Monday, March 28, 2011

The M.A.S.H. Analogy and Mean Humor. Also, Is It Time To Change The Name Of This Blog?

I was reading a piece in Slate by Joanna Weiss about how the trend of mean-spirited sitcoms seems to be dying down. By "mean-spirited" I'm not just talking about snarky humor and sarcasm, but shows like "Two and a Half Men," which the article held up as an example of the genre. Shows like that or like "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" derive their humor mostly through outrage and schadenfreude, as completely unsympathetic characters do unbelievably selfish and often stupid things, then get exactly what they deserve. (Or not, in which case we get to chuckle over the fact that they somehow got away with it).
This is all undeniably funny, and in it's own way is a backlash against the syrupy lesson-in-every-episode type of family sitcom that came before, but eventually it becomes as much of a formula as the shows it was originally meant to mock, and the humor pendulum begins its swing from sarcasm back to sincerity.
Of course, the other problem with that type of show is that the characters, by nature, are not very sympathetic at all. If you actually liked and identified with them you'd be outraged at their behavior, but as it is it becomes like watching a nature documentary about some weird species of reptile: they're not really human, so when they bite the head off their own young it's much more excusable and queasily fascinating. 
Most sitcoms need to have a "jerk" to act as the foil for the main character, and to occasionally add a little humorous outrage, but it seems that those characters are more interesting when they're also human beings with sympathetic qualities.
I'd use the show "M.A.S.H." as an example (other long-running shows like "The Simpsons" work equally well, but there's a great test case to be had here). The two central wise-cracking doctors, Pierce and Hunnicutt, had a nemesis for the entire run of the show, other than the actual war. There were two characters who filled that role, and one of the was way better than the other.
The first was Major Frank Burns, who was more of a stereotypical Jerk character. Burns was a cowardly, incompetent suckup, who was quick to pull rank on other characters and suck up to authority. His general lack of likability and hypocrisy made him a frequent butt of jokes by more sympathetic characters, giving the viewer the pleasure of watching them "win" over the Jerk.
However, eventually Burns left the show and was replaced by a much more interesting, funnier and more nuanced character named Charles Winchester (the Third). Charles was a top-class surgeon from a wealthy Boston WASP family. He was an arrogant snob, disdainful of popular culture and his fellow co-workers and made it clear that he though his assignment in a battlefield hospital was far beneath him.
BUT, he was also a brilliant surgeon and had a strong sense of honor, humor and fair play. And as his character developed (character development being another option not offered in the "no hugging, no learning" school of comedy writing) he came to exhibit some surprisingly sentimental and admirable characteristics. This made the war of put-downs and practical jokes between him and his co-workers a lot easier to relate to, after all, who doesn't like to mess with their friends just a bit?
In the "mean" comedy, every character is like a Frank Burns, and while it's funny to laugh at them getting their comeuppance, it's really hard to put yourself in their shoes (good God, at least I HOPE it is!). Personally, while that's funny for a short time, if I can't find something sympathetic with the characters, I'll eventually get bored with the show (probably why Seinfeld put me to sleep. There I said it, I hated Seinfeld). The trick is, of course, to find a good balance between sweet feel-good comedy (which is hardly ever actually funny) and mean-spirited comedy (which, like Taco Bell, can be hard to resist when its in front of you, but will leave you feeling queasy and unfulfilled ten minutes later).
We'll see whether there's anything to what Miss Weiss had to say, I'd like to see some better-rounded stuff out there. While I've enjoyed watching some of the "mean" stuff, I'm starting to thing that if all I want to do is watch selfish, stupid people making asses of themselves on screen, I may as well just be watching reality shows.

In other news: I've long since gotten out of the habit of updating this on any sort of schedule, so maybe "The Daily DeBlass" is not really an appropriate title. It may be time for a change, so I'm taking suggestions for a new blog title.


Tracy said...

Hi Matt!

Sympathies from a one-time daily blogger: it's a brutal schedule to keep up with. Liked reading your thoughts about humor: it's really hard to find that sweet spot between awkward, schmaltzy, and mean, and you're like the umpteenth thing this month that's made me want to re-watch Tommy Boy, which does a remarkably good job of walking that funny, funny line.

I've never watched M.A.S.H. the series, but the movie left me cold—mean-spirited humor *and* carnival o'misogyny? Thanks but no thanks! Also always glad to hear from another Seinfeld non-fan.

Cheers (and thinking about a new handle for your blog, because clearly that's more awesome than getting any work done... sigh),

Neil said...

I always thought that the Hawkeye character was pretty much an ass, particularly during the Frank Burns years. He would pretty much mock anyone he disagreed with or who wasn't in his clique. Great fun to watch, but not someone you'd want to actually know.

Anonymous said...

Oh Lord, I thought I was the only one who hated Seinfeld. And for that precise reason--why would I want to watch unsympathetic characters do unsympathetic things?

But shows in which even the most unsympathetic characters have some redeemable, or at least understandable, qualities? And vice-versa? Beautiful. Like the Three Musketeers. God, they weren't likable, but then again they were. Han Solo too. And T-Bag. They allow me more room to "be" with myself: even if I've done something foolish, or mean--or someone's done something to me--doesn't mean I, and they, can't rise up again to the levels of our commitments and do wonderful things. We're all *human*.
Romance novels sometimes get me down that way--sometimes the main characters simply never do anything foolish or downright mean--and it leaves me feeling sort of flat.

Awesome post!

Anonymous said...

Hi Matt!

Loretta here (didn't feel like logging in to google). I just wanted to drop a quick note to say that you may find some remarkably well-developped characters in Glee. Of course, a musical sitcom is completely unrealistic, but! Most of the characters are relatable anyway. No one is 100% awful all the time, and one of the most responsible decisions made by any character is an action taken by the "evil" Coach Sylvester when she temporarily takes over as principal.

If you can deal with the goofiness, it's worth a look.