You might be Daffy Duck

Like 97% of people who have ever existed, I am planning to write a semi-autobiographical novel one day. In formulating the protagonist for this novel, I have spent some time thinking about which aspects of myself are worth teasing out and which should be discarded. In doing so I have come to realise that the character – that is, the imaginary me – that has been gradually taking shape in my mind is a thinly veiled facsimile of Daffy Duck.

It’s important to be specific here, because there have been many Daffys, and only one of them is worth knowing.

Daffy Duck started life in the 1930s as a righteous maniac with supernatural powers of mischief. Like Bugs Bunny, he could fabricate costumes and other objects out of thin air and bend reality around his japery. He once bonked Hitler on the head with a mallet, to keep everybody’s spirits up during the war.

daffy-hitler
Keeping spirits up

Though undeniably patriotic, this Daffy was just a dead-eyed kook, with no identifiable motive other than to be a nuisance. But over time he became more nuanced, and meaner. He shed his kooky scattershot vocal style and learned to speak with a sort of contemptuous eloquence. Though I have no intention of verifying this assertion through research, I’m fairly confident that he’s the only cartoon character ever to have a four-syllable word in his catchphrase (“you’re despicable”). Even Monty Burns can only manage three (and “cowabunga” doesn’t count.)

Unusually for a cartoon character, Daffy could play face or heel as the context required, and he was driven by complex human motivations like jealousy, vanity, and profound solipsism, often in conflicting directions. “I may be a craven little coward,” he said in one episode, before embarking on another bruising caper, “but I’m a greedy craven little coward.”

This is the Daffy that appears in The Looney Tunes Show (2011), a genuinely funny Seinfeld-esque animated sitcom starring comedy giants like Fred Armisen and Kristen Wiig in which Daffy and Bugs live together, have girlfriends, earn money, and get into hilarious scrapes. It is here that Daffy reaches the apotheosis of his self-knowledge. “You’re my best friend,” he tells Bugs. “You know me better than anyone. You see what a horrible person I am.”

Unfortunately, the Looney Tunes Show only lasted two seasons before it was cancelled and replaced with Wabbit, a Bugs-centric sketch show in which Daffy appears as his original, zany self, complete with Loki powers. I cannot overstate my disappointment at this move. The Daffy I know is a flawed but relatable person, twisted by a manifestly unjust universe into a resentful, mendacious monster who also happens to be the greatest cartoon character ever created.

When I talk about Daffy Duck, this is the one I mean – the one who was so bitterly determined to beat Bugs Bunny and win the audience’s adulation in Show Biz Bugs (1957) that he killed himself on stage.

This is also the Daffy that became a template for other great screen characters, including Eric Cartman, George Costanza, Basil Fawlty, Richard Richard, Phil Tandy Miller, Dennis Reynolds, and countless others. To some extent the success of those characters is a function of how closely they adhere to the Daffy formula.

What is the Daffy formula? It’s this.

To be a Daffy, a character must first and foremost be like Daffy. Not only must they be congenitally selfish, devious, grandiose, and craven, but all of these characteristics must be magnified to grotesque proportions due to the pointed cruelty of the universe.

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The pointed cruelty of Daffy Duck’s universe

Daffy Duck is destined to be humiliated and thwarted in every ambition, so he has no incentive to overcome his negative impulses. He might as well go all in, pursuing every goal with single-minded determination and a total disregard for the rights and feelings of others. Daffy Duck would nuke a city to jump one place in a queue. This is the natural condition of every Daffy.

But to be his best self, a Daffy has to be modulated by two other character archetypes: a Bugs, and a Porky.

Daffy Duck’s relationship with Porky Pig is fairly straightforward. The duck looks down on the pig, and treats him like an ignorant slave. For the most part Porky is willing to put up with Daffy’s contempt because the universe ensures that he will always come out on top anyway, and Daffy will receive his just deserts without Porky having to intervene.

Most of this also applies to Bugs, who is happy to tolerate Daffy’s unbelievably selfish scheming because, at the end of the day, good things will always happen to Bugs and terrible things will always happen to Daffy. The difference is that Daffy looks up to Bugs, not down, and this grudging admiration fills him with jealous rage.

Both Bugs and Porky are necessary for Daffy to express his full spectrum of unenviable characteristics. Bugs brings out his tireless competitive antagonism, and Porky brings out his appalling imperious contempt, while the universe itself keeps him angry and frustrated.

Even so, it is the invisible hand of the anti-Daffy universe that makes his relationships possible. Nobody can resent Daffy’s unmerited victories, because he never secures any. Daffy’s friends understand that there’s no malice in Daffy’s malice. It’s clear that he has no choice but to be himself, because being like Daffy is not a choice that a rational agent would make.

When Daffy Duck gives up his own life for applause at the end of Show Biz Bugs, his good-natured rival offers him some encouragement as he ascends to the rafters as a ghost. “That’s terrific Daffy! They loved it. They want more.”

“I know, I know,” says a plaintive Daffy. “But I can only do it once.” You can’t help but feel sorry for him.

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The ghost of Daffy Duck

If you run through a list of characters based on the Daffy Duck template you’ll find they generally satisfy all three criteria, or at least two of them.

George Costanza has the basic personality of Daffy, but he lives in a world of Bugs Bunnys, including Jerry Seinfeld, who is Bugs Bunny incarnate. However, there are no Porkys in his life–nobody he looks down on. Nor is he particularly resentful or jealous, though he will stop at nothing to achieve his goals, however petty and selfish.

In the first season of Last Man on Earth, protagonist Phil Tandy Miller is a textbook Daffy Duck. He treats most people like Porkys, as means to ends rather than ends in themselves, and he will go to extraordinary lengths to get what he wants irrespective of the effect it has on those around him. He even has a literal Porky, in the form of Todd, and he’s at his funniest when he also has a Bugs to set off his jealousy and competitiveness. Phil Miller (2) is the first of these, followed by his brother Mike (Jason Sudeikis–like Jerry Seinfeld, a quintessential Bugs.)

