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Figuring it Out in Sitcoms: Examining Whiteness in King of the Hill and Letterkenny

In a drawn out moment defined by the confluence of multiple pandemics (COVID, racism, climate change, income inequality, etc.), a large portion of the United States population has finally stumbled (or maybe been forced to stumble) into a question they should have been asking forever: how do I stop being a White Supremacist Asshole™?

As a White person who is also constantly working through this question, I’m not going to try to answer that question and fuck up my own attempt to not be a White Supremacist Asshole™. Beyond this being a horrible venue to try to do that, I could never answer this question as thoroughly as the thinkers who have the lived experience of being subjected to the violence that comes with Whiteness. People like James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Frank Wilderson, Franz Fanon, W.E.B. Dubois, and others (not Robin DiAngelo) have all done that work and me trying to summarize what they said feels pretty colonizey.

But what I can do in this space is start thinking about how I see this question taking shape in the world around me, what White people trying to figure it out in 2021 looks like, and what we might be able to learn from that visual. And a great way to start that project is by looking at popular culture and comedy in particular. Jokes don’t land if they don’t resonate with people on some level. Even the alien absurdity of shows like The Eric Andre Show work because of their foothold in something recognizable (i.e. the late-night talk show format). So the jokes we tell now, the ones that reverberate through large audiences, can reveal how were thinking about and discoursing our way through the current moment.

With that set up in mind, let’s look at two shows that constantly focus on Whiteness (even though they might not explicitly call that out themselves): King of the Hill and Letterkenny. In comparing the ways that these shows addressed issues of racism and the Whiteness of their characters and contexts, we can get a glimpse into what has changed about the discourse around Whiteness in the 15 years between them and what else has to change moving forward.

To put it out there, I strongly believe that King of the Hill is one of the best television shows of all time. Running between 1997 and 2010, KOTH aired 259 episodes across 13 seasons (numbers that seem completely ridiculous now, seeing that most shows call it quits after 80 episodes tops), the show was consistently hilarious throughout with episodes deep into Season 13 being some of the funniest. Despite the fact that the show set up almost every single one of its most iconic gags in the pilot, the fact that “that’s my purse I don’t know you” came from the 105th episode overall, in the middle of the 6th season, is pretty mind boggling.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the formula that kept the show feeling so relevant was exceedingly simple: craft a handful of extremely detailed and deceptively complex characters and then just drop them into whatever context you want. Of course, creating a dozen or so absolutely iconic characters is far from easy, but once you have those characters in place you can just keep running them through any number of scenarios to generate an endless amount of comic gold. At least, it’s endless until the network decides that THE FUCKING CLEVELAND SHOW IS SOMEHOW MORE IMPORTANT THAN ONE OF THE BEST TELEVISION SHOWS OF ALL TIME. But I digress.

However, characters don’t just materialize out of nothing. Understanding the character means understanding the context of that character, the history and the environment that shape that particular individual (regardless of whether they are fictional or non-fictional). And, importantly, the context for KOTH is a small Texas town and all of the ideological baggage that comes with that: conservativism, “small-town values,” and, of course, Whiteness.

But where KOTH really made its mark was how it attended to this context. Rather than promote one political alignment over another, the show took care to show the allure and downfalls of all sides without falling into a false “both sides” approach to human life. Characters like Hank Hill, defined by conservative ideals and White ideologies, were routinely and consistently portrayed as being wrong and Hank ate his words on a regular basis (which time and time again proved to be Hank’s best quality). In turn, a rotating cast of liberal side characters (hippies, co-op workers, educators, etc.) often had the right idea for whatever situation Arlen found itself in but ended up being so self-involved or sniveling that they got ran out of town (but not before Hank or Peggy or whoever learned something valuable).

This often led to a wildly clever application of a Hegelian dialectic, one where Bobby Hill embodied the synthesis of two worldviews. But I’ll get into that in another post.

Naturally, a show that almost exclusively builds episodes around placing well known characters in unknown territory will either explicitly or implicitly come up against issues of race. And since the main characters are, in part, defined through their Whiteness, then facing that Whiteness is where the show goes. There’s lots of places to find this theme within the show, but “Racist Dawg,” an episode from the 7th season of the show, highlighted this conflict more than just about any other. The narrative arc behind “Racist Dawg” grows out of an interaction between Hank and Mack, a Black repair man hired to fix Hank’s water heater. Clearly uncomfortable with having to hire someone else to fix his water heater (a response that also draws on the running theme of masculinity within the show), the tension between the two characters builds until Ladybird, Hank’s dog, attacks Mack. Mack, in turn, accuses the dog (and, by extension, Hank) of being racist.

There we go. Conflict established.

The rest of the episode follows Hank as he tries to prove that both he and Ladybird are not racist with every attempt building evidence that they actually are. Obedience classes, online tests, church sermons, and an unfortunate interaction with two dolls all go the wrong way and the local community starts to turn against Hank. But another dog attack saves Hank’s reputation: a White repair man comes over to the house and Ladybird once again goes after the unwelcome guest. It turns out that Ladybird just hates repairmen. Hank then brings ladybird to Mack’s house and the two get along now that Mack is not wearing his uniform.

