P.O.V. No.26 - Humor in Film and TV

The blue hippo in lifestyle television
- On pastiche in television satire

Hanne Bruun
Nikolaj Kirk: Dolph, the Germans did NOT win the War (WW II).
Dolph: That issue can be discussed for a VERY long time, but it is a given fact that they won!
Michael Wulff: No Dolph, I would like to interject that everything suggests that the Germans lost the War
Dolph: Yes, but only at the end, Wulff, only at the end!! And that is an inconsequential detail not important in a war, not in a war, Wulff!!

The small segment of verbal interaction above is from 'Dolph and Wulff', a satirical sketch-comedy show on Danish public service television. The series was aired in 2005 on the second channel of DR (Denmark's Radio), and features the young, smug and rather incompetent television host, Michael Wulff, and his co-host: a gigantic, light-blue hippopotamus called Dolph. The hippo talks a lot, but in the form of long, opinionated monologues, perhaps more suitable to a political discussion programme, and delivered in a very loud staccato voice. Dolph always carries a baseball bat, and smashes things up whenever he gets angry; Dolph is constantly angry. In many ways, Dolph is the essence of all the politically incorrect opinions and attitudes associated with an absurd notion of masculinity: He is fascinated by war, soldiers, weapons and violence, and calls himself a Ninja warrior. But Dolph is also the essence of infantile behaviour: He is absurdly ignorant, but opinionated, and he is physically and socially very clumsy, but proud, resulting in an endless series of face-losing situations. Wulff is a young urban semi-intellectual, and he is very eager to become a famous television personality. However, his chances of actually becoming successful are constantly destroyed by Dolph's verbal raids and behaviour. Consequently, every segment of every episode ends in disaster.

I will elaborate on 'Dolph and Wulff' later in the article, because it is a typical example of recent developments in television satire in Denmark. The series is in many ways a part of a long tradition of satirical sketch comedy on Danish public service television, going back to 1968 (Bruun, 2006). Satire has been an important part of the entertainment profile of public service television, and it still is (Bruun, 2007). The genre strives in various ways to give the viewers a critical, comprehensible and, most importantly, funny diagnosis of a presumably shared socio-political and cultural reality. However, during the last 10 years the tradition has gone through profound changes is terms of quantity as well as quality. Quantitatively, there has been an explosion of programmes being produced. To illustrate this change, public service television in Denmark - DR and TV 2 - scheduled 68 first-run programmes in the period from 1991-95, but 340 first-run programmes in the period from 2001-05. DR's second channel, DR2, is the channel on which the majority of the programmes produced are shown. DR2 was established in 1996, but 38% of domestic satirical sketch comedy broadcast on public service television from 1968 to 2005 was aired by DR2.[1]

DR2 is aimed at the better-educated segments of the audience, and the genre plays a strategic role in the entertainment profile of DR, in its competition for the politically and economically important young audiences.

Qualitatively, the programmes produced have also changed a lot. First of all, the satirical sketch comedy tradition has developed into two branches: political and social satire. Political satire is the older satirical form, and reflects the current news stories in the media; it is oriented towards specific political issues, social problems and/or people on the national agenda; essentially, issues traditionally addressed by the daily news flow. The second branch, social satire, has cultivated an interest in the lives of ordinary Danes. The focus of social satire is on diverse lifestyles and mentalities, and the way cultural and political trends, and new social demands affect the individual in terms of behaviour, norms and self-image. In particular, the gap between the demands on, and the actual abilities of the individual is exposed, and the programmes cultivate losing face as the comic engine. In this manner, the development has broadened the reach of areas that could be the objects of television satire, and is no longer restricted to current political issues. In terms of form, the development of the satirical sketch comedy involves experiments. In political as well as social satire, many different media genres and the aesthetic conventions of different media discourses are put to use as aesthetic vehicles of the satire, as well as being the objects of satire in themselves. Parody and, especially, pastiche are increasingly important, and media satire is therefore a prominent element, and even the aim of much current television satire (Bruun, 2007). This article will argue that pastiche is perhaps the more important of the two in creating satirical humour, and perhaps this is because of the perception of the viewers involved.

To support this argument, I will start off with a short theoretical presentation of the differences between satire, parody and pastiche as communicative modes. Using a small segment from an episode of the series 'Dolph and Wulff' as the analytical example, I will move on to discuss the role of pastiche in satire, focusing in detail on the kind of media cultural knowledge the viewers of the program are presumed to have, in order to meet the satirical intention of this kind of television entertainment. Finally, I will discuss satirical humour and the entertainment qualities of this kind of media output.

