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Is The Truman Show a Comedy?

Jim Carrey’s complex upbringing has led to a niche in cinema for him that can’t be described as anything else but one of a kind.  While he started his career in Hollywood off being recognized mostly as a funny man, he soon expanded this persona with his performances in such films as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Majestic, and recently the highly acclaimed 23.  Many critics consider Carey’s decision to take on the role of Truman in The Truman Show as the focal point of his expansion of the comedic archetype.

  This essay attempts to assess what is so significant about Jim Carey and his particular performance in The Truman Show.

Jim Carrey has been famous for his roles as a comedian since he first hit the big screen in the early 1990’s. He was born in Canada on January 17, 1962. He started working in the 80’s, at small comedy clubs. Carrey moved from Canada to Los Angeles in the 80’s to try and get more work.

His biggest break was in 1994 with the comedy Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. He continued making slap stick comedies in the years to follow, including Dumb and Dumber, The Mask and Liar Liar. In 1998 Jim Carrey took on the role of Truman Burbank, a role that would change his career and audience perception of him. Not only was The Truman Show making Jim Carrey step away from his slap stick, low comedy side, he was experimenting with a much darker comedy.

This shocked his audience at first because everyone assumed any film Jim Carrey was in, had to be laugh out loud funny.

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No one had seen a darker side of him. After The Truman Show, Jim Carrey accumulated a much larger fan base. People became fascinated by the ideas and themes that The Truman Show addressed. Jim Carrey continues making people laugh all over the world. People will flock to his comedic movies because they know that they will always have a sense of Jim Carrey humor. He has a way of acting that is all his own. The films he stars in, not only draw a huge audience, they also have an affect on his audience.

This essay will look at Jim Carrey as a comedy comedian, with specific focus on his darker comedic role in The Truman Show and its affect on society. Although The Truman Show is considered a comedy, its themes touched on issues that in the 90’s were still unaware to most people. The idea that someone was always watching scared society. Webcams, and reality television was still new and being developed. The thought of watching other people’s lives wasn’t interesting to society yet.

The only shows that were considered reality were “Cops” and MTV’s “The Real World.” These followed regular people around and showed them doing everyday normal things, like eating, shopping and seeing friends. This began to fascinate and attract people; and once The Truman Show came out it sparked a chain of shows surrounding the idea of ‘Big Brother,’ we are always being watched. Within a short people of time reality television and media started to run our lives.

As the 90’s progressed Jim Carrey’s comedies went from slapstick humor to more serious humor. The Truman show questioned if Jim Carrey would remain a comedian comic or take on the role of more versatile actor. He was originally known as a funny guy, who couldn’t be taken seriously. Once he took on roles that still had comedic aspects but had a lot more depth he was able to reach a larger audience and impact more people with his versatility. He shows that there is humor in the most dramatic situations and his classic comedic timing only further enforces his ability as an actor..

All the reviews I read categorized The Truman Show as high comedy. Jim Carrey’s actions are funnier then what is actually happening. Very often his facial expressions and actions imply a deeper, or even darker meaning than what is on the surface.  The theme of the movie is much deeper and more profound than one might want to initially think.. This is partly why Jim Carey has been able to command so much money at the box office.  His ability to connect with audiences of all ages has much to do with his highly animated performances combined with their adult implications.  Reviewers were shocked at first to see Jim Carrey in such a serious role.

In a review on title “Smile! Your life’s on TV” the article said once the script was sold the producer took the script straight to Jim Carrey because “Jim had the kind of madness the project needed to ultimately get made. His warmth was a hedge against a movie that could have been on the cold side and needed someone with audience sympathy”(Corliss). The underlining theme in the film is finding yourself and finding your true identity and Jim Carrey does this in a way that he brings comedy and seriousness to the role.

This is a very mature concept, and one that might not always be expected from a comedian.  In most reviews, reviewers agree that Jim Carrey carries the movie. One reviewer said, “For Carrey detractors who are easily turned off by the comic’s rubber-faced antics, The Truman Show proves to be an eye-opener. Not only does Carrey remain rigidly-controlled and reigned in, but it would be fair to call his performance both understated and effective”(Berardinelli, James).

