Make ‘Em Laugh: Sitcom Humor for Millennials

[27 November 2012]

By Elizabeth Charlotte Grant

My dad and I sat next to each other on the couch watching The Office (US version), his first taste of the series. I was home from college, and the first season had just come out on DVD. The year before, my roommates and I had crowded around our small dorm TV to watch each episode as it aired. After the show, we would mimic the lines we loved back to each other for a week—until the next episode gave us something new to laugh about.

“Dad, you’ll love this,” I had told him. “You work in an office. I bet it will crack you up!”

He agreed to give it a try, since he and I normally share a sense of humor.

We made it to episode 2, diversity day at Dunder Mifflin Paper Company. Who doesn’t remember the episode fondly? Mr. Brown (Larry Wilmore), an H.R. rep from Corporate, comes to the Scranton office to give “diversity training” because one of manager Michael Scott’s (Steve Carell) co-workers reported Michael for offensive comments. Mr. Brown asks a volunteer to reenact the inciting event, a Chris Rock stand-up routine, to help the event come to a more positive end. But guess who volunteers? Yup, Michael—who then offends his co-workers again through the same act told in the same offensive way.

The rest of the episode continues like that, with Michael thwarting Mr. Brown’s efforts. Finally, the show ends with Mr. Brown forcing Michael to sign a legal document stating that Michael is sorry for his offensive statements and will not repeat them. But Michael, giggling, confides to the camera crew that he signed the document as “Daffy Duck.”

My dad sat quietly through the episode, hardly even chuckling, and as the credits rolled, I turned to him and asked, “So? What’d you think?”

He sighed, “Lizzy, I’m sorry, I just can’t watch it anymore.”

“Really? Why?” I said.

“It’s just too true. It seems ridiculous, but it’s too much like real life. I get this on a daily basis when I go into work. People are actually like that boss!” he said. I laughed.

“I wish I were joking,” he said. “I just don’t want to relive it when I get home. It’s not my idea of fun.” 

That caught my attention. What was it that made my dad cringe? He said it was too real, too true—which was exactly the reason I found myself rolling.

The Generational Funny Divide

In 2005 when The Office began, it was the first of its kind. Cinematographers “followed” fictional characters like they were filming a documentary or a reality TV show, performing interviews and catching a new raw and “real” sort of humor on film.

Since then, Arrested Development, Flight of the Conchords, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation and Portlandia (to name but a few of my personal favorites and leave out many equally apt examples) have all paved their own way into this raw and real comedy scene.

Interestingly, these shows have particularly attracted younger viewers in the 18-34 age range (for example, read more specific rating numbers for one week of The Office, 30 Rock, and Parks and Recreation at Almost no viewers over 49 gave the shows the time of day.

So while my dad’s stomach turned watching Michael Scott make racist, sexist jokes off-handedly beside the copy machine, viewers under 35 found ourselves giggling for weeks, watching and re-watching choice scenes on You-Tube and retelling jokes to friends.

Generational divides in pop culture are nothing new, of course. So what makes these sitcoms so catchy for young folk and so un-funny for their parents? Perhaps the funny factor lies in some values these younger viewers hold.

Laugh Values

1. Authenticity reigns all-important (and all-hilarious) .

The very nature of how true this sitcom humor feels to real life tickles me and my friends. We resonate with Michael Scott’s shocking honesty and relational neediness (Scott Carell, The Office), Leslie Knope’s earnest passion for an unimportant cause (Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation), Liz Lemon’s excessive average-ness (Tina Fey, 30 Rock), Michael Bluth’s out of control family relationships (Jason Bateman, Arrested Development), and Jemaine’s failure with the opposite sex and his total lack of ambition (Jemaine Clement, Flight of the Conchords).

Sure, they’re tragic heroes with obvious flaws—but they’re funny because we are like them. We see ourselves in the awkward scenes they act out before our eyes. Who among us can claim perfect success in their love life? Or that we know how to have a healthy relationship with our parents? Or that our lives are important and we are working toward something that really matters?

