(Inspired by my Dad’s great wisdom)*
You’ve been locked in a conversation for over half an hour, during which time you have been blessed with the knowledge of: your interlocutor’s detailed opinion on their own hairstyle, the many times they have been wronged by their mother, and their disgust for that genre of music, and many more details about their own worldview and life experiences besides. Or they’ve just told you that their boyfriend is ‘too handsome to be a model’. Perhaps it is that you find yourself on a journey in a confined space with the limited air circulation shoving the tang of cheese and onion crisps from the man two rows down, as the person behind you uses their feet to convert your seat into a handy percussion instrument / torture device.
“People will kill you. Over time. They will shave out every last morsel of fun in you with little, harmless sounding phrases that people uses every day, like: ‘Be realistic!'”
What It Is (2009)
― Dylan Moran
Whatever the situation may be, you find your fists clenching, your eyes rolling, the angry sweats seeping through. Why can’t they just think? Why can’t they just be reasonable? Suddenly you can’t focus on anything else: their hideous face and personality shoves itself into the forefront of your mind. Such intense feelings of resentment are exhausting and pretty unhelpful: if you’re turning round in the library every 3 minutes to shush the sniffler / cougher / whisperer behind you, chances are you’re not getting much work done; and, by relocating your personality to the derrière of human nature, you’re also probably becoming the butt of the joke yourself.
How do you solve this problem? I present my failsafe method to you now: mentally write every annoying person you encounter into your own, personal sitcom, to be replayed on loop to yourself, and to trustworthy family and friends. It doesn’t have to be developed into an actual script, although light-hearted irritation with the rest of the world does seem to be the basis of most comedy; it’s just a very efficient way of transcending the situation, maintaining your cool, and supplying entertainment to sympathetic pals and relatives at the pub or over dinner. ‘And then she actually said…’.
With this trick, all irritations melt away into comic potential. The stoner who patronises every movement above a comatose state with ‘Yeah but just be like more chill man’, the self-made Agony Aunt who advises: ‘Just get over it!’, and the friend who never quite manages to ask about your day: no longer are they sources of grievance, but rather unwitting actors in a 5*-rated 30 minute episode.
Sometimes of course, we must dismiss such irritations as cultural differences. Every time a Bolivian driver slows down on the road (seemingly to let pedestrians pass), just to quickly rev up as I start crossing, I have to remind myself that it’s not a case of thoughtlessness, but rather another set of road rules. Or when a German or Dutch person orders you to carry out their instructions for you, in what might be interpreted as a brusque manner, it’s easier to just dismiss this as a cultural-linguistic quirk, and likely one which translates badly into English, rather than feel offended by perceived rudeness. (And anyway, the generous usage of English as the lingua franca really should negate any ill-will on your part).
As evidence of this point, one study brought a group of Southern and Northern Europeans into a smallish room, and tracked their interactions over a period of time. During the conversations, the Scandis, English, Dutch and Germans retreated uncomfortably, as Spaniards, Greeks, and Italians tried to get within nose-rubbing distance of their new friends. This both proves definitively that All Stereotypes Are True, and shows that we should enter into cultural exchanges with a generally open mind. (A Good Thing).
So if you want to avoid racism and xenophobia in your sitcom, it’s sensible to think about the cultures you already know. This won’t limit you – even if your knowledge of the world is limited to the island of Sark (population: 600), you’ll still be able to find at least 300 people to populate your ever-expanding cast of irritants.
It’s likely your new comic target has already done a good deal of the work for you, in constructing their easily satirised character. The problem here is that their irritating qualities might appear too much of a cliché to be believed; and this is frustrating, because many people are totally happy to live their lives as perfect and very amusing stereotypes. For example, in the jungle I recently met a white woman with dreadlocks, a vest emblazoned with the words ‘Love’ and a peace symbol, who was planning to take ayahuasca and who spoke of wanting to ‘just like I don’t know have some good vibes in the world’. At the same time, the good vibes didn’t extend to her giving me a hand when I dropped several items in the muddy bottom of our boat, or indeed managing to talk about anything or anybody other than herself. Unfortunately, as funny as the Hypocritical Hippie is, shown on the big screen it would present as a lazy caricature.
In creating your sitcom of the mind, take care to not become a parody yourself – that of the petty, aloof cynic, who greets everything with a raised eyebrow and a superior smirk, like Alceste in Molière’s Le Misanthrope (or most 21 year olds with humanities degrees and a strong sense of their own brilliance). When treating others as a spectacle, it might be you who ends up as the most spectacular fool.