Jason Sudeikis gets another opportunity to fulfil the Bugs role when he appears as Schmitty in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, coming up against Dennis Reynolds, Glenn Howerton’s version of Daffy. Here the issue is that Dennis has only ever lived among Porkys, and while it would be untrue to suggest that Schmitty is a true Bugs to Dennis, because Dennis doesn’t actually look up to him, his breezy confidence and unwillingness to follow orders has a destabilising effect on the group.

Basil Fawlty is another Daffy, consumed by selfishness, jealousy, and single-minded determination to get his own way at all costs (to other people). Polly, Manuel, and the majority of his downmarket, iniquitous guests are his Porkys, while every so often a Bugs comes along in the form of a guest with an elevated social status, such as a doctor or a lord. Such guests completely change Basil’s personality, turning him from an imperious bully into a snivelling supplicant and then a neurotic maniac–classic Daffy moves.

Of course, his greatest opponent is Sybil, and she is neither a Bugs nor a Porky, but rather a monster, or perhaps the gigantic, acid-drinking cowboy in Drip-Along Daffy (1951).

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A mean cowboy/Sybil Fawlty

Along with the season 1 version of Phil Tandy Miller, the most perfectly archetypal Daffy is Richard Richard, or Rich, co-protagonist of the sitcom Bottom. Rich has all the scheming, self-serving amorality of Daffy Duck, and the same delusional grandiosity, which is starkly at odds with his real status as an unemployed, perpetually filthy virgin. His primary Bugs figure is Eddie Hitler, and though, like Daffy’s wartime incarnation, Rich frequently bonks Hitler on the head, he is never able to escape swift and brutal retaliation in the form of getting hit with a pan or kicked right in the nuts.

And, of course, there’s my Daffy–the imaginary version of myself that only exists as a character in a bad novel that will mercifully never be written. This Daffy is as craven, scheming, and greedy as all the others. Like a snivelling louse, he looks up to Bugs Bunnys and down on Porky Pigs, even though they don’t deserve it, and he only truly cares about himself. He is, as a critic once said of Daffy Duck, “a kind of unleashed id,” and it would be completely beyond me to make such a character likeable.

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“The Jerry Seinfeld”

Every Friday night after filming, Jerry Seinfeld and writer Larry Charles used to drive up to Laurel Canyon in LA and race from there to Sunset. Jerry (Porsche) would give Larry (Saab) a three minute headstart before tearing at “insane” speeds through LA to catch up with him. “I would risk the entire series,” he said later. “My whole life.”

It sometimes feels as though Jerry Seinfeld’s appetite for peril extends beyond motorphilia and into the realm of oratory, where he is un-woke, and oddly prone to putting his foot in his mouth for such a consumately controlled performer.

Let’s look at the evidence. In 2014, he responded to a question from Buzzfeed about the overwhelmingly white, male guest list on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee by saying, “who cares?”

A flurry of opinion pieces and withering Tweets followed.

Then, perhaps irked by his previous run-in with contemporary sensibilities, in 2015 he told ESPN, “I don’t play colleges, but I hear a lot of people tell me, ‘Don’t go near colleges. They’re so PC.’”

More headlines.

Then he told Seth Meyers that there’s a, “creepy PC thing out there that really bothers me,” because he sensed that an audience disapproved of the term “gay French king” in one of his jokes.

And another flurry.

Jerry Seinfeld is obsessive about his comedy vocation. This is evident in the documentaries he has made, and in his fabled work ethic, and his reputation as a master technician. And more subtly in the way Judd Apatow describes his bare monastical LA apartment when they first met in the 80s, and how in Comedians in Cars he often stops to explain why the thing his guest has just said is funny, right down to the timing of hand movements. And how he openly struggles to speak to people who aren’t comedians. You can even see it in the way he recounts his late night street races – “series” comes before “life.”

Comedy is Jerry Seinfeld’s kingdom, and lately it seems as though he’s been developing a sort of philosophical armour of defiance against the encroachment into his kingdom of criticisms that he considers to be irrelevant, because they’re being made on moral rather than aesthetic grounds.

There’s the interview with Channel 2 in Israel in which he responds to a question about the #metoo movement by calling his female interviewer, Dana Weiss, “honey,” and the the fact that in his recent Netflix documentary, Jerry before Seinfeld, he delivers strangely archaic material about the differences between men and women. And there’s the equivalence he seems to draw in an interview with Stephen Colbert between Bill Cosby’s sexual assaults and Jerry Lewis’s seemingly capricious will arrangements.

Stop. Zoom. Jerry Seinfeld’s interview with Stephen Colbert last year is a milestone in the journey of Jerry Seinfeld. When Stephen Colbert asks him whether he can still listen to Bill Cosby records despite the allegations against him, Jerry Seinfeld says. “Oh yeah,” in his breezy high pitched voice, as if it’s the simplest thing to disregard multiple alleged rapes.

You can hear the audience hesitating, unsure how to respond to the strange spectacle of a beloved comedy legend not particularly minding that Bill Cosby is a rapist. How could the co-creator of the greatest ever sitcom be so out of touch?

Well guess what. Jerry Seinfeld isn’t out of touch. Probably. He’s not just another irritable old man objecting to attempts by the world to deprive him of the sanctuary of his own worldview. There’s a principal at stake, which is that comedy is the only thing that matters to him. As long as he behaves himself in life, thinks Jerry Seinfeld, he shouldn’t have to concern himself with anything else.

“Funny is the world that I live in,” Jerry Seinfeld told Buzzfeed in 2014. “You’re funny, I’m interested. You’re not funny, I’m not interested.”

The salutary aspect of this stance is that race, gender, sex, and so on are irrelevant to Jerry Seinfeld. He just doesn’t see those things, which is the textbook definition of somebody who isn’t a racist or a sexist. His only avowed prejudice is against people who aren’t funny, and that’s not a thing.

