Why do we cry, when we should laugh? Feeling for Comedy TV

Scrubs (Bill Lawrence, NBC 2001-07, ABC 2007-10). Image Scrubs Wikia

The single-camera sitcom Scrubs (NBC 2001-07, ABC 2007-10) has moved me more times than any of the best melodramas I have seen on TV. The episodes where Jordan’s brother Ben Sullivan (Brendan Fraser) visits, nurse Laverne’s accident, the episode with Cabbage, the multiple organ-donation episode where Dr. Cox makes a mistake, all have left a strong imprint in my mind over the years. These episodes may not mean anything to you, the reader, but have you ever encountered a comedy on TV that made you feel sadder than you have felt watching anything else? Have you wondered why?

In popular entertainment, comedy has always been regarded as a secondary genre to ‘serious’ drama. Shakespeare’s tragedies are generally regarded as superior to his comedies. Even popular standards of recognition in film like the Academy Awards seldom celebrate comedies (the most recent comedy to win the best picture award would be Chicago in 2002). However, somehow comedies continue to dominate television. They even their own categories in the television-centric awards like the Golden Globes and the Emmys. TV drama has steadily caught up in viewership in the recent years from the comedy hey-days of Friends, Frasier and Seinfeld in the early 2000s, but the most viewed show of 2015 is still a comedy (The Big Bang Theory). What is it about a comedy that just fits so well in a television? Some may attribute this to the fact that comedy typifies the kind of light entertainment that has always been a mainstay in the world of television; a brainless, non-committal form of entertainment that does not seek anything beyond the 30 minutes I am seated in front of it. While this reason contributes heavily to its popularity, I am unwilling to accept that an entire genre is built on this premise of distraction. Especially when I consider that I have been moved more when a comedy TV show presents a serious moment, while remaining stone-faced during some of the most evocative moments in serious drama.

The simplest answer could relate to the element of surprise that a comedy has over me. I do not watch a comedy expecting to be moved. Or we could write it up to matters of taste, and I agree that these answers hold a lot of value. Perhaps it is just me personally who cares more for the make-believe President Selina Meyer (from the extremely funny Veep) more than I care for the make-believe President Frank Underwood (from the indulgent melodrama, House of Cards), although both of them do petty and selfish things to further their own agendas. But I would like to press this mode of enquiry, if there are reasons that we care for characters in a comedy television show, especially because of the intersection of the genre of comedy on the site of the television.

The answer could lie in the domestic immediacy of a TV comedy that changes our encounter of a character’s vulnerability. Comedies at the mainstream cinema always exaggerate personalities and present larger than life characters to play out a joke. A character’s small failures create distance in the cinema, because they are used for a moment of laughter rather than helping transform the character. But in a TV show, we continue regarding the character after the failure, through the end of the episode and then in the next and so on. We are familiar to the characters and their quirks, and we estimate right from the beginning of an episode, if a character is going to be able to handle a reversal that they have been presented. Sometimes, they succeed in an improbable fashion, and at other times, they simply learn from their circumstances and move on, but unlike a cinematic encounter where we exit the theatre at the end of their learning, we stay with them in a TV show, return to them next year, to see if their lives are better for the lessons they have learnt. We cultivate a routine with a TV show that makes our investment with characters more personal. And when such a character reflects on their mortality, it is far more humanizing.

Let us also consider an alternate reason why we are invested in a character whose failures and mistakes are not just habitual but also inevitable due to the format of the show. Does this hint at a more sadistic side to the viewer, or simply one of desiring to see people lesser than ourselves being represented, and feel better about ourselves? Do we want a scientist of quantum physics to have social anxieties just because we want to feel that he is ‘just like us’? This assessment of the audience, however, is inconsistent with their generosity and love towards these characters, no matter how often these characters fail. There is a genuine warmth in the encounter with the character, that goes beyond simply selfishly inflating our egos. We watch characters to overcome their failures as much as we watch them knowing that they will fail. But there is a greater uncertainty in this trope of overcoming the odds in a TV show, than a movie, for a movie is invariably bound by its genre markers to reward the character with a win at the end of its running time. While Melissa McCarthy has to completely unlearn all her faults by the end of the movie to become a better boss (in The Boss), a better spy (in Spy), but Melissa McCarthy does not have to fix all her problems at the end of any one episode of Mike and Molly (although considering her talent and the kind of work she has taken on, maybe she should look into ‘fixing’ her agents). A TV comedy, however, can allow for the character to learn at a more believable phase, as individual stories are not tied to permanent ‘fixes’ to the character.

This also brings us to the important consideration that such characters are not exclusive to comedy, as characters making poor choices and confronting the consequences is fundamental to some of the most compelling dramas as it is with a comedy. Do we not care about an Arya Stark or a Jesse Pinkman as much as we care about a Eddie Huang (Fresh off the Boat) or a Liz Lemon (30 Rock)? In fact, the recent fan-frenzy and speculation to the death of a main characters from The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones is testament to our invest in characters regardless of the genre. This is definitely a very sound claim, and perhaps my argument could be extended to our concern for characters in television in general rather than just comedy. But one thing prevents me from doing so— the manner of identification we have with characters in a comedy. No matter how sympathetic or humanized the figure of a drug-lord is, there is a clear knowledge that those experiences would never become a part of our reality, and thus my relationship with that world is one of fantasy. On the other side, when we identify with a character in a comedy, we invest our desire for our common, everyday lives, while resisting the fantasy world on the screen, and thus fully possessing our own place in our lives. I am in awe of Walter White, but I know I could make the same mistakes of Leslie Knope (Parks and Recreation). And yet, I may fantasize of being a genius scientist-drug lord who can make threats and pull off a pork-pie hat only because I know that no such world can ever approach mine, but I will never desire the reality of Leslie Knope even though I identify with her, especially because I recognize her world as similar to mine and hence unappealing to me.

But the aim of this piece is not not to argue that comedy presents completely immediate and ‘real’ characters either. In fact, from socially inept nuclear physicists, perpetually successful New Yorkers, financially secure waitresses and even a neurotic president of the USA, comedies present figures that are as detached from our experience of reality as the Game of Thrones. And yet, people who make us laugh, through their failures, weaknesses and vulnerability make us care for them in a way that is nowhere close to our investment in a drama. I care for a Vic Mackey or a Claire Underwood, but somewhere in my viewing expectations, I am prepared for their failures due to the course of their narratives and the quality of choices they make. In fact, their failure might actually be satisfying even if they are fan favorite characters, because that is reflective of a sense of poetic justice and that serves as a logical end to their story arcs. Beneath all my admiration, I also recognize that they are entirely motivated by selfishness and would do anything to further their own agendas. But in a comedy the person suffering has made you laugh; through that feeling of joy, made you feel cared about. They don’t have to be perceived as more real for this, just being capable of evoking a genuine feeling reifies them to you.

What do you think, readers? Which characters do you care for? What are your reasons?

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