Tuesday 31 May 2016

Sociopathic Behaviour

When I start noticing trends in sitcoms, I’m always very suspicious of my observations – especially when comparing the current crop of shows to those of a certain era. Dozens of British sitcoms seemed very funny in the 1980s, but I was only six years old in 1981 and hardly what one could classify as discerning.

Moreover, you only remember the good stuff – or the stuff you liked, because you watched lots of episodes of that, and didn’t bother with the stuff you didn’t like. Unless, of course, you knew from a young age you wanted to be a TV critic, and so you were training yourself to watch TV you despised so that you could write about it at great length (and somehow still not know that canned laughter isn’t fake).

I didn’t watch loads of TV in the 90s, although some would argue it was still plenty. I suppose I had more choice, being in my teens, when we had two TVs in the house. But although I had my own TV as a student, I didn’t watch it very much. After being a student, I was trying to earn a living and was going our more (although not much). And it just wasn’t as convenient to tape things. Although I always thought Videoplus was a bit magical.

Now I’m in a lot more, because I have two small children. And I’m a comedy writer, so I feel professionally obliged to watch lots of new comedy, including stuff that isn’t aimed at me. So I’m now watching TV as a 40 year-old dad, so not only is the comedy different, but I’m different too.
So there you go. Four paragraphs of caveats because I make this following observation: an awful lot of comedy at the moment seems to feature characters that are essentially sociopaths. And that’s being reflected in the scripts that I read too.

Is it just me?

For the avoidance of doubt, Chambers’ dictionary defines sociopathy as:
“any of various personality disorders characterized by asocial or antisocial behaviour”.
I’m seeing a lot of that at the moment, especially in comedies that end up being called ‘dark’; characters who are just plain awful human beings, rude, incapable of engaging in normal human relationships or grindingly selfish.

I realise that lots of great sitcom characters are borderline sociopaths, like Victor Meldrew, Basil Fawlty or David Brent. They are all sociopathic in some sense. Kramer too. They all behave very antisocially at times – or don’t seem to know how to behave are various crucial moments.

But Meldrew, Fawlty, Brent and Kramer aren’t selfish idiots. They are people who are driven into terrible behaviour, ludicrous schemes or clumsy speech by overarching desires. Meldrew wants to be respected – and as an old man, he frequently does get that respect. This means he often takes matters into his own hands, and then it backfires. Fawlty is a snob and simmering with rage that his mediocre hotel attracts very mediocre guests. Brent just wants to be truly loved by his colleagues. Kramer is always trying to be one step ahead of the crowd and thinks he’s smart.

So these characters aren’t funny because they’re awful human beings or behave transgressive. They’re funny because they’re motivated by desires that make them behave awfully or transgressively.

Let’s take an example of a scene that I wouldn’t be surprised to see in a ‘dark’ comedy or a script I’d been asked to read. Let’s say we have a couple called Ian and Susie. They’ve been trying to have children and it hasn’t happened for them. And they can’t afford IVF, or its gone wrong. That, I’m sure, would be very painful. Susie has a sister called Beverly. And she’s a sociopath. Just awful. And selfish.  And everything. She doesn’t know how to talk to people. And in one scene she gives Ian and Susie a lovely present: a baby doll. Because it’s the next best thing, isn’t it? Pretending. In fact, dolls are better because they don’t crap everywhere and you don’t have to feed them. Susie starts crying, and, not being a sociopath, makes an excuse and leaves. Susie is baffled. Ian just has to do the best he can. And suggests that they don’t want the baby doll, and now Beverly is offended and starts crying. Beverly, being a sociopath, has made it all about her. Tears. Pain. Misery.

Is that funny?

I don’t think it is. Maybe it is. Is it just a taste thing?

But I’m seeing this sort of thing quite a lot on TV and in scripts at the moment.

There is probably comic version of the scene I’ve just described, if we make Beverly a very sympathetic and warm character. She’s on her way to visit a goddaughter – and has the baby ready as a present for the goddaughter. But stops off at Susie and Ian's who are having trouble conceiving. Over the course of the conversation with Susie and Ian, Beverly gives the false impression that this present is for Ian and Susie. Ian is appalled, as he can’t believe that Beverly would be like this etc. Susie runs out weeping,  Beverly then realises and now has to do that thing she didn’t want to do to make it up to her sister, etc.

That might work although I’m not going to take the rest of the day off after thinking of a scene like that.

Is this all in my head? Is it because I’m 40 and a dad? Help me here.