While the show time and time again rests on Hank’s ability to own up to his problems and learn from his mistakes, this episode notably falls dramatically short of this end. The narrative plays directly into Chaney’s critique of the show when he states that, “as a result of interracial interchanges, white characters leave no trace of being marked with blackness by the conclusion of their narratives. Paradoxically, blackness seems most often invoked by white characters to reinforce or enhance some inner quality already implied in the white character.” Instead of reckoning with the problems that emerge from his own Whiteness and issues of White supremacy, Hank avoids it at all costs to prove that he’s actually a good guy. And the writer’s really let him off the hook at the end by giving Mack and Ladybird their reconciliation.

Thinking through these issues in 2021, the failure of the show to reckon with Whiteness in this episode feels both pertinent and dated simultaneously. The deeply ingrained response of White people to immediately go to extremes to prove they aren’t racist at even the slightest mention of them upholding racist ideologies or White supremacy clearly hasn’t gone away. The response by both the police and the mass murderer in the recent Atlanta shootings proves this point. This group of violent oppressors and the arrested shooter both went to extremes to reiterate that the mass murder wasn’t racially motivated, but the murderer very easily owned up to mass murder.

It should be an unsurprising response at this point. Whiteness and White Supremacy rely on the active denial that racism is a material reality that White people buy into and benefit from.

At the same time, that response was immediately jumped on by so many both within the media and outside of it through social media. Almost across the board, everyone called bullshit. Clearly, that doesn’t solve the problem, but it also shows that a bullshit response like that doesn’t fly anymore. To this end, I can’t imagine that an episode like “Racist Dawg” (and especially its conclusion) would fly anymore. The fact that KOTH actually built an entire episode around this facet of Whiteness shows how ahead of its time the show was, but the way the issue gets brushed off in the last moments inevitably dates the show’s politics as well.

Which raises an important question: has anything actually changed since then?

To see how far (or not) we’ve some since 2003 let’s look at Letterkenny, the closest show to KOTH we currently have. When I first started watching this Canadian comedy, I initially started describing the show as a live action version of KOTH since the same formula seems to apply: a group of well-defined and culturally idiosyncratic characters routinely find themselves in novel and unexpected situations. The fact that an entire season was based around three of the characters accidentally landing a cable access show speaks to this narrative approach. Additionally, situating the show in a rural Canadian town also aligns the show with KOTH’s political sensibilities. The hicks, skids, and hockey players that populate the town bicker amongst each other for episodes on end until the hipsters from the city or “degens from upcountry” infringe on their community, at which point everyone bands together and kicks the outsiders back out.

Additionally, the show also mirrors KOTH’s relationship to Whiteness. Returning to Chaney’s analysis, KOTH “mediates the production of a white-classed Otherness—the Texan white, a paradoxical subject both marked and unmarked” by Whiteness. Replace “Texan” with rural and you would not be able to tell if the author was talking about KOTH or Letterkenny in this quote.

That being said, the show isn’t an exact replica. Once I got beyond my initial comparison, I realized that the formula behind Letterkenny wasn’t quite the same as KOTH. Yes, the character-based humor does run throughout the show, but the humor from Letterkenny is less about how these characters respond to novel situations and more about squeezing as much clever wordplay out of that context as possible. For minutes on end, Letterkenny will just machinegun puns at you at a pace so fast that viewers will catch maybe one joke out of every ten. And while this may sound insufferable, the people behind the show seem to not care one bit and the self-assuredness that all of the actors emanate doubles down on that confidence (and carries the show).

So I was wrong. Letterkenny isn’t a live action King of the Hill. It’s a Hee Haw reboot written by Tina Fey.

But does this accompany a shift in how the show tackles the issue of Whiteness? I would argue that it has, even if the show hasn’t solved all of KOTH’s problems. An episode like “Hard Right Jay,” one in which a character in a fictional version of the Alt-Right shows up to town and tries to stir up shit, speaks to this… to a certain extent. Throughout the episode, the titular character approaches the other White characters on the show to try and recruit them to his cause. But all of the characters blow him off. At least until Hard Right Jay and a few of his Alt-Right friends confront the Indigenous people on the show, at which point all of the Indigenous and White characters team up to beat the living shit out the Neo-Nazis.

Which is a pretty apt way of dealing with Nazis: don’t give them the time of day until they actually try to crawl out of their basements and then use excessive force.

But the episode also provides an easy out for dealing with Whiteness on the show through abject racism. “The White characters on the show aren’t that bad, see? When the racist shows up, they beat them up for their BIPOC friends (which they DEFINITELY HAVE)! They couldn’t possibly uphold White supremacy!” That sort of thing. And this happens routinely when shows tackle racism: the abject forms of White supremacy are vilified while the everyday and often mundane forms of Whiteness remain unchallenged and upheld.

