Culture War Correspondence: Sitcom Absurdity

GORDON: We have been graced, dearly beloved, by a topic recommendation from our ever-faithful reader Ben, who asked that we “address the absurd and current culture’s take on reality.”

To which I say, “pink octopus comb.”

And apparently, that’s a real thing, and not just some facetious absurd phrase I made up…

EVAN: To be a tad more specific, the way our culture presents that reality via television, which is something that I very definitely have opinions about. I have opinions about television, everyone.

GORDON: He really does. You should ask him about them.

But to address the topic at hand, could you get us started with an example of what’s meant by “the way our culture presents reality via television”? Are we talking about what’s being presented as “normal” or are we talking worldviews and philosophy here?

EVAN: Here’s how I’m choosing to view his topic: “What does the way various sitcoms [because he was mainly talking about comedy and doing otherwise would far too broad] portray reality say about our culture?”

A few specific examples of shows that push the limit when it comes to absurdity are 30 Rock, Community, and the far less-known Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23, which I’m going to be writing about a lot more in the near future.

GORDON: Scrubs too, I imagine, would fit that description- as most of the absurdity takes place in JD’s head, I guess that’s more iffy.

You call it adorable, I call it schizoid personality disorder…

I guess I’m still not clear on what’s being meant by “reality” though- are we talking about the fact that none of these shows are especially realistic? Because that’s hardly anything new- The Beverly Hillbillies or Gilligan’s Island both serve as examples of more off-the-wall scenarios than their more realistic counterparts (though the Andy Griffith Show could be kinda crazy too).

EVAN: Well, there’s gotta be some sort of line differentiating unrealistic from absurd. I’d personally say that Tracy Jordan earning so much that he has a literal money pit that he throws cash into crosses that line.

GORDON: Hm- I guess I’ve always considered the absurdist cutaways that are becoming increasingly popular (feels like it, anyways) are more like visual gags than anything else. I mean- I imagine people would’ve done it earlier in television history, but didn’t have the technology or the budget.

That said, there is this one episode of I Love Lucy where they put too much yeast in the dough and a loaf of bread the size of a dining room table launches out of the oven.

EVAN: I think that absurdity needs to really permeate the show, y’know?

GORDON: Fair enough, but I’m not entirely sure that it says all that much about culture or society- at least, that’s my gut reaction to the question.

I mean, Tracy Jordan’s money pit or Jack Donaghy’s knowledge of a country that only rich people go to- I don’t feel that this is indicative of some kind of trend or change within the human spirit, you know?

It’s like impressionism- it is different, certainly. Is that difference speaking volumes about the generation that popularized it? I’m not so sure.

EVAN: Let me pose it this way, and if we really can’t make any headway with this we can segue a bit:

I think it’s fair to say that a lot of sitcoms are becoming more similar to cartoons in many ways, as far as being in touch with what’s realistic or grounded. What does that say about their audience? I mean, I feel like it’s a fairly strong trend.

GORDON: Okay, THAT is an interesting point.

I guess I’d point the finger at The Simpsons for breaking ground as the first (to my knowledge) adult cartoon.

I’d imagine that there are more and more bridges being created between “kid” entertainment (more cartoonish and absurdist) and “adult” shows (more realistic), giving us Family Guy, Archer, American Dad– and of course, all that’s going to bleed over into live-action like Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt. 23 or 30 Rock.

EVAN: I think you’ve hit something with that, and maybe the trend is that our enjoyment of ostensibly adult cartoons is what paved the way for these absurdist live-action shows.

You would probably have to pay me [a small amount, to be fair] to watch Family Guy nowadays, but I might just owe them [and, of course, The Simpsons] for some of my favourite programs.

GORDON: It still kills me that you haven’t seen The Simpsons in their original glory; the episodes we’ve got today are pretenders to the throne.

EVAN: The new ones I’ve seen have not been bad at all, which I think speaks a lot for how good it used to be.

I’ve got another direction for this topic, though: What about escapism?

GORDON: Again, I’m gonna need you to break down what you mean by “escapism”…

EVAN: Well, escapism is typically meant as a means to get away from the terribleness that is our reality, right? A show like The Office, while being wacky in its own right, isn’t that many degrees of separation from life for many of us-

You take something like, and this is the last time I want to refer to it, 30 Rock, and there are several more degrees. Man, I really miss 30 Rock sometimes; though I have to admit it was good for it to end when it did.

GORDON: I’d imagine escapist shows would have characters living rich, exciting lives where they are the masters of their own destiny. I’d be more inclined to cite dramas over comedies when it comes to this, but yeah, I definitely think that happens and is happening more and more as this depression (let’s call it what it is, people) wears on.

Mad Men springs more immediately to mind, though I’ve cited Hell on Wheels as well. Sons of Anarchy and Breaking Bad also might be decent examples of this.

You thought we were just going to forget about this scene, didn’t you?

EVAN: So why is it that you prioritize dramas over comedies when it comes to escapism? I understand that you’re emphasizing gripping well-thought-out narratives in particular, but certainly they don’t have a trademark on the word-

GORDON: I just see this trend more in dramas than in comedies. I can laugh at being poor- I can relate to that. Jokes about your lazy butler forgetting to polish my ivory-handle caviar spoons before the ambassador’s ball tend to go over my head/pay scale.

