Sunday, June 13, 2010

Slayage! Part Three: The Banquet Speech

And now it’s time for the moment you’ve all been waiting for (well, OK, the moment *I* have been waiting for): the banquet speech! You can either scroll to the bottom if you’d like to watch it first (don’t worry, I won’t spoil it!) or you can read the background first and then watch it.

Now, I’ve talked a lot of smack about Matthew Pateman here on this blog, and it’s (mostly) just bluster because of the antagonistic nature of the paper. When I first saw him present his keynote at the last Slayage in June 2008, I’ll never forget the simultaneous “Wow, that was brilliant”/ “OMG I cannot follow THAT” feelings I had while listening to him. But, he referred to “Bite Me” as seminal and was therefore doomed to have me as a bestie whether he liked it or not. If you praise my books, I become very attached to you as a result. ;) My ego knows no bounds.

We became friends during the conference and shared a ride back to the airport at the end of it, and remained friends through email during the subsequent months afterwards, discovering a mutual love of Hawksley Workman and David Bowie, aside from the obvious one of BtVS. Last October, we were chatting back and forth and talking about Slayage and I began joking about some ideas I had for a paper where I would pair with an academic who would speak in a high jargonistic tone and I would simply roll my eyes and translate it in plain English. But, as I said to him, that would be funny for about 2 minutes. (In my head, it was funny for 4.) I really had no intention of doing a paper at all, and was looking forward to attending a Slayage where I wouldn’t have to present. But after we joked back and forth about other fake papers, a real paper began to emerge involving a pretentious jargon-speaking academic and a bloggy fangirl, and then we started to look at how we could seriously do such a thing. Before we knew it, we were submitting a proposal and were given the banquet slot, my old slot from the last Slayage conference. I was thrilled and a little intimidated... I mean, this is the guy who wrote The Aesthetics of Culture in Buffy the Vampire Slayer““, a book I read and adored, one that made me think, “Oh my GOD why do I even bother writing these silly episode guides if books like this exist??” (Don’t tell him I said that or I will NEVER hear the end of it.) But he seemed to genuinely like my Bite Me book, or so he said, and so we began to collaborate on a paper.

It wasn’t an easy thing to do. First, he lives in England. I live in Canada. While we’re both members of the Commonwealth, it does nothing to bridge that large gap of OCEAN that exists between us. Secondly, we have very very different writing styles. I like to have a very detailed outline showing exactly where I’m going, laying out the paper and how it will conclude. Matthew likes to start typing to see where it will take him. And yet somehow, it worked. He wrote an opening statement, and I laughed and laughed, looked up some of the words, and then constructed a response. He laughed, just ignored the bloggy words he didn’t get, and wrote a response. ;) In the initial idea, the paper devolved into a shouting match — I kept saying I wanted to re-enact the Harmony/Xander graveyard slapfight at the end (I think Matthew thought I was joking… I wasn’t joking) and the paper was originally going right in that direction. That’s when it became REALLY fun to write.

And then in March, I was in London on business. He was also down in London, and so we met up for a couple of hours to work through the paper, and it turned into me coming up with hideous, horrible insults for myself that he could use on me — basically these were the very things I pictured all of the academics thinking about me when I was on my way to the last Slayage, realizing upon arrival that they didn’t think that way about me at all — and he, in turn, came up with vicious things for me to say about him as an academic, as a writer, and as a pretentious wank. We laughed and laughed, and then went off on a tangent just chatting about something that had happened at the last Slayage, where I’d heard the term “fan-scholar” for the first time, as it was used on me, and I told him how unnerved I was by the term because, in its context, it actually sounded derogatory (I believe the usage was, “While we are all scholar-fans in this room, Nikki Stafford is a fan-scholar,” immediately positioning me as the “Other” and making me uncomfortable). We chatted a lot about that, then inserted some of that into the paper, and made a skeletal outline (to make me happy) of where it would go.

