Comedy Against Tragedy – The Genius of Seinfeld
Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die. ~Mel Brooks
The other night, my wife drew my attention to a spec script written by comedian Billy Domineau in which he imagines what might have happened if there had been a 9/11 episode of Seinfeld. Now, first off, this episode is clearly in poor taste on a couple levels and is going to offend a great many people. Secondly, it’s also hilarious and for largely the same reasons. It also reminded me of the Modern Seinfeld Twitter, in which they posit plotlines that the Seinfeld crew would be up to if the show were running today. They, also, are consistently hilarious.
This comes to me at a time when I am growing more and more bored with the sitcom as a genre. Yes, I’ve watched Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, yes, I’ve tried Veep and obviously I’ve watched as much Modern Family and Big Bang Theory as I can take. They all fall flat. Some might have a great first season, and then they just become boring by their second time around. This, however, isn’t true of the truly great sitcoms of history. Seinfeld remains funny mostly forever. Frasier, also, remains amusing. Cheers was in this category, too, as was 30 Rock. The Simpsons, which is probably the most consistently funny show in history, was funny for over a decade before sinking into a slow decline.
How, though, have they all done this? Well, I’m not a comedy writer, so feel free to take my theory with a grain of salt, but I think what I’m about to say has a really solid foundation, so hear me out. See that Mel Brooks quote up there? Can you tell the difference between Tragedy and Comedy in his definition? It’s a little subtle – a lot of people miss it because they assume the difference is in the kind of injury. Falling into an open sewer is funnier than a paper cut, right? Well, maybe, but that isn’t the heart of the statement. The thing Books is drawing attention to is “I” versus “You.”
The difference between Comedy and Tragedy (or, more broadly, the “The Silly Vs The Serious”) is the emotional distance maintained between the audience and the characters. What’s funny about you falling into an open sewer is that it’s you and not me. If I die, it is upsetting and sad. If a person I don’t feel attached to dies (particularly in an absurd way), it’s funny. Dark, perhaps – maybe even offensive – but still funny. We laugh at the Black Knight having his limbs chopped off, but we cringe when Ned Stark loses his head.
Seinfeld, perhaps better than any other sitcom I can think of, balanced the audience’s distance from its characters to maintain humor. We are laughing at the characters in that show just about as often as we are laughing with them. We sympathize with their plight, but they seek to solve their problems in ways we would never consider, and so we are both sympathetic (“I’ve wanted to steal cake from my boss’s fridge, too!”) and detached (“She went in for a bigger piece?!”). This allows us to laugh without feeling bad. It is, at its base, the essence of comedy.
This is, I think, part of why I am dropping out of the sitcom scene of late. Too many shows are trying to get me to connect on too deep an emotional level. Kimmy Schmidt is actually inspiring, which doesn’t work. I mean, it makes for reasonable drama and an interesting storyline, but I can’t laugh at a person who I actively admire. Likewise for How I Met Your Mother. I loved those characters (well, except for Ted) and as soon as they started making Barney into a sympathetic human being, I stop laughing. I might still be interested, but it isn’t funny. If there’s a moment where the studio audience goes “AWWWWW” you have left the realm of comedy and gone elsewhere.
If I want emotional resonance or serious dramatic pathos, there are practically infinite dramas on television that do this far, far better than comedies ever do. If my goal is to laugh, well then I want a show that knows I want to stay at arm’s length. Therein lies the genius of Seinfeld and other shows like it. There is usually a straight man/woman with whom we can connect (Sam Malone, Jerry Seinfeld, Liz Lemon) surrounded by a zany world that we laugh even as it exasperates our protagonist. Seinfeld, of course, takes this one step further – the “straight” character in any given scene or show can change. Jerry is sometimes the zany one (“The lopper!”), sometimes it’s Elaine, and sometimes it’s even Kramer (!) who is the bastion of sanity in a madhouse world. That’s amazing character development, all maintained to get us to laugh at literally anything. Do you recall that George Constanza’s fiance dies as a result of wedding-envelope poisoning and it’s a joke? A JOKE!
But it works. Because it’s not us who died, and not us who lost a fiance. It’s that idiot, George. Maybe it makes us bad people to laugh, but if you gotta be bad to laugh that hard, then I don’t wanna be good.
Book Signing Coming Up!
I’m going to be at Pandemonium Books and Games on Thursday, September 8th, signing copies of my latest book No Good Deed. Come on by, bring friends, and I’ll bring cookies! 7pm-9pm!