One of my closest friends called recently after a bad breakup. We hadn’t spoken in a few weeks, so when I picked up the phone, I felt that familiar yet uncomfortable sense of separation caused by more than just physical distance. I searched for an appropriate response—something other than guilt mingled with frustration that neither of us ever stays in touch as often as we promise to. After a stretch of silence, she added one crucial detail: “I finally broke up with my Dennis Duffy.” Immediately there was no need for catch-up questions or apologies. I may not have known my friend’s ex, but oh, did I know Dennis. We spent the next hour talking a lot, crying a little, but mostly laughing.
For those of you unfamiliar with the woeful love life of 30 Rock protagonist Liz Lemon, a mid-thirties writer for a fictional, SNL-style live comedy show, Dennis was the junk food of boyfriends. He ate your cereal, embarrassed you at nice restaurants, made offensive comments and ruffled your hair. But, at the end of the day, he was always there, with a sandwich and an adequate expression of affection. He wasn’t good for you, but it was hard to keep him from sticking around.
I never would have known about 30 Rock if this same friend hadn’t introduced me to its universe—a nonsensical yet oddly insightful collision of Middlemarch and Adventure Time—back in its third season. During bored high school weekends we’d watch episodes together, cuddled up in her bed. Now, years later, we both still use 30 Rock as our go-to on lonely nights, finding solace in the company of characters who are like mutual friends. I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve seen every episode. It doesn’t matter—at this point, the dialogue has begun to feel like our own memories.
While I could sing its praises all day (the tightness of the writing that makes every episode a treasure trove no matter how many times you’ve seen it; or the fact that Liz Lemon is really as sophisticated and cleverly crafted as an Austen heroine—Emma with subway sandwich lettuce in her hair; Elizabeth Bennett in mom jeans and a food-stained t-shirt) 30 Rock certainly isn’t to everyone’s taste. It’s weird. It’s kind of gross. It appeals to a certain blend of humor—equal parts sarcastic and slapstick—that flips maniacally from highbrow intellectual and cultural references to cat ladies, jars full of pee, or a black man dressed in drag, spewing bright green fake vomit across a kitchen countertop.
30 Rock was reasonably popular while it was on the air, but its praise from critics was never reflected in viewership numbers. It drew more of a niche and self-selected audience than, say, Modern Family. Yet it dawned on me recently how much a shared obsession with this strange show unites me not just with the friend I first watched it with, but also with a surprising majority of the people I love most. My younger brother. My childhood friend from England. Most of the closest friends I’ve made at college and over the summers. Of course, there are exceptions—I’ve met a few supposed 30 Rock fans who made me cringe—but in general, it’s one of the best barometers for compatibility I’ve been able to find.
What does a love for a TV show about a bunch of kooky characters—from the bug-eyed, earnestly grinning and supernaturally weird Kenneth, to the suavely self-parodying corporate bigwig Jack Donaghy, to the lovably insane actor Tracy Jordan—say about me and the personalities of the people I find myself drawn to? Is it simply that by watching the same show, whatever it may be, we enjoy the smugness of sharing an inside joke, and feel validated by having our own tastes mirrored back to us? Or is there something more fundamental to a shared taste in humor that connects us? Why do some of us enjoy certain types of humor more than others—and why are laughter and friendship so deeply intertwined?
On some level, it could simply be that TV shows, books and movies—any kinds of stories, really—act as metaphors for our own lives, metaphors that, if watched or read repeatedly, can begin to come to mind almost as effortlessly as our own experiences. In this way, a shared story, no matter what it is, can act as common ground for a friendship, a shared language. The characters become stand-ins for ourselves and we can borrow their states as if they were our own.
But that would imply that we’d be friends with anyone who enjoys reading the same things or watching the same shows as us. And I can think of plenty of counter examples. Most of the literate population loves Harry Potter, but that means little in terms of our compatibility with each other. I can’t help but think there’s something more specific about a taste in comedy that reveals something more essential about a person’s personality. The nuances in our individual senses of humor, that elusive trait that is almost impossible to define except by intuition, can either glue us together, or put an intangible barrier between us. Why is there is an important connection between our sense of humor and its tastes—to what tickles our minds and brings us joy—that guides our ability to connect with others?