Satire, parody and pastiche
In the theoretical literature on satire, an important dimension mentioned is satire's contextual dependency: To carry out the satirical intention, satire must have a strong reference to a social, political and cultural reality outside of the discursive universe of the text itself (see Hutcheon, 1985; Schwindt, 1988; Larsen, 2001). It is safe to say that its social dimension defines satire. But if the satirical intentions of the text are to be understood by the audience, and perhaps applauded, the viewers and the producers must share larger parts of the contextualising social, political and cultural reality. Furthermore, satire has a normative aim, with regard to reality. Schwindt (1988) argues that in satire the referential function of language is essential, even when dealing with (a kind of) fiction. Because of its contextual dependency, satire presupposes and establishes socio-political knowledge. The ridicule generated by satire is a social act with consequences. The ridicule contains a critique of the present state of things, and satire has an intent to change the way things are. In this way, satire has a moral sting and a normative perspective. But according to Larsen (2001), there is no inherent political progressiveness in satire, and it can be politically conservative as well as politically progressive.

The referentiality of satire and its manifest contextual dependency on socio-political knowledge are what I think makes satire different from comic fiction, for example the situation comedy. Compared to comedy's more implicit textual strategies, satire explicitly thematises and facilitates value discussions. The generic status of satire is somewhere between the fictional and factual genres of television, and, adding to its tricky generic status, television satire is deeply dependent on parody and pastiche. In order to mock and make viewers laugh, television satire uses established discourse practises. The formal definition of parody describes it as always directed at another text or discursive practice. It repeats it, but with irony, exaggeration and distortion. (Hutcheon, 1985) Pastiche borders on parody, and is another of satire's stylistic tools. The formal definition of pastiche is that it is a repetition of the stylistic features of the original, but with no intention of evaluating it (Dyer, 2007). To put it briefly, parody is transformative, whereas pastiche is imitative (ibid: 47) In television satire, the genres of television, specific programmes and more general media features and tendencies play an important part as an aesthetic engine. And often the satire is, in fact, directed at these programmes, genres or features. Thus, television satire is again dependent on the contextual knowledge of the audience. The audience has to have a media cultural knowledge to understand the satire. The viewers have to be familiar with genre conventions, aesthetic features and characteristics of media, and the viewers have to be familiar with trends in media content. By using the presupposed socio-political and media cultural knowledge, satire can include as well as exclude individuals and groups. The most obvious sign of successful satire and inclusion is, of course, laughter. Herein lies the ability of the genre to segment the audience, as well as its ability to become a cult phenomenon.

Even if theoretical definitions are possible, it is not easy to argue these distinctions in specific texts. This 'problem' is caused by the crucial role played by the communicative context. For example, a seemingly friendly parody can become strongly satirical, if its object is contextually surrounded by controversy. And a pastiche can be seen as a parody or a satire because of the combination of stylistic imitation and content. Like humour in general, satire is relational and situational, and not absolute (Kjus & Hertzberg Kaare, 2006:15). Hence, what is produced and understood as satire changes over time and space.

Media satire
As mentioned previously, pastiche seems to play an important role in current television satire, and the 'Dolph and Wulff' series (DR2 2005) is an example of this trend turning much current television satire into media satire. In one of the episodes, the show presents itself as a stylistic imitation of much of lifestyle television on cooking, gardening, healthy living and interior decoration. The theme of the episode is healthy food, especially organic vegetables, demonstrating ways to cook these, and how they are produced. Wulff and Dolph visit Nikolaj Kirk, a chef well-known from Danish breakfast-television, in his trendy Copenhagen flat, while he is preparing, comparing and serving an old-fashioned dish - Wiener schnitzel - and a more modern one - a spicy, Cajun-inspired dish with pork and lots of vegetables. Later in the episode, Dolph and Wulff visit a farmer at his (not- so-) organic farm in northern Jutland.

In terms of stylistic imitation, the episode imitates the host-driven reportage and fundamental didactic dimension of lifestyle programmes: Something is to be learned, typically through demonstration by an expert. The experts in these shows are treated with the utmost respect, and the viewers are supposed to learn from these people. The host takes on the role of the extremely interested representative of the (ignorant) viewers, guiding them through the learning process, and bridging the gap between the programme and the viewers, in his mode of address. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, these lifestyle programmes border on infomercials and the TV-shop phenomenon, in terms of intentionality and atmosphere: The programmes are purged of conflicts of any kind - journalistic, political or interpersonal - and have an ambiance of smooth, innocuous professsionalism. All these well-known, basic genre features are faithfully reproduced in the episode. The stylistic imitation of the genre establishes a kind of subtext to what happens: What happens is Dolph! The co-host of the show sabotages the basic genre feature, and by so doing, highlights them. And now, I will return to the small segment from the episode, presented at the beginning of this article, to illustrate this approach.

