A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Friday, 15 March 2013

Hooptedoodle #83 – Watching TV Through My Fingers

An Appeal on Behalf of the Socially Impaired

For the last 36 hours or so I’ve been suffering from a Spring virus thing – nothing dramatically serious, but I’ve been sleeping a lot, been bothered with joint stiffness and had a generally severe cold. Since Mme la Contesse has something much closer to a real life than I do myself, it is important that she gets to sleep, so I’ve had a self-imposed exile to the guest bedroom in the attic, to keep the coughs and sneezes away.

The attic is not used regularly, so it tends to be a bit colder and have bigger spiders than the master bedroom. On the other hand, it does offer some minor crumbs of solace – the facility to watch TV programmes of minority content and unusual timings being one. Last time I was in there I think I watched Gods and Generals yet again, which has a lot going for it, since if I doze off I have a good idea of what I have missed.

This time I unsealed a new box set of DVDs of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which one of my grown-up sons kindly got me for my birthday recently. I’d never seen this show, but had heard good reports of it. In fact, I found it decidedly uncomfortable, for reasons which I’m not awfully happy with. Now I’m not the slightest bit sorry for myself – not looking for sympathy – I’m actually laughing at myself here, and am simply working on the theory that it’s good therapy to poke at your demons a bit.

Last time I felt this degree of discomfort with a TV comedy series was Ricky Gervais’s The Office, which I still believe to be a brilliant show, but I couldn’t watch it because the David Brent character said things which I suspect I used to come out with myself in the past when I returned from management training courses. It’s not even as though the context of the show was comfortingly artificial – anyone who had worked, as I had, for a large employer who so obviously based their Corporate Mission Statement on Dilbert cartoons would have found the fictional working environment pretty familiar.

Cringe maker - The Office
I think maybe there is a clue there – I didn’t care for the Brent character because it reminded me of parts of myself which I dislike, and there was no element of a convoluted or unnatural setting to provide a handy explanation. I have spent many years laughing heartily at the efforts on film and TV of the socially inept. From Tati’s lovely Monsieur Hulot to the cast of Black Books, Mr Bean to (a special favourite) the incompetent interviewer on the old British TV series People Like Us. All these are relaxed, and are not threatening at all. Either the main character is likeable or, as in Mr Bean’s case, the story line is so far-fetched that it is not realistic.

Back to the present situation – I have to say I have something of a chequered past with American TV comedy. I used to like Cheers and Taxi, which represented my earliest exposure to non-PC US comedy. You can see why these shows worked without upsetting too many people – any odd behaviour or expressed views were a result of the neurotic imbalance of the cast. Anyone who said anything rude or politically abrasive was playing a wacky character who did not know any better.  They were not representing the editorial standpoint of the show or the station. Both of these series ran for a long time, but eventually I found them formulaic and rather lost interest. Then there was the astonishing Married with Children, which was like nothing I’d seen before from American TV. I was a real fan for a while. The Al Bundy character was a ready-made (if minor league) anti-hero for all oppressed, post-feminist, hen-pecked bread-winners all over the Western World. There was no pretence at all of political correctness – I recall an occasion when Al’s wife told him that his dog was stupid. Al’s response was to whistle to the dog, and get it to jump off the couch and walk into the kitchen – an act, he claimed, which was beyond his wife’s own abilities. Also the banter between the daughter and the son – especially concerning sexual preferences – sailed much closer to the prevailing wind of the day than we were used to.

The magnificent Al Bundy - a hero to many
Al Bundy got me into trouble once. I had an account manager named Carl, who worked for the mighty Knowledgeware Corporation of Atlanta (now gone and forgotten). One afternoon in Atlanta I mentioned to Carl that I was a fan of Married with Children, and that I had left instructions at home while I was away to record the next instalment, in which the special guest was to be BB King.

Alas, Carl’s wife was an active member of Christian Mothers of America (I think), which group was working to get all subversive programming removed from TV – and Al Bundy was a priority target. Carl (who, strangely, also seemed to be a Christian Mother) was very embarrassed to have to tell me that his wife had thought better of inviting me for dinner to their home (in a gated community outside Atlanta) on account of my reprehensible tastes in TV comedy. Carl – to give him his due – was totally honest about the problem. If it had been me, I’d have made up some downright lie about my wife being indisposed, but Carl went to some lengths to describe how strongly his wife felt about this. He said that she and her colleagues felt there was a need to get back to “traditional American values” on TV – it was only a few years previously, said Mrs Carl, that “people like BB King” would not have been allowed on a family show. Erm – pardon? Pick your own mix of traditional values...

And then there was Friends.

I freely admit that I may be the only person in the Supposedly Free World who disliked Friends. I couldn’t be doing with it. The central characters were expensively-presented young things (younger than me) who displayed life values which to me appeared self-consumed and profligate and typified a number of things that worried me about the way society was changing. Much of the humour consisted merely of talking about the lumpy bits in their relationships – ad nauseam – without many actual gags. It may have been new, but it was thin. American TV seemed to have arrived at this point - where you could now make entertainment out of previously uncomfortable subjects – maybe some 15 years after British TV had been through the same stage, and made all the same mistakes over again.

Yet it was huge. Everybody except me loved it. Much of the talk in my office dining room and in the pub was of the story lines from Friends – what he said to her, and what she said afterwards, and what so-and-so thought about it. My own friends genuinely worried about my non-involvement, to the point of offering to lend me sets of DVDs to get me up to speed. No thank you. If someone tells me I have to watch something, the chances of my actually watching it reduce as a result.

So I got kind of used to not watching American comedy shows. I’ve never seen Seinfeld, though it is highly thought of by some friends whose opinions I respect. I know the production team from Seinfeld are involved in Curb Your Enthusiasm, so was happy to give it a go. It’s The Office all over again. I can see elements of myself in the Larry David character which I really do not care for. It’s cleverly done – I understand that they set a storyline, and much of the dialogue is improvised, so it has a natural, real life quality. Admirable. The main character cannot understand why his wife so often feels compelled to intercede on his behalf, and even apologise for him. Ouch. His attempts at relaxed humour with sales assistants and bar staff cause embarrassment and confusion, and TILT signs abound. He can no more handle the social nuances and conventions of small-talk than he can comprehend that small-talk actually exists as a real form of communication. Ouch. Ouch.

Maybe I’ll come back to it. Maybe next time I’m ill?


  1. I used to periodically wonder which of my co-workers was secretly the real creator of Dilbert. Had to be someone close.

    As for American comedy, never been able to learn how to appreciate/tolerate it. I'd like to claim that its a question of one continent, two countries but they are as popular here as there so apparently its just me.

    1. I thought that Dilbert would have ridiculed phrases like "leveraging added-value delivery" to the point where people might stop using them, but I suspect it just re-defined the lingo, and the irony was lost. It also amazed me that we recruited absolutely brilliant young analysts to find out what was wrong with the business, but they were not allowed to notice that the Board consisted of retards.

      I had a boss who banned his staff from doing external business degrees at university, at a time when it was all the rage, since he said it only gave them a new vocabulary with which to describe their inability to manage, which was a poor return on the cost.

  2. I always shudder when watching 'Big Bang Theory' because I see myself as having all the negatives of Sheldon without the compensating upside of being a genius. It's very funny though.

    Obviously I only know you through your blog, but I'd always visualised you as a bit Father Jack.

    I agree about Al Bundy though. I first came across it in a hotel in the US and couldn't believe how different it was to the rest of the dross they were showing.

    1. You are spot on with Father Jack, which is why I can't watch the Father Ted programmes either. No - in truth I am a sort of cross between Mother Teresa and Vinnie Jones.