Grad Research (?): Photoshopping American Studies

Last week, three members of our American Studies community, professor Randy Lewis, and graduate students Sean Cashbaugh and Carrie Andersen, were written up in The Daily Texan for their work on The End of Austin, an online journal that features stories on and about our urban home. Not only did The Daily Texan note TEOA’s attention to the changing culture and demographics of the city, they also published the following humorless picture, which we’ve all been laughing about since (the pictured trio included!):

End of Austin

Why so serious, everyone?

Because Randy, Sean, and Carrie appear so absurdly serious and melancholy in that picture, we couldn’t help but break out our copies of Photoshop to have a little fun. We started with the traditional picture + text meme, quickly coalescing around a hipster academic theme, before quickly heading off into a few different directions entirely. As a little bit of fun on a Friday, we’ve curated our favorites for you. All of these were made by members of the American Studies community.


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Grad Research: Carrie Andersen on Slapstick Comedy and Octodad at Kill Screen

Ph.D. student Carrie Andersen has a piece up over at Kill Screen on slapstick comedy, video games, and Octodad (a video game about a “loving father, caring husband, secret octopus”).


Here’s a taste:

The game centers on the patriarch of an excruciatingly normal family. But said patriarch is secretly an octopus, forced to hide his true identity. Maintaining secrecy is easier said than done: octopi cannot navigate land so gracefully, we learn, and so Octodad wobbles around like a baby deer learning to walk. Think Being John Malkovich meets QWOP meets The Coneheads.

That physical ineptitude is the focal point of Octodad’s comedy. Octodad is a “hard-to-control, awkward mess of a character,” according to John Murphy, a developer for Young Horses, Inc.

According to Murphy, Octodad drew its inspiration from unintentional comedic classics like the PC disaster Jurassic Park: Trespasser, released in 1998. To say this game was overhyped would be an understatement. Meant to be a companion for the 1997 film The Lost World: Jurassic Park, the game’s development occurred in concert with Steven Spielberg himself and Minnie Driver, who voiced the main character. But even Spielberg was an insufficient force to rescue Trespasser from mediocrity and buggy-ness. The game “was supposed to revolutionize AI and games and physics, but it ended up being this weird, accidentally hilarious thing.”

As it turns out, accidental hilarity is ripe for scholarly analysis. Check out the full article here.

Alumni Voices: Film Director Bob Byington

Today we feature some words from Bob Byington, who pursued a career in film after graduating with an MA in American Studies. His films have screened in theaters and festivals nationwide, including our own South by Southwest. His most recent film, Somebody Up There Likes Me (2012), stars Nick Offerman, Keith Poulson, and Jess Weixler and was filmed right here in Austin.

How is the work that you’re doing right now informed by the work that you did as a student in American Studies at UT?

Bill Stott, who was my primary mentor at UT, let me make a movie for the Doc. class he was teaching, and that got me started on the whole idea of trying to make a movie instead of being fascinated by watching them.  And I was able to take RTF classes as a kind of cross-discipline thing.

Do you have any words of wisdom or advice for students in our department about how to get the most out of their time here?

The facilities and resources at UT are astounding. Professors work for the students, tho’ it’s not set up to seem that way. And the equipment you have access to as an American Studies grad. student, that’s sitting in the RTF building — even when I was there in the early ’90’s it was great, and now it’s obviously way better…

Grad Research: Carrie Andersen Writes on Louis C.K.’s Conservative Vision

Graduate student Carrie Andersen has just published a piece for the Radio-Television-Film department’s online journal, Flow. She explores the surprisingly conservative threads within stand-up comedian Louis C.K.’s oeuvre, whose television show on FX (aptly entitled Louie) deals with moral questions more often than we might expect from typical comedy programs.

An excerpt is reprinted below and the full article is available here:

…Louie explores lofty questions that half-hour comedy programs rarely confront. How do we live a good life? How do we cultivate a code of conduct for our world? How can we avoid being awful to each other?

