Week 4 – Freeze-Dried Mirth

Hopefully not going to spend the whole post on this, but I’m interested in how some people (myself included) find the characters of Seinfeld sympathetic. Yes, they are all horrible people, that’s their thing. But do we really judge TV characters by the same ethical standards as our own? Is there something about the context of a sitcom or series with comedic elements that changes the way we view a character’s behaviour?

Look at Barney Stinson, or House. Both cartoonishly horrible people who hurt others for their own amusement every day – and I couldn’t care less because Neil Patrick Harris and Hugh Laurie are amazing. House is a bad guy, but he’s almost never ‘the bad guy.’ House of Cards also comes to mind. Kevin Spacey as the protagonist is basically the most evil politician imaginable (based on Shakespeare’s Richard III, another sympathetic monster), but he’s so clever and in control of things that I just feel horrible when things don’t go his way. I want this power-hungry jackass to go all the way to the top! Clearly these characters are being judged on a different standard than what we would use for real people.

So when I look at a character like Kramer, who constantly steals food from Jerry’s fridge, who burns down people’s holiday houses, pees in parking lots and goes to cockfights; I don’t think ‘what a horrible person, imagine having him as a neighbour.’ I think, ‘Oh great! Kramer’s back! What’s that loveable scamp gonna do next?’ I think in his case it helps that he’s the kind of naive ‘manic-pixie-man-child’ of the group. When Jerry complains that ‘These balloons won’t last until the Millenium’ and Kramer replies ‘Oh, no. Those are my every-day balloons’… come on. Isn’t that just a bit adorable? If we can forgive House for openly mocking his dying patients and their loved ones, can’t we forgive this simple, deranged low-life his numerous shady dealings? He’s a character in a sitcom, and he makes me laugh. I think I’d hate him if he didn’t make me laugh, but he does; so short of killing a stranger and making soup out of their lung tissue, I’ll let him get away with just about anything.

The other element of the sitcom that may be contributing to this effect is the whole ‘family’ aspect – the show focuses on Jerry and his friends, with only minimal focus on the consequences of their actions (until the end). Other characters point out to them how awful they are, but it’s not like we’re made to sit through the fallout these characters leave behind in their escapades (until the end). For the most part, we live entirely within this little family unit, and so maybe we don’t care as much about the victims who have less screen-time and will by the end of the episode be replaced by someone new. We think about the central characters, and sort of blot out the feelings of the rest – which is funny, because that’s exactly the mindset that makes these characters such bad people themselves! In sympathising with the characters of Seinfeld… am I becoming Seinfeld??

That said: when we watch film and TV we’re made to sympathise with all sorts of people. Everybody wants Uma Thurman to succeed in Kill Bill even though it’s four hours of her mercilessly killing hundreds of people. Maybe I’m focusing on the wrong thing. Do people hate Kramer because of how thoughtlessly he disadvantages those around him, or because they just find him intrinsically unpleasant? Is that it? Am I completely barking up the wrong tree?

This show seems to be a bit polarising on this subject – half the people I ask agree with me, the other half hate the whole gang with a passion – but I’m being forced into some troubling conclusions with some of the other shows I’ve been referencing. House is clearly meant to be a sympathetic character. The shows’ success is largely hinged on our laughing along with his lack of a bedside manner and casual (if not-at-all-sincere) racist / misogynistic remarks. The guy does a lot of really bad things, and for the large part we do not care, because he’s funny. I’ve been attributing this to some ‘different way’ we judge characters on television compared to how we evaluate real people – but what if there is no different way?

What if I’ll sympathise with any jerk who makes me laugh? Is comic talent a ‘get out of jail free’ card for morality? Is my liking Kramer a sign that I view him as a character rather than a person, or that I’m without any strong moral centre and a danger to those around me? What if I’m a sociopath? What if we’re ALL sociopaths??!?

Okay, so I did end up making the whole blog post about it. A long one, too. My bad.

Isaac Mitchell-Frey (9985182)

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