Comedy about the Worst of Us

In this series, we have been looking at the audience identification with Comedy shows and the kind of affective response that we have towards such shows. The first post focused on why we cry while watching a comedy show and the second examined how a serious topic can be discussed in a comedic program. This post will expand on the previous two ideas and examine how the affective quality in a comedy actually makes us care about people that we normally would not in our own real life. While we have had the worst of the worst on ‘serious’ or ‘Quality TV’, none of those shows normalize the troubling, sociopathic behavior as much as a comedy show.

We need to look at one of the many sitcoms to see behavior that is completely devoid of basic human decency that is perfectly acceptable within the world of a comedy. Historically, we have seen some of the worst aspects of humanity, from indefensible selfishness to pure sociopathy, and pass them off as normal human behavior in comedy shows including Full House, Friends, Scrubs, How I met your mother, The Big Bang Theory (to name only a few). How does this work? How do comedy shows succeed in making us identify with a character that is clearly despicable, even when serious dramas fail to do so?

This argument needs to be clearly examined in the context of TV having presented us many likable villains, or villainous leads over time. From the Original Gangster (literally) Tony Soprano, to Vic Mackey, Omar Little, Dexter Morgan, and of course, Walter White, TV dramas are full of protagonists that range from morally ambiguous to thoroughly corrupt. We like them and root for their success to no end, but identification requires something more. These characters’ situations are entirely strange to us, that even though we may share the nature of the emotion that they experience, we will never understand the full meaning of the experience. We always foresee their inevitable comeuppance despite enjoying their success at defying the social order. This distance cannot be traversed by the audience to enter their worlds.

However, despite our distance from these characters, they all share an element that we aspire to—being a badass. The indisputable aura of coolness makes these characters appear more seductive than their immediate narrative circumstances. Although we may never be able to relate to these characters we seek to identify with them in a fantastic wish-fulfilment, as they do things that we cannot. They can exact revenge, or tell off a superior in a way that we can only dream of in our everyday frustrations. The abrupt and violent streak that we may not indulge or even tolerate in our lives becomes the key to a life that offers a glamor and thrill beyond our grasp.

At the same time, we often find ourselves slipping into relating to the experiences of equally terrible people in TV comedies. It is easy to enjoy the antics of narcissistic, psychopathic and utterly selfish characters in TV, from Lucille Bluth to Selina Meyer, because the shows already begin with an assumption against levity. While drama expects you to be in awe of their characters, comedies invite you to laugh at the characters as much as we laugh with them. These enfants terribles bask in their pettiness and their syrupy malice is just another way of looking at our follies without ever directly addressing them. These characters say devastatingly cruel about their loved ones, and we at least think of saying those things, while a threat or an action that truly puts them in harm (as in a drama) is unthinkable to us.

Also, despite their separation from our world, comedies still exist within the realm of possibilities. That is, despite the events taking place in the White House, Selina’s problems with her co-workers’ (and sub-ordinates’) incompetence are entirely relatable. These shows often articulate things in a better way that we wish we could have said in those contexts. These characters are brought to our level, if not worse than us, and we are (unsurprisingly) more empathetic towards their struggles than those of serious characters.

So many times, we pity Catherine. But we love seeing her getting crushed.

In HBO’s Veep, the President of the United States, Selina Meyer’s treatment of her daughter always teeters at the edge of emotional abuse. In the season five premiere she makes an off-hand remark to her daughter, asking her: “Catherine, why is that your hair?” The truly horrifying nature of this comment can only be understood when we realize that she means no malice when she says that. As a President of a country, Selina already has very little time for her daughter, and when she does, she has nothing but the sharpest of words – and these words are not meant to hurt her, and in that, they hurt more. Selina’s contrasting position as a powerful and noble figure in international politics and a barely functioning parent is shockingly funny, but also truly humanizing. While I cannot imagine Barack Obama ever saying something politically incorrect to his daughters, Selina’s humiliating words are embarrassingly familiar.

Despite this apparent celebration of malice, TV comedies are able to restore balance with narrative justice, such as entirely placing Selina’s political future at Catherine’s discretion when she inherits the family’s fortune. And not to mention, when Catherine makes her own comment about Selina’s hair.

TV also limits the toxicity of lived encounters in fictional narratives. Black-ish’s acerbic matriarch Ruby is another terrifying character who embodies some of the worst traits of familial relationships. Her intrusive and belligerent nature would be unbearable in an immediate context, but is offered with a slightly more nostalgic and indulgent outlook in a TV show. Fans of any of many comedy shows would instantly recognize as toxic certain characters while fully indulging in the comedic aspect of such situations. Of course, shows like Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development and Louie have built their house on a bedrock of despicable and maladjusted characters full of self-loathing. Yet, we see a little of our eccentric friend or an annoying relative in such characters. The darker the circumstances, the deeper the laughs.

Perhaps this is due to the important fact that serious dramas also bear an obligation to make moralizing gestures where the villainous characters are ultimately censured and pay a price for their behavior. Comedy shows escape such responsibilities, because they are just meant to be laughed at. But in their failure to be human, these characters reveal the worst in us to nudge us along introspection and evaluation of good behavior. The fact of our laughing at these characters helps shape unexpressed thoughts of good behavior because of their folly. That is why we will always have the mean-spirited Falstaff-like characters who grow more complex, but continue to perform a restorative moral function in comedy.

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SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.

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