And then I got home, reread the entire paper… and was unhappy with the direction. And that’s when I had to make the unpleasant phone call – albeit one I warned him might come (after all, this is the gal who wrote 30,000 words of the season 5 Finding Lost book and then deleted them all because they just didn’t work for me) – telling him that actually, I didn’t think the nasty direction our paper had taken was really working, and that it goes from pleasant to evil in about three sentences. Not to mention I was putting myself out there as anti-academia, something that would pretty much make me the most hated person in the room. He reread the paper and agreed… and we started over. This time with a vague outline to make me happy, but still constructing it as we went along, to make him happy. And just by the fourth paragraph we were already happier about the paper than we’d been before. Out went the real viciousness and the fan-scholar debate, and in went a real paper that strove to actually talk about something, while still taking the occasional pot-shot.

We had this idea that the paper had to be around 20 minutes long, and at one point we had it up over half an hour, so we cut a lot of material out and got it down to about 23 minutes (it was more like 27 when we presented it). Then we practiced it over the phone, with me recording it and then splicing the audio into parts so we could just practice our side against the other person, and that was how we did it (I’m explaining all of this because a LOT of people asked me how we actually worked on it, being so far apart). I was a little nervous about the actual live presentation, just because I didn’t know how it would work with us on stage in person, something we hadn’t really worked through. But the moment we were up there, I felt very confident about it. I knew people didn’t know what was going to happen (other than me declaring it a steel cage match on my blog) and that in the opening of it, it might look like we were actually playing it straight. But soon enough the audience caught on (it might have been our looks of great disdain while the other person was talking) and I think it worked.

So! For the ease of watching, I’ve divided it into short bursts of about 5 minutes each, and you can watch it all in order to hear the entire paper (one section is my particular favourite, but if I told you which one that was, it wouldn’t be as funny without the context of the rest of the paper... oh, you know what, forget I said that: if you just watch one section, watch Part IV!). I will apologize for the sound quality; the only downside to an enormous great hall is the great echo that comes with it. We were going to attempt it without a microphone, worried about the echo, but as you’ll see at the beginning, the audience preferred we use it. I hope you can still hear it OK. And if you’re wondering why I’m barefoot, it’s because I wanted to look even shorter than I already did next to him, and I thought it would be more casual, which is what I was playing in this (I was originally intending to wear my Buffy shirt that I wear in my profile pic at the top of this blog, but TWO other people had worn it that day, and so it seemed rather anticlimactic to do that, so I just went with something else).

Without any further ado, here is our paper, entitled (yes, we’re looking for the prize of the longest paper title ever): “‘Oh, wouldn’t it be tragic if you were here being kinda silly with your comically paralyzed sister while Willow was dying?’ or ‘Excellent. Now. Do we suspect that there may be some connection between Ben and Glory?’: The tragic-comic / comic-tragic methods of miscommunication on Buffy.”

Update: A few people have told me they simply can't make out what is being said throughout the paper, so if you scroll to the bottom you'll find the text version of it. I'd use it only for reference, though; it was a paper that was meant to be heard and seen, not read. ;) (I apologize for the echo in the room!)


MP: Good evening everybody and welcome to our post-prandial peregrinations. This will revolve primarily around two sets of discursive disagreements between Nikki Stafford and myself concerning a broad generic notion (that is also figured in my argument in terms of teleo-structural fulfilment) which is that I believe Buffy to be, in totality, a comedy that utilises drama whereas Ms Stafford believes, mutatis mutandis that it is a drama that utilises comedy. We both argue that miscommunication is a key tool in the show’s construction.

From the beginnings of dramatic narrative, miscommunications of various kinds have been a driving force of story telling. One need only think of Odysseus’s riddle to the Cyclops where one character uses miscommunication to trick another and create a comic possibility; or alternatively, Oedipus’s appalled realisation that the whole narrative has essentially been one tragic oracular miscommunication to note that miscommunication can be comic or tragic, internally organised around character interaction or externally directed at the audience. Television, too has played with miscommunication to thrill, astound, engage, enrage and amuse viewers.

This paper will seek to provide a limited introduction to a typology of miscommunication in Buffy. Any effort to provide a taxonomy is liable to founder on the initial categorisations. This is no different. Stafford thinks of Buffy as a ‘comic drama’ whereas I know it to be a ‘dramatic comedy’. This taxonomic tension underpins our discussion.

