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In the popular imagination, comedy is a form of escapism designed to make an audience laugh, not necessarily ponder the gritty realities of life. Its obvious counterpart is drama or tragedy, which often presents harsher truths about human nature and existence.
But perhaps comedy as a reflection of dark realities has been undersold. Almost every comedy I can think of, old and modern, is a long and tireless demonstration of what people do wrong.
“Fleabag” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” both follow funny, intelligent women who continuously make poor decisions. Even if they could easily be antagonists in a different show, and even if we wouldn’t like them in our real lives, they are compelling heroines to follow as their stories unfold.
Episodes tend to focus on people with eccentric or problematic personalities, usually getting themselves into mishaps, whom the audience can’t help but be endeared by. Their situations may be lighthearted or grievous, but they are not often handled very well.
Other comedies feature a cast of protagonists, usually a family, roommates or coworkers. “Modern Family” is a widely known example of a show with no real main character but a cast of different individuals who rely on each other’s unique strengths.
“Everybody Loves Raymond” is an older sitcom full of manipulative, envious and abrasive people. Yet, with its exploration of what love means in a dysfunctional family, its characters easily won the affection of critics and audiences, earning 69 Emmy nominations and 15 wins.
“Glee” centers on protagonists who are off-the-rails and unsympathetic but also cultivates an audience of anti-fans who love to hate them and hate to love them. I smiled when Rachel Berry got a slushie in her face, but I also smiled when Rachel won the role of Fanny Brice.
Many situations in these shows are not, on their face, funny. The characters are no less vicious, strange or disappointing than those featured in dramas.
The emotional hook of the stories doesn’t focus on difficult things happening to decent people. Rather, difficult people in these shows are usually causing their own problems.
So, the content of comedy doesn’t appear very distinct from darker stories. It is the presentation of the story that separates the two; are we supposed to laugh or cry at these reflections of ourselves?
Seriousness is often appropriate, but there’s something to be said for having a sense of humor about ourselves and our situations. Humor could potentially be a powerful way for screenwriters to point out harmful behaviors, dynamics and habits without employing shame or disgust.
It’s also a great way to introduce nuance and realism into a story and its characters. It’s interesting to see morally gray people presented with compassion and humor, and even if their situations are absurd or sad, it can inspire people to look at their own lives and relationships with greater optimism.
A show that I think exemplifies this concept perfectly is “The Middle.” This show is about a family that is perpetually down on their luck, but their eccentricities, positivity and loyalty encourage us to hope, against all odds, that they are going to be OK.
I think I greatly benefited from seeing someone like Sue Heck, played by Eden Sher, on that show. Though she is written as a tragically unexceptional teenage girl, her boundless positivity and generosity toward others are unforgettable.
Her younger brother Brick, played by Atticus Shaffer, is the family oddball who, despite everyone’s attempts to change him, is really just fine with being an oddball. I was a neurodivergent child watching, and it was refreshing to see a neurodivergent character who wasn’t one-dimensional or stereotypical and who demonstrated a peaceful sense of self-acceptance.
Comedies may not only be a source of comfort and escapism. Perhaps they are more important than we give them credit for, allowing us to look at ourselves without disappointment but rather with affection and hope for our big, dysfunctional human family.
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