You can disagree about whether Jerry Seinfeld really is comprehensively colourblind in this way, but I believe that Jerry Seinfeld believes he is, and I for one believe him. If pressed, I expect he would acknowledge that the preponderance of middle-aged white men on his show is symptomatic of the unfair barriers that women and people of colour must overcome when trying to enter the kingdom of comedy. But that’s a downstream problem for somebody else to fix. All Jerry Seinfeld can do is ensure that he only ever judges the person in front of him in terms of how funny they are, and not their sex, background, or skin colour.

Unfortunately – but actually fortunately – Jerry Seinfeld’s armour is pregnable. In the next segment of his interview with Stephen Colbert, after the commercials, Jerry Seinfeld abruptly changes his mind about Bill Cosby.

It may be that Stephen Colbert leaned across to him while the cameras were off and urged him to repent, or Jerry Seinfeld may have felt in his waters that he had gone too far, at the wrong time, and a Twitterstorm was coming, which, after years of stumbling into controversies, he no longer had the resilience to withstand.

Either way, he hastily crowbarred a retraction into the interview as soon as the lights came on, rushing it out before Stephen Colbert had a chance to change the subject. There follows a slightly uncomfortable exchange in which the normally suave Jerry Seinfeld seems to flounder and Stephen Colbert gets all the laughs. The balance of power between the two men visibly shifts as Stephen Colbert steers Jerry Seinfeld towards a repudiation of his entire philosophy. Observed through metaphor-sensitive spectacles, Jerry Seinfeld would at this point dejectedly remove his philosophical armour and join the shuffling grey PC brigade, like Winston Smith professing his love for Big Brother.

The title of this video on the Late Show’s YouTube channel is, “Jerry Seinfeld Is Becoming ‘Modern’ Seinfeld”.

A confession. Following Jerry Seinfeld makes me nervous because I’ve been quietly rooting for him. While admittedly there are conspicuous differences between us, Jerry Seinfeld appears to have been going on the same emotional and intellectual journey as I have over the last few years.

“But should we separate it or shouldn’t we separate it?” he says to Stephen Colbert, in one last valiant effort to keep the flame of his rebellion alive. “The art, or the work, from the man?”

Though I hesitate to admit it, this is exactly what I spent the weekend pondering after Louis CK confessed to sexual misconduct last November. I know it’s not the story, and I know people got hurt, but I just couldn’t accept, and still can’t, that the appalling things Louis CK did in front of several women will permanently invalidate the edifying and hilarious things he said on stage – even though some of the things he said on stage seemed to originate in the things he did.

“It’s made up, it’s material, come on,” says Jerry Seinfeld, re Bill Cosby, to an unmoved Stephen Colbert, his last swing.

“I know that, but part of him was the charming fatherly figure too, and all of that is destroyed.”

[Applause].

“Alright. You’re right. I’ll change my mind.”

Earlier, in Israel, Dana Weiss asks Jerry Seinfeld about Louis CK. “It’s terrible,” he replies, before quickly moving on to the aspect of the affair that most preoccupies him. “I mean, these behaviours don’t even make sense sexually.”

Ever in lockstep with Jerry Seinfeld, I said this too. I simply don’t understand how masturbating in front of an unhappy woman in a semi-public setting could be enjoyable. But I’m aware that by saying that I’m sidestepping the collective narrative and fixating on a detail, which is also what Jerry Seinfeld is doing, because that’s the aspect of the scandal that interests us, or because we don’t want to feel as though peer pressure is dictating our views, or a bit of both.

You could argue that Jerry Seinfeld’s stubborn resistance to PC sensibilities is just a symptom of old age. Progress and fashion can turn uncontroversial beliefs into contentious ones almost overnight. When I was younger, the expression that most neatly summed up the relationship between the sexes for everybody was the book title. “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.” Not only is this kind of thinking borderline hateful nowadays, but it’s not even clear that there are two sexes. Change like that can be discombobulating to a well-meaning person of advancing years.

But I don’t think that’s what’s happening with Jerry Seinfeld. I think he’s fundamentally a decent person. I don’t think he endorses the white partriachal worldview that’s under attack. “One door closes, another opens,” he told David Remnick at the New Yorker Festival. “There’s always a joke; you’ve just got to find it.”

But there it is, still. The opening and closing doors in this analogy are a reference to heroic activism following dreadful abuse and injustice, yet Jerry Seinfeld only seems to care which jokes can make it through. He can’t see beyond comedy. And with all the suffering in the world. Shame on him!

Except, that’s okay, isn’t it? Is it? I don’t know. I think so. He can get to Sunset at his own pace as long as he doesn’t crash into anybody. Maybe. Maybe not.

Mr Mom: an insider’s retrospective

Mr Mom (1983) is a major Hollywood film, starring Michael Keaton and Teri Garr, about a man called Jack who loses his job and ends up caring for his children while his wife, Caroline, goes out to work.

I like to think it couldn’t be made now. At this point there are enough men who are not breadwinners, or at least enough people who understand that this shouldn’t matter, that the premise no longer seems whimsical.

If anything, it’s a surprise that it could have been made as recently as 1983. I mean, watch this trailer.

“He became the lady of the house”? What the hell?

I have a special interest in Mr Mom because my life is approximately the same as Jack’s. That is, I’m a stay-at-home dad, but I wasn’t always.

The first thing to say is that Mr Mom is much more nuanced than its trailer suggests. While the cinematic trailer does indeed frame Jack’s predicament as an absurd and mind-boggling violation of the natural order, in the actual film he just gets on with it like a good sport and nobody really raises an eyebrow.

This more or less reflects my own experience. While it’s not always easy to be a “lady of the house” when you’re a man, nobody has ever ridiculed my lifestyle to my face. When I tell people what I do they tend to be indifferent, though older people are often effusively supportive, presumably to mask their deep shock.

