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Here is a piece about the modern tragedy.
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“There is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.” — J.R.R. Tolkien
Writer's Office Item
The Modern Tragedy Isn’t What You Think – Op-Ed Piece
The tragedy is as much a part of a story as the comedy. They are two sides to the same coin—the yin and yang of storytelling. You cannot tell a story that is all comedy or a story that is all tragic; you need to have a little bit of both.
In fact, there are many situations in both that are interchangeable. Many times the humor is derived from the same place as a tragedy but is seen by the audience for a different purpose. There is a scene I think of in a show where a character walks into the bathroom, and the other characters are worried he committed suicide because of a boom that goes off in the room. It was the shaving cream can that exploded, not a gun, and the “suicidal” character walks out from the room covered in cream. This moment illustrates the fine line between comedy and tragedy. For a second, the audience is led to believe the worst of the character, that he took his own life. Even the other characters believe it. Everyone goes from being nervous to experiencing a funny moment in a matter of seconds.
Tragedy and comedy can pretend not to be similar. The tragic actors will quote Shakespeare and win awards and talk in a weird accent. The comedic actors will throw food at each other, drop pianos and make wiseass remarks whenever they can. Both have to see that they are both telling the same story with a different lens.
I propose for today that the modern tragedy isn’t really a tragedy at all. No Greek playwright is talking of mommy issues or poking out of one’s eyes. No prince is vengeful for his father’s death. Instead, we have a vision of a tragedy as a larger-than-life story. One where the characters express their pain as widely as the story takes place. We are wrong. The modern tragedy is a comedy.
The comedy has taken on such characteristics that those distinctions are enough to have it be qualified as a tragedy.
Take the two best sitcoms of the past 30 years, Seinfeld, and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, as prime examples of this.
Both of these shows are similar in their basic premise: friends who hang out and the strange situations they find themselves in. Seinfeld has their crew of Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer. While It’s Always, Sunny In Philadelphia has Mac, Dennis, Charlie, Frank, and Dee.
They both have a striking feature. And it is something that you will bring up as soon as you mention the show to someone. The characters aren’t good people. They are bad. They are selfish. Sometimes they are just plain mean to other people, trying to hurt them for their own benefit. Now, as a comedy, we don’t mind viewing this at all. In fact, it is part of their appeal. Jerry Seinfeld literally robs an old woman in a scene of the show, and the gang ruins the life of a man who used to be a priest. In another light, robbing someone or hurting them is seen as cruel, but in a comedy, it is just part of the fun adventure the characters find themselves on. The humor that the characters give us is justification for their poor morality.
There is another feature both of these shows have. The characters don’t learn from their mistakes. Instead, they continue to be the bad, selfish, mean people they were when the episode started. For a few episodes of a show, this is a fine way to write, but after a while, you are no longer writing about real people since real people have to learn in this world to get by.
What I am saying is not new. It’s the theory of evolution. If you don’t learn to change, someone who does will and survive. So sure, it is funny that George is the same loser at the end of the show or that Dennis is still a psychopath when the credits roll, but as for the rest of us, we can’t afford to continue to be set in our ways like the characters in the show. We will lose and fall behind. So we then adjust our behavior enough so that the failures are not presented.
This actually reminds me of what I heard people say of the first time our ancient ancestors met other humans. Most of us think the confrontation was war-like. We were smarter than them, so we killed them. But there is another theory that presents that the first humans didn’t fight in the beginning. Wouldn’t it make as much sense to work together? To trade ideas and food with one another? Diplomacy is useful in survival since you probably don’t know all the ways to survive. Sure it is funny for the characters to be complete assholes, but if you want to get by in this world, the best thing to do is to not be a selfish schmuck. Sitcom characters don’t have this option, though.
This gets me to my next question; Are we laughing with the characters in the story? Or at them? (Sometimes I can’t tell) Remember that the characters don’t break out into laughter like you and me do every time there is a joke. This is their reality. This is their life. And if you view it like that, then all of a sudden, the characters seem as if they are stuck in some sort of hellish experience. They can’t learn. They can’t improve. They can’t change. They don’t find their awful, pathetic lives as amusing, since you know, they are living awful and pathetic lives.
