Situation Comedies
And the Liberating Power of Sadism

by Ken Sanes

It is no small irony that two of the most important art forms of the late twentieth century are science fiction spectacles and situation comedies. The former draw us into a world of exaggeration and visual extravaganza in which the characters are forever saving the universe; protecting civilization, and reestablishing the natural order of time. The theme of many of these creations is clearly our yearning to use technology to escape the bounds of the physical world and our fear that flaws in our character will cause us to misuse our powers.

Sitcoms, on the other hand, draw us into a more modest world, descended not from mythology, and day and night dreams, as is science fiction, but from comedy of manners, vaudeville and our tacit perceptions of everyday life. Their theme is our inability to conquer our petty desires as we go about the minor tasks of the day. Science fiction is about everything; situation comedy is, as the program Seinfeld put it, about nothing or, at least, about the way a lot of very small things make up the stuff of life. Both examine human weakness, although only sitcoms do so with a microscope. Between them, they capture one of the contradictions of the age, which can be found in our heightened awareness of the unlimited possibilities of technology and the limits of personality.

Science fiction may fire the imagination but, so far, it is situation comedies that are the dominant presence in nighttime entertainment. Sitting in front of our favorite shows, holding our clickers, (or fighting over the clicker in true sitcom style), we enjoy theatrical reenactments that are a summation of our own strengths and weaknesses.

Like us, the characters we see on the screen are busy suffering and enjoying, and they often have trouble hiding the way they feel. They are self-involved and full of irrational fears and desires, and they get carried away by foolish emotions, often failing to consult their own capacity for insight until late in the story.

Like us, they go out into the world wearing masks and they help other people maintain their own masks. But, at the same time, much of their identity is based on their ability to pull off the masks of themselves and others, in put-downs, gossip and confrontations, and, somewhat more reverently, in confessions and moments of truth. Like us, they are manipulators of information who "spin" whatever story they are telling in an effort to influence other people.

And, like us, the characters are surrounded by circles of associates, not merely by practical necessity or circumstance, but because their narcissistic goals and desires can only be achieved through other people. In their lives, as depicted on the screen, narcissism and sociality aren't two poles of the human condition. They are the same.

In their miniature societies, they do what critics have long said comic characters do -- they scheme and deceive and give themselves away; they tell stories about each other; they misunderstand and reconcile; invent enemies, and make and break pacts and alliances. Most significantly, their interactions are portrayed as being enmeshed in a network of rights and obligations that involve various kinds of status and personal territory. This gives us one of the most common story lines of sitcoms: the characters infringe on each other's territory or fail to live up to an obligation, often because they are driven to do so by their own narcissism and fears and desires. They steal each other's dates, reveal secrets, put each other on the spot, and fail to show proper deference or attention. As a result, things get out of balance until they are (usually) set right again, so the moral order embodied in the depicted relationships is restored.

In essence, then, situation comedies are the story of our psychodynamics and "sociodynamics", told over and over by formula in slightly different forms. They are examples of the theories we read in the social sciences, but acted out by fictional characters instead of being offered to us in complex theories.

But what makes sitcoms something other than an absurdist drama is the fact that the characters are more than what is described above. What we respond to isn't merely the foolishness of their personal limitations. It is also, and most essentially, the fact that we can identify with the way they are trapped by their limitations and have to struggle against those limitations to find a measure of wholeness and happiness in their lives. However much we may be fascinated by their craziness, what really makes them interesting is that they want to lead a good life and, like all of us some of the time, and some of us much of the time, they are constantly straying away from their goal even when they believe they are moving toward it.

This essential theme can be seen in the kinds of characters that sitcoms depict. Typically, they can be differentiated according to how much their foibles and limitations interfere with their ability to be happy.

Some of the more extreme characters are depicted as being lost in their own limitations and without insight into what is wrong. They are defined by their craziness, which can be very funny, although it can interfere with the audience's ability to identify with them, and can make them seem less sympathetic and less human.

Many others are portrayed as also suffering from their own limitations, whether from their own narcissism and personal neuroses or other sources, so that they get only half a loaf out of life. But their craziness takes less away from them and seems less over the edge than in the first group. And, typically, they struggle against, and learn lessons about, their limitations and manifest some insight into themselves.

