“You understand the TV and life are different, right?”: Community and Performativity

This clip is the most recent “tag” during the credits of Community.  Often these tags center on Abed and Troy’s strange but hilarious enactments of their friendship, and they are almost exclusively directed at the television audience.  They display an implicit acknowledgment of themselves as characters to be viewed by an outside audience.  This mode of self-consciousness is not only present in these “tags” but also appear throughout the show, usually but not necessarily with Abed as its nexus.

While this is certainly part of the trend of reflexive television, especially prominent in comedies (see: Psych, 30 Rock, and the mocumentary-style sitcoms Arrested Development, The Office, Modern Family, etc.), I’m more concerned with the way in which this reflexivity reflects an idea of contemporary performativity.  Specifically, characters like Abed conceptualize themselves as always performing for some (unseen) camera or audience.  Celebrity and fame could happen at any moment, so they live their lives as if they were already an object-subject within the media to be seen.

We all–to some extent–perform ourselves in public.  We may want to appear attractive or cool

Jeff Winger: 10% Dick Van Dyke, 20% Sam Malone, 40% Zach Braff from Scrubs, and 30% Hilary Swank from Boys Don’t Cry

But Community often exaggerates this performativity to emphasize the idea that we act in relation to an unseen or assumed viewer.  The characters are not in a mocumentary like The Office; they don’t know that they’re television characters, but they often act as though they do.  And in performing as if there were someone else watching, they are creating their subjectivity as performers.

For whom does Pierce dance?

The emphasized performativity in Community, aside from being funny and self-conscious, comments on the increased performativity in contemporary culture.  We’re inundated with reality shows and youtube stars, and we can create our own television shows regardless of the presence of cameras.  We are our own actors in the webcam of life.

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3 responses to ““You understand the TV and life are different, right?”: Community and Performativity

  1. This is probably a duh but the title “TV and Life are different” also corresponds to the difference between community (not the tV show but the life of our species, its meanings, its purposes understood as a social organism, rather than as individuals) and TV. So it’s really ironic that the show is called Community. The very word Performity mimics the “ity” form of community, rather than the usual Performance.
    By the way the groundbreaking sociologist on the idea of identity performance was named, I believe, something very close to Guffman, as in Waiting For?s

  2. Char: Who is the watcher? Good question–like must one write a narrative to create a sense that observations and behavior make sense and matters are under hand? When we add the flourish of acting consciously in the narrative for our preferred audience (oneself or an imaginary companion), does our sense of control and predictability increase? Love, Dad

  3. Oh, White Abed. Brown Joey. Great post, Charlotte. Troy says so, too. We realized why we like your writing: 1) it’s awesome, but 2) you are definitely, just, right, all the time. Boom!

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