NS: As I THINK Dr. Matt said, we are going to be discussing in this post...prandial... peregrendubia...something, whether or not Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a comedy (as HE thinks it is) or a drama, which it is.
OK. Miscommunication has always been a television writer’s best friend... the powers that be use it to offer up either wickedly funny visual and aural gags, or heartbreak that results from tragic misunderstandings. The confusion is often revealed in one of two ways — immediately to the audience, so we know something the characters don’t; or by making the reveal to us at the very end, lending the situation further comedy or drama, whatever the case may be. If we know that there’s been a misunderstanding of sorts between the characters, we laugh along and shake our heads at the O.T.T.-ness of the comedy unfolding on-screen. Think of the ongoing joke on Arrested Development, where the family asks a Korean boy what his name is, and he, not understanding a word of English, says, “Annyong,” meaning Hello, thus accidentally earning him the name “Annyong” for the next two years. But more poignantly, misunderstandings can be used to great dramatic effect, as we will explore in the next 20 minutes.

This paper will attempt to show you how Buffy is at its heart a drama that happened to have very funny moments, rather than a comedy that had a few weepies in there, as Prof P would have you believe.

MP: I regard the conflation of ‘comedy’ and ‘funny’ into something approaching critical synonyms in Stafford’s opening position to be regrettable and indicative of a certain lack of criticality. Notwithstanding that terminological misapprehension, let me continue with my argument.

The title of my proposal for this joint paper included the following quotation from the show: “Oh, wouldn't it be tragic if you were here being kinda silly with your comically paralyzed sister while Willow was dying?” Anya’s comment to Buffy in ‘Same Time, Same Place’ is an example of entirely successful communication, and tells a direct truth about Buffy’s predicament and Buffy’s premise. In this episode, Willow is so scared of the possible effects of communicating with her friends that she accidentally sets up a situation in which miscommunication cannot occur because communication itself is impossible. However, Anya’s comment, and its direct relation to genre, and differing modalities of narrative communication clearly invites the viewer to reconsider the seeming non-sequitur she offers up in ‘Restless’. Commenting with sagacity but a certain opacity, she declares, ‘we should only be Greek’. Not only does this, as I have suggested elsewhere, open up the legitimate juxtaposition of Buffy with ancient cultures, but specifically, in the current debate, it will put us all in mind of Aristotle’s Poetics and his concern with the very notion of genre that we are engaged with. It is worth noting that miscommunication is being used in this episode as a comic tool with potentially catastrophic consequences, but is also inviting explicit speculation on the role of the assumed polarities of comedy and drama.

NS: O.M.G. Dr. Matt has chosen an interesting example of miscommunication, but one that I actually read as being dramatic. Anya’s comment might seem funny to a warped mind, but knowing that Willow is off in some cave having her freakin’ stomach peeled off while Anya is posing Dawn like a life-sized action figure? Not so much with the funny for me.

So, I chose a different title for our paper, going with, “Excellent. Now. Do we suspect that there may be some connection between Ben and Glory?” Now first, this quotage, in the moment, was hysterically funny, obvs. Spike has seen that Glory and Ben are one and the same, but no matter how hard he tries, he cannot convey this idea to the Scoobies because they’ve been cursed to forget the explanation as soon as they hear it. Spike rails at them, asks them if they’re stoned, eventually gets Xander and Anya together to make the connection, sighs with victory... and then Giles says the line I just quoted. And that’s when Spike realizes he’s not going to get anywhere with these dolts.

So how is this awesomesauce moment tragic? Because of what happens next. Like with all of the comedy on BtVS, this is only a teeny-tiny moment of LOLs to tide us over before we get back to the real drama. For if Spike cannot convince everyone that Ben and Glory are totally the same, Dawn could die. In retrospect we watch that scene with the tinge of tragedy that we later attribute to it, knowing that ultimately Giles will discover the truth, and in doing so, will become a cold-blooded murderer. Spike’s EPIC FAIL contributes to Buffy’s death, and the scene of Spike leaning over Buffy’s lifeless body, sobbing and unable to control himself, is one of the most heartwrenching of the series. Thus the greater thing at play here is the drama, as it is with every episode, no matter how funny. Comedy has been used to drive and invert the drama, not the other way around.