Even so, I sense that assumptions are made about my competence as a male full-time parent, and I sometimes play up to these. My tacit role whenever I speak with the women who run the office at my children’s school is the hopeless, forgetful, congenitally useless dad, which suits me because that’s actually what I am. The widespread assumption that I’m a fish out of water – or at least my own assumption that that’s how everybody sees me – allows me to get away with not trying to appear competent, which is clearly an excellent perk of being a man which isn’t available to women, who have to suffer the burden of assumed competence.

Mr Mom gets this about right, with some dramatic licence. On his first day in charge of the home, Jack goes to the supermarket, clutching a shopping list that his wife wrote for him. His children knock over displays, he can’t decide which kind of ham to buy, and at one point he even loses his youngest child – a baby – altogether. His closest character analogue from the world of film is Corporal Upham in Saving Private Ryan during the battle at Ramelle. Watch.

Later on he tries to do the laundry. He overloads the machine with detergent and it judders ominously, before exploding. A TV repair person, a pest control person, and a plumber all arrive at roughly the same time and compete for his attention while he runs around trying to keep his children alive and his house intact. He succeeds, but only just.

Over time, Jack loses pride in his appearance. He wears his wife’s glasses for some reason (if they share a prescription, why doesn’t he have his own glasses?), along with a dirty old flannel shirt that he never washes. He puts on weight (like me), and grows a careless beard (like me), exhibiting the signs of a person in a state of mourning or deep depression (still me).

Obviously, this is a comic exaggeration of what happens when an inexperienced parent takes over the running of a household, but there’s a kernel of truth in it. When I took over I genuinely couldn’t work out how to get my eldest daughter ready for school in the morning. I went absolutely batshit on a daily basis as I scrambled to iron clothes, clean teeth, and brush hair within the time allowed. Every school run was a furious wrist-yanking speed march in time bomb conditions.

But that was then. Jack eventually learns how to run his house like a pro, and so have I. I now have to get TWO children ready for school, rather than just one, and I even have to make a packed lunch for one of them due to an ill-advised moment of indulgence several months ago that I cannot reverse. And it’s easy.

I was probably a bit more competent than Jack at the outset, and arguably a bit less competent by the end of the film, when Jack successfully runs the household for a day and prepares a gourmet dish for his wife after the children have gone to bed, which I have never done, nor attempted, and never will. But I think Jack and I went on more or less the same journey, from idiotic buffoon to proficient homemaker.

***

There are respects in which our stories diverge, however. Mr Mom has something to say about the dangers that await men and women who venture outside their respective habitats. When Caroline starts going to work in an office it soon becomes apparent that her male boss wants to seduce her, and his eventual attempt at this almost certainly constitutes sexual assault. Meanwhile at home Jack ends up in the sexual crosshairs of a glamorous divorcee, who bamboozles him with her cleavage and even climbs onto his bed.

Nothing of this kind has happened to me.

Yes, Jack is far more personable than I am, but the ease with which he integrates himself into the community of housewives and mothers is still a bit of a stretch. And I have to say the film loses points here in its gender politics, because he doesn’t just integrate. He dominates. Pretty soon his wife’s former friends are congregating at his house, where he shows them the error of their ways by teaching them how to play poker instead of the inferior, female game of bridge. His amorous pursuer turns on the charm, despite his hirsute appearance, unwashed clothes, expanding waistline, and the unappealing disorder of his home. (This isn’t a gender politics issue in particular. It just doesn’t seem fair.)

But there’s another striking gender politics misstep in Mr Mom, and it concerns Jack’s continued search for a job. Jack’s wife finds work before him, and it emerges that she’s at least as talented an advertising executive as he is an engineer. So, great, you’d think. The family is saved. The instigating problem – loss of household income – has been solved, and all that remains is for Jack to attain the level of competence and satisfaction in his new role as his wife once enjoyed.

That’s broadly the arc of Mr Mom, but something odd keeps happening. Even though Caroline is gainfully employed, Jack keeps going to interviews. Why? There are two possible explanations. A) Caroline isn’t paid enough in her advertising job to support the family. And B) Jack is a man.

According to Payscale.com, the median salary for an advertising executive is $43,653, while an automotive engineer earns $74,363 on average. Assuming the relative status of these professions hasn’t changed too dramatically in the last 30 years, this lends some weight to explanation A. But why wouldn’t the script make this clear? How hard would it have been to include an extra line of dialogue explaining that Caroline is working pro tem while Jack finds more lucrative employment?

For that reason, I suspect explanation B is correct. After all, there are numerous examples of fictional advertising executives earning a comfortable living (Bewitched, Friends, The Crazy Ones). For all that Mr Mom seems remarkably progressive, it still contains an underlying assumption that Jack will go back to work. In order to satisfy audience expectations in 1983, the absurd anomaly of Jack’s male worklessness must end.

As it happens, the film resolves this issue with a cleverly ambiguous fudge. Caroline quits her job after her boss sexually assaults her, but her boss shows up at her house and begs her to come back. At precisely the same moment, Jack’s former employer shows up and begs him to come back too. The credits roll while negotiations are still ongoing, so the audience can make its own mind up about how things pan out.

***

The scene in the film that best evokes my own experience is the one where Jack brings Caroline dinner in their bedroom and they have an argument. Here it is.

I’ve had pretty much this exact conversation, though my wife was nicer to me than Caroline is to Jack.

“My brain is like oatmeal,” Jack says. “I yelled at Kenny today for colouring outside the lines. Megan and I are starting to watch the same TV shows, and I’m liking them. I’m losing it.”  

Check, check, check.

I once had an idle conversation with my wife, to pass the time on a long drive, about how many anonymous people we’d be prepared to kill or let die to save our children. The answer, of course, was all of the people on Earth, anonymous or otherwise. As you would rightly expect, nothing matters more to me than my children, and, when I’m in the right mood, nothing delights me more. Yet I crave their absence almost constantly, and I’m certain that they have dulled my brain, shortened my life, and radically diminished me as a person.

