A sitcom, like any other cultural institution, is a set of conventions. We sit in front of the TV with certain expectations born of experience with the form and shared, tacit agreements with our fellow participants (in this case, other viewers on the one hand and those who make and present the show on the other). Sometimes those expectations are fulfilled, and our amusement is fueled by a sense of satisfaction: We have been entertained, as we hoped; the unwritten contract has been fulfilled. Sometimes those expectations are foiled, thwarted, or exceeded, and we are surprised, shocked, disappointed, or elated at the transgression.
The conventions of the sitcom are not just about its look, its soundtrack, its pacing, and its character types. They extend to conventional plots—even to plot families. Today we have two examples of plots that have been used on sitcoms at least since the form hit puberty: the Crazy Stunt and Inappropriate Grieving. And it’s instructive to note our reactions not only to the way the plots are presented, but to the ideas that underlie them. Do we laugh because the conventional story types themselves still satisfy us, or because they are reinvented in some way that refills them with the satisfaction they had when they were fresh?
Crazy Stunt is a general-enough category that it almost certainly falls into the latter camp. We don’t have to find the very notion of a crazy stunt funny; it’s the particular crazy stunt that makes us laugh. In “Balloon,” Jimmy James—a character established early in the series as a Crazy Stunt Generator—announces a hot air balloon circumnavigation of the earth, a la Richard Branson. Why? Well, first off, because he’s a crazy billionaire, and we know from non-sitcom sources that people with a lot of money can often be thrill-seekers. Survival presents few challenges for them, and even the most conspicuous consumption can be matched by those with similar gobs of money, so they court danger and try to break records in search of the singular experience. Because it’s a sitcom, though, that’s unlikely to be the real motivation. The craziness comes from the stunt not being what it seems; it’s a way to win someone’s love, get revenge, or in this case, promote Jimmy James Incorporated products like WNYX (“I hope this doesn’t spell disaster for my mission, but if it does I’m sure you can get the blow by blow from my favorite news station WNYX in New York City”) and an upstart web browser (“Also, please abolish the Microsoft Internet Explorer in favor of the new Jimmy James web browser”). And because Mr. James isn’t the kind of billionnaire who’s actually interested in risking life and limb—he’s the kind who knows something about covert ops and controlling the media—it’s not as real as it seems, either.
As viewers, we’re interested in how the characters react to the Crazy Stunt. Can-do Joe enables Mr. James’ ambitions with disturbing economy (“Mr. James gave me a budget of fifteen grand but I managed to make it for a little under seven bucks”). Beth, adorably, fears so much for the boss’s life that she clings to his back to prevent his departure. Matthew is so nervous that he hits random computer keys (Dave: “Well, be careful you don’t accidentally write something”). Bill, in a mostly unrelated B-story, gives up smoking but takes up spitting. Lisa reluctantly allows Mr. James to use her for media legitimacy. And Dave tsk-tsks first over Mr. James’ ridiculous ambition and then over the moral implication of the hoax. But it’s affectionate parental-type disapproval, allowing the boss to save face by ending the charade on his own terms instead of exposing him as a fraud (which would be the Lisa Miller way). Not only do all the reactions work well to ground the intrinsic comedy of the Crazy Stunt, they interact nicely—especially Joe’s embrace of the henchman role (“Climb in the balloon, I wanna see what it looks like when I shake it really hard!”) and Dave’s horror over the very idea (his slightly delayed “No!" as he grasps the implications of Mr. James’ joke in the cold open).
Inappropriate Grieving, on the other hand, is a conventional sitcom plot that continues to work because we as human beings will never come to grips with how to respond to death. Our socially prescribed behaviors become completely inadequate when we are faced with real mortality, yet they are all we have. So our flailing about for an authentic yet tasteful response becomes an inexhaustible font of humor, because it’s impossible to get it right. The twist in “Copy Machine,” a superb example of the genre, is that Dave’s attempt to be honest—he didn’t really know Ted, nobody did—while still honoring the end of a human life, strikes everyone as avoidance and denial, so they all try to support him in the grieving he’s not actually doing.
