Tuesday, May 14, 2019

"The Limits On 'Suspension Of Disbelief'"

Here’s how you define the suspension of disbelief:

That doesn’t happen.”

“We’re fine with it.”

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld comes out and engages in a sharing conversation with his audience – “Did you ever notice this?”  “Did you ever notice that? – ignoring the fact that, unlike classic conversations, he is holding a microphone and standing onstage, while the other participants in this tete-a-tete are seated below him, understanding they do not actively participate.

Suspension of disbelief.  Forgetting the innate requisites of a conversation.

Incidentally – and coincidentally, experiencing two “cidentally’s” at the same time and how often does that happen? – last night, I was watching Jerry Seinfeld’s Netflix series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, in which the episode’s designated “Shotgun” was Steve Martin. 

This led to their unexpected inclusion in this post – and I am as surprised about this as they are – demonstrating how two imaginative comic minds handle the suspension of disbelief with diametrically opposite approaches.

Seinfeld acknowledges the pretend comic-audience relationship, openly asserting, “It’s not real.”  Which reminds me of a searing line delivered by stepdaughter Rachel, age eleven, when I found her watching Saved by the Bell in which thirty year-old actors played geeky high schoolers and complained “That’s not real”, to which she angrily replied, “I don’t care if it’s real.  It’s funny!”  (Seinfeld’s audience would likely be equally hostile.  But they’re not family.)

By startling contrast, in his wild (and crazy) 70’s heyday, Steve Martin confronts l performer-audience artificiality head-on.  An included clip on “… with Cars” – so as not to retype the whole name – showed Steve Martin, in his dazzling white suit, opening his performance saying the standard “It’s great to be here”, and then saying, “And it’s great to be… (MOVING TO A SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT POSITION ON THE STAGE)… here.”

You see what he did there?

Steve Martin lampoons an arrangement Seinfeld consciously ignores, each acknowledging that what they are doing is not real.  (So there, Rachel!)  Though it is hilariously funny.  (So there, Earl!)

As a writer of half-hour comedies… wait.  First , a confession.

I have mentioned on numerous occasions that I cannot write fiction, only to realize that half-hour comedy is fiction. 

I have never provided – for others, nor for myself – a viable explanation for this troubling conundrum – my claim that I cannot write fiction and writing fiction my entire professional career.  That’s odd, isn’t it?

It appears that I suspended my own disbelief, writing those hundred or so episodes, convinced that the characters – whom I met personally every time I went to the stage – were real.  They weren’t.  They were just actors.

Manipulating the idea of suspension of disbelief, there is a wonderful episode of The Jack Benny Program, in which comedian Jack Benny visits the home of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen.  Answering the door is the ventriloquist’s then nine year-old daughter, Candice Bergen, who ushers Jack Benny into the living, where he awaits the imminent arrival of her father. 

During the wait, in stroll walking-and-talking “Charlie McCarthy” and walking-and- talking “Mortimer Snerd”, whom we discover in this episode are real, rather than inanimate dummies, leading a stunned Jack Benny to turn to the camera and confess,

“Who knew?

It’s like comedic whiplash.  In the ventriloquist’s act, you suspend your disbelief, accepting that dummies are people.  Now you suspend your disbelief, accepting that people are dummies.  Which Jack Benny does, a rare joke at the expense of suspension of disbelief.

Audiences suspend their disbelief so readily, the process seems less “willing”, as is frequently appended, than practically unconscious.  Did you ever notice on Friends, people of moderate means renting a Manhattan apartment so big you could land jets in the living room? 

More recently, The Big Bang Theory apartment building offers an elevator that has been broken for twelve seasons.  What happened to inspectors?

The suspension of disbelief does, however, have its limits.

At least for me.

I am thinking about Gunsmoke, where in the course of its record 635 episodes, marshal Matt Dillon shoots someone in virtually every episode.  That means, during the historic run of that series, Matt Dillon gunned down – conservatively – 500 people.  He kills one guy in the opening titles.  It’s the same person, so I’ll count it as one, but still.

And in the opposite direction, over those same 635 episodes, Matt Dillon himself was shot, I’m guessing, like, seventy-five times himself.  Though to no lingering effect.

You tune in next week – the man’s fit as a fiddle.  I turn my ankle, and I am limping for weeks.  He’s shot more than six dozen times, it’s like he got over a cold.

That is one big suspension of disbelief.

When thinking about this post, what oddly also came to mind is a somewhat different suspension of disbelief.

Consider the actors doing the voices on the 31-year run of The Simpsons, inevitably aging, while the characters they “voice” stay exactly the same.

Do you think it’s confusing to the cartoons?


The suspension of disbelief is a welcome relief from relentless rational evaluation.  Still, a man guns down 600 people and gets shot 65 times hims…

AUDIENCE:  “We’re fine with that.”

Okay, great.

1 comment:

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Actually, a *lot* of people have complained about the size and likely cost of the apartments on FRIENDS. The show finessed it by saying that Monica was subletting her grandmother's rent-controlled apartment.

As for the elevator on THE BIG BANG THEORY, I think most of us have had negligent landlords at some point. And given the origin story the show presented about how the elevator got busted (Leonard, getting the math wrong on an explosive mixture he whipped up), the characters weren't in a position to complain, really.