When reviewers are commenting on comedy, especially any comedy Jim Carrey is in the reviewer assumes it is going to be a laugh out loud comedy. When they walk into a Jim Carrey movie, whether it is serious or not they are always in hopes of escaping into a world full of laughter. He turns every role he has into a character, because that is what a comedian comic does when he acts. Audiences always react positively to Jim Carrey’s comedic characters. It is only when he stars in serious roles that his audience begins to question him. In many reviews for The Truman Show rarely do any of them come out and say that the film is a comedy.

One review I read brought up questions about the film and one of the questions was, “how badly will marketing The Truman Show as a comedy hurt the movie when viewers realize that’s not what it is”(Berardinelli, James)? Reviewers do not give an exact definition for comedy when they are talking about The Truman Show. On a review on IMDB a reviewer says, “No, it’s not a comedy, well…not exactly.” I didn’t quite understand until I watched it myself. Truman takes on a tone quite different than any parody/comedies I’ve seen lately”(IMDB).

Jim Carrey’s versatility draws even more audience and fans. He has now acquired an even larger fan base. The marketing controversy behind The Truman Show stems from the fact that western audiences are accustomed to seeing Jim Carey as a comedian.  The irony of this that it creates a dual conflict of identity both for Truman and for Carey and the way he is perceived by the public.  The film has multiple layers of understanding of what it means to be both a comedian and a hero.

In Krutnicks, Hollywood Comedians, The Film Reader the Steve Seidman essay “Performance, Enuciation, and Self-Reference in Hollywood Comedian Comedy” talks about Comedian comics. The essays talks about the origins of the comedian comedic. Comedian comedy comes from show business, such as vaudeville. This type of performance acknowledges the audience. Where as a film draws the audience into another world, vaudeville included the audience or made the audience aware that they were watching a show. This is the way a comedian comic acts. They use a lot of big over the top gestures to make something comedic.

In The Truman Show Jim Carrey begins to suspect something is weird in his life and begins acting strange. He starts to speak to the ‘camera’ although he doesn’t realize it is a camera. He is acting towards the audience and making them realize they are watching a movie. Jim Carrey does an excellent job at this because he has worked as a show business performer since he first started as a stand up comedian.

Jim Carrey is a comedian comic and he steps outside his usual comedic role to play Truman Burbank. He tries his hand at playing a darker comedian. This sparked a series of films were Jim Carrey took on less comedian comedy films. In the end, Carey’s experimental work enhances the depth of his comedic performances.  Carey’s wide eyed zaney antics come off as borderline rational when he is put into situations similar to the Truman character.  In many of his films he has the boyish charm of a man discovering the world for the first time.  In The Truman Show this is exactly what.

The Truman Show brought about a lot of controversy after it’s debut. It questioned the sanctity of identity. In Gary Panton’s review on The Truman Show he says, “It’s an exploration into the idea that we always accept the reality of our surroundings without question.” Once the movie came out people began to question their place, role, and effect in life. They wanted to find their own identities and who they were, because Truman is searching for his identity throughout the whole movie. It raised a lot of questions about who we where and who was watching us. It questioned society’s identity and whether they were safe.

They used dark comedy to bring light on an important issue. Having Jim Carrey in the movie alone made viewers assume the film would be comedic. I think by him being in it, it was a comedy. His body language and acting is always comedic. Throughout the course of the film they used comedic tricks to make Truman question where he is. At one point a piece of the lighting set falls from the sky on to Truman’s street. Another example of comedy that they use is when Truman is on the beach and it starts to rain, but to Truman’s surprise the rain storm is only over him and if he walks a couple of feet away he is out of the rain. The Truman Show came out before the huge increase of reality television. After the movie came out reality television skyrocketed.