What’s brilliant here is that Ted’s roommate shows up to gather material for his eulogy, forcing everyone into a version of Dave’s position (without the attendant honesty), and that Joe has the only response to the death that’s not either dismissive or overthought: believing his copy machine modifications killed Ted and vowing never to work on equipment or hurt anyone ever again. It’s a determination that everyone, naturally, tries to force him out of—including Dave, relieved not to be the focus of everyone’s compassion anymore. Because nothing cures our own impotence in the face of death better than focusing on somebody else’s psychological adjustment problems. Reactions perceived as too calm or too passionate need to be critiqued or cured. Dave moves from one side of the seesaw to the other as the episode goes on, defending Ted from even his roommate’s disdain with the slim handle provided by the suicide note: “Dammit, he was a Star Wars fan!” Only to find out in the final-scene zinger that he was “also a devoted member of the Ku Klux Klan … a fact I only learned moments ago” when ascending the podium for the eulogy and finding himself faced with a roomful of white hoods.
In the Crazy Stunt plot, the humor arises from exactly how this particular group of characters will respond to the insanity within. In the Inappropriate Grief plot, the humor arises from our recognition that there’s no safe path across this minefield. There’s nothing groundbreaking about the use of either convention—just the recognition, which in these postmodern days may be significant in itself, that they continue to work on television. In them we externalize our irrationality and recognize our mortality. And we find satisfaction that these tasks have been accomplished again, and accomplished well.
- Three sublime moments of physical comedy in “Balloon”: 1. Jimmy releases the model of the HMS Badd Boy, it plummets to the floor (out of sight beneath the conference table), we hear the capsule come off and crash, and then the balloon rises back through the frame to pop on the ceiling off camera. It’s really a rare vertical-axis example of the dashing-through-the-frame motif done completely with props (the actors contributing by following the down-and-up motion with their heads). 2. Joe yanking off Mr. James’ black-tie-and-tails outfit to reveal an Evel Knievel jumpsuit underneat, then tucking a crash helmet into Mr. James’ solar plexus in an extravagant handoff-to-the-tailback gesture. 3. Jimmy wandering back into the office while Dave is watching his press conference on television, then dropping his coffee cup and making a break for it when Dave spots him. Even better, when Dave turns back to the television in that exaggerated sitcom “wha—there are two of you?” pantomime, Jimmy desperately presses the elevator button, only to abandon mechanized transport and dash off toward the stairs when Dave catches sight of him again.
- Bill’s chewing tobacco B-story hits exactly the right note of mundanity given the major-craziness of the A-story stunt. And it’s also perfectly predictable, so all the pleasure is in the execution. We know Bill will spit in all kinds of containers that others (especially Dave) will then unwittingly pick up to drink from, so we can relax and enjoy the masterful way it’s done.
- Dave: “There’s a fine line between eccentricity and downright suicidal foolhardiness.” Bill: “I know. I walk that line every Saturday night.”
- Anatomy of a comic digression: Mr. James: “You can’t keep it all bottled up like a case of soda pop in the garage — eventually it’s gonna explode.” Dave: “I’m guessing you learned that the hard way.” Mr. James: “Oh yeah, I had root beer about yay deep. It was like a root beer lake in there!” Dave: “Why would you ever have that much root beer?” Mr. James: “Dave, I don’t think today’s the day to regale you with the tale of my root beer jacuzzi.”
- Bill believes he’s got the stories Ted’s roommate is seeking: “Walk this way through the gates of Ted-dom into Bill’s secret repository of tasty Ted-bits and fond Tedmembrances!” Turns out Bill is manufacturing them out of old war movies: “Hell of a guy—one of the bravest sons of bitches I ever knew. Best man in the world to be stuck in a foxhole with—he took a bullet for me in the battle for San … Luis Obispo.”
- Matthew wrote a song about Ted — well, a couple of lines are about Ted, anyway: “Ted / He’s dead / And the hobbits and gnomes they’re dancing to and fro / they have to keep the plus 2 sword from the chaotic evil thief lord / Now we’re rockin’, now we’re really rockin’ …”
- A structural bit of comic magnificence you might have overlooked: Matthew does the super-annoying low woodpecker knock at Dave’s door a couple of times, meaning that Dave assumes it’s Matthew when it happens again and lashes out. Instead, it’s Beth and then Jimmy in rapid succession, and Dave’s outbursts confirm their suspicion that Ted’s death has affected him more than he lets on.
- Beth delivers a stinging meta-comment on how quickly sitcoms move on after beloved characters move on: ““It’s like Catherine was here and then she left and we hardly ever talk about her anymore …”
- “This cup is for chaw spit. This cup is just for coffee. Got it?”
- “Look at me, I’m Ted! I’ve got a big fat tie! I’m gonna make 20 copies!”
- “This dude has never been more serious … dude.”
- “I’m balloonin’ my ass off up here, I thought that was obvious!”