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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Column: Recession and regression

Between the fields of psychology, linguistics, sociology and computer science, there are at least 10 theories on the evolution of humor. “Relief Theory” is my favorite. It posits that we laugh to release tension. In this way, humor is a kind of homeostatic mechanism for regulating fear.

If this is true, we may get a stitch in our side, fall off our chair and begin crying — all at once — from laughing at the recession. It goes without saying our current economic decline is intimidation incarnate. Like a stethoscope to our anxieties, Hollywood is keeping with the beat by placing recession center stage with recent television premieres.

With all the humor, it’s worth asking whether we’re laughing at, or laughing with. Just because these shows are predicated on recession, their role in relieving economic hardship shouldn’t be taken for granted. Let’s entertain three shows that have premiered in the last seven months.

On CBS, “2 Broke Girls” joined the comedy line-up to bring together 1 and 99 percents. There’s Max, an embittered waitress literally playing dead to avoid paying back debt from credit cards and student loans, and Chelsea, a new waitress pushed into the working class after her father’s Madoff-esque scheme is unraveled. An unlikely duo, they plan to open a cupcake shop together one day. But this is a comedy, not a feel good story, so racial stereotypes and more than a dozen rape jokes in the first six episodes sustain the humor. Yeah, rape jokes.

Where “2 Broke Girls” is set in working-class conditions to reflect fiscal hardship, the ABC comedy “Work It” is explicitly about the “mancession.” This is the portmanteau the two lead males use to describe the (fictionalized) gender disparity of the recession, wherein males are losing their jobs to female hires. Their solution is to dress in drag, speak an octave higher and apply to positions as females. “Work It” reached a level of notoriety among critics from the get-go, one of whom labeled it offensive to “People of Earth.” Just as I sat down to write this column, ABC pulled “Work It” off the air. Good riddance.

The most recent of these premieres is Showtime’s star-powered “House of Lies” with Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell. In many ways, this show bears a lot of potential for the way it interrogates race, power and sexuality. But then there are the scandalized displays of sex — angry sex, lesbian sex, deflowering a devout Mormon and so on — that don’t interrogate the experience of different lifestyles so much as create a spectator sport out of them. Though we’re supposed to find dark humor in the behind-the-scenes of corporate avarice, the show functionally paints sleazy business in cool, cavalier tones. The Gordon Geckos of “House of Lies” are not bad, but badass.

In each of these cases, the recession is not actually the subject of humor. We aren’t laughing at the recession. The humor, as it manifests on television, laughs at women, transgender communities, scandalized sex and sleazy business. Recession is merely a set piece to a humor that regresses to the mean by recycling sitcom tropes. If these shows seem old-fashioned, that’s because they are. This is all to say that we are not finding relief from the recession. It’s already a destructive economic phenomenon, now the recession abets a divisive culture industry.

While Relief Theory is my favorite, it’s not the most appropriate theory for recession humor after all. For that, we may turn to Superiority Theory, an explanation that finds its roots in Ancient Greece. Under this model, humor becomes the self-defense mechanism by which we laugh at the misfortune and inferiority of others to elevate our identity. If this is true, let’s hope that explaining this joke can kill it.

If you think the byline is the punch line to this column, humor RAJIV NARAYAN at rrnarayan@ucdavis.edu.

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