Honey, I know what you’re talking about. I’ve been there myself, okay?

This is the bit that shames me. Whenever I go into a sulk, which is every day for between two and five hours depending on the Radio 4 schedule, I’m aware that the condition I’m bemoaning is the one that women have been expected to put up with for centuries. I didn’t really sympathise before. I do now.

Well if you were so unhappy why didn’t you say something about it?

Many women did, of course. I grew up watching the Carla Lane sitcoms that my mother watched, about disaffected housewives and underappreciated matriarchs. The sitcom Butterflies and the movie Shirley Valentine were about women who had given up work to look after their children. I have to admit that I played devil’s advocate back then. What about the husbands? I thought. Do you think they enjoy going out to work every day? Don’t you think they might like to stay at home and watch soap operas instead? What a fool I was.

Look, maybe I was a little confused. Maybe I was a little frustrated. But I knew what I was doing was important, because it means something to raise decent human beings. What saw me through was pride. I had pride in the kids. I had pride in this house, and I had pride in being Mrs Jack Butler.

This is great. This is exactly how a person should feel about staying at home and looking after their children. But for some people, maybe most people, pride is elusive. It’s a purely theoretical phenomenon, easily eclipsed by the actual boredom, anger, and frustration that giving up work to care for a small child can engender.

I wish I could see things the way Caroline does. It’s not clear whether Jack ever gets to, but he certainly seems happier by the time his former employer shows up to restore harmony to the universe by putting him back to work in a loud manly factory.

Is there a message about gender in the different ways that Caroline and Jack understand the role of full-time parent? Yes and no. Mostly no. Like many stay-at-home fathers raised in a patriarchal society, I occasionally feel embarrassed not to be out at work all day, providing for my family. But Jack is much more mature than me, and doesn’t seem to have that hang-up at all. He just struggles with the logistical and mental challenges of full-time parenting, like anyone – male or female – would if they were suddenly required to do it.

Eventually he starts to experience the perks. In one scene, as Caroline is about to abandon the family on Halloween to shoot a commercial in LA, Jack tells her, “Megan just cut two new teeth. I bet you didn’t know that. Alex is playing football. Remember Kenny’s security blanket? He doesn’t have it any more. He doesn’t use it. It’s gone.”

Jack is set up as the wisdom-dispensing good guy in this scene, but I find his remarks a bit unkind. Caroline, her eyes shining, is powerless to do anything about it. “You gave me some real good advice once,” Jack continues. “So now let me give you some of mine: it’s real easy to forget what’s important. So don’t.”

This is an oversimplification, of course. Family is important, but so is having an identity outside of family, and aspirations that are particular to your own sense of what you’re cut out for and what you can achieve.

Being a full-time parent robs you of all that. But it gives you other things in return, such as the (absolutely reprehensible) secret thrill of knowing that you are the winning parent – the one your child runs to after an absence, and seeks out after a nightmare.

As consolations go, that’s okay.

The Time Out Joke

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In the summer of 2001 I said something very funny.

I was working as a waiter at the time, at a small cafe in Berwick-upon-Tweed. The cafe was about to close when a Scottish family bustled through the door. “I’m sorry, we’re not serving any more,” I told them before they could sit down. Looking crestfallen, they quietly left.

It was obvious that the family was staying at the nearby caravan park, and given the lateness of the hour I guessed that they had only just arrived and were looking for a place to have dinner after a long and arduous journey.

After they were gone I turned to the waitress who was standing with me behind the counter, and it was at this point that I said something very funny.

It really landed. The waitress laughed so hard that she couldn’t breathe. Her cheeks turned red and she had to lean on the counter to prevent herself from falling over. Infected by her laughter, I beamed too, and we continued like this for more than ten seconds, until the other waitress who was working that shift emerged from the kitchen.

“What are you laughing about?” she said.

“I don’t even know,” said the first waitress. “I think I’m going mad.”

Going mad? The smile left my face.

The waitress was half right. It’s completely true that she didn’t know why she was laughing, but she was wrong to think that it was because she was going mad. She was laughing because I had just said something very funny. She just didn’t understand why it was funny.

I’ve thought about this episode many times over the last 15 years, because it perfectly crystallises an interesting property of humour: it’s not always easy to know why you’re laughing, even if there’s always an explanation. In this case, I happen to have the explanation, because it was me who said the very funny thing.

Here’s what I said, about the people who had come into the cafe:

“I feel guilty now, thinking of them all sitting in their caravan eating Time Outs”.

Let me just say, I know this joke probably didn’t make you laugh out loud. There are at least two reasons for this, and the first is very obviously that a joke on the page is not the same as a joke being “performed” in person. In delivering this remark I unconsciously used modifiers such as posture, gesture, facial expression, and vocal inflection to emphasise my weirdly judgemental disquiet, all of which are absent in this arena.

The second reason is simply that you weren’t there, and context really matters. So join me now as I finally deconstruct the joke in order to explain to an imagined version of the person who was there, my colleague, exactly why she found my remark so hilariously funny.

1) Contextual mood imagery. When the family came into the cafe it must have been about nine o’ clock, and there were no lights on because we were about to close. This photonic gloom naturally translated into psychological gloom as we imagined the dejected family together in their cramped caravan wordlessly eating Time Outs.

2) Incongruity. Chocolate is not a solemn foodstuff. It’s what a person eats for pleasure and indulgence. Therefore, the image of a disappointed family unhappily eating chocolate is innately incongruous, and therefore funny.

3) Thwarted ambition. It’s not entirely clear why failure is always funny, but it is. In this case a family has failed in its attempt to eat nutritious food in a comfortable setting, and so the image of them eating food with no nutritional content in an extremely confined setting contains a lot of humour.

