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!
The Big Bang Theory: A Critique
Fan favorite and perennial Emmy nominee, The Big Bang Theory, was recently renewed by CBS for an additional three seasons. This is hardly surprising, given the show’s ratings, but I do confess I reacted to the news with a degree of regret. Whatever merit the show once had (and that was modest to begin with), it has long since departed and I would prefer to see it gone. If I’m being honest, though, I fail to see what CBS would replace it with that would be substantially better (the sitcom landscape is a dry and desolate wasteland), so whatever. Let it persist.
My issue with The Big Bang Theory is not really related to its portrayal of geek culture. Yes, it’s an unfair caricature of nerds and gamers (and often inaccurate for the purpose of deriving plot), but I would honestly challenge you to find anything in sitcom-land that isn’t a caricature of somebody. Caricatures are easy to mock and easy to write jokes for, and therefore they populate the television at its lowest echelons with all the same density that phytoplankton populates the oceans. Do I find it occasionally insulting? Yes, of course. Does it actively bother me? No, not for that reason. What bothers me about the show is its overriding cynicism. It is a show that thinks the worst of its characters, its audience, and the world in general.
Let’s begin with the title, shall we? It is a crass pun and little more. It’s the kind of joke told by seventh grade boys in damp locker rooms whilst they speculate about female genitalia. Indeed, much of the entire theme of the show is oriented around such sophomoric, insulting puns, often at the expense of the female characters on the show. If anybody should be offended by The Big Bang Theory, it should be women. The basic premise of the show is that a woman can be attractive or she can be smart, but she cannot really be both. Penny, the most attractive, is also consistently displayed as an airhead with a poor memory, a disinterest in learning, and a history of poor life choices. Amy, the least attractive, is the only one able to match intellects with Sheldon Cooper. In the middle is Bernadette, who is not as attractive as Penny, but more attractive than Amy and is, therefore, somewhere between the two in terms of raw IQ. She is displayed as socially awkward and ditsy on the one hand, but also competent and rational on the other. This binary idea of women is beyond insulting; it’s a willfully ignorant display meant to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
This demographic, by the way, is no more friendly to ‘nerds’ than it is to women. Geeks are likewise displayed on a similar binary scale – intellect is also governed in inverse proportion to social grace and physical prowess. Because the nerds are smart, they are also weak. Sheldon, the smartest, is also the weakest. Howard, the one whose intelligence is most often ridiculed, is the only one in the end to actually achieve the presumed goal of all involved: marriage to a beautiful woman (though not as beautiful as Penny, as though the show is saying “let’s be realistic, here, nerds”). He also becomes an astronaut.
As if this weren’t enough, the show’s humor is exclusively hostile to its characters. We are never laughing with these people – we are laughing at them. Sheldon is the constant butt of jokes that demonstrate him as weak, unwise, and improbably clueless about the social world not because Sheldon is in any way realistic, but rather because the audience prefers to see the so-called genius put in his place. We are watching a crew of highly educated, presumably intelligent men involved in important fields get torn down and mocked for the purpose of appeasing an audience that doesn’t like eggheads and finds it implausible that attractive women would find scientists interesting or that scientists could at all manage to attract women on their own merits. To this end, characters in this show do not give each other compliments, relying instead on a litany of insults that are typically too juvenile to be funny beyond their simple shock value.
Towards the beginning of the series there was a point where the show was cynical but also novel – I watched it, laughed at some of the jokes, and identified with a couple of the plotlines, etc.. That point, however, has been smothered by the incessant recycling of the same five jokes over and over again. Leonard is ashamed of his geekery, Sheldon is clueless, Raj is awkward, Howard is skeevy, Penny is dumb and, right there, I’ve covered ~85% of the show’s humor. On a basic level, the show isn’t substantially different from Chuck Lorre’s other cash cow, Two and a Half Men, which is every bit as cynical and miserable. There is no joy in the lives of Charlie and Alan and there certainly isn’t any joy to be had amongst Sheldon, Raj, Howard, and Leonard. They are hamsters in wheels, running in their stereotype-dictated tracks, never to escape or to really grow.
The Big Bang Theory is like a poorly run zoo – go a few times and find the lions and the elephants interesting. Go every day, and soon you start to wonder why the lions look so sad and why the elephant never plays with that big rubber ball. You feel like you and the animals are rehearsing some kind of perverse play, wherein you watch and they exist and nothing changes or improves, and yet for some reason everybody still expects you to applaud.