Gentle Humor

My wife and I have started watching re-runs of “As Time Goes By” on PBS. They are many years old, but we find them delightful. The humor is generated by clever dialogue and complexities arising from the fact that two people who were in love as young people have come together after years with other spouses and other lives and discovered that they are still soul mates. It is beautifully done and the writing is not only superb, the acting is top drawer as well with Judi Dench as the leading female character and Geoffrey Palmer as the leading male character. The relationship between the two is believable and very touching.

Contrast this with what I take to be “typical” American sit-coms (though I have not viewed that many and have not compiled a catalogue). But the ones I have seen draw their humor from cutting and hurtful remarks between the main characters. It may have started with Archie Bunker’s constant cuts at his son-in-law “Meathead” who could do nothing right. Though they were not “sit-coms” I don’t recall that the sketches on “I Love Lucy” or “The Carol Burnett Show” relied on cutting remarks and humor designed to put people down.  But my list of shows that do this includes “Friends” where such characters as Phoebe repeatedly cuts those close to her, especially Ross, the guy who seems a bit out of step with the other pleasure-seekers around him as his interests are so much broader than theirs. And I can also recall Raymond’s parents who were always downright mean to their daughter-in-law Deborah, the constant brunt of nasty and at times cruel remarks — all designed to be laughed at, judging by the annoying laugh-track that prompts the audience at home when to laugh.

But there is also the group of nerds, especially Sheldon Cooper, who make fun of Howard Wolowitz who “only” has a Master’s degree (from M/I.T. of all places). And there is always Charlie Harper who was relentless in his cutting remarks to his brother Alan who moved into Charlie’s house after his wife “threw him out.” Alan was down on his luck and the brunt of countless remarks not only from his brother but also from his brother’s housekeeper who joins in “all in fun.” And Alan’s son, Jake, is the brunt of countless jokes at his expense as the “dumb” son. Apparently the message is you can hurt someone if you call it teasing: this sort of thing is regarded as funny and, again, our laughter is prompted by the constant intrusion of the damned laugh-track.

I confess that this sort of cutting humor leaves me cold and eventually forces me to look elsewhere. But I wonder what to make of this? The British comedies are not always as gentle as “As Time Goes By,” to be sure. Doc Martin certainly became a bit nasty after the first season.  But I can think of no American comedies since Lucy and Carol left TV that draws on that sort of gentle humor in which no one is hurt. I hesitate to generalize because I have not seen that many American or British comedies lately. But I can certainly take note of the differences I am aware of. Again, what to make of those differences?

Freud tells us that humor is a displacement of sadistic impulses — a release of “cathexis” that allows us to experience the sadistic impulses we all have without actually harming anyone else. (And he insists that we all have them, whether we admit it or not.) The prototype of this sort of thing is the pie in the face of the clown, or the chair pulled from beneath the sitting person at the dinner table. As long as no one gets actually hurt, we laugh and the laughter releases the sadistic impulses. The hurtful sit-coms I mentioned all have this element present — some in large measure. If this is so then ironically the American TV shows I mentioned may be psychologically healthy. It is certainly better to laugh at someone on the TV who is not really hurt by the verbal cuts and bruises than to load up the shotgun and take out our neighbor’s dog whose barking annoys us. I do wonder, however.

It is interesting that people we call “insane” and institutionalize don’t seem to laugh at all. I recall seeing “Titicut Follies” years ago which took place inside a mental institution in Massachusetts and the thing that jumps out is the complete absence of laughter of any sort. So perhaps even the mean and nasty humor of the American sit-coms has its use in a nation stressed out from a frantic pace of life, a weak economy, and almost constant war. It helps us release pent-up frustration and animus toward our fellows. But I would prefer if the humor were derived from the clever words and complex situations the protagonists find themselves in rather than the verbal lacerations that seem so constant. I don’t know about you, but would prefer that our humor were not so nasty.


13 thoughts on “Gentle Humor

  1. A lot of good points, Hugh. My mother dislikes David Letterman’s show for the same reasons — his humor always comes at the expense of others, and is cuttingly mean. The Andy Griffith Show is another that would fit with Lucy and Carol Burnett. Gentle, believable situational humor. I wonder if you aren’t correct in thinking it’s a sign of the times, national stress producing spikes in this sort of humor. All In the Family, Maude, MASH, etc., all started in the early 1970s and carried a lot of social commentary and heavy doses of more cutting humor. There is a series of very funny movies but of similar, attacking vein from the late 1930s into the early 1940s made by Preston Sturges. They are famous for their rapid-fire, sarcastic dialogue, and, of course, the Marx Brothers, who often found their humor at the expense of their movies’ straight man (or woman) — the person who didn’t get their jokes, fed them straight lines just ripe for sarcastic response and thus kept getting hit with them. Again, from the 1930s, at the height of the Depression.

  2. I wish I could “love” this post. My husband and I have recently discovered British television shows via Netflix. I personally love them because the actors look like normal people. Here I go about beauty again, but it’s so hard to watch American television and not feel inadequate somehow. British shows have normal-looking people, with flaws, age, and imperfect bodies. Our favorites of late are Doc Martin and the new BBC Sherlock Holmes series.

      • I loved Doc Martin until he became unlikable! He started off with soft edges and they chopped them off. But we love the new Sherlock series, too. And you are spot on about the look of the actors. They don’t look like “Hollywood.” They look like our neighbors next door! Thanks, EWmily.

  3. Hi Hugh! I like Emily’s comment about everyone not having to be so beautiful. I enjoy some comedies for their escapism, but I usually like ones with a little more meat on the bones and meaning. You could truly find some useful messages between the lines of Sex and the City and Parks and Rec if you look for them. Sometimes they are mixed with some other messages that are not so positive, but yo can find them there as a common thread. In Sex and the City, the messages are around the importance of friendship – much more than about the men who come and go. And Parks and Rec shows a passionate public servant who is truly in the work for the right reasons – surrounded by many people who are not. Sounds like I’ll have to check out As Time Goes By.

  4. My wife and I have discovered the new show (at least here) “Call the Midwife.” Excellent stories and very believable. Of course, it is a British show. As for the American shows, I was always fond of Bob Newhart’s first show. I think everyone loved his relationship with Suzanne Pleshette so much that he ended his second show in the greatest ending ever, when he awoke with her in bed and told her about his weird dream of the second show. I guess the last Cosby Show was the closest thing we had to a real family show. Great post.

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