How our sitcoms keep us alive

Why can’t we all just get along? According to cognitive psychologists, Harvard researchers and Liz Lemon, we can and we do — even when all evidence points to the contrary.

I miss “30 Rock.” I miss watching Liz Lemon — a woman happy eating night cheese and transitioning pajamas into day wear — run through the likes of Jon Hamm and Matt Damon and Astronaut Mike Dexter. I miss “30 ROCK -- Pictured: Tina Fey as Liz Lemon -- NBC Photo: Mary Ellen MathewsAmerica’s Kidz Got Singing” and “Ludachristmas.” Don’t get me started on the chasm left by Jack Donaghy.
“30 Rock” was giving me a contact high, dosed once weekly during prime time.
Or at least that’s what I thought I missed. Cognitive psychologists would say what I’m really pining for is the story of connection, the theme of people getting along despite conflict, difference and wildly diverse definitions of personal space. Watching people connect on TV made me feel a connection, too. According to neuroscientist Daniel Glaser, my brain’s “mirror neurons” are responsible: “What actors are experts in is using their movements to inspire feelings in the people watching.” In short, “30 Rock” was giving me a contact high, dosed once weekly during prime time.

Call it addiction, but we human beings never tire of this story of connection. Dressed up in pinafores on a Yorkshire country estate or riddled with bullets in a Jersey suburb, we gobble it up like Lemon’s Mexican cheese curls. Screenwriting guru Robert McKee tells us there are six such story types in circulation. Others say there are 10. Whatever the number, it’s the job of a writer to think up new ways to tell this same handful of stories, making them feel interesting and original over and over and over again.

The sometimes nebulous, often circuitous lines of fondness between otherwise wisecracking kooks are the bedrock of any good sitcom. Just look at the much-ridiculed canon from Sherwood Schwartz, whose shows defied scathing reviews to enjoy huge commercial success. Says Schwartz: “If you study both ‘Gilligan’ and ‘Brady,’ you will see they are based on a similar philosophy: that it’s possible for different kinds of people to learn to live together, either in a family or stuck on an island with no escape.”

The Captain, Ginger and Gilligan

Pop culture scholars David Marc and Robert J. Thompson take this analysis one step further, calling Schwartz an innovator who “made a surgical strike into the national psyche” by “pioneering a dramatic matrix built upon the emerging cultural concept of the ‘support group.’”

Schwartz may have pioneered the genre on the small screen, but he certainly didn’t invent it. He stole it from an ancient playbook that dates back to “The Odyssey” and beyond. Lacking jet planes or a decent Holiday Inn Express, Homer’s Greeks were forced to shack up in the homes of strangers, relying on an innovative new concept called hospitality to ensure safe travel and sustenance across ridiculous distances. This code, of course, was backed up by a healthy fear of the gods. Throwing down a feast or two for unwanted callers was the righteous thing to do.
Get along. Make nice. Your eternal soul depends on it.
Speaking of righteousness, flip through the Book of Genesis. There, in Chapter 18, we see Abraham, fresh off a med-free circumcision, hopping around like Gopher on the Lido deck to serve a feast of bread and water to three total strangers who appear at his door. That one of these strangers may in fact be God himself goes without saying. The subtext is unmistakable: Get along. Make nice. Your eternal soul depends on it.

And it’s not just about souls; scientists say the same thing. “We human beings have a fundamental drive or need for connection,” says Harvard researcher Gerald Zaltman. “This has roots in our evolutionary history, because individuals and groups with the ability to bond and support one another were more likely to survive.”

As we chuckle and snort through the gags and one-liners, our 60-million-year-old simian brains silently hope those goofballs on TV will stumble their way toward each other. A half-dozen step-siblings, six friends at a coffee shop, castaways on a desert island. We tune in because those people have genuine feelings for one another. They didn’t choose each other, but they make it work anyway.

Friends_season_one_cast

“Even in the most cooperative of relationships, competition is inevitable and why the powerful emotions engendered by family loyalty and conflict saturates stories from Genesis to ‘The Sopranos,’” says Brian Boyd, author of “On the Origin of Stories.”
Even as we grit our teeth through another god-awful Thanksgiving with our relatives, we find ourselves calling it a cherished tradition.
We can all identify with the get-along predicament because we’ve lived it since birth. Eighteen years of sharing toilets, silverware and obligatory enthusiasm with fellow fish from your gene pool is excellent training ground for overcoming petty individual differences in our species-saving quest for connection. Even as we grit our teeth through another god-awful Thanksgiving with our relatives, we find ourselves calling it — and feeling that it is — a cherished tradition. We didn’t choose our families, but we choose connection. Every time.

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When Jack taps Liz as his successor or the TGS crew teams up to make sure Tracy thinks he’s in outer space, it feels good. And maybe we even tear up when Liz and Tracy end up at a strip club together in the series finale and Tracy admits he doesn’t want to say goodbye. Dimwitted, self-centered prima donnas becoming attached to overscheduled, undersexed nerds? I want to go to there.