Thus, on Seinfeld, George is emotionally stunted and often sexually frustrated, with limited abilities when it comes to work and love. But he has few illusions about his own motivations. His aging father, who is largely defined by his craziness, is an obsessional neurotic who hoards back issues of TV Guide. On Roseanne, the adult sister is a less pathetic version of George, who can't seem to build a life for herself. But her mother, at least in some episodes, is depicted as immersed in her obsessive criticism of her children, unable to conceive of the fact that she is in a prison created by herself.*

In addition, sitcoms also portray more admirable characters we would prefer to identify with, who still suffer from their own less drastic limits. To balance out George, the emotionally stunted narcissist, we are given Jerry, the successful, well-functioning, narcissist. To balance out Tim Taylor, the Mr. Break-It on Home Improvement who devotes himself to shoring up his gender identity with ever more powerful tools, we are given the adult wife, Jill, who keeps things in check.

Somewhere in the mix of all these depictions of people who range from psychotically crazy to very neurotic to somewhat normally neurotic, sitcoms also show us children and teenagers who suffer from the limitations of youth -- impetuousness, naivete, and so on. They range in the degree they are lost in their limitations, as well, but there is usually a sense conveyed that they are going through the normal learning process that is part of growing up.

But the characters aren't only differentiated according to how crazy they are and the degree of insight they have into themselves. They can also be distinguished by which aspect of their personality is affected. Here, they fall into recognizable types, as they always have in comedy, so that each represents one or a few forms of dysfunctionality we know from ourselves and other people. There are the addicts, avoiders, self-sabotagers, airheads, overgrown adolescents, macho men, seductresses, persecutors, troublemakers, matchmakers, nagging parents, braggarts, et al. Today, in deference to marketing and changing social conditions, a great many are depicted as young and not-so-young narcissists, trapped in lives that leave them unsuccessful in work or love. Their narcissism isn't only an exaggerated depiction of much of the audience; it also gives sitcoms a chance to represent the universal narcissism at the heart of the human condition.

When we look at the plots and themes of sitcoms, we once again see a distinction in which some depict worlds that are crazier and more dysfunctional than others. Some, like Home Improvement and Boy Meets World, tend toward romantic comedy with intact families and good jobs, and with moral lessons and happy endings that create a sense the characters are able to solve problems and, in some cases, even climb to a higher level of the human condition. Others tend more toward farce. They may depict entire groups of people who seem permanently dysfunctional; who are unable to create a life, or who are governed by petty fears and desires. The degree of craziness these programs depict may be more extreme, as well.

These programs take us into an emotional underworld of nonstop neurosis in which the characters' hope for something better is considerably dimmed. Many refuse to offer us happy endings tied in a bow. The joke is on the characters: for all their running, they stay in place.

An example of these more farcical creations is Seinfeld, which shows us a society of people in Manhattan who don't know what to do with their lives and who are constantly grating on each other's nerves. They infringe on each other's territory, let each other down and get in each other's way, often carrying out incompetent deceptions to achieve petty goals. For lack of something better, they spend their time analyzing the minutiae and rituals of everyday life. Seinfeld shows us New York as a metaphor for the human condition -- the New York of the soul, if you will -- a society in which other people may not be hell but they are very annoying. But there is also a sense that most of the main characters aren't all that regressed or bizarre; they are higher level neurotics as compared to the pathologically pathetic and bizarre characters seen on some shows.

A more extreme example is Married...With Children, which portrays the royal family of dysfunctionality, the Bundys, who lack the character needed to succeed in life. Stuck in a world of scarce emotional and financial resources, the self-involved parents and the kids who are left to fend for themselves are forever working out little schemes in the competition for whatever goods they can get their hands on in the way of sex, money and food. They live in a Hobbesian household of diminished everything in which no one has any obligations because no one has received anything from anyone else.

Married...With Children gives us a portrait of the Me generation after both anomie and entropy have set in. It is a healthier version of what we see on daytime talk shows, allowing us to take pleasure in viewing truly pathetic souls we are determined to never become.

The theme, or one of them anyway, is one that we also see in cartoons: just when you think you're a predator, life turns the tables and reveals you were always the prey. It is embodied in Al, the father, who can never win, as if some higher power were holding him in place.

Of course, at the same time, like every sitcom, perhaps without exception, Married...With Children also has an underlying message of hope. The father never cheats; the family stays together; and the characters stick up for each other sooner or later, or at least they commiserate together in the end.