MP: It is true: individual moments of miscommunication can operate humorously or dramatically, or can even traverse both possible emotional responses simultaneously. However, once again, Stafford asserts that ‘comedy’ means ‘funny’. One of these terms, ‘comedy’ is being used here (by me anyway) to describe the total effect of a complex of interpenetrating narrative components whose aggregated union establish generic modalities: in the case of Buffy comedic ones. The other is being used a simple adjective indicating mirth, a mirthfulness very frequently lacking from the generically comedic Buffy. Indeed, some of the most memorable moments of miscommunication are clearly incredibly painful. One need only think of Xander’s purposeful miscommunication of Willow’s information to Buffy about the spell to re-ensoul Angel in ‘Becoming Part II’; or Giles’s assumption that Buffy is talking about Glory when she tells him on the phone that ‘She’s here’ in ‘The Body’; or another moment where Giles mis-reads the signs as he climbs the petal-strewn stairs to his bedroom and the murdered Jenny in ‘Passion’; or the final shot of ‘Normal Again’ where the catatonic Buffy offers the viewer a communicative aporia. But that is not the point.

My general assertion about Buffy being a drama comedy is not unduly difficult. The distinctions drawn between comedy and drama in terms of generic expectations are still largely influenced by the schematisations articulated in 'De tragoedia et comoedia'. This text is made up of two late fourth-century essays by the grammarians Donatus and Evanthius and was widely circulated in editions of the plays of Terence used in Renaissance schools and universities. A similar treatise by another early grammarian, Diomedes was also influential.

Very briefly, there is an assumption that comedies end happily and tragedies end unhappily. If this is true, then what implications might that have when considering texts whose characters confront potentially (or even actual) tragic situations? If we contemplate one of Whedon’s great loves, Shakespeare, then we can see that Shakespeare's comic protagonists regularly face alienation, abandonment, and death. As Susan Snyder has stated: “What makes the difference is [...] the operation of a kind of 'evitability' principle whereby shifts and stratagems and sheer good luck break the chain of causality that seemed headed for certain catastrophe”.

Buffy is nothing if not a constant affirmation of the ability to break the chain of causality. For all its death and mayhem, Buffy’s ending is happy. And it is exactly this ending that is vital. As the credits begin to roll for the final time at the end of episode 22 of season seven, a complete structure is offered to us, a narratological homogeneity, a totality of the Buffy experience. Any assessment of any part of the show must base itself within the context of the overall structural whole – and this structural whole allows what had previously been only an adumbration to be seen concretely: Buffy is a comedy. As Buffy smiles silently, and the rest of the gang ponder the future, it is clear that she and they have won – they have bested fate, defeated the inevitable, conquered prophecy and predestination and, as a consequence, they have made the show a comedy through autonomous human agency. Agency presupposes the possibility of conjoining the petits recits of our protagonists in a constantly evolving and infinitely possible set of narrative structures as opposed to the autotelic tyranny of fatalistic determinacy.

NS: OK. Something tells me that we’re on slightly different wavelengths here. Digital [point to me]. Analog [point to Matthew]. If you want to pull all of this into the realm of Greek or Shakespearean tragedy or comedy then of COURSE you could pretty much shoehorn Buffy into just about any argument you want to make. Homer Simpson could argue Buffy was a comedy in THAT case. Yes, Buffy had tons of memorable comic moments that undercut otherwise dramatic moments: Giles handing foreboding books to Buffy before revealing they’re from the Time/Life series and he got a free calendar with the complete set; Buffy telling the Master he has fruit punch mouth; the reveal of Gachnar; the Troika arguing about their favourite James Bond; Anya hilariously mocking the funny way British people talk.
But at the outset of this paper we were referring specifically to TELEVISION drama and comedy. Not El Comedioso and Tragedia or WTF Matt was just talking about. Yes...