Humor is, and has never been, well understood. Aristotle saw the humorous as “a mistake or unseemliness that is not painful or destructive,” while Kant thought that humor happens when our reason finds nothing of worth. Schopenhauer speculated that humor is based on the discrepancy between abstract ideas and real things—a notion reflected somewhat in the “Incongruity Theory” discussed by psychologists today. According to this theory, humor stems from the violation of expectations and logic; evolutionarily, it has helped us to survive by keeping track of reality. Other theories include “Superiority Theory,” or the idea that laughter expresses feelings of superiority over other people or over a former state of ourselves. Then there is the theory of humor as a form of play. Biological studies show that even rats have a form of laughter, and it’s essential for their healthy social functioning together. Freud probably would have agreed; he saw laughter as the discharging of nervous energy built up by our emotions—a physical and psychological sigh of relief. Thomas Aquinas even went so far as to say that the person who is never playful or humorous is acting “against reason” and is guilty of a vice.
Whatever theory is correct, it’s undeniable that laughter does something, for lack of better words, to lighten the soul. When we laugh we seem to revert to our childlike selves—less filtered, less serious, more present. But why does laughter come more easily with some than others? Why can we can tell instantly that we just don’t “click” with someone simply from their response to a specific joke? And why does this “clicking” determine whether or not we can connect with someone on a more personal and profound level? It is this ability to laugh with someone else, and to make them laugh, that I find so puzzling and yet significant—an issue made more complicated by the fact that our sense of humor waxes and wanes, depending on our mood or who we’re around. It can be as much a state of mind as much as a fixed trait.
Perhaps it all goes back to the inherent relationship between the tragic and the comic—we cope with the harshness and unpredictability of life by laughing, and we connect most with the people we can laugh with, associating them with happy states of mind. Spontaneous, genuine laughter is incompatible with a depressive, heavy mindset. Laughter clears the grey clouds from our psyches. It helps us to feel safe. Somehow, sadness can cease to be so serious.
But more than that, could it be that a shared sense of humor reflects a shared philosophy on life? This seems a little grandiose, but maybe the ability to laugh at one’s self shows a kind of humility or self-awareness. Maybe the ability to laugh about something emotionally or physically painful and sad shows a kind of optimism and acceptance of impermanence. Maybe the ability to laugh at the nonsensical perhaps reveals an absurdist and maybe even nihilistic streak—an underlying belief in the pure inexplicability of life. Laughter, in a way, can come from sharing the same truths—the ones we feel and know but often don’t articulate.
Perhaps this is why 30 Rock is a common denominator in so many of my friendships. It may be nonsensical at times, but embedded in the show and its humor is a certain philosophy of life, revealed through the countless plots and subplots of career, family, love, life and death. (If you think I’m insane, check Amazon: someone has already written a book about this, 30 Rock and Philosophy: We Want To Go To There.) Tina Fey and her writers touch on some surprisingly deep truths, dressed up with awkward sounds, epic eye rolls, and overstuffed mouthfuls of pizza.
I often find that these days, when I talk to my younger brother, it’s easier to borrow a quote or make a reference than to use my own words. As much as I love him and want to be there for him, I often don’t know what to say, or how. He’s 19, not 10; his problems and concerns are more weighty than deciding which Xbox game to buy with his birthday money. They’re things I often don’t feel confident—or welcome—to offer my advice on; they’re adult problems of purpose and happiness that I struggle with as well.
30 Rock gives me words that I don’t have, in those silences where he is hurting or dwelling, but needs to be lifted out of that state. Sometimes a stupid voice, or a reference to Liz and Jack, helps me to say exactly what I can’t find the words for. It eases the pressure of communicating that sense of “I get you” that I understand. That brighter times are ahead. And the relationship goes both ways—whenever I start to mope about my love life, my brother often advises by pointing to one of Liz Lemon’s various boyfriends—though, luckily, so far not Dennis.
My grandfather sent me an email earlier this year, after he’d had a minor stroke that left him struggling to walk, with the advice that “you will have a rough time getting through life without a sense of humor.” He’s not the only one to reach this conclusion. When I saw Dalai Lama speak in person, the thing that struck me the most about him was not his wisdom, or his reverence towards other human beings—it was his laugh. Even while talking about matters as grand and grave as the state of peace in the world, or the meaning of life, he would pause to crack a joke, letting out a pleasantly wheezing chuckle that made his presence one of lightness, freedom, and joy.
So if you ever see me in the gym, looking deranged as I splutter and snort, squinting down at the sweat-covered screen of my iPhone, feel free to mock me with a “Good god, Lemon!” It could be the beginning of a long friendship.