Note: The Following was part of a college paper I wrote on the subject of Textual Analysis, Satire & Parody back in November 2011, though for the sake of keeping things current, I added a few “Recent” events to this analysis. I’m not gonna lie when I say that A LOT of what I’m about to mention may go over your head, but I’m posting this for an important reason. If you EVER wanted to know why I write about SNL the way that I do, it was all because of this paper; and in the process, I became more than just a viewer of television. I started to realize that “The Medium is the Message” was more than just a passing phrase…it actually MEANS something. Hopefully after reading this, it will mean something to you too. If you’re wondering where SPECIFICALLY SNL fits in to all of this—Spoiler Alert—it’s about 2/3rds down, but I suggest you read before you jump ahead this time, otherwise it won’t make any sense. That said, Enjoy & Endure!
When one views something on television, there are a number of ways the images can be interpreted. Some viewers tend to look at a program or an image at face value, while others see something that goes deeper than one would originally think. On some occasions, there would be an image or a symbol that helps trigger these deeper meanings, and therefore add more dimensions to what would otherwise be common entertainment and thought. Once a certain image or text is fully analyzed and broken down through Textual Analysis, the image that is being viewed will have a far different meaning to the viewer’s perception. This article will first define what textual analysis is, and how semiotics contributes to the analytical process, as well as how both work in terms of viewing a television program. Secondly, the article will explain what satire and parody is, as well as the connection between them and the aforementioned. Finally, the article will put textual analysis to the test by breaking down various works of satire and parody, as well as showing how a person’s point of view can be changed because of the breakdown. In order to understand how Textual analysis helps the viewer understand various aspects of what they are watching, one would have to understand what textual analysis is and how it works.
Textual analysis deals with a number of different ways to think when it comes to the perceptions of reality, it does this by breaking down of an image or text in order to understand any hidden logic behind what is being represented by the object. When performing textual analysis, there are four methods being used during the deconstruction process; the first being Binary opposition, wherein diametrically opposed opposites are presented in terms of a represented value. For instance, the colors white and black, where black can be viewed as a sign of darkness, danger, evil, etc., whereas white is seen as purity, goodness, and so on (SOURCE: http://www.as.phy.ohiou.edu). Second, the viewer must Note the Privileged, or Try to figure out what is central and what is marginalized within the text. Third, the viewer must be able to question the orthodoxy of the text; simply put, they must figure out what the standard authoritative narrative of the culture is, as well as how it relates to the reading of the text. Finally, the viewer should also be able to analyze the metaphors being presented in the text, in addition to what metaphors are being used and how their values are structured. Of course, these tools of deconstruction cannot be utilized properly unless one was to understand the basic concepts of reality. First, one would want to understand the literal meaning of a word in contrast to the feelings or ideas that the words suggest; this is done through Denotation. Next, through connotation, an idea or feeling could be invoked in an effort to add on to a text’s initial meaning. Signifiers are included in order to show a sign’s physical form that is distinctive from the initial meaning, and what is signified shows the meaning or idea expressed by a sign distinct from its physical form. All of these elements put together help trigger a chain of associations that help decipher the relationship of reality to the symbols being presented, made possible through a process called semiotics.
With that much of a brief synopsis, this begs to ask the question of how exactly these analytical devices factor in to watching television, or any other medium for that matter:
“In the everyday use of languages and signs, we combine several kinds of physical media in communicating and making meaning–from voice and printed texts to mass media images, music, movies, computer Web content, and digital multimedia…[We can] watch TV news that interprets an event, watch a TV mass media genre like a sit-com that requires knowledge of the codes for this genre…We are constantly sending, receiving, and making meaning in various kinds of media, often conveying and interpreting meaning from one medium to another”.
Martin Irvine, “Media & Semiotic Theory: Key Terms & Concepts”—
If one were to devote their time to watching something on TV for a number of years, it could take as little as a single item that a someone possesses for the viewer to conjure up everything they might already know about that entity. For example, one could be an ardent fan of Coca-Cola for various reasons; the taste, the cool, refreshing nature of the drink, the sense of happiness they feel when they drink it, etc. Therefore, when an advertisement appears for Coca-Cola, more often than not, these pre-determined feelings and emotions based on prior experience with the product are reinforced for the viewers.
