Illustration by Kate Towsey for Varsity

I’ve always wanted to watch a sitcom that was miserable.It would still consist of three cameras, high-key lighting, and a laughtrack, but there would be nothing to laugh at. The family in their plastic home-set fight, they hurt each other, they betray each other, they wish they were married to or fathered by someone else, and by the end of the twenty minutes, the credits roll as usual, leaving us without any pithy takeaway or reassuring assertion of the benign family unit.

A few years ago, I became ravenously addicted to the mean, small-minded sitcom That 70s Show. There’s an episode of the show where the boy living with the main family is arrested for buying some weed. When the hateful disciplinarian father realises that his own son has been at it as well, he goes insane in an impotent attempt to retain his authority. He demands that everyone stay inside, watches their every move, and boards up the windows. Even the wife cannot escape his tyranny as she tries, desperately, to mediate. The laughs continue, nervously; the atmosphere of dread is palpable. The comic façade almost breaks down, revealing the terror that lies underneath: the oppressive patriarch that our favourite comedy dad has always so obviously been.  But then, our twenty minutes are up. Some resolution is reached and the credits roll; the pain is trivialised, swept away to make room for the next escapade. Sometimes, I imagine the characters can see and hear the viewers. They play along but inside they’re thinking: Why’re you laughing? What’s so funny about any of this?

The comedy dad of That 70s Show has been told that young people who smoke cannabis are no longer themselves. He has also been told that a good father exerts discipline and makes his family do what he wants them to do. This power justifies the pain he went through as a child, and so he sets about enforcing it with brutal efficiency. The original transgression is forgotten in his spiralling attempts to prove to his family and to us that he is the man of the household. He might reconsider his actions by the end of the episode, but the damage has already been done, to be played and replayed in the minds of his victims, maybe for their entire lives, and accidentally displacing itself into their own relationships, haunting their actions. But at no point is this ever acknowledged; instead, there is laughter. 

I see in the self-deprecating tendencies of many of my friends and in my own attitudes to the worst parts of my childhood, this hopeless urge to trivialise, to escape

We say we find things funny because they are “relatable.” What is funny is what is normal and shared.  Yet at the same time, laughter can bring up issues of morality; comedy can be “dark”, jokes can be in “bad taste.”  The canned laughter of the invisible audience normalises and accepts, but at the same time it binds them to the object of that laughter, a form of silent solidarity.  It does not intervene, it does not describe or accuse or explain, but almost perversely, it says: “I know. I know.” In relationships with other people, there are certain things we feel we can never say. We spend our whole lives, sometimes, in negotiation of these blind spots.  Sometimes we try to make covert languages which can say without saying.  In these languages, a single word can mean lots of different things, or nothing at all.  Once, for instance, when my dad had not gotten out of bed for weeks, he said to me: “I’m sorry.” 

When my parents and I still used to go to family Christmas dinners, we would find them incredibly stressful events.  At these group functions, an atmosphere of oppressive tension pervades the house, centering persistently around the figure of my granddad, our very own dysfunctional authoritarian figure.  Arguments are constantly flaring up and fizzling out, not just between him and others but among everyone, and always about minute and inconsequential issues.  Thinking back on this, there was always something performative about these dinners, not just in the weary pantomiming of fun (that was always obvious) but also in the bickering or the all-out fights.  It’s as if each person is trying to demonstrate their awareness of what lies underneath without ever saying it.

When my grandfather has stormed off in what is termed a “mood,” when he is otherwise preoccupied, or when he has mercifully allowed them to be alone with each other, my mum, grandma, and auntie start talking.  Invariably, almost compulsively, they reminisce about the pain he has caused in their lives.  I can never tell if this is the healing of trauma or traumatic healing, the constant repetition of things that can never be forgotten.  Even among three grown women the conversations have the feel of the illicit, of naming the truth, of speaking the unspeakable.  They do not (or cannot) say such things as: “this hurts.  Why has this happened to us? How could this happen to us?” But they do laugh, turning the horrors of their collective past into absurd anecdotes.  A new status quo, a new normality, is created.  These anecdotes can say, but they can never, because behind the laughter there is silence.


Mountain View

Talking trauma at Cambridge

“One day we’ll all laugh about this,” people say, deferring relief to a vague moment of shared humorous retrospect.  For a long time I was taken in by the sentiment of this platitude, imagining some shining future where the pains of life were dulled by the idea of laughter.  But in light of what I have realised about pain I’m no longer sure if such an exterior state can be achieved, since laughter can never really exist outside of the thing it laughs at, but always must be complicit.  I see this in the self-deprecating tendencies of many of my friends and in my own attitudes to the worst parts of my childhood, this hopeless urge to trivialise and therefore escape.  Perhaps we can and should laugh, but as we do we should also be aware of the social function of humour as an escape, a normaliser, and ultimately a signifier of something which cannot be named. 

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