Blythe Robertson unpacks David Foster Wallace’s thoughts, and impacts, on American comedy for Splitsider.
Wallace often worried about the overwhelming amount of irony on television – talking heads poking fun at those watching the show while viewers laugh along at themselves, neither party doing much to fix their apparent boredom with the shallowness of the medium. Wallace posed that the culture of irony is a way people can avoid their feelings, and by extension, avoid being human. Many of the characters in Wallace’s fiction mirror this hypothesis, watching programs for the sake of making fun of them.
Robertson argues that many modern comedians and shows (such as Louie, Arrested Development, and Parks and Recreation) have taken note of Wallace’s theory, and today’s comedy is approaching a level of sincerity the author so craved to see:
Is there a solution? At the end of ‘E Unibus Pluram’ (written in 1990), Wallace suggests that ‘the next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of ‘anti-rebels’ who bravely embrace and take seriously sincerity and ‘old untrendy human troubles and emotions.’ I think that’s exactly what has started to happen on television. David Letterman is no longer the emblem of US comedy; his show, which won the Emmy from 1998-2002, wasn’t even nominated in the past three years. Instead, the sincere, joyous Late Night with Jimmy Fallon has emerged as a new path for late night comedy. We’ve seen the emergence of sitcoms with moral heart, pathos, character development, sincerity and soul. Parks and Recreation is perhaps superlative among these, in correlation with its showrunner’s DFW obsession.