In Conversation with Tom Hemingway, PhD Researcher on Post-Broadcast Comedy

Interview Conducted by Isabella Fatato, Edited by Matthew Smolenski

As I start the interview with Tom – obviously a virtual one, taking place in two different countries at that, I feel a great responsibility dawning on me as I realise this is the first ever interview segment we’ve done for Reel Talk and, as it turns out, the first ever interview I’ve conducted. What an honour! But also… How nerve-wracking! Luckily, Tom seems quite calm and his down-to-earth demeanour instantly puts me at ease.

Today we delve into his research on ‘The Aesthetics of Post-Broadcast Comedy.’ We’ll talk all things Netflix, comedy, Judd Apatow, and obviously we can’t not mention the virus that has us locked down in our homes binging TV shows on the go (check out our Reel Talk Editorial Team’s Lockdown Viewing for more recommendations).

Could you tell me a bit about your research: what does it involve and what inspired you to focus on “The Aesthetics of Post-Broadcast Comedy”?

In terms of how I came to it, I did an MA degree at Warwick, and my dissertation was about the style and the way improvisation is used in modern comedy films. I focused on films directed by Judd Apatow, so I was already looking at comedy in my dissertation.

I think at the time Netflix was really becoming big. We had Netflix during my undergrad degree in 2014, but by 2016 it had started making original stuff. So when I decided I wanted to do a PhD, I was thinking about research topics, and this really interested me: how could I combine my interest in television and comedy with something more current, and something that hadn’t been written about too much? A lot of the writing on Netflix, this is not so much the case anymore, but back then the writing on Netflix was more about the platform itself, the algorithms they used.

So, not really what was being put on the platform, not really the content.

Yeah, and obviously coming from Warwick, where we focus on close textual analysis, I was really interested in looking at the texts themselves. So that’s where my research began, and it sort of went on from there.

What kind of texts did you look at when you were starting your research?

I didn’t originally intend for it to be just Netflix, I was going to look at Prime as well. And since I’ve started the PhD there’s been loads of other new streaming services like Apple TV, Hulu, Quibi. I don’t really know Quibi.

Same, I keep seeing a lot of ads for it on my social media though.

[laughing] Yeah, I make jokes about Quibi, but I don’t really know what it is. But as I was writing, it sort of became the case where Netflix had the majority of texts that I was talking about so I thought maybe I should restrict it to Netflix; because if I start talking about Amazon Prime and Hulu, it’s almost too big. Whereas if I keep it focused on Netflix, it’s contained in a way.  

Text-wise I’m looking at Arrested Development, Netflix’s first original comedy show. Well, it’s not an original, it’s a semi-original. So that’s a “revived” program, that’s the term I use. That’s the focus of one chapter, where I start the work.

And then I go on and look at things like authorship on Netflix. Using the research that I’d done on Judd Apatow for my Master’s dissertation, I took that and applied it to the show Love on Netflix which he co-created and produced, and also wrote a few episodes for. These trends like authorship and self-reflexivity, they recur across all of these texts.

Speaking of trends, how do you think that post-broadcast comedies have changed the aesthetics of television comedy?

It’s surprising but I don’t think there’s as big of a change from broadcast comedy to post-broadcast comedy as people might think. Netflix seem to suggest, just in the way they market things, that they are doing something completely different. But that’s not always the case, I don’t think. What they have done, in my opinion, is taken a lot of the conventions we know from broadcast comedies and they’ve foregrounded them in a way that’s really self-reflexive and in turn makes the shows quite unique.

At the moment I’m writing about stand-up comedy. Some of the shows I’m looking at include documentary sections mixed in with the stand-up. There’s one in particular I’m looking at about Jerry Seinfeld, where parts of it is a stand-up performance he gives and parts of it are little documentary sections, where he talks about being a stand-up comic.

I’m glad you mentioned stand-up television, as I believe you’ve said in your research that stand-up comedy television hasn’t gotten the attention that it deserves from scholars. Why do you think that is?

There is attention payed to stand-up comedy academically, but it’s not looking at it in the same way that I want to look at it. There’s a really great book called Comic Visions by David Marc, where he grapples with the definition of stand-up comedy. He talks about the act of stand-up, and there’s a lot of stuff in comedy studies which talks about stand-up as performance. I really wanted to focus on what was being conveyed visually in these stand-up specials and how it works in conjunction with the comedy being performed.

