My trouble with comedy began with Leave It To Beaver. Or, maybe I should say that’s when my trouble with a particular kind of comedy began, the sort that places The Beave and Whitey, through a series of increasingly terrible decisions, into an oversized cup atop a billboard advertizing coffee. Other people must find it funny seeing characters misstep their way into seemingly irretrievable territory—the laugh tracks suggest so—but I have to watch from the kitchen, peeking around the door frame, hands to my face, allowing myself only what’s visible between my fingers.
I can’t bear Meet the Parents. Occasionally when I’m wandering through the channels looking for a movie to re-watch, I’ll catch a speedo-ed Ben Stiller slamming a volleyball into the face of his sister-in-law to be, and I retreat faster than someone accidentally opening the bathroom door on their aged aunt. One Christmas, my son gave me a copy of The Hangover, and I watched it once, certain he meant it as a gift to himself, a great chance to revel in my torture.
When I explain my trouble, friends tell me I take these movies too seriously. “It’s just a story,” they say, “you of all people should know everything will be okay in end.” Maybe, but meanwhile my white-hot empathy presents one half of the instinctive fight or flight response.
My memory is too full of wincing moments already. Sometimes, just idly considering my past I’ll recall the humiliation of saying “tippy-toes” when, the teacher reminded me, second graders say “tiptoe,” or reaching into my seventh grade desk, pulling out a girls’ gym uniform, holding it over my head and saying, “Whose is this?” into the sudden silence before class, or having a college professor complete his classroom critique of my essay with the statement, “None of which would be terrible if the author had recognized the poem was called ‘O Western Wind’ and not ‘A Wind from the West’.” Then there are the letters I should have answered, the appointments I missed, and every simple mistake with disproportionate consequences.
These events are minor compared to suddenly being caught nude outside your hotel room or having to hide in the ferns as your boss puts on women’s lingerie. An audience is supposed to delight in absurdity, laughing at how very unlikely—and funny—for events to come to this. But the comedy seems real. I feel characters’ dejection edging into shame, the guilt they own even without knowing the crime, and the inescapability of being cosmically shat upon. Things can go that wrong.
Comedy always has a victim. Pursue any jest far enough and you will find someone diminished. Too often that someone is me, or me by proxy, which is close enough.
Some say the catharsis of tragedy relies on looking at the tragic hero and realizing, at least to some degree, the hero could be you, but I’m never Macbeth or Oedipus or Lear or Hamlet. I’m The Beave, awaiting rescue from myself.