4) Judicious specificness. I’ve experimentally run through this joke hundreds of times with different chocolate bars, and none of them is as funny as Time Out. Mars: too conventional. Galaxy Caramel: too indulgent. Toblerone: distractingly evocative of travel.

But in 2001, when I made the joke, the Time Out bar had been available in the UK for less than a decade, meaning it still had a very gentle frisson of novelty. Buying a Time Out didn’t exactly feel like a special treat, but it was still possible for most of us to remember a time when it did. However, the Time Out bar was also an inescapably ordinary chocolate bar. Some chocolate, some wafer. In terms of ingredients and mouth feel it was like a slightly more substantial Kit Kat. But some time in 1999 confectionary shoppers awoke to find a new contender on the shelves.

“What’s this? Kit Kat Chunky. Yes please.”

The Time Out had no place to run, and, as we now know for a fact, its days were numbered. The novelty, the agreeability, but also the tragedy of the Time Out made it the perfect ingredient of my very funny joke.

My colleague may not have known why she laughed so uncontrollably when, on that ordinary evening in 2001, I made a humorous remark about some unfortunate holidaymakers, but I knew, and now that I’ve finally shared my workings I hope that you too will be able to understand the deep, hidden forces that are at work when somebody such as myself says something which is very, very funny for reasons that are not immediately obvious.

The grief shark (or, you won’t believe what these 7 stories have in common!!!)

Warning: this post contains spoilers for Good Will Hunting, Rushmore, Dean Spanley, Telltale’s The Walking Dead, True Detective, Inside Out, and Manchester by the Sea.

shark

When I was 14 my dad died suddenly of a heart attack.

I was out at the cinema on the night that it happened. The last words I said to him were probably, “give me a fiver.” I don’t know what his last words to me were because he gave me the money without saying anything, and I took it without saying anything, and that was that.

I didn’t go to the funeral. I didn’t cry. I was too weird, angry, and repressed. I wondered later whether it was strange that I hadn’t grieved, but I figured it just came at the wrong time. I was too consumed by adolescent madness.

I pushed my grief down and now it lurks in me, like a shark. I never know where it is, but I’m pretty sure it can’t get out, and I don’t want it to. Even if I could de-shark myself, as though it were an abcess I could drain, which is another of the things it feels like, I wouldn’t, because this is all I’ve ever been and I don’t know how being fixed might change me.

Anyway, let’s talk about telly stuff!

After watching Manchester by the Sea a couple of weeks ago, and then enduring the massive bout of crushing melancholia this duly triggered, I realised that throughout my life certain films, television programs, and even videogames have got under my skin, by which I mean I couldn’t stop thinking about them after watching or playing them.

Having something get under your skin is different from just being emotionally affected by it. Kramer vs Kramer affected me, in that it seriously bummed me out. Ditto Awakenings, Room, and The Road, but none of these films got under my skin in the way that Manchester by the Sea did.

The stories that have managed to get under my skin, as opposed to just bumming me out, are mainly, but not entirely: Good Will Hunting, Rushmore, Dean Spanley, Telltale’s The Walking Dead, True Detective, Inside Out, and Manchester by the Sea.

Four of these came after I had children, and it’s pretty obvious that their ability to get under my skin had a lot to do with parenthood. It’s much easier to get under my skin now. The Walking Dead is all about looking after a little girl. True Detective is about a man whose daughter died. Inside Out is about a little girl going through a traumatic life experience. Manchester by the Sea is about a man whose children died in a fire. It’s possible that if I had watched Kramer vs Kramer and The Road after I had children they would have got under my skin too.

But I don’t think so. In all of these examples, parenthood just intensified the effect, in the same way that religion seems to intensify, but not cause, enmity towards others. Being a parent has made me more anxious and emotionally vulnerable, but that has only helped stories to do their work. Good Will Hunting, Rushmore, and Dean Spanley were able to get under my skin without the emotional accelerant of parenthood, so clearly there’s an objective, qualitative difference between stories that get under my skin and stories that merely bum me out, above and beyond the presence of sad children.

For the sake of brevity, I’m not going to give a synopsis of any of the films, games, and TV shows I’m about to discuss, so if you haven’t seen or played them you won’t know what I’m talking about.

The bit of Good Will Hunting that gets under my skin is, obviously, the bit where Sean tells Will that it’s not his fault.

See this? All this shit. It’s not your fault.

The bit of Rushmore that gets under my skin is when he’s introducing his play at the end.

This play is dedicated to the memory of my mother, Eloise Fischer. And to Edward Appleby. A friend of a friend.

The bit of Dean Spanley that gets under my skin is the ten-minute flashback at the end in which Dean Spanley describes the final hours of his previous life as Horatio Fisk’s beloved childhood dog.

I am put in memory of my son, Harrington. That is all.

The bit of The Walking Dead that gets under my skin is when Katja realises that Duck has reached the end of his life and Kenny, having been steadfastly ignoring the subject, finally concurs.

Kenny, it’s time.

The bit of True Detective that gets under my skin is when wheelchair-bound Rust tells Marty about his near death experience.

And beneath that darkness there was another kind – it was deeper – warm, like a substance. I could feel man, I knew, I knew my daughter waited for me there. So clear. I could feel her.

The bit of Inside Out that gets under my skin is when Joy and Sadness get back to the command centre and Sadness takes control of the console.

I know you don’t want me to, but I want my old friends, and my hockey team. I want to go home. Please don’t be mad.

These examples all use the same story technique, though in different ways. I call this technique ‘grief sharking’, and this is how it works.

First, at the outset of the story, or scene, the author establishes that a character – usually the protagonist – has grounds for grief. Then the story goes on to deal with other business that ostensibly has nothing to do with that grief. It disappears under the surface and swims out of view, reappearing only occasionally as a vague troubling shadow, before leaping out of the water and emotionally savaging the audience in the final act.

