Friday, October 30, 2009


The summer after my sophomore year of high school--a year before my parents rightly demanded that I get a job--Joe Hackett and Helen Chapel were a big part of my life. These weren't neighbors or friends or even authors. No, Joe and Helen were the main characters on Wings, the NBC sitcom that's considered a farce in both the technical and critical sense.

During those days, I customarily woke up at noon, watched a couple hours of Comedy Central, played a baseball game, and then settled in for unceasing re-runs on USA Network. I look back on this time as one in which I should have been learning guitar or a foreign language or the way to play with a girl's hair until she kissed me. Instead, I learned about eating cereal out of a mixing bowl and the soothing pattern of setup-setup-punchline.

Setup: "Listen, something terrible has happened. It's Brian and Casey."
Setup: "Oh my God, were they in an accident?"
Punchline: "Worse. They're having sex."

Kablowwie! Borscht-belt brilliance, misdirection at its simplest. Add a sprig of the randy and the comedy stew's a-boilin'!

Never was a show more reliant on the quick joke. Characters entered to deliver their wit--call, response, payoff--and got off-stage. Puns, jabs, wild exhortations--if they didn't happen within three lines, they didn't happen. I loved the formula like I love a song that goes "na na na" (perhaps the best-used lyric in all of pop music). (Stay tuned to for a comprehensive list of the best "na na na" ditties).

And I loved Joe and Helen. I had a crush on their relationship and stayed up, often until 2 a.m., to see what would happen for them. Between commercials for hilariously low-budget phone-sex lines, Wings offered just the innocent, silly, histrionic love I was looking for.

I've never quite understood, though, how we can become so involved in dramatized partnerings. Kevin and Winnie, Ross and Rachael, Jon and Kate. The obvious answer is that we put ourselves in place of the characters and vicariously feel some of the thrill they're feeling. That doesn't seem right to me, though. For one thing, I never found Helen all that attractive.

Could it be that we like to watch people succeed? That doesn't really pan out either considering the popularity of death-and-dismembertainment. We seem to love watching anxiety and pain (possibly to feel good about the fact that we're not currently in that situation, but that's a different topic).

Maybe, then, we sense that the beginning of a love relationship is a perfect dramatic ending (as in Shakespeare comedies that conclude with weddings), and we pine for, yearn for that ending.

Maybe romance--even the scripted variety--osmoses in such a way that when we hear and see certain cues we feel amorous ourselves. Just like contagious yawning. Could it be that love unbalances the inner ear?

This unbalancing is sometimes so powerful that we end up rooting for characters who aren't even likable. We need them to get the girl the way we need to close out eyes when we sneeze. Why, though? Because we want the girl, or we want an ending, or we've been duped by theatrical patterns?

What if it's simpler than all that? Maybe Joe and Helen made me feel like life would continue as it was, down a safe path, that plots would winnow to happiness, all as I sat wasting my burgeoning virility in a lights-off basement. Just like setup and setup yoke to make joke, people would couple and mankind would continue, the implied baby like a vaudevillian laugh-line.

Joe-and-Helen was my last TV crush before I started dating. But like Don Quixote influenced by too many adventure stories, I'd clearly been influenced by too much Wings. By turns melodramatic and irreverent, I blundered through my first relationships, expecting that my girlfriends would be the response to my call. I was too easily disappointed when they didn't follow the formula. We were definitely a joke, but the laugh track was busted.

Now that I'm married (and out of the basement), I remind myself pretty often that the show doesn't stop here. After the season finale of the wedding, after the jumping of the proverbial shark, we have to find whole new twists to move the series forward. I have confidence that we'll carry-on, highly-acclaimed.

And if something goes wrong, we'll be sure to befriend an amusing little Italian man.

To be continued.


Zach said...

You have neglected to mention the most obvious reason for you having a crush on a fictional relationship: that you wanted to be in such a relationship as these two were. The feeling that was there on screen between the two characters was (to you) believable; You needed have found Helen (that?) attractive to find attractive the feeling that Joe had for her (and she for him, they for each other) attractive. Hence, perhaps, your titling at girlfriends in these early dates. (and without any hair-twirling acumen.) You liked what Joe and Helen had and sought to create it for yourself by playing the Joe and assuming a Helen would materialize.

Stay tuned for further assumptions I'll make about your thought processes/romantic desires.

Dave said...

I did, in fact, discuss the idea of vicarious feeling. I discounted it as the thing that's really going on when we get crushes on fake people and their doings.

But I did come back to the idea that romance is contagious and that watching it gets us the germ.

Happy Halloween.

Zach said...

hmmm. This makes me seem far less smart.