So you think the style and visuals should be given more attention?

Yeah definitely, because it’s a growing sub-genre on Netflix and there are so many stand up specials. I watched one literally this morning by Eric Andre, are you familiar with him?

Of course!

It’s his first stand-up special, which is a Netflix original. That was fantastic, really crazy [laughing].

Speaking of crazy, I have to mention the pandemic situation we’re currently living through, specifically the lockdown caused by it. How do you think this situation will impact post-broadcast comedies, in terms of how programs will be made and what they will look like?

I think in terms of how things are being made, there’s going to be a three or four month delay in everything. I feel like soon, around autumn time, we’re going to hit a sort of rough spot. So that will be interesting. It might lead people back to re-watching older things. Which they have been doing anyways. They’ve been re-watching The Office, and long running drama shows like Mad Men.

I’ve definitely been doing that!

Oh yeah? What have you been watching?

Well recently I re-watched The OC, as they had it on Prime Video. It was one of my favourite TV shows when I was a teenager, so I thought I’d re-watch it because why not!

Yeah, it’s sort of comforting. Disney+ was launched during lockdown and myself and other people I know got a subscription for it. Some people started re-watching High School Musical and Hannah Montana. Yeah, it’s just stuff from when you’re ten, eleven years old watching Freaky Friday, with Lindsay Lohan, its great [laughing].

In terms of what things are going to look like, I’m not too sure about how long-term the effects of this pandemic will be on changing the visual style of things. There’s been a few shows which have had quarantine episodes now. One on Apple TV+ (which I think is free if you’re a student). There’s a comedy show on there which no one seems to be talking about, which is really good; one of the better original shows that I’ve seen in a long time, called Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet. Its created by the people who made Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia and it’s a bit like Silicon Valley.

They did a quarantine episode which was filmed entirely inside: no one left their house. That is a fantastic episode. I mean, watch the whole season, but the quarantine episode at the end of it is fantastic. I don’t want to give anything away but it’s got a shocking moment at the end of it, and I couldn’t wrap my head around how they’d done it. It seemed impossible to do without breaking quarantine rules, but they somehow managed to do it, and it was great!

I’ve also read about big shows like Grey’s Anatomy that are planning on writing episodes centred around a virus/pandemic. I think there’s going to be that kind of wave of big tv shows that are going to incorporate the pandemic into their storylines.

Yeah, definitely. I think there’s going to be a wave of horror movies about the virus. There’s also probably going to be a very serious legal drama, similar to The Social Network, about the handling of the virus. This will probably be a big Oscar contender if it’s done well. So there’s going to be loads of different types of movies about it. But some will probably be better than others.

For sure. Anyways, onto the final question. So you’ve already mentioned a lot of TV shows, but what is something you’ve watched/discovered during lockdown that you think was really good, that you would recommend, or even something that you thought wasn’t so good?  

I’ve already talked about Mythic Quest, I think people should watch that. If students get it free, then definitely try and get on that. I’ve gone back to watching comfort shows as well. I’ve re-watched all of Curb Your Enthusiasm, it’s a comfort seeing someone like Larry David go through the smallest inconveniences and then writing about it; it’s interesting to watch at a time like this. Something I didn’t really like was Space Force on Netflix. I think with the talent behind it, it should’ve been better.

Oh yes, I did want to watch that, but I didn’t read very good things about it.

It’s not horrible. Some reviews would have you think it’s terrible. It’s okay… But it’s nowhere near The Office.

I saw The King of Staten Island, the new Judd Apatow movie, too. I think it’s fantastic.

That’s interesting to hear, I wasn’t entirely convinced about Pete Davidson playing the main character

Me neither. His stand-up special on Netflix was… okay… not great. I liked some of his bits on SNL. I watched the film mainly for Judd Apatow, because obviously I’ve written so much about him already, and he hasn’t brought out a film in five years. So I was really looking forward to this. And it’s a shame I couldn’t get to see it in a cinema. But it is a really great film. Probably his best one in ten years. It’s up there with Knocked Up and Funny People. Yeah, I really liked it.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. Tom Hemingway can be reached by email at t.hemingway@warwick.ac.uk or on Twitter at @tomhemingway11

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