Parks and Recreation and Comedy and Fairy-story

Students in my senior-level introduction to literary theory were shocked as usual this semester at Plato’s argument for censorship in his ideal republic. As a parent, however, I’ve become a bit more receptive to his suggestion that creative writers be sent off with a garland and a wave. They often appeal to our baser desires, especially if they want to sell.

Of course there’s no shortage of good stories in books and other media. I like comedies, though, and it’s tricky finding comedies that are driven by more than desire for things like sex and status and derive humor from much more than ridicule—especially on TV. If you know Girard’s mimetic theory, you may see already where this is going: comedies, like other forms of culture, tend to reinforce the models of desire we are always picking up from our neighbors, and they tend to deal with the resulting conflict through some form of scapegoating. And if you’ve read my previous posts, you might guess what I like better: comedies that are more like what Tolkien calls fairy-stories.

Aristotle says tragedies are about characters of high status while comedies are about characters of low status. This pertained to matters of class in his time (and for a long time after), but also to matters of moral character, which includes, as Girard points out, desire. Tragedies focus on characters with noble desires. Comedies tend to focus on characters with more common, immediate desires. The ancient comic plot is two lovers trying to get together against the wishes of their parents. Much of the humor comes in tricking the elders. Success gratifies desire while uniting the audience in laughter at the expense of silly old people.

These ancient patterns seem remarkable persistent, but the more successful and satisfying comedies have perhaps always played with them. Last spring my family watched all seven seasons of Parks and Recreation, and part of what made it a favorite also makes it an interesting example of comic desire and comic scapegoating.

One of its funniest running jokes is the routine scapegoating of Jerry (a.k.a. Gary, also later a.k.a. Larry and Terry) Gergich, wonderfully played by Jim O’Heir. Early in the series he is funny just because he does a lot of silly, clumsy things. After a while, though, this becomes part of a more consistent pattern of blaming every small thing that goes wrong in the office on Jerry. So consistent, in fact, that it exposes by sarcasm the way that scapegoating often functions to maintain a sort of social equilibrium. Little patterns of blame and microaggression do on a small scale what more violent acts of scapegoating, like lynching, do on a large scale: maintain a sort of peace through managed violence.

Routine scapegoating works best when the victim either is already marginal or occupies a position of privilege (like the father in a family). The latter is certainly funnier. Jerry is a middle-aged white guy of no great ambition, but content, kind, and even forgiving. He’s made even more invulnerable by being given implausibly beautiful wife and daughters. And, in a twist that turns his story from mere comedy to something else, near the end of the show he gets picked to be mayor temporarily and ends up being adored in that office for the rest of his life.

Jerry’s ending comes out of the blue because he is the one character in the show who seems to have no unmet desires. The others are full of desire—so full in the main cases that it leads the story beyond comedy to something more like fairy story.

Leslie Knope, the central character, is the paradigm. She’s a dreamer who wants to do good for the anonymous public, symbolized through most of the series by the long-delayed project building a park at a construction site abandoned after a hole was dug for the foundation. She wants to fill the gaping hole in American public life with beauty and conviviality. Her boss, Ron Swanson, beneath his curmudgeonly obstructionist exterior, is a fierce idealist for self-reliance, good work, and harmony with nature. April Ludgate’s cynicism cloaks her longing for purpose and real human connection. Ann Perkins, source of Leslie’s desire to fill the hole with a park, far from becoming a critic or rival, dreams along with her. Ann gets involved with the Parks and Rec office purely out of friendship.

These big desires lead to plenty of situation comedy, but ultimately keep pointing to bigger things that the show eventually gets to in a series of fairy-tale endings I won’t spoil. Even Andy Dwyer, aimless sponge for the culture’s most romanticized ambitions (love, rock music, and sports), remains too innocent not to find a higher calling. In Dantean fashion, infinite desire leads beyond partial goods to true, unforeseeable ones, shared pursuit of which requires and generates real friendship, itself an infinite good.

Jerry as mayor

The kicker, as a sign of conversion from standard comedy to fairy-story, is when an over-the-top celebration of usual romance (trying not to spoil it) changes to an even-more-over-the-top celebration of Jerry/Gary/Larry/Terry, the genial scapegoat, that grants him a fabulous wish he didn’t even know he had. Such an ending is sort of like a Tolkienian eucatastrophe, but rather than unforeseen reversal from doom to joy, it is merely, at no one’s expense, a totally, hilariously unnecessary free gift.