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Sunday, June 14, 2015

Life Lessons from TV Comedy

Image courtesy of Ambro
at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
One of the most important life lessons I learned came from watching sitcoms on television.  Surprising, right?  Who would believe that TV comedy can teach anything, other than how to write unoriginal, formulaic stories around forgettable characters?  Well, it can, but you need to add an ounce of thought from your own brain to get the message.  The message is actually fairly obvious but sometimes you don't really get it until it hits you in the face.  This message came to the fore front of my mind after watching an early episode of CBS's "The Odd Couple" with Matthew Perry.

Poor Matthew Perry can't seem to get a break. This is his fourth sitcom since ending Friends, and none of the others have been hits.  Frankly, I only remember the prior two, having completely forgotten Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.  I rather liked Mr. Sunshine, although it was no work of comedic genius.  Similarly, Go On was entertaining if not inspired. Rather than fail one more time, Perry goes with stock formula comedy in The Odd Couple, but fails miserably at that too.  The Odd Couple is old hat, first appearing in 1965 as a stage play.  The basic plot involves two completely different people (Oscar, a slob and Felix, a obsessive neat freak) thrown together by circumstances, in this case, divorce.  Perry's version is the lowest common denominator of comedy, with simple plots, and requires almost no writing talent to create the stories.  It is exactly that lowest common denominator of comedy, of human behavior, that provides the important lesson.


What is that lowest common denominator of human behavior?  Let's look at one episode of the 2015 Odd Couple.

In this episode, an old college friend of both characters is having a wedding, which means everybody they knew from college will be there, including Oscar's "girl who got away" and Felix's recent ex-wife.  Oscar decides to go to the reception being aloof and cool to impress the target of his affections, while Felix takes a fake date to appear to his ex-wife that he is cool and has moved on.  Of course, both Oscar and Felix are extremely anxious and nervous about seeing their respective loves, but they have to put on an act, a false front, to hide their anxiety from their peers.

Naturally, the acts start to break down, and the two roommates extend the walls and lie to the point that their respective false fronts collapse under the weight of the deception.  In the end, neither of them get their girl.  In fact, they both look rather foolish, and in the process the audience is supposed to laugh at their self-inflicted misfortune.  This is formulaic comedy.

So where is the humor in all this?  Perhaps it's supposedly funny because we tend to find humor in the acts of the characters messing up their lives; perhaps it's funny because we can laugh at them for being so stupid.  I can even remember myself thinking "I can't believe he just did that! What an idiot!"  In fact, there's very little humor there;  it's all rather sad.

And saddest of all is that this concept is canon among comedy writers.  It even has a name; a comedy of errors, (not to be confused with the Shakespearean play, The Comedy of Errors, which is, well, exactly that!)  Why is it so common?  Simple! Humans tend to find humor in other people's misfortunes, as long as the misfortunes are relatively minor.  We find humor in someone messing up his or her life, not ours.

Image courtesy of stock images
at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
As a society we tend to laugh at people, deride them, for messing up their lives in common and straightforward ways.  In TV, one way in which comedy happens is when the audience can laugh at the character for:
  1. being dishonest with himself or unwilling to admit the truth;
  2. doing something he or she is advised to not do;
  3. doing something stupid to him or herself
  4. being inauthentic; 
all easily avoided or corrected errors.  The humor is amplified when the characters are relatively unintelligent and their actions farcical.

Yet we can learn from this.  The important life lesson is that being inauthentic with yourself, or with other people, is bound to fail miserably.  Being inauthentic makes you the subject of a farcical situation comedy to be laughed at when you fail.  I don't think anybody wants that (except maybe Matthew Perry.)

I suspect the comedy writers and producers understand that a comedy of errors has it limitations.  Many years ago I was a fan of another comedy or errors, The Drew Carey Show. (Actually, I think I was a fan of Christa Miller more than the show itself.)  After several years, I realized the show had become boring.  I later realized it became boring because Drew had made every single stupid mistake possible for his character, and he had learned nothing.  Not one thing.  The stupidity kept repeating under different situations, and I had grown tired of it.  So had the audience, as the ratings continued to drop to the point of cancellation.  A comedy of errors has a limited life.

A comedy of errors, exemplified by TV shows like The Odd Couple or the Drew Carey Show, in which the main characters lack authenticity, self-honesty, and self-respect (as well as the intelligence to recognize that) is what turns our lives into farces.  Are you the main character in your own farce?  Are you tired of it?  Are you ready to cancel it?

So what does a person do to avoid living a farce?  The answer seems rather simple; don't do any of the things that your audience members (in this case, the rest of humanity) can laugh at you for, or that you laugh at in others.

Try being honest with yourself, and understand and accept your true motivations.  Don't try to be something you know you are not, or represent yourself inauthentically.  This degree of self-introspection might be difficult for some guys.

When somebody tells you to not do something, listen to them!  Chance are very good they can see the situation from a different perspective than you, and you should at least evaluate their input if they are a valuable friend.  Don't discard it off-hand.  They told you that for a reason.

Don't do stupid stuff.  Of course, that means learning to know what is stupid and what is smart, which can be difficult for some guys.

Finally, be authentic.  This is what everybody tells you to do, but nobody tells you how to do it.  Well, almost nobody; some people take a stab at it.  It boils down to this: stop being and doing those things that make you inauthentic.  Authenticity is not something you do, but something you are. Authenticity appears when you eliminate the veneer of inauthenticity that you created.  So stop creating a veneer.  Be honest, own up to your short-comings, live the way you want to live as opposed to the way you think you are supposed to live.  Be a little vulnerable.   You'll be surprised at how your life improves when you do so.  You'll stop living the comedy of errors and instead live a real life.

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