There’s something I dread when I watch comedies, and it’s even more prevalent in certain black comedies where they are played seriously, dead-pan. I like to term it “Sympathetic Viewer Awkwardness”, which happens both when the character feels awkward, but much more commonly, when we feel awkward for the character.
Take for instance the American version of The Office, starring Steve Carell as Michael Scott, the boss at a small office where they sell paper. Michael will not miss an opportunity to be rude, racist, sexist, and offensive. His staff obviously pays him no mind, and don’t take him seriously. I do remember the scene where he asked every person in the office to talk as if they were someone from another “group”, and he drew the “Indian” card (India, not Native American), and then Kelly, the Indian worker, had walked in and had slapped him, since she thought he were mocking her.
The thing is, watching The Office is almost a physically painful experience for me, as I can’t help but go, “Oh gawd, he didn’t just do that, did he? He did!” and of course the show actually plays and gives social commentary, by showing you these ridiculously offensive things, and having a character who truly means well, he just really doesn’t know any better. If you watch the show with people who think Michael’s behaviour is legitimate, BTW, know that you are not in Kansas anymore ;)
In American Pie 2 there’s a scene where Jim takes a special ed kid’s trumpet (I think he was autistic, but it’s been nearly a decade since I’ve last watched the movie), and walks towards Michelle (Alyson Hannigan‘s character) in a public show, trumpeting, with a complete lack of ability on the trumpet. The thing is, the scene went on and on, with him sounding so bad, and looking so stupid, that I literally half-covered my eyes while it all went on.
Likewise, in last week’s episode of The Big Bang Theory, where Howard first proposes to Bernadette in the middle of the Cheese Factory, and then goes and performs a number on stage there. I watched it on my own, so I actually stopped the video for a bit.
So what is this “Sympathetic Viewer Awkwardness”? It’s when the characters are acting so outrageously bad, that you feel ashamed, you feel ashamed for them, you feel the shame you would have felt in their place, you feel the shame you’d have felt if you were in public with them and related to them. You feel awkward, because it’s something you can’t stomach, and you care for the characters, and you feel the pain, the shame, of their actions, even as far removed as only seeing them happen on TV.
It makes watching comedies somewhat painful, but I brave it. It may show that I identify too strongly with characters, but who knows.
P.S. I’m sorry last week had no updates, I actually meant to write an entry several times, but something always came up.