[WTF exchange]

NS: Use it on your students. They’ll think you’re totally awesome. Anyway, by the definition Professor Jargon here uses [big eye roll from Matthew], a happy ending would constitute a comedy. But if that were true, almost any television show would be considered a comedy, since almost every series ends happily in some way. I mean, come on, by this rationale, the greatest television tragedy of all time would be... ALF. Everyone remember that show, with the lovable little stuffed-puppet-aardvarky-sarcasm-wielding thing that lived in the Tanners’ garage? ALF was an alien from the planet Melmac. At the beginning of the series, the “Alien Task Force” comes to the Tanner house saying they’re looking for this alien that has landed and they want to take him in and – I quote – “We'll see how it responds to intense heat, freezing cold, high voltage, toxic substances, pain, sleep deprivation, inoculation, and, of course, dissection.” The Tanners, of course, lie and say they’ve seen no such thing, and spend the rest of the series hiding ALF and becoming besties with him. In the series finale, two of his fellow Melmackians fly down to Earth to pick him up. The Tanners drive him out to a field, have a tearful goodbye, and drive off, and just as ALF is about to board the spaceship, the Alien Task Force shows up, the Melmackians freak out and fly away, and ALF is left standing there facing the people who will no doubt put him through the worst tortures they have to offer. FADE TO BLACK. END OF SERIES. CHILDHOOD TRAUMA.

Now, of course this was intended to be a SEASON finale cliffhanger, and the show was canceled in the summer making it the INADVERTENT series finale, but still, if we take the finale on its own, this show was a horrific tragedy, and not the comedy – avec laugh track – that we had enjoyed for four years previous to it.

MP: While Stafford chooses to employ a kind of reductio ad absurdum here, I would remind her that I did not simply assert that Buffy is a generic comedy because it has a happy ending, rather that the ending (ambiguous and laconic as it is with Buffy’s enigmatic smile) asserts the ‘evitability’ of fate: comedy refuses to see agency pre-determined: Oedipus Tyrannus is not a tragic drama because it ends sadly but because fate is absolute and over-wheening. And in the case of ALF, any assessment of a TV show that does not take into account the production histories that led to the narrative conclusion is not serious: ALF is obviously not a tragic narrative; it is an incomplete comic narrative.

And it would be an egregious failure of academic responsibility not to correct Ms Stafford’s factual error about where this paper (and indeed the entire history that allows this paper to be) started. She asserts, in her vulgarly capitalised way, that we began with television drama – we did not: we began by identifying a disagreement about the status of Buffy but then moved on to Odysseus and Oedipus – a critical and historical context that I would have thought was both generally valuable and specifically pertinent given Buffy’s engagement with both texts. But Ms Stafford has chosen to ignore them, and now, it seems is eager to banish them altogether from the discussion.

NS: OK, Giles here was the one who introduced those concepts at the beginning of our paper when originally we had agreed to discuss whether or not Buffy was a comedy or a drama, and the last time I checked, it was a TELEVISION SHOW, and therefore I’m looking at it within the context of television. He’s the one who brought the Greeks into it. So let’s bring it back to what we were discussing before Matt went... wherever it was he went.

MP: I ‘went’ as you so peculiarly put it..

NS: Uh, this is MY verse, hel-LO… NOW. Wikipedia divides Television Comedy into several sub-categories, and one of them is comic-drama, which it defines as “a program that combines humour with more serious dramatic elements, aiming for a considerably more realistic tone...” This is a pretty solid definition of what BtVS achieves. It combines humour with more serious dramatic elements.

In television, the divide between comedy and drama is usually super obvious. Think of Roseanne, for example, another Whedon-influenced show. It was hilarious, it had a laugh track... but Becky got pregnant out of wedlock; Jackie suffered from an abusive boyfriend; Dan kept losing jobs; Darlene couldn’t keep a regular relationship; Dan had a heart attack... and then season 8 was completely freakin’ bonkers. But that aside, it was a comedy, and no one would argue any different (except maybe in season 8 when it was just STUPID).

Now, in contrast, The Wire was one of the most dire and devastating shows ever made. Families were broken, people were murdered, cops had their lives destroyed, everyone was corrupt... but it had moments of REAL hilarity, causing the audience to laugh out loud at either an inside joke or a rare moment of slapstick. No one would argue that this is a comedy – to even suggest that would probably incur charges of racism or a complete lack of human compassion – but the series still ended with hope for a new day.

While Buffy was definitely a more optimistic show than The Wire will ever be, and had more laugh-out-loud moments, it was a drama, one that still made us laugh through our tears, but which gave us those tears nevertheless.

