Television Tuesday :: on meliorism in comedy

21 Mar

In the last couple months, drift partner caught me up on Brooklyn Nine-Nine and all of Parks and Recreation (rewatching the seasons I’d seen before, since it’s been a while, and taking the last couple on for the first time). We are now watching Arrested Development, which definitely does not fall in the “meliorism in comedy” category, and she has apologized a couple of times for it possibly being “jarring” after Parks. I’m not bothered, it’s generally pretty funny, but it’s a different kind of thing, and this is what I’ve realized.

I don’t need my comedy to be about perfect people. That’s impossible because technically perfection is a lie. But as a general rule, comedy sits better with me when it’s not at the expense of. A lot of sitcoms rely on the punchline being something that, if not outright mean-spirited to joke about, is something that the character can’t really help. Punching down instead of up, as it goes. That’s fine on something like Arrested Development, where it’s A) absurdist and B) the people getting laughed at are ridiculous and probably horrible. But on the majority of sitcoms it’s not really the case, and I usually find myself frowning.

The comedy I tend to enjoy, like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Parks, takes the majority of its humor from things that are too absurd not to be sort of realistic. The protagonists are actually people that deserve to be protagonists – flawed and sometimes in very obvious ways but ultimately good-hearted people who try to do more or less the right thing – and the situations they encounter are funny because they’re ridiculous, but also there’s some truth to them. Every time something that happened on Parks seemed just a little crazy, I would remind myself of the time my mother, who works for city government, was asked at a city council meeting about regulations involving hoverboards. “You know, like in Back to the Future.” Ridiculous things do happen. It makes sense. But good people try to work around it, sometimes in also ridiculous ways.

And sometimes people are jerks, and this can go one of two ways. Either it’s a mostly good person who’s being a jerk, at which point they eventually learn from their mistakes and apologize (or the butt of their joke is someone who doesn’t mind it, a Jerry/etc. type) and all is well, or it’s a total jerk who’s being a jerk, and everyone acknowledges that they’re a jerk and deal with the situation accordingly. Either way, the being a jerk is never narratively construed as something that’s positive. You’re never made to feel like the person who asked someone to apologize for saying something offensive is the one who should feel bad, not the person who said the offensive thing. You aren’t supposed to side with jerks, and you can laugh at them being jerks because, hey, being a jerk? That’s a choice people make.

Shows like this actually have a positive outlook on life, in the general sense. They say “look, sometimes things are terrible, people are terrible, but you can prevail one way or another.” And especially when the world has gone to shit like it has lately, that’s reassuring. And the characters feel more realistic (who actively tries to be friends with jerks? Nobody I can think of, whereas everyone I know is friends with mostly good people who have some flaws and are not always perfect) and the stories don’t make you feel uncomfortable, and it’s just better.

–your fangirl heroine.

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One Response to “Television Tuesday :: on meliorism in comedy”

  1. Danny March 2017 at 1:32 pm #

    You’ve explained this all super well. parks and recreation is one of my favourite shows and it’s ‘niceness’ is a big reason why, I think

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