by Rowan Hornbeck
Sometimes when I’m doing something very mindless like driving or filing, I feel my mind being poked with a stick --
Hey, remember in 8th grade when you thought a “straight play” just meant it wasn’t gay? Remember when you told your friend’s dad that?
This single, prodding thought can jolt me back ten or even more years into the past and illicit the same nauseating twist in my gut as it did when the offending incident first occurred. Remember when you were in a classroom and some middle school boys were talking about camel toe and so in order to change the subject you tried to talk instead about your dad’s camel allergy? Remember how you were the teacher in this scenario?
Life is full of these cringey moments. The kind of moments that when they happen to sitcom characters, I have to cover my eyes. Secondhand embarrassment is like secondhand smoke that way — it hurts you just as much as the thing firsthand. The thing about sitcom characters though is they usually recover, and they don’t tend to remember their blunders from episode to episode.
Remember when you were flirting with a guy and got the Pacific and Atlantic oceans confused? When you were twenty years old?
See what I did there? The rule of three, dear reader.
That’s So Raven is a great example. I still remember squirming through every episode I watched as a kid because watching her mess up over and over again was agonizing. The worst part was most of the cringey moments were her fault. She was precocious, over zealous, or unaware. Luke Skywalker, on the other hand, could do no wrong. Watching Star Wars was always an uplifting experience because I got to watch the hero win over and over again. Luke may have started out as a bit of a whiny brat but by the end of the original trilogy he was zen, level-headed, and morally upright. This is because the classic hero is supposed to finish his story by mastering himself and his situation. Joseph Campbell in his book Hero With a Thousand Faces breaks down the mythical hero archetype and plots his story arc as the “Hero’s Journey”. The journey begins with a call, with a dilemma, with someone who has no idea what he is doing, but it ends with a hero who has become the master of his world.
Sitcom characters don’t get this kind of treatment — the story often hinges on their failings rather than on their triumphs. Loren Bouchard, the creator of Bob’s Burgers, described the show in an interview with NPR’s podcast “Pop Culture Happy Hour” as full of small triumphs mixed in with the defeats. Bob may lose his plot in the community garden, but he gains a greater bond with Louise. Tina may not have won over Jimmy Jr. but she has gained better respect for herself. Linda may have the worst birthday ever, but she finds a way to enjoy it all the same. Small victories among larger, humiliating defeats is the stuff of sitcoms. Comic heroes aren’t going to blow up the Death Star without messing something up in a way that makes us cringe and laugh at the same time.
In fiction, I would like to posit that more often than not our dramatic heroes are much more perfect than our comic heroes. They may have horrible character flaws, but they don’t necessarily have the same little quirks, idiosyncrasies, and ineptitudes as our comic heroes. The entire point of comic heroes is they strive through their failures to achieve fuller life. Comic heroes represent the idea that life at any level is better than no life at all.
This is what got me thinking. I, like a comic hero, have endured many cringey moments. I have blundered and shown my fair share of ineptitude. Perhaps rather than work so hard to become the “master of my world” and grow increasingly frustrated by my understandable failure to achieve perfection, I should shift my point of view. I am not the mythic hero of my life. I am the comedic hero. I will never become the master of my world because I will never stop growing. Life is a lot more episodic than it is serial. I will mess up a lot because I, as a human person, have small failings, bizarre quirks, and quite often miss the point. The goals of the comic hero versus the mythic hero are very different. One is striving for mastery while the other is striving for fullness of life. And perhaps this doesn’t seem as heroic, but it also seems quite a bit more pleasant and forgiving.
Maybe it’s a little bizarre to conceptualize oneself in fictional terms, but let’s be honest, we all do it. And now, in the 20th year of my life, I have decided that I would much rather look at my life as a fine intermingling of failures and triumphs made in the pursuit of fuller life rather than as a string of hardships on a quest for seemingly unachievable mastery. Consider the pros of this approach. Failures are no longer the enemy! They are now merely part of the larger story and part of fuller life. I no longer have to worry about reaching some sort of end date on my story — I will never master my life and thus be bored without a running narrative to cling to because I will always be growing and failing and triumphing until I am someday old and dead. And finally, reframing difficulties as situations that I will ultimately overcome rather than as hardships that may destroy me gives me a better fighting chance, I believe. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy hinges on the concept that changing your perceptions and thought patterns can help you develop a healthier state of mind, and if comedy is the way I’m going to do it, so be it.
Now, I’m going to add that this is an opinions piece, so I’m not trying to present any scientific facts, I’m just giving you my opinion. I cannot be held liable for any misfortune that may befall you under the mode of thinking I am advocating. However, it is the role of comedy to press boundaries and break taboos and to mirror our own messy humanity. I’ve spent much more time watching dramas than I have watching comedies, but now that I’m delving further in I think comedies are some of the most accurate works of fiction. Life has little failures and triumphs and horrible things happen but we find ways to laugh through them. People fail over and over again and they learn or they don’t learn or they learn and then forget again. No one ever really figures it all out, and that’s okay. And while there really is no reason for you to take any of what I’m saying seriously, seeing as I have admitted to you my own ineptitudes and follies, I would still like to add that I’ve been in a sitcom class for three whole weeks now, so I think I know a thing or two.