The technique is used in different ways. In True Detective, perhaps the greatest feat of narrative misdirection on this list, the grief shark barely makes an appearance in eight hours of television. In episode one, while drunk, Rust tersely reveals to Maggie over dinner that he had a daughter, but that she passed, and Marty raises this shock disclosure with him later by way of offering consolation. Much later, while being interviewed by two detectives, Rust mentions his daughter again, this time apparently trying to persuade himself, within his own pessimistic philosophical framework, that her death was a kindness.

I think about my daughter now, you know, what she was spared. Sometimes I feel grateful.

Other than that, she doesn’t really make an appearance until the final scene, when Rust discards his ultra-sceptical worldview and describes with wonder the moment he encountered his daughter’s soul in the anteroom to the afterlife, before dissolving into tears.

In an instant, every word that Rust has said throughout the preceding eight hours of television, his obsession, his nihilism, his rage, reveals itself to be a symptom of grief. The sceptical mindset he adopted was a way of containing that grief. The whole time he was on screen he was just really, really sad and really, really angry, and everything he did was a result of those emotions.

True Detective is an epic demonstration of highly disciplined grief sharking, but it can take place in a much smaller frame. In Telltale’s The Walking Dead it happens within a single sequence. First, Duck is bitten by a zombie. Then, he becomes ill. Then you spend some time walking around solving puzzles, while Duck’s father, Kenny, stoically refuses to contemplate the implications of Duck’s infection.

The sickly boy being comforted by his mother Katja is a raw wound in the chapter. I found myself looking away whenever I had to cross that bit of scenery, not really thinking about it but hoping on some level that Kenny was right, and, more prosaically, that Telltale wouldn’t kill off a child whom the player had got to know.

So when Katja said to Kenny, “It’s time,” I completely fell to pieces, precisely because up to that point I had been ignoring my grief. It was a grief shark, and it bit me in half.

The authors of Rushmore and Dean Spanley take a different tack, distracting you from the grief shark with whimsy. Early in both films we learn that a close relative of the central character has died. Then for much of the remainder of both films we enjoy a quaint story in which the protagonists develop strange obsessions, before those deaths resurface amid thrashing and blood in the final act.

In Rushmore, Max spends most of the film embroiled in a farcical love triangle with a teacher and a middle-aged man, but when he eventually takes to the stage and dedicates a play to his mother, Eloise Fischer, and to Edward Appleby, a friend of a friend, we come to understand that his infatuation with Miss Cross was never romantic. He just misses his mother, and wants her to be proud of him, and he mistook his craving for something else. (Side note: Wes Anderson uses grief sharking in a lot of his films. One of them, The Life Aquatic, is literally about a grief shark. See if you can think of any more examples of Andersonian grief sharking!)

In Dean Spanley, bereaved brother Henslowe Fisk spends the majority of the film trying to acquire dessert wine in order to coax a dean into admitting that he used to be a dog belonging to Henslowe’s father, Horatio Fisk, making him a brother of sorts. It is only when he succeeds in this enterprise in the presence of his father, who has so far exhibited indifference over the loss of his son, that we see what Henslowe has been getting at. Listening to an account of the final hours of his beloved childhood pet, Horatio is put in memory of his son – a place he has hitherto resisted being put. Dean Spanley leads us into the water and the grief shark lunges.

Inside Out uses a different approach. Instead of submerging grief it hyper-articulates it, showing us not only the outer effects but also the internal processes that underpin these effects. In shark terms, it uses a high definition underwater camera and GPS tracking beacon. Through the exploits of Joy, Sadness et al we know exactly what’s going on in Riley’s head as she copes with the double-loss of her childhood and previous happy life. It’s as if there’s a whole school of grief sharks on the screen, painted in primary colours and performing tricks.

Except that’s not what’s happening at all. The exploits of Joy and Sadness are just a colourful, mostly happy distraction. Nobody is at the controls, and Riley is numb. When Sadness finally puts her hands on the console to bring about the simple spectacle of a little girl in distress, the real grief shark breaks away from its rainbow school of decoys and rips your head clean off.

I think stories get under your skin when they articulate feelings that you can’t properly articulate to yourself. The story leads you down a neural pathway and into a mental chamber that you can’t, or won’t, find on your own, and it stays with you until you find your way back.

Stories containing grief sharks aren’t the only ones that take you into yourself like this. Manchester by the Sea doesn’t contain a grief shark, but it got under my skin more than any other story I’ve experienced. After a few weeks of sombre reflection I think I might even have worked out why, but the reason has nothing to do with sharks so I won’t go into it here.

Obviously, people respond to different stories in different ways. You may be invulnerable to grief sharks, because you’re not insane in the exact way that I’m insane, but you might be insane in a different way and susceptible to another kind of storytelling device. However, I would counsel against crowbarring this device into an animal metaphor and writing a blog post about it, because, as you have just discovered, that would be weird.