Many of the shows were based on the ideas that came from The Truman Show. As opposed to people not knowing they were being filmed, they knew and were trying to find their identity in front of a camera crew. Most shows set up cameras all over a house or had camera crews follow a person around. This reflects the actions of when Truman finally realizes he is being filmed. He behaves as though he is aware of the camera. This is what reality television stars do. None of these shows are seen as being serious.  Much of this parallels the relationship between the media and the public a complex conflict that has undergone much scholarly debate. One scholar in particular who is considered an expert on many of the conflicts depicted in The Truman Show is Pierre Bourdieu.

In all of Bourdieu’s beliefs, his most popular is his assertion that the public does not exist (1984).  This concept is addressed in his book, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, in that he feels there is a different of class taste between the ruling class and popular culture.  But, within this conflict, there is no public, only a media mediating between the two and a culture to which they often cater to do so.   In John Fiske’s critique on television, Television Culture he analyzes the nature of what makes popular television.  He concludes that the shows that succeed in gaining popularity tend to have many symbols and plot lines containing multiple meanings.  He also states that remain within a duality of containment and resistance (1987).

This idea basically revolves around the fact that television producers, who are viewed as the upper class and political elite, are expected to produce material that correspond with popular culture.  This material that the elite minority culture produces for the popular culture contradicts elitist ideals but allows the status quo to remain intact.  This means the political elite can only remain the elite so long as they humor the beliefs and ideals of their less powerful but more dominant counterparts.

The rules Fiske establishes for television shows can very easily be applied to the media.  They present the media as a tool being used to prey on the wants and needs of different cultures.  Another media technology that isn’t always addressed is the literary outlets in societies.  This is undoubtedly the reason that Pierre Bourdieu is an acclaimed literary theorist as well, addressing such theorist as reader response theory.

The Truman Show talks about social power. It talks about the power that the media have over people. The show is controlling on a larger scale to peoples lives, who spend their life watching it and on a smaller scale the people creating the show and controlling everything Jim Carrey does. The Truman shows creator Christof is controlling what everyone is seeing and saying. He plays the “God” of Seahaven, the made up town that Truman lives in. There is the outside “real audience” watching the show and then there are the actors in the show and then there is us, the audience watching the “real” actors, watching Truman. We are always being controlled.

David Thomas and Garry Gillard’ article titled, “The Truman Show and the programming of reality,” mention this when they say that the film “poses important questions of identity and reality, because of the way the film uses both diegetic and non-diegetic audiences. This highlights the boundaries between real people, actors, fictional audiences and ‘real’ audiences, and how they are skewed and confused by The Truman Show.”  The film also addresses certain concepts of national identity.

The idea behind national identity is that one defines their self through the identity of their nation.  In their article, National Identity and Self-Esteem, Jeff Spinner-Halev and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse analyze the nature of national identity.  They adopt the theory that if the self-esteem of an individual is tied to their nation than it’s the perfect proponent to maintain safe and secure nations.  They feel that there is an immediate connection between self respect and group identity; so much so, it could lead to one sacrificing their own personal needs for the good of the group.  They also acknowledge that there is a competitive nature within group self esteem; this meaning that most groups want their group to do better than others.

  This is often seen in the patriotic nature of political propaganda, carried out by many countries to convince soldiers to go to war.  This system of control is one known for cajoling groups to fallow a certain program or way of thinking by catering to individuals’ wants, needs, or taking advantage of their fears.  This complex of national identity is a major aspect of a government’s societal control, as well as a significant ideal satirized in The Truman Show.

It is most visibly personified in the character of the show’s producer Christof.  He argues that human beings accept the world in which they are presented, and uses this to justify why Truman hasn’t figured out his predicament up to this point.  All of the employees, of the studio, acting as Truman’s family, friends and extras living within the town, can all be viewed as nationalists to the studio’s regime.