Not all of the humor in sitcoms is about what has been described here, of course. Humor, after all, can produce a laugh by mocking all kinds of things that audiences see as negative. It can mock physical weakness and lack of skill, ugliness and "atypical" height, cognitive limitations and lack of education. It can even mock physical suffering.

In addition, the humor in sitcoms also mockingly portrays our normal responses to the difficulties of life. These shade into all the depictions of our neuroses.

But the creators of sitcoms (and of comedy in general) learned a long time ago that their most important raw material is the human condition. And that is most essentially what we create in ourselves and society as a result of our psychodynamics, and the strengths and weaknesses in our own character.

So situation comedies are about our desire to become whole and happy, and about the way we often sabotage that quest or lose our way because of irrational fears and misguided desires. They take this central conflict of human life and show how it is played out between people.

But how do they use this theme to create the good feeling that keeps us coming back for more? And do they help liberate us in our own struggle against our limitations or do they merely let us vicariously act these conflicts out? Put another way, is the aesthetic experience we get from situation comedies (including the laugh and the feeling of joy) part of a larger freeing up or merely a palliative designed to make our stay more comfortable?

The answer, I think, is that it can involve both. Sitcoms give audiences a number of different kinds of satisfactions, which meld together in the experience of watching.

Here is some of what sitcoms provide:


-- Sitcoms allow us to identify with characters who are both idealized and caricatured versions of ourselves. Through them, we live a thousand lives in the ways only fiction can make possible. We fight and reconcile; enjoy tender moments with people we love; and watch our (fictional) children grow up, as we might in life.

-- Sitcoms allow us to relate to the characters as if they are people we know. In so doing, we enjoy rich social lives, full of interesting people. We may have a sense that we relate to them directly or through other characters we identify with in the story.

-- Sitcoms give us a chance to enjoy revenge against characters who stand in for those we have been in conflict with in our own lives. We take sadistic pleasure as they are portrayed as fools, mocked and one-upped by other characters, and generally get their just deserts. Sitcoms usually don't, however, offer us villains who are defeated for the happy ending to take place, since much of the conflict is between sympathetic characters.

-- Sitcoms also satisfy another desire, for consolation. They give us happy endings, loving relationships, and commiseration between characters, that tells us things aren't really so bad and life does have its compensations. They help reconcile us to the unfairness and incompleteness of life, and with all the limitations imposed from without and within.

But, in addition to everything described above, sitcoms and comedy in general also offer something else, and this is where things start to get interesting. They use the liberating power of sadism to help free us from our world of illusion.

In the "real" world, every one of us weaves a spell of falsehood around ourselves and others. We are constantly spinning out justifications, defenses, pretensions and outright lies, in the way we think about ourselves and present ourselves to other people. To hear any of us tell it, our motives are pure and our cause is just; our abilities are impressive; our opponents are venal characters; and whatever went wrong, it's not our fault.

But comedy will have nothing to do with this way of depicting the world. Instead, it takes human imperfection and it calls it by its name, allowing the audience to take sadistic pleasure in what it exposes. It pushes away all the defenses and self-justifications, and exaggerates what is wrong with us, in order to show us ourselves as we are. We are obsessed with sex and with denying that we are obsessed with sex, and sitcoms show it. We gorge on entire pies in the face of life's difficulties and sitcoms show it. We hate our bosses in private and suck up to them in person, and sitcoms exploit the possibilities for all they are worth.

Not only does the sitcom refuse to be taken in by all the pretension and defense that covers up the way we really are, but it turns this into one of its favorite targets. It shows us society as a world of staging and masks and the rhetorical manipulation of words and ideas, in which everyone is engaged in the idealization and defense of themselves, while subtly and not so subtly preying on those around them.

In all this, the sitcom is a way of being awake to the world. It says no to the lies and yes to the power of calling things by their right name.

In showing us things as they are, sitcoms liberate us to see critical truths about ourselves and others, and about institutions and society. By confirming our negative perceptions, they free us up to avow what we may perceive but not symbolize to ourselves in words, or what we may symbolize to ourselves but not say out loud, or what we may say out loud but not say publicly. They give us permission to know what we know and say what we know.

In effect, the sitcom, like comedy in general, helps free us up through the liberating power of sadistic mockery. It offers sadism that isn't merely a defense against self-injury and an act of revenge, but that is also in the service of our search for personal freedom and significant truth.

