I’m the funniest person in the world, and you agree. As such, I feel a certain responsibility to instruct others in The Journey to True Comedy™. I wonder sometimes how well I fulfill this responsibility. In an effort to better serve my constituency, I am introducing a new series entitled, Hey, Jerk: What’s Comedy All About Anyway, As If I Care! (HAWCAAAAIIC!). Note: This will not be funny. Seriously.
The TV series Seinfeld was a reaction to the family sitcoms of the 80s, where every show ended with a hit-you-over-the-head valuable lesson—and you knew what that lesson would be within the first three minutes of the episode. Seinfeld rejected this drive-thru morality and instead, with groundbreaking scene-structures, ingenious narrative connections, and perfect execution, it stands as a superb testament to the merits of not learning a lesson. It is, without a doubt, one of the greatest television comedies of all time.
And yet, Seinfeld cannot inspire in me the same fierce, familial devotion I have to shows like Arrested Development and The Office (US). These two shows illustrate a different kind of greatness; one not achieved by simply telling a funny story, but by telling a human story.
Any extended viewing of Seinfeld reveals characters that do not exhibit complex emotions. In Freudian terms, they are all id. Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer are all concerned only with promoting their own desires and furthering their own interests.
In contrast, Arrested Development and The Office portray characters with higher brain functions—the superego. They are over-the-top, to be sure, but they are complex. They are selfish and unrepressed, but they are aware of this, and aware—even if belatedly—of its affect on others.
In short, George Michael, Tobias, Michael, Michael, Dwight, and Angela are humans, complete with visceral impulses and internal conflicts. They do care, and they do learn. If the learning doesn’t always stick, well, that’s human too. This—coupled with crackerjack writing, dead-on execution, and a sincere commitment to character—makes Arrested Development and The Office not just good comedy, but good narrative. Because life isn’t about lessons learned; but neither is it about nothing. It’s about trying, failing, then trying again. And it’s funny.
I’ve always tried, with varying degrees of success, to imbue my own comedy—even the absurdity, to an extent—with this same kind of sincerity (where applicable). Take, for example, this recent example, about my sister:
[…] She is stupid, but sometimes we would sing in the car together, along with our favorite music albums. Those were good times. Also, she smells.
I’ll admit, it’s not a perfect example. It’s hastily put together and lacks the greater poetry or twist that would make it truly great. And, really, “Those were good times” is much too heavy-handed and cliché, even to be used in an ironically cliché sense.
Nonetheless, it stands as an instance of sincerity, trying to be funny. By highlighting a detail (i.e., singing songs in the car) that represents a greater relationship, I juxtaposed the good-natured sibling animosity with a sign of understated affection. I bookended this endearing snapshot of shared joy with two overly simple insults (i.e., stupid and smelly), thus poetically symbolizing the heart of affection beneath the caustic exterior of our relationship.
Easy, right? The astute reader will be able to discern that I love my sister, and that she has many qualities that lend her to lovability; one of which is that I can publicly ridicule her. However, implicit also in my prose is the understanding that she does sometimes—not very often these days—annoy me, but this is the nature of the sibling relationship. A relationship which I summed up elegantly and tenderly in 25 words. I am so awesome.
I should also note that my sister’s response in the comments, while clever, exhibited none of the nuanced psychological and literary undertones (or good-natured warmth) of my original post. Which is why I will always be better than her.
Please keep this in mind when I start making poop jokes again.