Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Lucy Factor

I Love Lucy is one of the revered shows of classic television and rightly so. It broke ground in so many ways that I can’t even begin to list them. On the other hand, the style of comedy it represented was profoundly conservative.

I never had any problem with “Lucy as clown;” Lucille Ball was a gifted comedienne, and a joy to watch when she was doing physical comedy. But that’s not what the situation comedy is all about. No, the sitcom generally works in the realm that begins with farce and ends in the comedy of humiliation and embarrassment.

I’ve seen some analyses of the Lucy show from the deconstructionist, sociological standpoint, and I think there’s merit to those views. Post-WWII America was busily trying to put a genie back into the bottle; some of those women who’d worked in the manufacturing plants, and most of everything else, when all the men folk were off a’fightin’, had decided that they rather liked doing something other than just changing diapers, cleaning house, and sending the kids off to school. They’d discovered ambition, in other words, and the very worst sort: personal ambition, ambition for their own selves, and not the sort that lives through other people.

I’m certainly not going to say that there was some sort of memo from the patriarchy. No one said, “The women are getting uppity, time to take them down a notch or two.” But a zeitgeist is a zeitgeist, and the creators of popular culture ride whatever waves are coming through. If they don’t, the series gets cancelled.

So Lucy Ricardo expended enormous effort and imagination in various attempts to crash into show business, or get a job, or even meet someone famous, and inevitably her efforts go agley, and she winds up embarrassed and humiliated. She has met her comeuppance. Back to the home fires for her.

Feminist theory aside, I seldom took much enjoyment from I Love Lucy, for the simple reason that I didn’t, and don’t, enjoy watching other people’s embarrassment. This comes up frequently in comedy generally, of course, and I’ve adopted the simple shorthand for it, as the Lucy Factor. You may find the movie/joke/sitcom uproariously funny, but I’m leaving the room because I find it too uncomfortable. If asked, I’ll just say, “It’s the Lucy Factor.” It is, in many ways, the obverse of The Zero Effect.

It’s no better in real life. I find all sorts of things difficult to watch because I just find them embarrassing. That includes Presidential speeches and press conferences by the way.

Both embarrassment and humiliation are social phenomena; it’s hard to feel embarrassed or humiliated when alone, for example. Shame is another word for some things in that whole complex. Shame depends on other people being aware of what shamed you, while guilt is something that can be accomplished in the privacy of your own mind.

Humiliation is a demeaning and a diminishment. It’s all about what position someone occupies in the status hierarchy, and it’s about lowering that position in an aggressive fashion. I believe that it’s a lot more important in politics and ideology than is usually acknowledged, and, just as an example, I will suggest that, whatever else they had in common, the 9/11 hijackers all regularly partook of what they considered humiliation, prior to their deciding to sign on for the Big Flight.

Given that we all operate in various social hierarchies and very, very, few of us are at the acknowledged pinnacle of success, how do we all deal with our daily rations of humiliation? The old method was resignation, to “keep to one’s place.” That, however, only works when aspirations are set aside. Lucy would never have had a problem if she’d just stayed at home and kept house (she wouldn’t have had a TV show, either). But when social hierarchies are in flux, even the unambitious and unimaginative are hard pressed to find a place.

Some professions have inevitably large amounts of humiliation. Consider the jargon of the standup. To fail is “to die out there.” To succeed is “to kill.” “Die,” in this context is to be humiliated. “Kill” is the alternative. Good thing it's all metaphorical.

Every performing profession has its humiliation ration, from actor to politician to porn star. How do they deal with it?

I suspect that compartmentalization is the greatest tonic against the rot. It’s a lot easier to play the part, say the words, withstand the sneers, if you can say to yourself, “This isn’t really me. It’s not my whole life. I’m just here for a little while, and then I can go be myself.” Call it life portfolio diversification. We have a lot of social hierarchies in America, and you can usually find at least one or two where you’re not a total loser.

For the true performer, the false face can be the greatest asset. Here “this isn’t really me,” can be writ large. In fact, there is some joy in it. Actors in sitcoms get to go through all the actions that humiliate, but it really isn’t them. Furthermore, they have control over the situation, in ways that we poor hypersensitive viewers do not.

I do find that my own reactions to the comedy of embarrassment does take a cue from how believable the characters are. For comfort, the more cartoon-like the better. Lucy was hard to take, but Night Court never hit home, so I could enjoy it more easily. Dan Fielding getting humiliated was no more real than Bull Shannon getting hit by lighting.

It’s also possible that ritualizing the humiliation gives the feeling of freedom, or maybe even the real thing, actual freedom. Perhaps some porn stars really do enjoy the sense of breaking the chains of repression by donning the chains of ritual subservience and acting it out as a public performance. Perhaps some politicians really do relish the risks of getting caught, and perhaps even enjoy the being caught, if forgiveness is in the offing. At least that’s my take on the 42nd President of the United States, and now, the Governor of New York.

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