Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Situation comedy

The Beverly Hillbillies
Most of the comedy in today's TV sitcoms seems to come not from situations but from put-downs, one-liners, sexual innuendos and parents behaving badly. In earlier days of television, sitcom comedy flowed from situations, and many of these situations resulted from misunderstandings. Gracie Allen would hear George Burns, her neighbor Blanche or one of the Harrys (can you think of any other TV series in which two of the main characters had the same name?) say something, and what she understood was always entirely different than what was meant. The results of that misunderstanding kept things interesting for the rest of the 30 minutes. A decade or so later, The Beverly Hillbillies also made the most of misunderstandings. Someone would be speaking of one thing, and the Clampetts would assume something else entirely.

In real life, such misunderstandings happen all the time, but they are rarely this amusing. In fact, the results can be disastrous. What one person says is misunderstood by another, who then fires back with a sharp comment that cannot be misunderstood, and the fight is on. Such misunderstandings can result in feuds that last for decades.

Sometimes, however, a simple misunderstanding can be amusing, at least to a third party. This happened to me twice in the past few weeks, both times involving conversations involving my wife, Linda.

On a recent Sunday morning a woman entered the worship service with two children, but she arrived 30 minutes late. After the service and after most of the people had left, another woman showed up with four small children, asking for money to feed her family and pay an overdue electric bill. A few days later I overheard Linda in conversation with another woman, Joy, about "the woman who arrived late to church." I soon realized each was talking about a different woman because Linda hadn't been in the sanctuary when the first woman arrived, and Joy had already left when the second woman arrived. Joy's and Linda's statements must have each confused the other, especially when they were speaking of the number of children, yet the conversation went on for some time before, as an act of mercy, I finally broke in to point out they were each talking about a different woman.

A few days later Linda conversed with Ted about a group going out to eat. As it happened, two groups involving some of the same people had gone out to eat twice, on Thursday to a seafood restaurant and on Saturday to a pizza restaurant. Ted, who hadn't gone out for pizza, was talking about the Thursday gathering, while Linda was speaking about Saturday's meal. For a brief while, only I realized they were not both talking about the same thing, so only I saw the comedy.

A few years ago I was the Gracie Allen or one of the Clampetts. One of the my sisters was visiting from out-of-state and wondered if Linda and I could meet with her, her husband and another sister for a meal. Would Friday work? I agreed. I even suggested a restaurant. Not until Thursday did I learn by some miracle that the Friday she was talking about was not the next day but the following Friday. My sisters had started the conversation earlier and knew which weekend was meant, but I had come in late and made the wrong assumption. The misunderstanding would not have been very funny if Linda and I had waited at the restaurant for a couple of hours on Friday, although I imagine it would have made a funny story at family reunions years later.

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