MP: Ah Wikipedia, the 21st century’s version of, ‘A bloke in a pub told me…’.This ‘research-light’ version of generic investigation repeats Stafford’s earlier failure to recognise the difference between the totality of Buffy as a genre, and specific attributes it may have which would include ‘humour’. And, as Stafford is right to point out, tears.

Arguably, no tears have been more coldly extracted than those of Andrew in ‘Storyteller’. This episode is riotously funny. Andrew’s attempts to hide himself in the cloak of cliché and to narrate himself as the hero of a set of fables that are generically pre-determined in their formal construction (sage story teller; super villain, unwilling servant of fate) are brilliant. His desire to reduce the world to simplified formally recognisable structures of communication (advert, soap opera, fairy tale) offers visually hilarious vignettes that nevertheless extend our understanding of his inability to confront his responsibility as the murderer of Jonathan. Buffy has become increasingly estranged and aloof. When she confronts Andrew and insists that he must close the Hellmouth with his blood and potentially, death, we are in a deeply disturbing place. I believed, when watching the episode for the first time, that Buffy was capable of killing Andrew in cold blood. How far had she drifted from the ‘hero’ Giles identified who could not kill Ben in ‘Chosen’?

Andrew has been miscommunicating all episode – substituting sincerity for reduced generic simplicity. Here his lachrymosal declaration of guilt is sincere: cowardly, perhaps; selfish, even: but sincere. His sincerity has been bought at the price of Buffy’s duplicity. The tears close the hellmouth, temporarily thwarting the First.

The fact that we believe Buffy will kill Andrew is terrifying; Andrew’s tears are very moving and the episode is astonishingly funny. But what makes the episode a comedy (one of the few in the terms I am asserting) is that at the end, Andrew attempts to continue his self-narrative to camera, and ends up turning it off. He no longer strives to locate his subject-hood in the pre-determined discourses of genre, myth, fable or whatever. Instead, he accepts responsibility, and refuses both the consolation and constraint of fate as the determiner of action. Evitability wins.

NS: While it pains me to admit that Dr. Bore-able just gave an excellent analysis of one of my favourite season 7 episodes, I really can’t help but think that his understanding of comedy is just grossly different than mine. “Storyteller” is one of the funniest episodes of the season, but Andrew turning off the camera in the final moments is heartbreaking. Once again, the episode used comedy to fuel its plot, but ultimately even the funniest episode focusing on Xander’s successor in buttmonkeydom became a serious drama in the end. Let me point to one last episode in BtVS that also achieved that goal.

In “A New Man,” Giles, who has just realized that Maggie Walsh is becoming Buffy’s new Yoda and as such he is feeling increasingly useless and invisible, is turned into a Fyarl demon. Unable to communicate with anyone because he now speaks in a language consisting of loud growls (not unlike my colleague), Giles bumbles through a series of comic scenes. But when Buffy, working with the Initiative, suddenly breaks into the room where Giles is and attempts to stab him, only to look into his eyes and realize who is really in there, it’s terrifying. Like the end of “Storyteller,” we think there’s a possibility Giles might actually die in this scene, but he doesn’t. Instead, Buffy apologizes for keeping him out of the loop... yet still goes back to Professor Walsh instead of Giles. The ending is a sad one, the circumstances that brought him to this lowly state are every parent’s nightmare, and the comic moments with Spike crashing the Gilesmobile or Giles running after Maggie as he tries to scare her are simply in there to lighten the tension of an otherwise dramatic ep.

MP: I agree, wholeheartedly. Buffy was a drama.

NS: [Throws hands up in the air, about to celebrate... looks at Matthew... hands slowly drop.] You have But-Face.