One such advertisement from 2010 depicts Montgomery Burns of “The Simpsons” fame facing bankruptcy, afterward, he can be seen strolling miserably through a park where the residents of Springfield are having fun while drinking Coca-Cola. The climax of the ad shows “Kwik-E-Mart” owner Apu giving Burns a bottle of Coke, resulting in an immediate, positive change in attitude after losing everything he owned. The commercial wraps up with the tagline for the soda, “Open Happiness”, acting as a call to action for the viewer that no matter how bad as things can be, the little things in life can bring about temporary happiness, due in part to the pre-conceived notions the viewer has established.*
On a broader scale, the same thing can be said for a character from a long running series via an item or personal possession that could be synonymous with that entity’s overall character trait. The National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institute carries a number of these items as a mark of influence in pop culture, one of which includes the chair frequently sat in by “All in the Family” patriarch, Archie Bunker. The museum justifies the inclusion of an otherwise ordinary piece of furniture by stating that the “Social conflicts of the day played out in the Bunkers’ living room as the bigoted Archie clashed with his liberal son-in-law and his wife Edith struggled to keep the peace. With sharp but affectionate humor, the show exposed the flaws and complexities of one American family (SOURCE: Americanhistory.si.edu).” In stating that the Bunker’s living room was the main arena for the weekly spirited discussions, one would argue that Archie’s chair can be viewed as the centralized point for each argument, seeing as Bunker himself would be sitting there giving his twisted view on the world that is ultimately negated by show’s end.
Like Many things, any text being presented and analyzed is in the eye of the beholder. Depending on a combination of pre-conceived notions and the images being presented, the viewer in turn makes the overall judgment on whether or not the image is considered positive or negative. Unfortunately, there are times when analysis is presented with a strong level of bias in mind that often tilts what is trying to be identified. Therein lies the practice of stereotyping, a narrow, oversimplified, and inaccurate definition of cultural identity. It is a practice that is all too commonly committed when it comes to analyzing minorities and ethnic groups on television, that just because one member of a minority group acts a certain way, it is almost instantly assumed by the audience that the targeted minority does the same thing. This oft-used practice is a key reason why there should be more textual analysis when observing television, because its use can take an in-depth approach to viewing a program and better understanding the contexts behind them.* Knowing and understanding textual analysis is a major factor to deciphering the hidden meanings that some television programs are presenting. However, if the source material is being mimicked in a certain way, the overall analysis is skewed somewhat.
In the analytical world, humor can be classified under two separate yet equally important aspects of social commentary; one that allows critical commentary using pointed words and irony, and one that mimics the text causing an exaggeration to the original content. If one were to look very carefully at the way the previous sentence was written, they would identify it to be a parody of “Law and Order’s” iconic introductory set-up line at the beginning of each program. The description made about pointed words and irony is used to explain Satire, while the latter description on exaggerating original content explains Parody. Two forms of social commentaries that have existed as long as there have been issues of relevance to publicly lampoon. Satire, parody and textual analysis all work hand in hand with each other, largely by forming newfound perceptions on the issues at hand. Parody—the lighter of the two social commentaries—is more likely to tease what is being spoofed as opposed to the more inquisitive nature of satire:
“A Parody is evidence of how at least one person made sense of some communication message or some cultural text. At the same time, the parody is an instruction for reading practices; a system for creating new reading strategies…Parody depends upon the audience having the discursive knowledge necessary not just to read, but to laugh…Parodydemands that the reader ‘decode’ by making connections not just within a text, but to that which resides outside it”
While parody and satire are closely related, satire takes a stronger positioning when it comes to textual analysis. Nowhere is this more prominent today than “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”, though years before Stewart took the reins, the program was really more of a parody of an evening newscast. In light of the increase in worldwide woes in addition to how mainstream newscasts report their stories, The Daily Show has gone on to become one of the beacons of sanity in an otherwise misunderstood news climate. The show does this by embracing the emotional dimension of news that many journalists avoid in the name of objectivity*
On the same end of the spectrum, but perhaps at a far different volume, the series “South Park” offers a more brash form of social commentary through satire. The show has accomplished this largely by being more brash and acerbic in their approach to highlighting the issues that were happening in the world during that week, sometimes within days of the news being broken thanks to the program’s streamlined production process.
“Beginning in 1998 with an electronic Christmas card in which Santa Claus and Jesus Kung-Fu fight to the death, Matt Stone and Trey Parker–creators of the animated television comedy, South Park, aired on Comedy Central–have shocked adult audiences into exploring and rethinking cultural idiosyncrasies and hypocrisies, including disability. Eschewing political correctness, these writers unabashedly criticize and satirize every conceivable aspect of popular culture. Their commercial spots present a montage of marginalized peoples, with the slogan, “No one left out.”…Parker explains that there “is a lot to joke about because there is a lot to talk about and to think about and joking…is part of it.” South Park’s direct assault on American sensibilities, however, is less to offend than to prod a normally squeamish viewing public to confront its own taboos and preconceptions.”
John Reed-Hresko, “Disability Studies Quarterly”—
Now that all of these methods of analysis and identity have been thoroughly examined, it is time to utilize the methods in a more hands-on approach—and as promised, this is where SNL Comes into play. Combined with textual analysis, parody and satire can be used as tools in formally discussing various issues of the day, perhaps even change one’s outlook on a long standing belief. There are several cases in point that will be examined, the first involving a parody of former President George W. Bush as portrayed by Will Ferrell circa 2004.