It’s as if their world won’t allow them to help themselves. So even if Jerry wants to be with Elaine, if he does get with her and marry her, the show changes, and that can’t happen. Or Charlie can never become smart and literate because that would change him too much. So the show has to be the same as it was in the beginning as it was in the end, and that lack of progress is not natural for life.
As time passes, new things happen. You learn from the past. You form into a new you. How many of you are the same people that you were ten years ago? Probably not that many of you. You got older. You learned a few things. You went to different places. You made new friends. Not many people are in the same place for over ten years. If you have not changed who you are in ten years of living on this Earth, then you are not doing much of living. Take a sitcom then; where are the characters after ten years? They are the same people as they were when the show started. If that were you, how would you like that as a life?
Of the two of the shows I mentioned, Seinfeld had a very interesting ending to the series. It ended with the four main characters going to jail for an obscure crime they committed while on a trip. In other words, the heroes in our story lose. They fail. After all the craziness of Seinfeld, all the quotes, all the memorable minor characters, the people we were rooting for, the main four of Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer, we’re not winning in the story. How is that a way to end a comedy?
The poor ending of Seinfeld, poor for the reception of the fans, and the characters’ outcome present a question; should the main characters in a comedy always win in the end? Is that a part of comedy?
No… It’s not. Of course, you can have the characters lose at the end of a comedy. But if you combine what I said earlier about the awful experience that the characters have to go through with the bad ending, you would think I am talking about a tragedy, not a comedy.
I can tell you right now, if I wrote the ending of either show, I wouldn’t make it sad. I’d give the people what they wanted, which is, in my opinion, a good ending. As of this writing, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia hasn’t ended, so I can’t talk much about that one here. Since its clear influence is Seinfeld, the show will probably end with some sad, strange moment that is supposed to be clever, but that is clearly not having the main 5 of Mac, Dennis, Charlie, Frank, and Dee win.
What did Larry David think when he wrote the last episode of Seinfeld that was obviously sending the message that the characters were bad people? Did he view the series as a tragedy all along? Something where the characters had to suffer? This is Larry David we are talking about here. A writer who took from his own miserable life and was notorious for being depressed about his own talents. At every end of a season Jerry Seinfeld, the writer, not the character, would have to convince him to stay on for another season. Larry David took from his life, which he obviously thought little of (for good reason). Why have a message in the last episode of a show that has no messages in every other episode? As a writer, I am confused by the move. And I can’t even say it is because the episode was hysterical. It wasn’t. So the purpose of doing it all for laughs is thrown out the window.
Let’s recap as to why the modern sitcom is actually a tragedy.
The characters are bad people.
The characters can never learn or change and are stuck being those bad people.
Change is essential to life.
By not changing, sitcom characters are not living normal lives.
Therefore, the characters are stuck in a hellish experience, where they are living as the bad people they always were.
We always think that major moments are where the true tragedies lie. Two young lovers must die in each other’s arms. The hero and villain fight until the end. Even when we think of our humanity’s interaction with one another, we see it as a big momentous altercation. Nobody wins in a tragedy. It seems as if we all relate to the tragedy that isn’t a tragedy at all—the comedy where the characters go through their daily lives.
These characters aren’t dead by the end of the story. But they suffer a pain that is worse than death. They are stuck in their own situation, never to make a better life for themselves.
And this whole time, I thought I loved comedies.
The next question I have; What does it mean for us as a society where the most popular comedies have an undertone of tragedy? That is for another day, though.
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About The Blogger
Greg Luti is an editor and blogger on pensandwords.com. His favorite writers are Robert Frost and Charles Bukowski. He enjoys reading up on history, watching comedies, and playing video games, when he is not writing down a few notes for his next piece. He started this blog out of his love for literature and hopes that the reader shares that same passion.
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