I come from a family of eggheads, so summer camp for me was usually something like Mini University. We’d play with metal shavings and magnets, or compete to design the most aerodynamic paper planes, but one of the things we also got to do was use the Olympic swimming pool with a full size, triple-decker diving board. The very top board was always roped off, but one of my best friends dared me to climb up to the level below it and jump off with her. It was high enough that it was hard to even make ourselves walk to the edge, but we agreed that on the count of three we’d run and jump. It wasn’t until I surfaced that I realized she was still up there, staring down at me.
It’s amazing to me how much that moment captures about who I am as a person. Taking risks scares me, but I’d rather regret something I have done than something I haven’t. I do things just because I want to know whether I can. And when I commit to something I mean it, even if it’s a little thing. Basically, if there’s something I want or promise to do, as long as there’s water in the pool I’ll jump. I try not to be the kind of jackass who does something I shouldn’t rather than back out, but I really don’t like to come down the way I went up if I can help it.
Even though I did jump off the high board that day, I can still imagine what it would have felt like if I’d had to climb back down the ladder instead. I’ve learned that the hard way, by squirming out of things and then wishing I’d had the nerve to go through with them, or going ahead with things and realizing too late it was a mistake. I’ve lived through every painful moment of what came afterwards. I think the ability to draw on that wealth of real life experience in the viewer is one of the things that makes or breaks a good comedy. Sitcoms and movies work because we fill in the blanks. We can see 30 seconds of an experience and extrapolate the consequences without actually having to be shown the whole thing because we’ve lived some version of it already.
I have a feeling most of the actual learning in life is in the cut scenes. On screen, it all happens in a moment of enlightenment, with a close up of the character’s face as the realization sets in. They understand where they’ve gone wrong or what they need to do. They pick up that first piece of trash or show up at their best friend’s door, and the audience can take it as a symbol for character development. No one wants to sit there and watch in real time as the protagonist cleans up the entire school, or apologizes to each of their friends individually, or climbs down every rung of that ladder. Trouble is, it’s those uncomfortable, tedious, time-consuming experiences that stick in our minds and help us remember to do better next time.
Sitcoms are not usually my thing, but I’ve been watching more of them recently with friends and I’ve noticed that often the humor relies on characters behaving in ways that get them in trouble over and over again. If they didn’t learn or change enough to show some kind of personal growth then eventually the audience would lose interest, but if they ever did learn and stopped behaving badly then there’d be no show at all. Even when the humor is based more in a comedy of errors than inherent character flaws it still relies on a failure to communicate, and the characters’ communication skills seem to improve at a glacial pace.
In a way it’s absurd to say it because I’m well aware that they’re not real people, but I think sitcom characters can get away with continually behaving badly because they don’t have to deal with the fallout for more than a few minutes before the credits roll. The audience buys it because the stakes are low, and that’s a big part of what makes it entertaining. For instance, if you watched someone lose multiple clients for his business by being rude to them while he was having an argument with a delivery guy, you’d think he was a fool and lose patience with him if he lost more clients two weeks later because he was busy yelling at his sister over the phone.
If he actually had to spend all of the time and energy it would take to get those clients back or gain new ones, he probably wouldn’t make that mistake again, but he doesn’t really. He only has to deal with it for a few episodes before the next storyline comes along. We might see him reduced to standing on the corner dressed like a banana, handing out free samples and business cards, but our empathy isn’t supposed to run deep. If it did, we’d find it excruciating because lots of the things that happen in sitcoms are nightmares that would be no fun to watch if they played out all the way.
Cartoon characters are perhaps the ultimate example of comedy without consequences. It’s never a good idea for cartoon characters to jump off of the high diving board – the barrel of water is almost always either 2 feet to the left or turns out to have nothing in it at all – but since landing wrong doesn’t have any permanent side-effects, there’s no real reason not to keep doing the same thing over and over. There’s no motivation to learn, and the audience actually keeps coming back specifically to see them do the same thing they always do.
Of course, it’s not as if living through the consequences always does such a great job of stopping us from repeating our mistakes either. The same friend who left me hanging at the diving board had two older sisters who watched a lot of horror movies. One of her favorite things to do was to go down into the unfinished part of our basement among the racks of clothes and sheet-covered furniture and tell me scary stories. The only problem was that since she was telling the story, she always had the flashlight, and usually about two thirds of the way through she’d freak herself out so much she’d run upstairs, leaving me sitting alone in the dark. Every time. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised when she didn’t jump.
What I’ve found I appreciate about really good comedies is that they take a bunch of the difficult, painful, boring things that have happened to me in my life and let me use them to laugh at myself and empathize with the state of being human, which I actually think makes the world a better place. And hopefully I’ll learn enough from watching them that I never have to dress up like a banana for any reason.
alex MacFadyen can actually think of several reasons why it might be worth dressing up in a banana costume, including to raise money for charity, like the woman in the photo from the article, or as a performance art style prank, or just to go to the zoo and see the monkeys…