Two Kinds of Comedic Agony

By “agony” here I’m talking about mental anguish than can often manifest itself physically. I experience two chief ones when watching comedies. And by comedies I mean sitcoms.

Type One: Gervaisian
It began in The Office and it went through to Extras and then (or before?) it became the basis for the U.S. Office. Maybe there’s a more general term for this. Maybe it predates Gervais/Merchant. But you know what I’m talking about, those moments when David Brent’s/Michael Scott’s idiocies, ignorance, or delusions of grandeur are exposed to public scrutiny (other characters’ and ours). So like the time when David begins telling his “black man’s cock” joke and then a black man walks up. Or Scott’s Tots finally learning the truth. When I laugh at these moments, it’s always to alleviate intense discomfort. N has this great “Oh God!” he yells to indicate the degree of agony we’re both experiencing. It goes far beyond mild embarrassment. It’s a big part of what makes these shows so attractive, that we can be forced so fully to this weird pain. And that we can revel in it and laugh.

Type Two: Farcic
While I’m positive that Gervais/Merchant aim for agony in their comedy, I don’t know that farces intend to instill this kind of pain in its audience. But surely I can’t be the only person who feels an equal but different kind of agony when two characters in a comedy are talking to each other about completely different topics, assuming all the while that the other is on the same page, while we the audience are left in the know. For instance, tonight’s Modern Family. The Dunphy kids caught their folks having sex. (All three…it worked out in the setup.) Meanwhile, Gloria accidentally sent Claire Dunphy a cruelly worded email she wrote as a joke. Later, Gloria confronts Claire after hearing she’s upset. (But what about!?) And so she tries to placate her, deploying a string of double-entendres any middle-school kids could fire off before homeroom.

It’s a staple of farce, best summed up by Chandler Bing in reference to an episode of Three’s Company: “Oh, this is the one where there’s some kind of misunderstanding.” And if you’ve done the tricky work to set up the grand misunderstanding, you’re going to milk the damn thing as long as you can. And this is the problem: the endless misunderstanding of the farce. Is there anything more agonizing than the delay of clarification?

As I said before, the pain I feel is equal. Type one or two, I want whatever I’m looking at to stop. Why I seek out Gervaisian agony (like I do 9-volts to the tongue) and why I can’t bear farcic agony has I think to do with realism. Everything about a farce is contrived. A farce asks way more of us than it deserves. The only time I left a play at halftime was during a pre-Broadway production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s By Jeeves at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre. Misunderstandings. British accents. Grandes Dames. Musical numbers. It was simply torture. I wouldn’t go back for more.

I’d be open to taking a Farce Appreciation Course, but what would it entail? I mean, I liked the one Wodehouse I read, but Noises Off? Please keep it away.

(In other news, a LOL line in tonight’s “Cougar Town”, surprisingly: “My only interests are drinking wine and judging people.”)

2 thoughts on “Two Kinds of Comedic Agony”

  1. I have a similar reaction to both, but the opposite end result, being that I can watch the farcic stuff (although I wouldn’t say I seek it out exactly) and enjoy it but the Gervaisian stuff I just can’t. Unless, weirdly, I’m watching it with a group of people, in which it somehow becomes bearable, which I’m sure says something profound about me psychologically. But I stopped watching the American Office precisely when Jim and Pam could no longer carry the show and Michael Scott seemed to become more of a focal point and the reason is that I just couldn’t make it through an episode anymore without a compelling romance to smooth over the roughest patches of Gervaisism.

  2. Another way we’re opposites. Would that Jim and Pam would take their precious baby and move to, oh, West Chester (PA) or somewhere to get her into good schools and get them both off the show! Once Scott leaves I don’t see what the point of watching the show would be. Maybe they’ll put Ryan back in charge. Novak and Kaling seem to be providing that show with all its interesting energy.

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