Our generation of 20- and 30-somethings is no longer interested in Disney’s happy-go-lucky characters. We need the truth of a Wes Anderson film in a 30-minute TV bite, and we find it in these dark comedies. 

2. Humor for humor’s sake (without a larger agenda!)

Film theorist Robert Stam says in Film Theory (Blackwell Publishing, 2000) that “the most typical aesthetic expression of postmodernism is not parody but pastiche, a blank, neutral practice of mimicry, without any satiric agenda…”

In other words, we under-35 viewers feel refreshed by the “humor for humor’s sake” attitude in these sitcoms. We know the characters and writers of each show do not have an agenda to push upon us (unlike any current news station, for example). These shows aim to present an ironic, hilarious “true to life” picture, just as it is. They also make fun of people equally: the liberals and conservatives, the religious and irreligious, the wealthy and poor, and the young and old all get a humorous jab to the ribs from these screenwriters.

Arrested Development, for example, does not try to explain away its characters’ eccentricities or moral failures. The show simply allows a viewer to step into this selfish, wealthy American family to watch the dysfunction unfold (which is admittedly both uncomfortable and hilarious in turns).

And then there are those scenes that are simply funny because they are funny. For example, when GOB Bluth (Will Arnett, Arrested Development) wheels through a flower bed on his Segway to harass his brothers or when Jemaine and Bret (Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, Flight of the Conchords) perform an unrelated musical number in the middle of an episode (“Albi, The Racist Dragon,” anyone?).

The World as We See It

3. From funny to absurd in 30 seconds flat.

Portlandia loves to take ordinary scenes to absurdity, almost between blinks. In the first ever episode, a couple (Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein) enters a restaurant in downtown Portland and begins asking the waitress about the origin of the chicken on the menu: “Is this local?” “Is that U.S.D.A. organic or Oregon organic or Portland organic?” “How big is the area where the chickens are able to roam free?”

The beginning is funny enough, and then the waitress brings out a photo and a profile about Colin, the chicken they are going to eat that night. The couple, thrilled, asks the waitress a few more questions (“Do you have any photos of him with friends, other chickens as friends, like him putting his little wing around another one and kind of paling around?”). Before you know it, the couple leaves the restaurant to drive to the chicken farm 30 miles outside of the city for a tour, just to be sure what they’re getting into. (Of course, they ask the waitress to hold their table for them.)

When the couple gets to the chicken farm, they meet the farmer, Aliki, they apparently fall in love with him, and then they both decide to stay and become his wives (which brings his wife count up to ten, maybe?).

Then cut back to the farm five years later, where the couple from the restaurant is kneeling at Aliki’s death bed, wearing homemade dresses and weeping. Aliki dies and the polygamist “spell” over the couple is broken. The couple then returns to the restaurant and decides to order the salmon—that is, after the waitress answers a few questions.

The story of the couple at the restaurant and the chicken farmer starts hilarious and ends, well, a bit creepy, at the furthermost edge of absurdity. And while Portlandia might have some of the most obvious examples of this surreal humor, each of the shows mentioned love to push their scenes and characters toward the ridiculous, such as when George Bluth, Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor, Arrested Development) tries to market and sell a celebrity product (the “Cornballer”) with Richard Simmons through commercials in Mexico or when Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer, 30 Rock) tries to convince the other writers that he slept with Cerie (Katrina Bowden) by presenting a pair of his own whitey tighties as evidence.

Why does this matter? Viewers under 35, in particular, have been touched by the absurdity of life—we have vivid memories of 9/11, not to mention the high rate of people under 35 who have therapists to deal with their own personal tragedies. Life can feel chaotic and nonsensical. To be able to laugh, then, in the face of life’s absurdity relieves us and gives us hope for the future.

A Coming of Age Comedy

Truth be told, my Dad came to enjoy The Office after all—though it took a while before he would binge-watch entire seasons on DVD with me. I’m not saying that no one over 49 can indulge in a deep belly laugh by watching Michael Scott bumble his way through management. But what stands out to me is the need these shows seem to have met for 20- and 30-somethings.

