Norm!

[21 November 2005]

By Jodie Janella Horn

In the year and a half that I’ve lived in Los Angeles I’ve struggled to find a bar to call my own. My exploits have taken on the tone of a bedtime story: “This bar is too hip. (Isn’t that Adam Brody over there?) This bar is too scary. (I’m certain that man over there is considering how my head would look mounted on his wall.)” I have eliminated a few watering holes because they are too bright and too dark, too crowded and too sparse. All I really want is a place that’s “just right”. I want a Moe’s to call my own.

The closest I have come to a new favorite watering hole is a neighborhood joint with atrociously loud music and bartenders that can barely stand due to the weight of their implanted bosoms. Each and every time I visit my adopted joint, AM or PM, any day of the week, the same man is there. Let’s call him “Tiny Busboy”. He’s employed by my new local hipster diner, and every time I see him, he hits on me. I explain to him that I am married, and then point to my husband sitting next to me. Hubby just smiles and waves obligingly.

It’s become a strange ritual that Tiny Busboy and I indulge. He has repeatedly informed me that he’s been promoted from busboy status and is now some sort of electrician, which in turn somehow involves contact with the show biz elite. Still every time I visit, he’s right there bringing out those dandy origami boats full of fries. By virtue of not knowing my name, he shouldn’t be making me reminiscent for the Cheers-like regular bar I’ve never had, but he does.

I’m not a huge fan of How I Met Your Mother, a first-year sitcom starring Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Doogie Howsie, M.D. (Neil Patrick Harris), and yet, I watch it every week. The premise to the program is that, via flashbacks, Daddy Ted (Josh Radnor) unravels for his children the story of how he met their mother (thus the title). Willow plays Ted’s incipient sister-in-law and Doogie his “wacky” friend. Despite the voiceover from the future, most of the exposition and plot development occurs via witty banter between the five main characters at their favorite local drinking establishment.

They seemingly meet there every week, right after work, just to tell the trite story of Ted’s most recent date — complete with comedic punch-ups from Willow (playing a beer and sex soaked school teacher) and Doogie, as a crude mash-up of Joey Tribbiani, the Fonz, and Vinnie Delpino. The show has its moments, but its pull for me is not the jokes, characters, or story. It’s the fact that these big-city people have found a way to replicate rural familiarity with their friends and neighbors in a bar.

Grey’s Anatomy, another freshman show, tells the soapy travails of a crew of first-year surgical interns at a Seattle Hospital. Though the characters all work together, and many of them share a house, they still have the Emerald City Bar to host their most personal dramas. Much of the show’s action revolves around a pair of romances between female interns and male supervising surgeons. Because the power balance is shifted towards the men while the characters are at the hospital, another location was needed so the star-crossed lovers could interact as equals and the interns could communicate amongst themselves without the competitive air of the hospital. The writers of Grey’s Anatomy have even written in a recurring role of Joe the bartender, played by none other than Fox’s struggling actor cum reality star, the Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé. When Joe fell ill, the doctors banded together to save him and help him cover the cost of his hospital stay. They all knew that they needed that bartender to keep a workplace drama personal. Thanks to Joe, the characters are not just people who have to work together, they’re people who chose to hang out together and form a vital little community in the process.

Community, loosely defined as a group of people who look out for one another, is the backbone of all sitcoms. It can be a family or the gang over at the workplace, even a self-selected clan of friends. The latter set-up does require however a common environment for the characters to interact within since there isn’t just one jobsite or home for all of them to convene in. Sitcom budgets usually preclude building a home set for each recurring character. That’s why The Drew Carey Show had the Warsaw Tavern, Friends had the Central Perk, and Cheers had, well, Cheers. This third variety of set creates neutral territory where no character has the advantage, which levels the playing field

Now every family sitcom has one of those nutty non-family member characters: Skippy on Family Ties, Kimmy Gibbler on Full House, Vinnie Delpino on Doogie Howser, M.D., Steve Urkle on Family Matters, and Six on Blossom to name just a few. These showboating sidekicks are generally obnoxious and unappreciated by their own kind (family, friends), so they trek next door to find acceptance. Sure, they are still belittled, but perhaps it’s a little less abusively. Sitcoms revolving around friends functioning as family are essentially a congregation of all the repellant little next-door brats, spicing up situations while trying to find a new adoptive family to host their degradation. And what better place to hold a good ol’ fashioned ribbing than a food and/or beverage establishment?

I live in a huge city. My friends and I have all come from somewhere else to join Los Angeles and its overwhelming rank of wannabes. We’ve left the familiarity of our hometowns and we come together, first to enjoy one another’s company, and secondly to replicate the glaring love of our families via shared insults and humiliations. Some people will always belong (say, by way of religion) but my clan of godless aspiring musicians, actors, and writers has only each other and our bar to tie us together. It is somehow reassuring to know that even if the sky is crashing down upon us, my Tiny Busboy will still suggestively offer me a drink, forgetting again that I’m already married. And then, my husband will mock me relentlessly for being the kind of girl that the Tiny Busboy always hits on repeatedly. Cue laugh track. Fade to commercial.

Born and raised in the cultural wasteland of Santa Rosa, California in 1980, Jodie spent much of her early childhood competing in track and field until she could no longer tolerate scheduling conflicts between practice and Punky Brewster. In 2000 she received a B.A. in Anthropology and moved to Los Angeles, making guest appearances in London; Portland, Oregon; and Oakland, where she met her husband. A full-time writer, Jodie has completed an as of yet unpublished novel and contributes to PopMatters as a TV columnist, book reviewer, and the occasional feature.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/horn051122/