Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Breaking the Situation Comedy Trance

Nothing ever really changes in a situation comedy.

The situation comedy, or sitcom, was the most popular kind of television program from the 1960s into the 1990s. Usually a weekly show, it would start from the exact same situation every week and go on from there to generate situations full of laughs, or at least bad puns.

It’s a strategy borrowed from the factory. The episodes of a situation comedy were interchangeable parts. The writer of one episode did not even need to know the writer of the previous episode. Episodes could be shown in any order without any loss of meaning — because there fundamentally wasn’t any meaning in a situation comedy. The philosophy of a situation comedy could be summed up this way: “Life is one dumb joke after another, and then you get canceled.”

The characters in a situation comedy could change, and they did. They got new jobs, fell in love, fell ill, got rich and famous, went to jail, went to war, cured bad habits, learned new skills. But every change had to be undone before the episode was over. A character who won an election would lose the recount. A family that moved to a new city would move back a day later. Every illness was cured, every conviction overturned, every addiction shrugged off in less than half an hour of viewing time. Every brush with fame lasted just fifteen minutes. In a situation comedy, no matter how big the changes in a person’s life were, they were powerless to change their situation. One week later, the situation would be exactly the same.

Watching these TV shows conditioned three generations of Americans to believe in a view of life that, from the outside, is almost nihilistic. In this view of life, matter how hard you work, you cannot really change yourself or your situation. Every change that occurs turns out to be an illusion. The new house turns out to be the same as the old one. You get a raise, but you don’t have any more money. Fall ill, and the doctors make you feel better again. New job, same old problems. Lose weight, gain it back. It doesn’t matter how much trouble you get yourself into, because it always works out in the end. This kind of thinking has people feeling invulnerable and powerless at the same time. Things can’t get any worse, but they can’t get any better either. “It’s the same sh—, different day,” Rick Springfield sings in “I Don’t Want Anything From You,” echoing the frustration of millions at situations that just don’t seem to change.

In reality, almost everything can change. But while you are in the situation comedy trance, you tend to overlook opportunities to improve your situation. You may also fail to respond to problems that threaten to turn your life upside down.

How powerful and pervasive is the situation comedy trance? Consider this:

  • Drew Pinsky in Cracked describes how people “tempt fate” taking drugs, not believing that the nasty consequences of drugs will happen to them. Drug use has been around forever, but the “drug culture” and the reckless attitude that goes with it belong to the same historical period as the situation comedy.
  • A U.S. president and defense secretary sent the country into a war in Iraq, confident that they would be able to bring the troops home quickly — the way it would happen in a situation comedy.
  • How many U.S. households are clinging to lifestyles they cannot afford, getting deeper and deeper in debt, yet believing it will all work out somehow? Almost half?
  • Two years ago the movie and book The Secret became a sensation — and an instant controversy — with the simple message that change was not only possible, but potentially controllable. Tony Robbins has described the resistance he sees to the idea that anyone can make permanent changes virtually at will, just by deciding to and taking action. Even after seeing examples of such changes up close, most people still believe that change is not really possible for them.
  • U.S. real wages have remained nearly unchanged since the 1960s. Ever since workers started to watch situation comedies in large numbers, their wages have barely kept up with inflation.

If you are in the situation comedy trance — and if you are reading this, there is a very good chance that you are — you can gain more control over the circumstances of your life by breaking out of the trance, and it is not that hard to do. It is just a matter of getting in the habit of change. Here are three easy ways to make permanent changes in a short time:

  • Give away or throw away a possession you no longer use.
  • Learn something new that could help you solve a problem.
  • Move things around in a way that makes it easier for you to do something you’re doing.

The situation comedy trance puts you in a world where changes are occasional, massive, difficult, and fleeting. This makes life frustrating. To change this pattern, create changes that are the exact opposite: frequent, small, easy, and permanent. You probably already make changes like this every day, so become more conscious of the changes you are already making.

Notice how easy it is to change something. Today I moved the macaroni from one cabinet in the kitchen to another. It was so easy. Also notice the finality of the changes. If I check again a year from now, I will find the macaroni in its new location.

My example surely sounds trivial, yet the purpose is just to break out of the situation comedy trance. After you do that, you can change anything. Things really do change.