The raw, truthful humor makes us feel more human, somehow, and helps us laugh in the midst of difficult times. And these have been trying economic and social times.
If you do not believe me, step into your favorite local Starbucks: 20- and 30-somethings with master’s degrees (and crippling student loans) are the ones making your espresso drink because they cannot land a job in their field. They are living in their parents’ basements, putting off the move into the world they know to be dangerous—as evidenced to them by 9/11 and the Columbine shootings—both of which occurred when Millenials were young adults. They feel unsure of themselves and resist moving toward adulthood because of it.

As Brigham Young University Professor Larry Nelson said of his 2007 research of Millenials’ transition from childhood to adulthood, “In prior generations, you get married and you start a career and you do that immediately. What young people today are seeing is that approach has led to divorces, to people unhappy in their careers. The majority want to get married they just want to do it right the first time, the same thing with their careers.” (Read more at Herald, “Study finds kids take longer to reach adulthood” 05 December 2007.)
It’s not that these difficult times (and the insecurity the times engender) make this generation of 20- and 30-somethings unique. The world in itself has not changed—it’s still the same world in which the Great Depression devastated America’s economy, in which Hitler committed genocide, in which Nixon laundered money, in which bigotry killed Martin Luther King, Jr., and in which divorce rocked generations of families. Our parents, the late Baby Boomers, have certainly seen a fuller reality of the world in their longer lives than their children have.

But at least in one respect, the world has dramatically changed as technology has advanced. Many Millenials remember the day when their public school plugged a computer into the wall, and from then on, Millenials were hooked. The Internet made immediate access to a world of information possible 24/7. Today, this generation of young people can constantly see the world around them in turmoil and they can even read personal stories from across the globe as disaster occurs.

When the tsunami hit Japan’s shores in March 2011, Millenials (and anyone else, for that matter) could watch practically live footage on YouTube. They could read tweets from friends fleeing their homes and could view personal photos of the aftermath on Facebook—all within a matter of minutes and hours from when the waves surged. This immediate personal knowledge of world news has never been like this before. The influx of information is staggering and often overwhelming (and perhaps not always strictly accurate).

Not to mention the fact that some Millenials are marked by a desire toward philanthropy. As William Deresiewicz said of Millenials in his 2011 New York Times article “Generation Sell”, “What’s really hip [with this generation] is social entrepreneurship—companies that try to make money responsibly, then give it all away.” (Read more here . Think of the ease of shopping for charities such as Toms Shoes, and the reach of online media in the case of charities such as Invisible Children , and you will get the idea.)

In fact everyone, not just Millenials, now has more opportunity to enact change across the globe than ever before, from texting $10 for the Red Cross efforts in Japan to jumping on a plane at a moment’s notice to be a relief worker somewhere in the world. The choices dizzy us Millenials, and make us feel a sense of responsibility for the issues we hear and read about. We feel an obligation to act. 

Yet interestingly, while Millenials expressly want to be philanthropic and want to move into adulthood (at least eventually), more often than not, they do not act. They feel paralyzed by all the choices before them: Which nonprofit should I give to and when should I jump on a plane to help? Who should I marry? What career should I pursue? Often Millenials choose inaction as a means of coping.

The Office Diversity Day montage

The Office Diversity Day montage

Enter a new comedy scene. When the world feels huge and terrifying to a fearful generation, well, it sure helps to sit on your parents’ couch in an air-conditioned basement and laugh for a while at a well-timed sitcom. Perhaps this oh-so-real humor, though raw and painful and cynical to our parents, is a way we Millenials are dealing with our own difficult coming of age process. We can laugh at the screwed-up reality we have discovered in our lives as we see the images flash before us on our personal TV-watching devices.

I have no doubt that my generation will continue growing into proficient adults, though we certainly will never grow out of the flaws that come with being human. But a belly laugh is beautiful, and perhaps laughter will help us relax into adulthood. After all, who said we always had to live in the free-fall? Meanwhile, we can take a rest and laugh at the world as we see it, and hope for a soft landing when we finally figure ourselves out.

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