The National Identity of these films can be directly corresponded to the culture and history of New Zealand.  In 1945, the New Zealand Film Critic Gordon Mirams argued that if there was a New Zealand culture, it was a mostly a Hollywood creation. The only thing more popular than going to the movies, in New Zealand, was drinking tea, during that time period. This idea is supported by the statistic that for many years New Zealanders were the most frequenters of the movie world.  In their book New Zealand Film 1912-1996 Helen Martin and Sam Edwards analyze the filmography of many films produced during this century in New Zealand.

This book basically analyzes the entire history of film in New Zealand.  The two authors managed to find more than 162 films.  In formulating their list and deciding on what they would identify as New Zealand Films, they decided the film had to have a significant connection to the location in terms of the film’s creators, cast, copyright holder, financiers, production team, and technical equipment.

They also felt that a film that holds a sociological connection to New Zealand should be categorized as a New Zealand films as well.  Thus, they included The Piano in their list of films pointing out that though it was not filmed in New Zealand, its story was still set there.  The authors also felt it the film addressed social issues pertaining to the history of New Zealand within the time frame it was set.

In the 90’s when The Truman Show first came out reality television was very rare. No one put their videos on the Internet or had video chats. In one article I read “The world is watching” by Jennifer Tanaka she writes about a couple who place a web cam in their new born daughters crib. They connect it to the Internet so their friends can go online and see the baby and watch her grow. They didn’t think anything of it until they began receiving emails from people they didn’t know telling them how cute their baby was and how they loved the idea of the wed cam.

They still didn’t really think anything of it, except it was flattering. They watch The Truman Show and immediately disconnected their web cam. They realized what they were doing and didn’t want their baby to have people watching her like Truman. It wasn’t until a movie like The Truman Show that brought light on a media obsessed and driven world. It has only gotten worse from there.

With the increase in a media obsessed culture, reality television has become a historical landmark of our generation today. In Gary Panton’s review, I think he makes a good point when he says, “The scary thing is that for us, the “Big Brother” generation, the notion of a 24-hour TV prisoner really isn’t all that far-fetched. Perhaps the birth of a real Truman isn’t as far into the future as we might like to think.”

The Truman Show poses an argument larger than itself in respect to national identity, only this film speaks more metaphorically.  The idea previously posed in National Identity and Self Esteem, was that national identity is largely the product of a model that is followed by a group of people.  These people are so caught up in the ideals of the group, they rather sacrifice their own individual comforts for the good of the team.  The authors found that these groups are also very competitive with one another, identifying their identity with that of the group and basing the groups identity on their contrast from other groups.

This becomes very relative to some of Rene Girard’s views.  In his seminal theory of mediated desire Rene Girard argues that human desire is imitative.  His views is that the goals we hold most personal are actually the desires of others which we want to achieve because others want to achieve them.

This is very compatible with the ideals of national culture and the cult group fallowing it incites.  This is also seen constantly in The Truman Show, the main motivation for Truman to escape the studio/town is to travel to Fiji after his one true love.  If the character personifying his school crush had never desired to move there, Truman would have never desired to follow.  This is a direct personification of Girard’s theory, as well as an example of Morse and Halev’s version of national identity.

Work Cited

  1. Adorno, Theodor W. and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. 1947. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002.
  2. Belton, John. American Cinema/American Culture. New York: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and New York Center for Visual History, 1994.
  3. Bourdieu, Pierre. (1984) Distinction, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  4. Chatman, Seymour (1978) Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press).
  5. Cheshire, Ellen. Jane Campion. Great Britain: Pocket Essentials, 2000.
  6. Eric Young (Executive Producer). (1998). “How’s It Going To End? The Making of The Truman Show, Part II” [DVD (Special Feature)]. Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment.
  7. Fiske, John (1987) Television Culture, London: Methuen.
  8. Fiske, John (1992) ªPopularity and the Politics of Informationº in P. Dahlgren and C.
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  16. Minow, Martha. (2006) Not Only for Myself Identity, Politics, and the Law. New P, 1997. Chapter 2, Identities. 8 Dec. 2006.

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Is The Truman Show a Comedy?. (2017, Mar 02). Retrieved from

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