The clip in question shows Ferrell as Bush on what is supposed to be his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he tries to explain—in vain—how even though the country is struggling under his watch, there are some positive points worth highlighting. Ferrell largely makes fun of Bush’s tendency to spend more time at the ranch performing manual labor by showing off a number of different tools in an effort to pull off a “Working Man” mentality. Curiously enough, one of the tools he uses, both to work with and to threaten one of his horses, is a sickle; a tool more commonly associated with Soviet Russia and communism. Perhaps the use of that tool was a mere coincidence back then, but considering what has happened in this country since the video was produced, a different connotation is a possibility. The video goes on to become sort of a pseudo-backhanded endorsement of ACT, the voter awareness organization that produced the clip. Even though Ferrell as Bush is telling those who are watching not to vote in his own inimitable way, the plea by Ferrell is eventually negated by ACT for the final minute in favor of the actual plea.
On a far different wavelength, consider a sketch from “Saturday Night Live” where co-star of the “Twilight” movie Franchise, Taylor Lautner, is seen trying to defend why his sketch character—a 14 year old girl—prefers the “Twilight” character of Edward Cullen over a fellow student’s pining over the character of Jacob Black, whom Lautner portrays in the movie. On the surface, a sense of self-awareness by Lautner is being presented in this sketch by self-parodying the entity that made the performer famous to begin with, something that SNL has a habit of doing with their hosts. Upon further analysis, it should be noted that the ongoing debate that these two 14-year olds are having about which “Twilight” character is the more superior happens to be taking place during a Biology class. As the discussion escalated, the students began to talk in an amorous way about their respective choice of “Twilight” Character; and in turn, the student’s own biological urges were piqued somewhat as Lautner—Again, as a 14 year old girl—begins making out with his/her notebook picture of Edward, while the other student—Played by Jenny Slate—admitted in a vague way that the Jacob character let to some sort of biological awakening, going as far as feeling up her picture of a shirtless Jacob. Eventually, both students find a point of agreement in realizing the female protagonist in the “Twilight” series is undeserving of either male character—and thankfully for the passage of time in the real world, they’re not the only ones who think so.
While the two previous pieces use analysis to point out things of varying symbolic value, sometimes analysis can go one step further. Sometimes, if the viewer is enlightened enough to use all forms of textual analysis, including satire and parody, that viewer’s point of view could be altered significantly. During the 2008 Presidential campaign, the poll numbers between [then] Senator Barrack Obama and Senator John McCain were neck and neck. Initially, with the surprise announcement from McCain’s campaign that former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin would be his running mate, McCain was able to get a boost in the polls even though little was known about Palin. After a period of time, however, certain comparisons were made to Palin that prompted SNL to jump at the chance to spoof the would-be Vice President. As Maureen Dowd stated in her January 2009 interview with Tina Fey for Vanity Fair, “Fey was a ringer for another hot-teacher-in-glasses, Sarah Palin, the comely but woefully unprepared Alaska governor, who bounded out of the woods with her own special language to become not only the first Republican woman to run on a national ticket but also God’s gift to comedy and journalism.”
Fey made a series of portrayals of Palin during the opening weeks of the 2008 season of SNL, which just happen to be at the peak of the election campaign. Despite the fact that the imitation was initially well received, it didn’t quite help the public understand who the real Sarah Palin was. It took a now infamous interview between Palin and former CBS News anchor Katie Couric for the public to perceive Palin as a political novice in every sense of the word. Since that interview, countless side-by-side comparisons have been made showing the uncanny similarity between the Palin interview and Fey’s spoof of it.The parody almost does the job of lampooning the interview too well, from Fey mocking Palin’s speech patterns, to the usage of the American flag in the background attempting to show off Palin’s patriotism, as well as marks of dominant femininity in the forms of soft lighting, random bouquets of flowers and Fey/Palin’s low-cut pink power suit. It was the appearance by Fey as Palin the week after the interview that may have proven to be a nail of public opinion in the coffin of the McCain campaign, all thanks to the power of satire and parody breaking down what was—in itself—a pre-deconstructed piece.
This recent endorsement of Donald Trump and the video below is still another example, but hopefully by now, you get the idea…Once a certain image or text is fully analyzed and broken down through Textual Analysis, the image that is being viewed will have a far different meaning to the viewer’s perception than originally thought. Through textual analysis and the supplemental elements that support it, it is discovered that not everything is being presented at face value. At times, the analysis presents alternate viewpoints on what was once a static issue. When these viewpoints are exposed, a viewer’s mind is subsequently presented with more avenues of thought to adapt with other than what the common consensus dictates it to be. This, in turn, enlightens the viewer and shows that there is more to thought than just conventional wisdom. The viewer is ultimately prepared to make up his or her own mind about what it is they watch, and the viewer is neither right or wrong about it—though they are more enlightened through the experience overall.
*Additional cited material from “Television and American Culture” by Jason Mittell
OK, If I Bored you or offended you with a Glut of Palin clips, I apologize. To make it up to you, NEXT WEEK: A Look at Animal Related SNL Bloopers…2 & ½ Weeks to go, folks!