MP: BUT... more than any other drama on television that I can think of, it engaged absolutely with the notion of refusing to disavow human agency in the face of seemingly insuperable and (in the context of the show) absolutely real fatalistic predeterminations. In the case of Giles as a Fyarl demon, Buffy refuses to accept the injunction that Demons and monsters are inevitably bad. This is a staggeringly strong refutation of prescriptions in favour of agency. This agency is not without its own problems, but it is a disavowal of fate and its anti-agency assumptions. Buffy is fated to die at the hands of the Master and she does, but Xander brings her back. This is obviously a dramatic moment but the resolution of the season is comedic in the sense of being both happy and anti-fatal. Season two by contrast ends in abject misery and is emphatically not comedic – fate has won insofar as the prophecy relating to Acathla demands the death of Angel to save the world: Buffy, heroically, tragically, beautifully, heart-wrenchingly, obliges. If the show had ended there, I would not be claiming for one second that it is, in totality, a comedy. But it didn’t. Season three sees fate bested again, but Angel leaves: comedic structure, heartbreaking emotion. Season four eschews any easy generic closure and offers us the beguiling polymorphousness of an anti-ending. Season five is entirely a dramatic tragic ending – ‘Death is your gift’ says the spirit guide and Buffy duly offers herself as per destiny demands. Again, had the show ended here, I would not be claiming for it the status of a comedy. But UPN stepped in and the rest is (comedic) history.

NS: You know what? Generally when Professor Polymorphous is talking I just start thinking about my next blog post on the series finale of Lost, but what he just said was interesting, and it made me realize... maybe we’re looking at this all wrong. Maybe Buffy is simply indefinable. It’s like M*A*S*H... a sitcom about the horrors of war (yeah, THAT’S funny). M*A*S*H was nominated for awards in the Comedy category because the laugh track defined it as such. But fans of the show knew there were as many tears as there were laughs — how could a show that ended with a scene of a mother smothering her own baby so the enemy wouldn’t hear her hiding in the bushes be considered pure comedy? And similarly, despite the fact Joss Whedon entered Buffy into dramatic categories at the Emmys (a point I was going to argue earlier but I figured he’d go all New Criticism “authorial intention” on me... yeah, surprise, I do know SOME of that stuff), it’s hard to pigeonhole Buffy into one category or the other. Maybe that’s why we just can’t see eye to eye on this is because we’re trying to categorize a show that defies categorization.

MP: The question of authorship is important, you’re right; and it’d be hard to be arguing for agency if I then deny some idea of intention. So, while I think it is maybe a bit too easy to say it defies categorisation, its complexity is certainly in excess of our ability to fathom. Also, my being about three feet taller than you makes eye to eye difficult! Truce?

NS: Yeah, truce. But seriously, Diomedes? I mean, come ON.

MP: Why the FACE??


Joshua said...

" this rationale, the greatest television tragedy of all time would be... 'Alf.'"

HA! [Text-based Alf imitation -- how'd I do?]

That was terrific! You guys really outdid yourselves. Awesome job.

humanebean said...

Oh, I must read this in text form! It may be my speakers but I'm having a particularly difficult time making out Prof P.'s portion of the presentation. Love the idea, though - and what I CAN make out sounds quite intriguing!

Nikki Stafford said...

Frak, I was worried it would be too echoey. OK, let me see if I can get the text up there to accompany it (it's better listening to it, not reading it, but if it helps...) Also, if you keep watching, it gets clearer as we go, because we both end up stepping back from the mike as the paper progresses.

I'm glad you liked it, Josh!!

Nikki Stafford said...

Update: The transcript is now up, underneath the video. You won't be able to read along and watch but it'll be good for reference. :)

humanebean said...

Thanks, Nikki! Just think - now it's closed captioned for the thinking impaired. ; ]

humanebean said...

Bravo to you and Professor Polymorphous! Brilliant, straight down the line. The combination of the script and the video renders the unintelligible ... intelligible?

For no reason other than the obvious, Prof P's last line immediately reminds me of the old joke about the horse who walks into a bar. The bartender says, "Why the long face?"

What, you prefer the sequel? Okay: a pony walks into a bar. Bartender says, "What'll it be, pal?" Pony says something the bartender can't quite understand. Bartender leans in and says, "What was that? I couldn't quite get it". Pony leans forward and in a low voice says, "Sorry, I'm a little hoarse".


Fred said...

Very briefly, there is an assumption that comedies end happily and tragedies end unhappily. ... As Susan Snyder has stated: “What makes the difference is [...] the operation of a kind of 'evitability' principle whereby shifts and stratagems and sheer good luck break the chain of causality that seemed headed for certain catastrophe”.