Complete glossary of Netmums acronyms

baby

  • AFAIK – As far as I know
  • AF – Aunt Flo (period)
  • AKA – Also known as
  • BBL – Be back later
  • BBT – Basal body temp
  • BFD – Biscuits for dinner
  • BIL – Brother in law
  • BITGOD – Back in the good old days
  • BRB – Be right back
  • BTW – By the way
  • CBG – Consumed by guilt
  • CS – Considering suicide
  • DD – Darling daughter
  • DF – Darling fiance/fiancee
  • DH – Darling husband
  • DMTAA – Don’t miss them at all
  • DP – Darling partner
  • DS – Darling son
  • DW – Darling wife
  • EOMCF – Envious of my childless friends
  • FAQ – Frequently asked questions
  • FIL – Father in law
  • FPM – Full parental meltdown
  • FWIW – For what it’s worth
  • FYI – For your information
  • GFBWTF – Getting fat but what the f**k
  • GFY – Good for you
  • GMTA – Great minds think alike
  • HV – Health visitor
  • IAC – In any case
  • IFAD – I fantasise about death
  • IFWIW – I’ve forgotten who I was
  • IIRC – If I remember correctly
  • IMCO – In my considered opinion
  • IMHO – In my humble opinion
  • IMNSHO – In my not so humble opinion
  • IMO – In my opinion
  • IMOBO – In my own biased opinion
  • ITIHMC – I think I hate my children
  • IWSMMFL – I wanted so much more from life
  • JTYWLTK – Just thought you would like to know
  • LOL – Lots of luck/lots of love/laughing out loud
  • LMAO – laughing my a**e off
  • MIL – Mother in law
  • OH – Other half
  • OM – Other man
  • OMG – oh my god!
  • OW – Other woman
  • PILs – Parents in law
  • PMSL – Peeing myself laughing
  • PMSS – Peeing myself sneezing
  • PND – Post natal depression
  • PTSD – Post tequila slammers depression
  • RERST – Routinely exceed recommended screen time
  • ROTF – Rolling on the floor
  • SATT – Sad all the time
  • SCP – Secret crying place
  • SF – Secret family
  • SFACC – Sexual fantasy about cartoon character
  • SIL – Sister in law
  • SLNIDTIWIAOWAOFCBBCP… AILI – So last night I dreamed I was in an orgy with all of the CBBC presenters… and I liked it
  • SO – Showering optional
  • TAFT – That’s a frightening thought
  • TBH – To be honest
  • TSBWTRBCGFH – That smug bitch with the running buggy can go fuck herself
  • TTC – Trying to conceive
  • WYSIWYG – What you see is what you get
  • WRT – With regard to
  • WTCISD – What time can I start drinking?
  • WTF – What the f**k?

On realising that Morph is a person of colour

morph

A few months ago, my daughter bought ten episodes of Morph using an Amazon Fire tablet on which I had neglected to apply parental controls. I punished her by forcing her to watch Morph, even when she wanted to watch something else. It was while supervising one of these punitive viewings that I first realised: Morph is a person of colour.

As soon as I saw it, I couldn’t understand how I’d never seen it before. The only colour-related impression I had absorbed from watching Morph as a child was that Chas, Morph’s antagonistic friend, had a sort of sickly pallor.

Which is to say, Chas looks like me, whereas Morph is a rich, orangey brown colour, like Denzel Washington – and so are his grandfather and his friend Delilah. It’s obvious once you see it. They are a predominantly non-white group, with one incorrigible white member who incessantly misbehaves – a dynamic that appeals to me because I’m a white metropolitan self-loathing leftie.

I immediately Googled, “Morph is a person of colour” to see whether Morph’s non-whiteness was common knowledge, but there were no relevant results on the internet, suggesting that I might actually be the first person to notice. 

When my wife got home from work I told her that Morph is a person of colour. She wasn’t convinced. “He’s just clay,” she said, only hesitating when I showed her a picture of Morph standing next to Chas.

I pointed out that Morph isn’t made of clay. He’s made of plasticine, which comes in every colour, meaning that his hue represents a choice made by a person. “Still,” she said, which is code for, “you’re wrong but I can’t be bothered to explain why.”

Resigned to investigating the Morph question alone, I tried to remember how I perceived the character when I was nine. Perhaps I didn’t detect the superficial tonal differences between Morph and Chas because, as a child, I hadn’t been exposed to the wider connotations associated with race in society.

I don’t remember knowing a single non-white child at my primary school in suburban Kent, but according to my Morph thesis it’s perfectly possible that I actually grew up in a vibrant multicultural melting pot and have no memory of this because race is – quite rightly – not worth registering for a child in the way that, say, the ability to draw sharks is (hello Grant Hughes.)

So that’s the explanation for my erstwhile colour-blindness concerning Morph: I watched it before cultural conditioning forced me to perceive race.

Even though noticing that Morph is a person of colour was a clear sign of lost innocence, I was pleased that I had. It made me see the program in a new light. Suddenly Morph was a gently progressive project, depicting characters of all races and types without making their inclusion about race, paradoxically emphasising the irrelevance of skin colour by making it almost impossible to notice, which is how it should be.

Unfortunately, my thesis started to fall apart as soon as I realised that Morph also features a blue character (Gillespie), a character made of tinfoil (Folly), and a dog which is actually a nailbrush. There are no blue or tinfoil humans, allowing for the distinct possibility that the creatures in Morph aren’t supposed to represent real humans at all, even though they are humanoid in appearance.

alienThis would explain why I found Chas mildly nauseating as a child. Morph is the colour of the clay we played with in school, and the clay I dug up at the bottom of my garden. He’s not actually made of clay, but he belongs to a class of mouldable, malleable things of which clay is the archetype. The colour suits him. Chas, on the other hand, is a weird, insipid alien colour that signifies nothing, and alien things are bad (unless, like Gobbledegook – left – they are supposed to be aliens).

Unfortunately, this explanation paints me in rather a bad light. It suggests that as a child I was suspicious of deviation from norms within a category. Just as I spent ten years refusing to eat sausages because I once ate a sausage that tasted slightly different from the other sausages that I had eaten, I unconsciously recoiled from Chas on the grounds that he didn’t look like the idea I had formed in my mind of what a clay person should look like. In other words, I thought like a racist – albeit, in my defence, never about people.

All of which leaves me none the wiser on the question of why I suddenly came to perceive Morph as a person of colour in my late 30s, or why I am evidently the only person to see him this way, though I expect I am unconsciously obeying a tacit instruction by my beloved liberal media to be more mindful about race and diversity.

When I realised that Morph is a person of colour, I interpreted his unacknowledged non-whiteness as a sort of collective racist delusion. People expected a character devised by a white man, appearing on a show in which only white people appear, on a channel overwhelmingly populated by white people, to also be white, and so they assumed he was white in defiance of the visible evidence. I congratulated myself for not falling prey to this delusion.

But you could side with my wife and argue that nobody thought Morph is a person of colour for the same reason that nobody thought Chas is white: because they are both imaginary and made of plasticine.

Still.