Instead of accepting the didactic premise - vegetables are healthy, and we should all learn to cook healthy food - Dolph shouts at the expert and the host that eating vegetables is only for 'fairies', and he violently waves his baseball bat. Because the Germans did not eat that sort of food, but Wiener schnitzel-like food, they won the War, he continues. The expert and the host try to correct him, and to re-establish the trustworthy didactic style and conflict-free ambience of the programme, and to move on. Kirk introduces the (normative) differences between the two dishes, and Dolph is persuaded to try a blind taste-test. Wulff leaves the flat to interview a (fake) dietician, leaving Dolph and Kirk alone. When confronted with his own preference for the Cajun dish over the Wiener schnitzel, Dolph attacks Kirk, and the camera is switched off. In the following clip, the viewers find Nikolaj Kirk tied to a chair, about to be beaten to a pulp by Dolph. Again, the camera cuts away in a hurry. In the following segment of the episode, Dolph and Wulff leave the flat, and the supposedly-off-camera interaction between Wulff and Dolph indicates that something bad has happened to Kirk. Under his breath, Wulff warns Dolph to never do things like that again on the programme!

If the viewer finds this funny, the reason is, as I see it, not so much the extremely politically incorrect, infantile and violent light-blue hippo in itself. The humour is very much based on the clash between the pastiche and the hippo as the essence of everything incompatible with the lifestyle genre. For example:

To seek out physical confrontation and political discussions, but in an infantile way, with no sense of propriety;

To be anti-authoritarian, but in such a way that a fascination with extreme authoritarian values and systems of any kind is demonstrated;

To lecture everybody, while being unable or unwilling to learn anything yourself, least of all from your own mistakes, consequently producing embarrassment and constant loss of face.

As the Norwegian comedian and writer Harald Eia argues, the trick is to make the viewers believe in the emotions connected to the genre by obeying - but not transforming - its stylistic rules and conventions (Eia, 2006: 195-196). Then, an insane, exaggerated or absurd element can be added, and the clash makes the conventions stand out. The sketch can be perceived as media satire as well as social satire, if the viewers have the presupposed media cultural knowledge demanded by the programme. The viewers are presumed to be experienced media users and media cultural literates, so to speak, who are able to detect genre clues and mistakes intuitively and quickly, in order to access the entertaining qualities of the satirical treatment. Pastiche used in media satire produces perhaps more humour than parody is able to, because it puts an interpretive challenge to the viewers. But by doing so, it also segments the audience through its exclusive mechanisms: If the viewers are not media literate, this dimension of the satire is lost, leaving perhaps only the social satire, imbedded in the provocative absurdity of the hippo and the obnoxious host.

But how can we understand the entertaining qualities of these new forms of television satire? Why is this entertaining? Based on an analysis of recent developments in Norwegian television satire very similar to the Danish development described in this article, Kjus (2005) suggests that satirical programmes with a strong media satirical dimension have a mental-recreational function for the viewers. Using Bakhtin's theoretical view on the carnival, Kjus argues that the programmes are probably neither conservative nor subversive of social norms, conventions, or power structures. Instead, they create a sort of breathing space for the viewers, in which it is possible to experience a reflective distance from specific social phenomena, or the media forms that guide us (Kjus, 2005: 230-231). This understanding of the consequences of satirical humour as reflective makes this kind of humour very compatible with the general understanding of humour, as argued by Michael Billing (2005). On the one hand, humour rebels against the norms and rules of society that prevent the individual from living a good life. These destructive norms and rules are subject to ridicule. But on the other hand and at the same time, humour polices the norms and rules of society, making fools of people who break them. According to Billing, all kinds of humour have this ambiguity, and in satire it is very obvious. The entertaining qualities of satire have precisely to do with the dialectics of humour: the disciplinary and rebellious aspects, but in combination with the forms of knowledge that satire presupposes. Only in the combination of the two do the entertaining qualities of the genre exist.

1 These figures are based on a catalogue of satirical sketch comedy produced by DR1, DR2, TV 2 and TV2/Zulu from 1968-2005. The catalogue was created by the author of this article with the help of two research assistants: Stine Lomborg and Signe Kromann.


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