It has probably escaped your notice – there’s little reason that it wouldn’t have done because it’s not a big deal – that I now work in a cafe on Sundays. More accurately (as cafe is a bit of a misnomer) I work as the girl who makes the coffee in a little health-food bakery (it’s quite cute, if you’re in North Oxford you should come in). Despite it not being that big a deal, when I told my friends this was going to be my (2nd) job, they were wild with excitement. Despite the fact that cafe is a misnomer, and the definite discrepancy it would be to call it a “coffeehouse”, one of my friends decided that Sundays are now the day when they would come to see me in my cafe and we would be like a North Oxford answer to the cast of Friends, and I would be the Rachel Green of this (not so-) Central Perk.
And, I can confirm, they have been, they have consumed cinnamon buns, they have made catty comments over the standard of my service (joking, I expect) and I have thrown my tea towel onto the counter and asked the main culprit if he’d like a fight with his coffee.
Which brings me neatly to the fact that, in spite of my fairly well pigeon-holed role in our little Friends make-believe, I have not been behaving like Rachel Green (who is notably mild mannered, and once warned that she may cry “not tears of sadness or of anger, but just of me having this discussion with you”) at all. I would like to stake the claim that if I’m acting like a character from an American 90s sitcom, it’s definitely not Rachel Green, it’s Elaine Benes – of near-iconic Seinfeld fame. I ran this by the friend who suggested the coffeeshop play-acting (whom I offered a fight with his coffee) and he seemed to concur, and if he’s reading I submit the end of this exchange as further evidence for the case. Having decided that at this point, the beginning of my working life, I need to be more assertive than I’ve been before has led me into not one but many Elaine-isms, which include but are not limited to dancing the (again) ICONIC Elaine dance in various bars and very liberal distribution (read, screaming) of the phrase “stupid hipster doofus” at particular individuals.
I draw some consolation from the fact that this is merely a dip into obnoxiousness rather than a flat-out nose-dive: I am not the only one who finds Elaine deeply relatable – other contemporary readings of her character focus on her reliability. My friends and I are not the only ones harping on after being the New York 6 either, and various mock-Central Perk Friends cafes have made a profit out of this over the years.
I think this happens for two reasons. Firstly, sitcoms from about Seinfeld onwards made a point of imitating real life. Seinfeld was notably the show which set the precedent of depicting daily life as it was, funny in a peculiar and often slightly inane way rather than deliberately so (the episode where Elaine, George and Jerry spend the whole twenty minutes in the queue for a table at a Chinese Restaurant is often citied as an example of this). The second has to do with the nature of character and imitation.
In literature imitation takes on several forms, and signifies several things. I will say straight up that most of the literary imitations I know any kind of detail about are those enacted by medieval mystics (hearteyes at you, Margery Kempe) but despite the gulf of time and lacuna of religious concern between me, my pals and Margery Kempe our different imitative pursuits have a lot in common. They have a little bit to with admiration and envy; Margery primarily admires the Virgin Mary, and I don’t think my friends and I could honestly say we wouldn’t rather be doing what we’re doing at home in New York at any given time. They have to do with authority: it can be bolstering to know that your own actions map relate to someone else’s however distant or fictional that character might be (and try as I might I can’t think of an example more like me that Elaine Benes finding time to by Jujyfruits after being told her boyfriend had been knocked over by a taxi – I have missed more appointments than I care to admit for the sake of croissants). And they also, I think predominantly, have to do with consolation. That is why I think I like the first series of Friends so much. They are lost as hell (Monica hates her job, Ross and Carol broke up, Rachel just walked out on Barry and Phoebe is Phoebe) but they are still alright. I think this kind of consoling relationship is particularly relevant to comedy: they feel lost as hell, sometimes I do too, but they’re still laughing, they will be alright, and more than probably so will I.
(And don’t even get me started on relatabilty and Liz Lemon).
On Wednesday 9th November, I sat in a cafe on Little Clarendon Street with a friend. It had not quite emerged yet that Hillary Clinton had won the popular vote by some 2 million votes, but that infographic about how different demographics (dear god, white women) had voted. I sat there with my coffee and told my friend that I’d only just realised how fundamental and how wide-spread the habit of hating women is, because you’re told to, because they’re a woman. My friend is older than me and has told me before, pointedly, that cynicism beyond a certain dose is an unattractive quality in young people. She looked up at me then, with a severe expression, and I fully expected her to critics my cynicism again.
“That was concise,” she said. I caught a hint of approval.
What she didn’t know was, if I was being concise, I definitely wasn’t being original. I was paraphrasing a feminist icon of our times; the very much comedic, very much fictional protagonist of the HBO series Veep, Selina Meyer. In one episode of the show, Selina is being pressed to take a stance on abortion and someone advises her to voice her view “as a woman”. “No no, no, no, no; NO!” she responds instantly, “I can’t identify myself as a woman! People can’t know that! Men hate that. And women who hate women hate that, which I believe is most women-…”
More fyi than anything else, Selina’s actual stance on abortion is one of the truest things I’ve ever seen:
More than just praising the show’s insightful realism, for a while now people have been bandying around the similarity between the storylines of Veep and specific instances in contemporary politics. In July 2015 this insightful work of close reading compared textual moments in Hillary Clinton’s emails to Selina Meyer’s various antics.
There is a sense that the purpose of writing comedy which speaks so directly to the politics we see in the real world today, or in reverse to relate the real events to the stories of comedy, is consolatory. One of the immediate cultural products of the 2016 presidential election result, the Joe Biden memes is a testimony to this; in the face of the unbelievable and incomprehensible, people’s reaction was to laugh. Interestingly, in their first Cold Open after the election night the Saturday Night comedy show SNL completely abandoned a comic outlook on the election result and Stephen Colbert’s wrap up to election night was like something out of the end of Faustus.
What is clear to me is that imitation and relateability are key elements of works of comedy which pertain to the political as well as the personal or domestic. It is clear that we need consolation there too, and in large doses.