People think of absurdity as someone acting irrationally, or strange things happening to an otherwise normal person, but often the heart of absurdity comes from people rationalizing behavior which defies explanation. My stock portfolio just tanked; now’s the perfect time to buy more! Whenever our instincts conflict with our intellects, we’re often at a loss to explain the discrepancy and grasp for whatever explanation seems to best suit the situation, regardless of how convoluted it may be. Writers such as Albert Camus have explored the absurdities of human behavior, the struggle to find meaning in an otherwise chaotic universe where events often seem random and arbitrary. For Camus, the ultimate absurdist act was suicide, particularly in reaction to the perceived meaningless of existence.
The human compulsion to create rules, only to search for ways to bend or break them provides endless examples of absurdist logic in action. While the tendency to make inexplicable decisions sometimes defies common sense, there is, often, a logic to absurdist reasoning, even if the reasons defy convention or otherwise seem contrived or arbitrary. A good source for examples of this is the Bible, in particular the book of Job in which Job must endure numerous hardships including physical maladies and the deaths of loved ones for no other reason than God has made a bet with Satan on how righteous Job is.
On the iconic television show Seinfeld, the absurdity sprang from the fact that the main characters knew their method of dealing with life often hurt them, but were unable or unwilling to change. Other commentators have pointed out how unlikable the characters were: Jerry the self-centered perfectionist; Elaine the insufferable intellectual snob; George the pathological liar; Kramer the bumbling n’er-do-well who often succeeds in spite of himself. What is most apparent about each of these characters is how often their problems are caused or escalated by their refusal to alter their behavior, even when that behavior was shown to have negative consequences. This was best highlighted in the episode entitled The Opposite, where George started doing the opposite of what his instincts told him, and soon found his dream job, an attractive girlfriend, and the success which had long eluded him.
A forerunner of the absurdity implicit in Seinfeld was the legendary British show Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which introduced the antics of John Cleese, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam to American audiences, and befuddled numerous Silent Generation parents. The absurdity of Python often derived from distinguished people doing silly things; proper British upper crust individuals acting like idiots. With Python, it was common to establish a theme early in the show which keeps recurring throughout, such as a segment on identifying trees that only seemed to highlight “the larch” or having characters randomly say, in utter confusion, “lemon curry?” Seinfeld also had such themes, such as when George gets in trouble for saying “Bless you” when someone sneezes. Jerry proposes replacing the phrase with, “You are so good looking,” establishing the running gag for that episode.
One of the most famous sketches on Monty Python was The Pet Shop or, as it’s better known, the dead parrot sketch. In it, John Cleese portrays a disgruntled customer returning to a pet shop with a parrot he purchased there which he’s discovered is dead. The outright absurdity of the customer trying to convince the shop keeper of the condition of the parrot is compounded by the revelation during the skit that the bird was apparently dead when sold to the customer. What is instantly recognizable is not only how ridiculous the situation is, but how true to life it is. Who among us has not had to deal with a know-it-all salesperson whose eye toward the next sale overrides his or her concern for customer satisfaction. Is Cleese’s indignation at being “had” any different than a shopper’s ire over being sold a substitute pair of shoes that do not fit properly or shoppers learning that the advertised deal which lured them into a store is not available and most likely never was?
What often made Seinfeld so interesting was how densely packed it could be. In the episode called The Pothole, each one of the main characters had storylines, and even Newman had a subplot related to the main action. Jerry accidently knocks his girlfriend’s toothbrush into the toilet, and she uses it before he has a chance to tell her; George loses a key chain given to him by his boss; Elaine tries to devise a way to order Chinese takeout despite living on the wrong side of the street; and Kramer adopts a highway. In this episode, the worst tendencies of each character were fully on display. How else could it end than in a fiery cataclysm?
For centuries, it has been the province of drama and literature to point out the foibles of human nature and thus hold a mirror up to the behavior of individuals with an eye toward instructing them in proper actions. The Greek tragedies were filled with the consequences of failing to heed the will of the gods, and medieval morality plays featured characters often led astray by their baser instincts. In Job, his three friends try to convince him his fortune will improve if he’ll only admit that he’s not as righteous as he claims, while Job protests that he’s done nothing wrong and the reader knows he’s telling the truth. Throughout, Job’s pronouncements have a decidedly sarcastic ring to them leading one to believe the writer’s intent was to be darkly humorous. If Job doesn’t represent the actual birth of absurdist literature, it’s certainly one if the earliest surviving examples of it.
Even the most absurd situations have a logic to them. In my sketch Got Your Goat, a man named Harold comes home to his high rise condo in Midtown Atlanta and asks his flustered wife, Agnes, where the goats are. After a bit of conversation back and forth Agnes confirms that Harold isn’t crazy, they really do have goats. While the surface situation is absurd, underlying it is the logical premise that Harold has a familiar ritual in his life which brings him solace and when it isn’t there, he doesn’t accept the loss easily or well. The sketch ends without a coherent resolution but with one which further deepens the absurdity.
Whether it’s the contrived silliness of Monty Python or the situational absurdity of Seinfeld, the humor presented resonates with audiences from one generation to the next. Perhaps the impact of Seinfeld was its instructive nature, displaying the petty and superficial actions of its characters as a mirror on the narcissistic and self-serving culture of the nineties as a warning against becoming too self-involved. As with previous generations, tracing back through the morality plays, the Greek tragedies, and the book of Job, it’s a lesson people need to be reminded of again and again.