October 11, 2020

Sitcom Nation

Some time ago, on this blog, I mentioned the fact that a second screening of the popular sitcom Friendsrevealed to me something I had not noticed the first time around: a good bit of the humor is derived from the characters ridiculing or poking fun at one another. The “Chandler” character (played by Matthew Perry), for example, delivers a running stream of banter along these lines; he in turn is the butt of endless gay or homophobic jokes. A similar pattern can be seen in Seinfeld, and I have to admit that, notwithstanding all this, I enjoyed both of these sitcoms very much. Indeed, on first take the two of them struck me as being hysterically funny. Second time around, I realized that both of them had an “undertow” or shadow, and that it was actually rather ugly.

Possibly the worst example of this underlies the enormously popular series,The Big Bang Theory, about a group of nerdy physicists and their convoluted relations with the gorgeous blond who lives across the hall (played by Kaley Cuoco), as well as with two other women. This too is a hilarious portrayal of the ups and downs of their lives together, but once again, the shadow is pretty dark. In this case, the ridicule often amounts to brutal verbal attacks on each other, to the point of cruel humiliation. “Howard Wolowitz” (played by Simon Helberg) is a frequent target here, singled out for his height (short), his overattachment to his mother, the fact that he lost his virginity to his (second) cousin, and the fact that he never obtained a Ph.D., but is “only” an engineer from MIT. All of this is very wounding to him; the other boys find it amusing. Howard, for his part, spends a lot of time making fun of the Indian member of the group, “Raj” (Kunal Nayyar). And this pattern is operative with all of the characters, as the episodes progress. As I watched the show the second time around, I was filled with pain and anger on behalf of the victims, and I finally realized why: this was my experience of elementary school, high school, and even university and beyond.

What chance did I have, in an American context, really? At age 7 I was playing chess and reading poetry. As a teenager, I thought the concerns of my peer group—e.g., cars and their “groovy” tail fins—were pretty stupid, light years from anything I regarded as meaningful or worthwhile. As for university, Cornell was once characterized by an icon of a shoe stepping on someone’s face, with the prevailing ethos identified as “one-upsmanship.” In all 3 contexts, nasty put-downs were the order of the day. Nor am I proud of the fact that on occasion, I was the aggressor, being caught up in the soup of sadism we all floated in. Things were not much different when it came to the various jobs I held over the years, both academic and non. (I recall, when I was an Assistant Professor at Rutgers, one of the graduate students remarking, “Around here, they go for the jugular.” Where don’t they? one might reply.)

What my own experience—and probably yours as well—demonstrates, along with these 3 sitcoms, is the deep pathology of daily American life, which Americans barely notice and take for granted. It’s part of the air we breathe. This vicious treatment of other people is pretty much the norm in America, some version of Lord of the Flies. You can read the ultimate outcome of our early child, teen, and young adult cultural indoctrination in the daily papers: we hate each other, and we kill each other, often over nothing at all. Massacres occur now practically on a daily basis. One article I referred to in the last post tells of policemen beating porcupines to death with their night sticks, and finding it hilarious. Why would they do such a depraved, awful thing? Because such behavior is practically in our DNA; it’s how we relate to each other, the world (the torture of innocents, for example, or dropping atomic bombs on civilian populations), and even the animal kingdom. Time to stop blaming the top 1% for our problems, I would think, let alone China or Russia or Islam or god knows who else (as Jimmy Carter declared in his 1979 Annapolis speech, to which Americans turned a deaf ear). The truth is that the entire culture is sick beyond description, and really, beyond redemption. There is a deep poison in the American soul, and no conceivable way to remove it. Think of the many countries that will be happy (openly or in secret) when the nation finally self-destructs. Which event, given who we are, would seem to be inevitable.