Monday, June 01, 2009
Comedy and Tragedy, Make an Ass of You and Me
There's power in assumption. Comedy and tragedy cannot exist without it. Some of history’s funniest scenarios came by way of premature assumption, just ask Shakespeare. In literature, it's a tool that will bring the human heart as much grief as it will laughter. A great premise in a great story always plays with an individual’s assumption of an undetermined outcome. Entertaining writing harnesses assumptions, and the truly great writing pushes the reader to assume as well. Everything else is mere journalism. (booooriiing.)
One of my favorite examples of the comedy of assumption is Larry David. Most scenarios on Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm use assumption to propel simple stories into absurd situations. The Baptism exhibits Larry David's brilliant writing in top form. It's one ridiculous assumption after another, dancing ignorantly until all is perfectly wrong in the end. Larry assumes so much. He assumes that a guy outside of his office watched him punch in his security code, and then assumes that this guy breaks into his office to steal some plane tickets. As if this ridiculous assumption wasn't enough, Larry then goes on to convict strangers at the airport of stealing his tickets.
"I know what you did."
"... Are you talking to me?"
"Just give me the ticket."
"I think you've got the wrong guy..."
"Look, I won't tell anybody what you did, just give me the ticket back and"
"Go fuck yourself."
In the midst of all this, Larry also decides to change his voicemail under the persuasion of Richard Lewis. He doesn't check his new greeting after he changes it; he just assumes that it worked.
And then he assumes that a river baptism was actually a murder in progress, all because he doesn't really have a clear understanding of anything that's going on. It all works together for a beautiful comedic ballet. By the end, all of the assumptions come together and reveal themselves to be nothing but vain fabrications of his own miscalculations.
But how boring would the show be if he knew exactly what was going on? There wouldn't be the hilarious confrontations in the airport, because he would have remembered that his tickets were in the coat pocket of the jacket he gave away earlier that week. If he didn't change his message, there wouldn't have the been the hilarious dialogue between Larry and Richard Lewis. And a run-of-the-mill baptism? Not on a Larry David show. No way.
Assumptions make for great tragedy as well. Oedipus assumes he’s marrying someone other than his mother. Romeo is assuming Juliet is dead when he drinks the poison. When we assume, when we let our imagination get the better of us, the story always becomes more dramatic than reality. But it sure does make things more interesting.
One night, I couldn't find my backpack. I had an assignment due the next day, and couldn't find my backpack anywhere. I asked my mom, looked in every room in the house, but it really felt like the backpack had disappeared. My stepdad was laying on the living room couch watching TV when he said, "weren't you at the library earlier today? Maybe you left it there." That must be it, I thought. But it was 11 at night. The library was closed. It was too late to get my backpack. Luckily, my friend Matt Mackowiak was there.
He said, "let's go get it, we can get it somehow." So off we went, two high schoolers in a purple minivan, in search of my missing homework. When we arrived at the library, we noticed cleaning ladies on the second floor. We decided that we had to catch their attention, but we would have to find a way to the roof in order to knock on the upstairs window. So Matt drove through the side lawn of the library, right up the edge of the lower roof. He hopped up on his parents' van, and onto the library. He had to carefully climb up an incline to the nearest window. He never looked more like Spider-Man, using his finger pads for balance as he crouched his way up.
Once he made it to the window, he started tapping. He motioned to the cleaning lady to go downstairs to open the door. She motioned back something. Matt came back down, confident that she was now on her way down to see what we wanted. But after 5 or 10 minutes of standing around in the vast, suburban parking lot, we were greeted by an oncoming squad car.
Two cops stepped out of the car and started walking toward us. "What the hell are you guys doing?! You scared the hell out of those poor ladies!"
The cleaning ladies never came downstairs. They had called the cops on us.
"Oh, we didn't mean to scare them," I answered back, "I just forgot my backpack in there and we're trying to get it."
The cops looked at us, bewildered. "Your backpack huh?" It was obvious by the looks on their faces that they didn't believe us.
"Yeah, it's in there, just go look, it’s probably in the lost and found by now."
So one cop went to check for this so-called backpack that we were climbing roofs and driving on private lawns for. After a few minutes, the cop came back without any backpack.
"There's nothing in there." he yelled to us.
Matt was dumbstruck, "It has to be. It has to be there."
And then they handcuffed us. They put us under arrest for trespassing and damage to property. They drove us to the police station, where they proceeded to fingerprint us and take our mugshots.
"Look directly at the camera."
"Okay, turn to your left"
And there we sat at the station, waiting for our mothers to come bail us out. All the while, we just couldn't figure out where this backpack was.
By the time our mothers took us out, and the cops had their fill of embarrassing us, it was really late. I was now full of anxiety over this backpack, not knowing what I would do at school the next day, or for the rest of that week.
When I finally got home and walked through my door, I looked over at the living room couch. I could see something in between the couch and the back of the cushions. Hanging my head, I walked over to the couch, and pulled my backpack out. "Mom." I said inquisitively, "Why was my stepdad laying on my big, bulky backpack? Wasn't it making him at least a little bit uncomfortable?"
My mom had a good laugh. And I guess it is a funny thing. But what a ridiculous adventure at the cost of an assumption. "It must be at the library" we assumed. And we went to great lengths to pursue the resolution of this assumption.
Of course, the irony of my stepdad actually suggesting that we check the library WHILE HE'S LAYING ON IT is what makes the story golden.
But that's all it takes. A great comedy or tragedy just has to find an assumption that can be fleshed out ironically, and it'll probably work.
Of course, it's always easier to write stories about ironic assumptions than it is to experience them in real life. But when it comes to a good story, fiction and non-fiction are never at odds. Laugh and cry at assumptions, and always write them down. They’re the stuff of comedy and tragedy for all time.