The evitability principle arises in narrative, and the evitability principle is plot, the driver or force of the direction everything must move. The detective novel drives forward by exposing plot through clues the detective follows one at a time. Romance novels rely on the 'evitable misinterpretation of plot elements (really, she's not his wife, she's his sister) and their resolution in the denouement.

Nikki, you can take this back to Pateman, there is some relationship between the classical notion of Tragedy with its inevitability of plot over human agency, and Romance (not dime story romance, but Morte d'Arthur Romance) where plot and human agency are on an even par. As well, the Romantic tendency concentrates on myth, ritual and metaphor, it is antirepresentational (so much of the nineteenth century Gothic Romance appears in BtVS: violence, disguise, suspense, machinations, secret clues and hidden meanings). But unlike the Castle of Udolpho, BtVS is also parodic of the Gothic Romance, hence its establishment as a Comedy. If there is too much of Realism in BtVS, then your impression of it as dramatic at heart holds; however, if its Romantic nature is more to the fore, then its relies more on ritual forms and plot through which human agency can act.

I am thinking of LOST, too, which at its heart is a Romance. According to Dr. Pateman's quotation, then, LOST's tale breaks the chain of causality through human agency. This implies LOST is a Comedic Romance. We would not say LOST is "ha ha" funny, but in its overall arc it is a Comedic Romance, fitting with Dante's Divine Comedy or Shakespeare's The Tempest. Overall, LOST begins with a descent (plane crash) and ends with an ascent (Ajira plane flying away) to an idyllic world (image in the church of light).

So I'd say BtVS is a Gothic Romance, which utilizes parody of those key generic elements of the Gothic and the Romance. BtVS's parody of these genres provides the material for humour to arise, and for miscommunication. This last is so important in BtVS as it attests to its association with so many past comic forms, especially from the eighteenth century. I'd conclude BtVS conceals its Comedic form very well behind its Gothic imagination. Certainly, BtVS is a metaphor of growing up (of becoming an adult), and while the imagination of the child growing to adulthood may be fraught with dreadful imaginings and dangers, from a distance, growing up is a Comedy.

Batcabbage said...

Wow, Nik, that was fascinating. Fantastic presentation! Congrats to both you and Prof Matt/Jargon/Poly... Poly... Polywannacracker. I have to admit, I was a little lost (HA!) during some of the erstwhile Prof's bits, but his description of Storyteller was amazing, and has made me want to watch it again (being an eternal geek, Andrew, and of course, Xander, are my favourite Buffy characters).

Well done! Can't wait to hear more of your Slayage experience!

vw: ashliet - late partner of Ashleo.

Fred said...

It is fascinating how your (Nikki and Matthew) paper represents a dialogic discourse, which affords the opportunities for comedy. Comedy also operates where there is a distance between the spoken voice and either the participant or an observer (reader, television audience), and where the social is ennunciated through the spoken word. Your speech highlights the social aspect through selected words and name calling, but for whom does the comedy work in its favour? In Simpsons comedy works in favour of whomever is speaking: know it all Lisa, dense Homer, ingenuous Marge.

It would be neat if you included a self-reflexive element in your talk about your talk as an example of comedy in BtVS. What makes your speech comedic (even funny) is your authorial perspective over what you were saying, doubled with an assumed ignorance of this authorial perspective. How self-aware are Buffy, Giles or any of the Scooby gang of what they say? One might (and by that I mean "I") wonder if your talk reflected a negative dialectic, and not a confusion of terminologies (Shakespearian comedy, television comedy)? Is there even a sense of the sublime in BtVS: an incongruity between horror and human agency? Or are even the figures of horror (demons) just metaphorical masks of human agency? I lean towards the latter interpretation as BtVS always comes down in human moral certitude (for the most part), rather than face an indifferent Nature. I would also classify BtVS's comedic genre in form as Sisyphian: an endless series of labours resulting in rolling the rock up the hill only to have more demons spill out of the nether depths to confront Buffy once more.

JW said...

You were great, Nikki. You look good, too!

Molly Oberlin said...

This is late in coming, but I had to mention the incredible humor of your presentation and the joy I had watching it down in Florida. You two did a fabulous job, and it struck a immediate chord with me, because for last couple years I have used excerpts of your work and Matthew's to teach stylistic difference in my English comp classes. FABULOUS!