C.K. is no stranger to questions of living an ethical life—and, aware of his moral choices, often puts his own behavior on trial. In his December 2011 stand-up special, Live at Beacon Theater, the comedian describes one of his own falls from grace.

Too late for a flight to return his rental car, C.K. simply drives the car to the terminal—not to the rental car return—and boards his flight. He then calls Hertz to explain where the car is, and the employee exasperatedly explains the proper rental return procedure. C.K. replies matter-of-factly, “Well, I didn’t do that already, and now I’m leaving California.” Hertz sends an employee to retrieve the car, and C.K. avoids any consequences from his failure to abide by the rules.

Although C.K. realizes he could do this every time he flies to avoid Hertz’s bureaucratic song and dance, he knows it is wrong. Considering the broader consequences of this behavior, Louis advises, “You should act in a way, that if everyone acted that way, things would work out. Because it would be mayhem if everyone was like that.” This is Louis C.K.’s crude twist on Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative: for Kant, a principle (or, in his words, a maxim) is ethical if it would “become through your will a universal law of nature.”

C.K.’s maxim is, of course, not a strict reinterpretation of Kant’s. Louis is concerned with the outcome of his actions—he wants “things to work out”—while Kant questions whether we act in alignment with what duty requires of us. But both evaluate ethical choices based on the negative criterion of universalizability: you can’t make exceptions for yourself even if you want to.

(image from The AV Club)

Grad Research: Absurdity and Authenticity in Comedy at SXSW

Today, we’re sharing a piece by one of our contributing writers, Carrie Andersen, who recently wrote about her experiences watching and reviewing comedy shows at South by Southwest. The full piece can be found at Humor in America, a blog dedicated to comedy and humor in America that was founded by UT American Studies alum Tracy Wuster.

This year, South by Southwest’s comic offerings highlighted a variety of styles which were bookended with pure absurdism and unadulterated rawness. The full range of humor left audiences on their toes, but it’s the latter form that I am continually drawn to and that speaks to some broader compulsion to excavate authenticity wherever we can find it.

I think we’ve seen a rise in raw, authentic, deeply personal – and sometimes cringe-inducing – comedy in the past ten years. We’ve been blessed with shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm andLouie; comics like Marc Maron, Louis C.K., Mike Birbiglia, Doug Stanhope; movies like Borat.

These examples point to the integration of the personal in the comic narrative. Louie, for example, is funny in part because the title character is an extension of the real Louis C.K. As C.K.told Terry Gross, “The guy I am in the show is definitely me without anything I’ve learned. It’s just me making horrible mistakes that I don’t make in real life, but that are inside of me. They’re the things I would do if I didn’t think for a second.” Louie is the id to C.K.’s superego.

Check out the full piece here.

6 TV Shows American Studies Scholars Should Watch

One of the best things about the American Studies field is that popular songs, TV shows, movies – what many folks might see as simple diversions – don’t need to be treated apart from more traditional artifacts that merit scholarly analysis. In other words, they offer representations of America worth considering, dissecting, and debating.

And, thanks to entities like Hulu and Netflix, exploring media in depth has become quicker and easier – especially where television is concerned. Entire seasons of shows have been digitized and made readily available to the viewing public; it’s a golden age of access to representations of American life! And, of course, what better means of tapping into our cultural zeitgeist than through TV?

So, without further ado, a few shows you should watch if you’re in the wonderful field of American Studies – or simply aspire to be – along with a few clips to whet your appetites.

1. Deadwood – HBO – 2004 – 2006 (RIP)

I started watching Deadwood thanks to some recommendations by a few professors and colleagues. And the show doesn’t disappoint. Based on a post-Civil War South Dakota town, and featuring actual historical figures like Calamity Jane and Wyatt Earp, Deadwood provides what seems like a faithful representation of the lawless 19th century frontier. Authentic history notwithstanding, it’s an intense show, and that intensity starts right at the beginning. If you have a squeamish stomach or cringe when you hear coarse language, perhaps steer clear of this one. Bottom line: this is a hardcore western show. Watch it. It means business.

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