on primetime TV networks, and how they use relatable situations to produce both the incongruity and superior theory of humour.
            The following TV programs, Curb Your Enthusiasm, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Modern Family all concern completely different plots, their success as comedic programs is a direct result of their use of the theoretical traditions of humour.
Curb Your Enthusiasm is created by Larry David, starring as a fictional version of his real self, accompanied by a fictional re-creation of his real friends, usually played by themselves. The fictional Larry David is something of a misanthrope, often making inappropriate comments and getting offended or angry when others fail to adhere to his often-arbitrary standards of behavior. Despite Larry's usually offensive behavior and sometimes wildly inappropriate adventures, few of his friends seem to remain offended for long and the cast has stayed stable throughout the show. Six seasons of the series were produced and aired on HBO between 2000 and 2007. The seventh season premiered September 20, 2009.
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is a
television sitcom, which premiered in 2005. The series was created and developed by Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton, and Charlie Day, who also star in the show. The series follows the exploits of "The Gang", a group of self-centered, misanthropic friends who run Paddy's Pub, a relatively unsuccessful Irish bar in South Philadelphia.
Modern Family is a
single-camera mockumentary (mocking the seriousness of documentary), comedy TV series by Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan, The mockumentary follows the families of Jay Pritchett his daughter Claire Dunphy, and his son Mitchell Pritchett . While Claire is a homemaker mom in a traditional family, Jay is married to a much younger woman and raising a pre-teen stepson, and Mitchell and his boyfriend adopted a Vietnamese baby. The show takes on relative family issues of today such as same sex parents, adoption, stepparents, blending of ethnicities and ‘gold diggers’. The series is in its debut season but it receiving excellent feedback. The show’s clever humour and mockumentary style- makes it a heart warming, hilarious account of a modern family.
The Critique of Judgment by Kant Immanuel the incongruity theory of laughter is explained, “Laughter is an affection arising from a strained expectation suddenly being reduced to nothing” (Immanuel, 199). More specifically the humour arises in a situation when viewers are thrown off their path by an unexpected turn or event. For example, In Curb Your Enthusiasm, An episode might be titled “The Baptism”, however the outcome of the plot is Larry on a mission to accuse a family member of stealing his answering machine greeting.
            In It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Almost every show has some ridiculous mission that has to be fulfilled and in almost every case the ending is completely unexpected. In the episode “Frank sets sweet Dee on Fire”, the viewers are completely in the dark, assuming the episode is about ‘the gang’ trying to get famous. Until the very end- when Frank goes too far and sets Dee on fire.
Modern Family usually suffers some kind of unexpected plot twist, for example in “En Garde” the entire episode focuses on Jay’s stepson Manny, not being afraid to compete against a girl in fencing. However, at the final competition, viewers learn that the opponent is not only a girl, but she is from an orphanage and is desperately ill. Humour based on incongruities is a sure way to surprise viewers resulting in an emotional release that comedic show creators, hope will be laughter.
            The superiority theory of humour usually comes into play within character relationships, because the theory usually looks down on others, making them inferior. Labels concerning sexual orientation, race and economic status are all common examples of topics where the superiority theory comes into play. The program’s all “ridicule a large range of topical social issues in a manner approaching ideological critique that does not complete the process of critique” (Groening, 114). Superiority based on race is found in all three of the above sitcoms.
Curb Your Enthusiasm stars Larry David, who is Jewish and commonly finds himself in situations where he has to defend his background- or he questions the standpoints of other backgrounds. With episodes such as “The N word” and “The Bat Mitzvah”, Larry is constantly finding himself digging deeper into trouble with issues of superiority and racial and religious background.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia pushes the boundaries with issues of superiority in regards to just about everything. Episode titles range from “The Gang Gets Racist”, “Charlie has an Abortion”, “Sweet Dee’s dating a Retarded Person”. Like South Park, the program assumes its viewers are aware of stereotypes, social issues, and current events. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, like South Park “demands a kind of radical detachment directly counter to the commitment necessary for ideology to function” (Groening, 115). The show’s success is because it assumes its viewers are accepting of the material and understand it for it’s humorous purposes and nothing more.
Modern Family’s humour is a much less controversial use of the superiority theory. The main character Jay is married to a much younger Columbian woman and as a result has a Columbian stepson, Manny. The trials and tribulations of the culture mixing provide endless humorous situations. Jay’s daughter Claire has a son who they ‘joke’ as being ‘slow’, much like Charlie in It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Finally, Jay’s other child is Mitchell who is gay and has an adopted Vietnamese daughter with his boyfriend. While all of these relationships are completely normal in today’s society. The show expects viewers to appreciate the humour within these situations in order to enjoy the show. In Humour in Society, Powell makes excellent points including “It can be suggested that humour plays a fundamental role in these [social controls] negotiations. As such it can be seen as the baseline of social control, the users the ‘normal’ from the ‘abnormal’ or socially deviant (Powell, 99). Keeping in mind a very Freudian question, what is normal? The superiority theory of humour is based on a hierarchy system, however finding humour within it- in turn makes viewers realize the ridiculousness in superiority, because eventually everyone is a target.
Curb Your Enthusiasm, Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Modern Family all use relatable situations to produce both the incongruity and superior theory of humour. Humour is created on the basis of he audience’s reception of the material provided. With shows like the above it is essential that topics and incongruity and superiority all be taken for what they are. It is the understanding and acceptations of the situations as ‘humorous’ that shows are successful, and not to be taken seriously. As Peter Kivy states “Jokes are a Laughing Matter!”

Works Cited " - Modern Family - Home." - Home. Web. 13 Nov. 2009.
Immanuel, Kant. The Critique of Judgment. Oxford Claredon. Print. 1952.
"It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia Official Website | Only on FX." FX Networks. Web. 13 Nov. 2009.             .
Kivy, Peter. "Jokes Are a Laughing Matter." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art  Criticism 61.1 (2003): 5. Print.
Lippitt, John. "Humour and incongruity." Cogito Summer (2004). Print.
Powell, Chris. "A Phenomenological Analysis of Humour in Society." MacMillan (1988). Print.
Restricted Content - HBO Canada. Web. 13 Nov. 2009.           
Weinstock, Jefferey. "Cynicism and Other Postideological Half Measures in South Park." Taking South Park Seriously. New York: State University of New York, 2008. Print.