Dramas, on the other hand, aren’t about laughing at something- they’re about feeling something. Experience and all that. To be a snarling meth emperor, a suave, wealthy advertising executive, a bad-ass cowboy- THESE are desires we can relate to.

EVAN: We’re getting a little bit off topic, and I’ll bring us back in as we close, but are you saying that in order for escapism to be successful the premise must be relatable? Fantasy and escapism very much go hand in hand, and I’m wondering how that works with what you’re saying here.

GORDON: It’s not about realism- it’s about tone. Comedy, I think, doesn’t make great escapism material because it’s end goal is to make you laugh, whereas drama (or action or thriller) is to make you feel. One genre just lends itself better to the task of taking you out of your situation, y’know?

EVAN: That is very valid.

And, to bring us back as promised, how do you feel, in general, about absurdist sitcoms?

GORDON: Eh- I wouldn’t call myself a huge sitcom fan in general, but one thing you gotta love about absurdism is that you never know what they’re gonna be throwing at you. Keeps old material fresh- fresh as it can be, I guess. As with most things in my life, I’m going to have to offer a resounding “meh.”

EVAN: I’m going to argue that you have some very strong opinions, meaning that I refuse to allows these nice people to believe that you face most things in life with a “meh”, resounding or otherwise.

As someone who is personally down with sitcoms in a big way, I’m going to say that I enjoy a good amount of absurdity in at least one or two of my shows. That might, of course, be my missing that show I promised I wouldn’t bring up again, but I think it also speaks to my love of cartoons, which I certainly don’t watch as much as I used to.

GORDON: And with that, we’re just about out of time. Again, be sure to leave us a comment below with a recommendation for our topic for next week. Also, leave an absurd comment- most absurd comment will receeve one virtual Gordon-high-five (void where prohibited).

EVAN: I don’t have anything nearly as valuable to offer you, unfortunately, but I’d love feedback just as much as the next guy, which in this case would be my co-writer Gordon.

Thanks for tuning in, and be sure to stop by next Wednesday to read Gordon and Kat discuss . . .

GORDON: What the agenda of the next feminist movement should be.

EVAN: You heard it here first, that is probably, in all likelihood, what will be discussed here in a week’s time. And if not, well, surprise!

3 responses to “Culture War Correspondence: Sitcom Absurdity

  1. According to “the Google,” Escapism is “the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, esp. by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy.” I’d say that covers both sitcoms and dramas pretty well, though I agree with Gordon that dramas can be more effective at emotionally distancing the viewer from their own circumstances. Also, it’s worth noting that the comedy in sitcoms often relies on embarrassing situations, many of which are uncomfortably similar to our own. That relatability facilitates the entertainment value, but it may also serve to decrease the “distance” of the escapism it provides.

  2. “and the far less-known Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23, which I’m going to be writing about a lot more in the near future.” -Evan
    So excited about that.

    Also, I’d like to note how 30 Rock got more and more absurd as the show went on. It was a slow change, and I think it did it wonderfully, but watch the pilot, or the first several episodes. The show was much more grounded in reality in its conception. It’s weird to think about.

    Finally, I want to disagree with Gordon about Drama being a more apt tool for escapism. Comedies often feature a “breakout” character, someone like Bender on Futurama, Homer on The Simpsons, Charlie on Two and a Half Men, Barney on How I met Your Mother, Joey on Friends… These characters often become the most popular, even if they are often not the main character, because they live humorously successful lives of guilt-free hedonism. Watching a show for a character like that is the height of escapism.
    On the other hand, I love watching dramas for how they make me feel things I normally don’t want to feel. Grief at a character’s death, anger at a character’s betrayal, relief at two character’s redemption. I appreciate the power of these shows to make me empathize with characters that well. But that, to me, is NOT escapism. Escapism is found in comedies for most people, as well as action or romance. Indiana Jones (an action) is escapism. Schindler’s List (a drama) is not. The Wedding Singer (romance/comedy) is escapism. Romeo and Juliet (tragedy/drama) is not.
    You could argue that action and romance are subsets of drama only if you make genres dichotomous (comedy vs. drama). And I’m not saying that dramas are NOT good for escapism. Twilight should practically be in a genre itself called “escapism,” but as it is, it’s a romance/drama. I’m just saying that comedy, especially on TV, is viewed much more than you realize for its escapism, and drama (again, I think, mostly on TV) is used much less than you think.

  3. I think part of it is the struggle to connect with people in real life, day to day existence. People find it hard to make friends etc, and they connect over distant third person experiences, like a meme or a football team. Sitcoms kind of reflect that by creating scenarios in which non-connection becomes acceptable and suddenly the person who doesn’t read the social cues ends up being a part of the social glue rather than drifting off lonely at the end of the episode. When you combine that with the sense of communal laughter, the sitcom absurdity acts a balm that you really aren’t crazy- the world actually doesn’t make much sense but still gives you the thought that it might end up nice and neat at the end.

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