To the extent we experience its humor as mocking other people, it can free us to see the imperfections of those around us, and may give us a sense of permission to think and say things that might otherwise cause anxiety. To the extent we experience the humor as mocking things that loom large -- including situations, people, institutions, fears and values -- it can make them seem small or, at least, of more manageable size. Under the power of humor, even death, nuclear destruction and Adolph Hitler can be (symbolically) turned into pathetic little mice and scared away. Bosses and foreboding authority figures lose their luster and suddenly take on human size.

Some forms of fiction, such as romance, may encourage us to transfer our early fearful and worshipful attitude toward our parents onto their characters. They offer us mysterious high priests, extraordinary heroes, malevolent villains, and supernatural beings. But comedy will do this only long enough to heighten the tension, so the joke will be that much more intense when we discover that the high priest is selling high-priest knickknacks on the side, and the villain shrunk his villain's suit in the dryer. This reduction of authority and this ability to reduce that which looms large to a smaller size, may serve as a defense against our fears, but it is also an effort to free us up to confront the things we fear.

Perhaps what is most important about the mockery of sitcoms is that, to the extent the humor is experienced as mocking ourselves, it frees us up to be less defensive. it gives us permission to be more open about our own imperfections.

Other forms of fiction do many of these same things, of course. More serious (ironic) forms of fiction, for example, will also show us humanity with all its flaws, and take us behind the masks, to see people's schemes and their secret desires. And the news media does all this for a living, in its monotonous and heavy handed way.

What is different is that situation comedies do it, not by demonizing enemies or conveying the seriousness of things or by evoking tearful sympathy, but through humor. That means the limitations they show us evoke in us not hate or fear or arrogant disdain or tearful sympathy, but a laugh. Through the good feeling and immediate release of the joke and the laugh, sitcoms let us mock foolishness, even as they let us recognize that it is alright to be foolish, at the same time.

In essence, than, what the sitcom (and humor, in general), does is turn bad into good by harnessing the liberating power of sadism to create a sense of good feeling. It takes whatever we fear and hate and are embarrassed about, and uses it to create a physical release and a sense of joy. By taking much that is pathetic in us and using it to free us up, it performs an essential function of all moral fiction: it turns something low into something high.

In accomplishing this act of transmutation, the sitcom doesn't merely tell us we are under no obligation to support defenses and justifications, whether they are those of others or ourselves. It also poses a challenge we can't resist: why bother being defensive or phony or embarrassed when there's such a good laugh waiting if we refuse.

Sitcoms thus give us permission to move beyond the idealized images of ourselves and the world; they give us permission to be imperfect, freeing us up to accept what Swift, in a different context, referred to as our Yahoo nature. They encourage us to be more flexible and less rigid; more open and less defensive; and to invent people as villains less and see our common humanity more.

In order to do this, of course, they also make liberal use of the liberating power of disguise. They make it easy for us to deny or not think about the similarity between ourselves and some of the negative things we are watching, if that is our need and desire. After all, those are fictional characters and they are too strange to be us.

One might say that what they do is trick us with laughter into lowering our masks, just long enough to get us to admit to ourselves that it is okay to be human. They make it safe for us to get the message: we are all members of the secret society of fools.

This puts what was said in the first section in a very different light. It means that situation comedies don't merely give us characters like us to identify with, who are struggling against their limitations in the quest to be happy, or failing to struggle and giving in to their weaknesses. They also tell us it is okay to fail and they do so by turning that failure into the good feeling of the joke. The message they offer is that things are nowhere near as serious as the characters think they are, because the characters' belief that all of this is so serious is part of what's funny. They tell us that the way to be whole is to struggle less and enjoy more. Be imperfect, get a kick out of your imperfection and the struggle will be replaced by something a lot more pleasant. You can tighten the knot of life or loosen up. Which do you think will get you free?

When this message is blended in with all the other sources of positive feeling in sitcoms, it creates a powerful sense of hope in viewers. Between the permission to be imperfect and to know what we know; the interesting characters and situations; the depictions of friendship and intimacy; the commiseration, and happy endings, and, of course, the laugh and the jokes, the message we get is that life is good. That message may be a defense against despair but it is also a liberating truth we need to hear.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - 

* These characters have changed somewhat over time.