A better representation of contemporary understandings of Whiteness on the show, in my opinion, comes during an episode from season three entitled “Puck Bunny.” As a subplot on the show, a bunch of the aforementioned degens showed up and ruined Wayne, Darry, and Squirrely Dan’s recently built shack. To get revenge on the degens and make sure they don’t come back, the three characters recruit McMurray, Tyson, and Joint Boy to help out. But they have to come up with a plan first. So the six (White) characters meet outside of the shack to discuss their next steps.

(At this point, I would normally just link the clip, but I can’t find a good rip of it on YouTube. So you may just want to watch the episode and skip the next few paragraphs).

Almost immediately, the conversation crashes and burns. McMurray, as an opening gambit, suggests advertising a party for “ethnicities” as a way to lure out the degens because, as we all know, degens are racist so all the degens will show up to beat up the people of color. The idea is immediately shot down by Wayne and the others and the conversation turns to other awful things about degens outside of racism, such as homophobia, that could be used to lure them back to the shack. McMurray asks for a clarification (“You mean like gaybashing?”) and when Wayne and Squirrely Dan provide that clarification (“That’s the one”), McMurray then goes ahead and shoves his foot back into his mouth by saying “That’s so gay.”

This pushes the conversation into another direction, with the six characters both trying to figure out how homophobia works (why can gay people call each other gay or twink and it’s fine, the finer points of getting into a fight with a gay person you don’t know is gay) while also separating themselves from homophobia as much as possible (when Squirrely Dan tells McMurray that something he said was homophobix, McMurray pulls out a machete and shouts “Where?!”). All the while, Wayne sighs about how obnoxiously difficult everything is and Squirrely Dan tells everyone what he learned from Professor Tricia in his gender studies class. The interaction culminates when McMurray says that his idea to use “ethnicities” is way better than using gays to lure out the degens because the ethnicities could help beat up the degens. Darry shuts it down, saying that “using human lures is extreme,” while Squirrely Dan says that he would really like McMurray to meet Professor Tricia someday. Finally, the group decides to not use gays to lure out the degens but “fake gays” to avoid gay bashing (“You’d want to avoid a hate crime if you could”) and the scene cuts.

So after that drawn out explanation, the question remains: what has changed? Within this scene, two key distinctions exist between Letterkenny and KOTH’s treatment of Whiteness (and, for the moment, I’m going to follow Dyer’s analysis and conflate Whiteness and heterosexuality because of the ways they remain intertwined, but I’ll come back I swear). The first being that the end game of the process has shifted dramatically. While the knee jerk, defensive reaction from being accused of racism or homophobia remains, the characters on Letterkenny don’t spend the entire scene trying to prove that they aren’t homophobic or racist. While they do do that to some extant, there is a genuine interest on the part of the characters to understand what about their actions results in that oppression. At no point in the KOTH episode does Hank seem open to the opinions of other people who say he might be racist, as the show only portrays a character trying to prove something to everyone else.

Second, the characters on Letterkenny seem far more willing to listen to the voice of others. While Hank rejects anyone else’s opinion (as shown by his refusal to believe the implicit bias test he takes), Squirrely Dan is eager to bring in the words of people from outside the group through the inclusion of Professor Tricia’s thoughts. And even after the character’s have shut down McMurray multiple times for holding on to racist and homophobic ideas, he seems eager to meet Professor Tricia to learn more. Again, this points to an openness to understanding their own practices, their own contributions to the furthering of Whiteness, that remains absent in KOTH.

So maybe something has changed in the past decade and a half.

…or maybe not.

Let’s look at the scene from Letterkenny again, except this time we’ll separate Whiteness and heteronormativity. Keeping these ideas distinct, a clear imbalance emerges: the characters move past the issue of racism present in McMurray’s initial comments and jump into a discussion of the finer points of homophobia incredibly quickly. In doing so, the show reveals another example of how Whiteness embraces or rejects groups of people whenever it aids the process of consolidating power. The fact that the characters spend so much time on figuring out their own implicit homophobia while merely shutting down the discussion of racism without discussing their relationship to Whiteness speaks to the ways discourses on race circulate.

Still, Letterkenny’s approach still illustrates a small but important facet of anti-racist work: a bunch of White dudes standing around and calling each other out for saying, doing, and thinking dumb shit. It’s far from a perfect conversation and a number of tensions and unresolved issues loom over the end of the scene, but that’s going to happen. Figuring this out doesn’t happen on day one of the book club (or maybe even during the book club at all). But it can act as a call for White people to figure their shit out without having to rely on the emotional labor of people of color. So McMurray might not have actually exorcised everything he needed to from his past, but he figured some shit out and became open to figuring out even more. But dear god, we (meaning White people) need to get there faster.

So let’s get ahead of the sitcom curve and, to quote the many characters of Letterkenny, figure it out.

Unabashedly pretentious musings on noise, shitposting, and other cultural forces.

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