Low Stakes Comedy and You

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I firmly believe that no one knows anything. Our parents, our scientists, our politicians (especially our politicians) spend their time making educated (or not so educated — see: politicians) guesses, because guesses are all we have. Nothing is certain, except death and taxes. And sometimes people can even guess their way out of taxes. Despite how little we actually know about anything, we still try to find meaning in our uncertainty. In screenwriting, we call this meaning “stakes.” What awful thing will happen to the protagonist if they don’t accomplish their clearly stated goal? Life and death are obviously the big ones; making enough money to save the family business and/or the integrity of the nuclear family structure is another. In the hierarchy of “things that matter” (and remember, nothing does), I’d say these are royal concerns. But, maybe it’s my American-borne rejection of royalty that makes these kinds of stakes feel uninteresting. When watching a movie or TV show, I much prefer my stakes as low as possible, with people fighting their hardest to prevent them anyway.

That’s why one of my favorite comedy genres is “People Who Care Very Much About Things That Matter Very Little.” You’re smart. You probably have figured out what this genre is about — let’s call it “People Who Care” comedy, for clarity and carpal tunnel reasons. What you might not know is that the purest example of “People Who Care” comedy just started airing on HBO last week.

 

Vice Principals is a… show. With its mid-2000’s level of casual misogyny and not-so-casual racism, I’m hesitant to call it “good,” but damn if this show doesn’t know how to take “People Who Care” to a new level. Before we get into why, I think it’s important (and fun!) to look at Vice Principal’s predecessors in the “People Who Care” genre.

FRASIER

If you aren’t a Baby Boomer or a pretentious douche bag (I’m one of these things), you probably haven’t seen Frasier. That’s fair. The eleven season, 90’s spinoff of Cheers isn’t for everyone. I have a hunch that it was created based off of a dare that the phrase “hoity-toity” couldn’t be turned into a TV show. The whole gist of it is that Frasier Crane is a psychologist with a radio show. He lives in Seattle with his expansive wealth, his father, and his father’s live-in nurse (she’s English, but not the fancy kind). Frasier and his brother Niles are very concerned with their upper-class socialite image. And I mean VERY concerned. You wouldn’t think someone could get so concerned about a dinner party, but when you realize that “Oh, for Frasier Crane, his whole life is impressing people and if this souffle doesn’t come out to perfection then he may have to question the entire purpose of his life,” suddenly it becomes much funnier.

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Frasier being shocked that someone didn’t get his Godot reference, probably

Take for example the first episode of season five: “Frasier’s Imaginary Friend.” In this episode, Frasier Crane meets a supermodel who’s studying to be a zoologist and who just broke up with her NFL super-star boyfriend. He genuinely likes her (and is OBVIOUSLY attracted to her), but she asks him to be discreet. She’s been getting a lot of press lately. Guess what Frasier can’t do? Especially when his family and friends call this girlfriend into question (none of them have seen her). So Frasier tries taking a picture of her in bed to prove she exists.

Please excuse the 2006 YouTube quality of this 1997 episode. Don’t worry, it’s less than two minutes. You can do it:

Despite losing the most promising romantic interest he’s had in months, Dr. Crane is still a winner. Frasier cares the most about the least important thing. He’s a true “Person Who Cares.”

THE OFFICE and PARKS & RECREATION

This one’s almost a meta-joke, because the U.S. version of The Office got a country to care very much about a very familiar, mundane, truly unimportant setting. There’s a good chance you arrived home from your office job on Thursday evenings between 2005 and 2013 only to turn on NBC and watch people sell paper in an office. You see how this is the least important thing to care about, right?

Enter mid-2000’s icon Michael Scott: the first real tragic figure that I watched on television. The one I felt the most second-hand embarrassment and pity for, at least. Each and every one of his downfalls originates from him and his big, dumb heart. The man cares about two things: paper and people. Those being the only things Michael cares about, he invests all of himself and more into making sure his paper is taken care of and that his people love him. It’s this intense caring that drives them away. And his narcissistic personality disorder.

Greg Daniels (who brought The Office to the US) would go on to develop another show centered around things that don’t matter with Michael Schur: Parks & Recreation. In an interview with Jim Rash, Schur talked about how the show was based off of The West Wing, in an arena with much lower expectations. So Schur did what I love best: he multiplied the passion from the main characters, particularly Amy Poehler’s buoyant and ambitious Leslie Knope.

If you’ve ever had someone try to inspire you, they may have pulled out some Parks and Rec-based motivation. That’s how ubiquitous Leslie’s caring has gotten. While the stakes of managing a local government branch are arguably higher than managing a paper company, Leslie matches her Passion Factor proportionately — in that she cares way more than she should.

Side note: If you want to see a real-life example of people caring very much about very unimportant things, just look to the cast of Parks & Recreation themselves.

VICE PRINCIPALS

Now why we’ve all gathered here today. Remember when I said Vice Principals was the purest form of “People Who Care” comedy? Think of the thing you care about least. There’s a good chance you thought of high school. You probably didn’t even think about a failing high school in South Carolina. But that’s where we set Vice Principals. You could make a case that the education of our youths is an important task — filled with high stakes, even — but that’s not what the titular vice principals care about. They care about losing the “vice,” but they lose out to Belinda Brown instead. Make that Principal Brown.

These characters are the ones in this write up that care the most. About anything. Danny McBride’s character, Neal Gamby, cares in a brash way — big, bold, loud, and unafraid to tell you how much he thinks his male ego deserves this job. But the king of caring in this scenario is Lee Russell. He cares to a point of sociopathy.

Actually.

In the second episode he sets the new principal’s house on fire, all in order to “knock her down a peg today.” JUST TODAY. I understand going full sociopath to satisfy your homicidal tendencies, but to knock someone down a peg? JUST ONE PEG, JUST TODAY?! Morally I can’t get behind it, but if it’s in service of my comedy… well, that’s the biggest move I’ve seen in a while.

When watching this week’s episode, I started taking notes on Gamby’s emotional firing of a secretary (something Belinda Brown made him do) — with tears in his eyes he tells her “You suck at computers.” I thought about mentioning Lee Russell’s surveillance notebooks. I thought these were things that signified caring too much.

But then Russell and Gamby commit arson. It’s not impossible to imagine either of these men killing Dr. Brown for just a chance at being principal. That’s taking caring too much to an art form. And for now, I find that funny.

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