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Larry David, Seinfeld and Social Networking

The technology of social networking is overrated. You still have to be able to communicate. Cartoons notwithstanding, in social networks everyone does know you’re a dog—and it doesn’t take long to learn it.

Might there be learning in studying those who are not good at networking with others?

A recent New Yorker item describes how workers with the mentally ill have discovered a powerful tool: the comedic stylings of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, by Larry David (co-creator, with Jerry Seinfeld, of the hit TV show Seinfeld).

Those being studied represented several forms of alienation from society at large (they were schizophrenics, if memory serves me). The researchers discovered that the patients responded to situation comedies portraying social ineptitude. They could relate, it turns out.

The logical endpoint of that insight was Curb Your Enthusiasm. For those who don’t know Larry David’s brilliant show, picture Seinfeld if HBO did it, and every episode had George at its center.

Jason Alexander (Seinfeld’s George) describes an early-season reading where he questioned George’s motivation for something: “I don’t know anyone who would do that.” Larry David responded brightly, “I would.” And Alexander says, “suddenly I understood the George character. It was all Larry.”

Larry David (he plays himself on Curb) is cheerfully, honestly, forthrightly neurotic and self-centered to the nth degree. It’s not that he’s proud of it; he’s just saying that’s what he is.

The fun, of course, is that David is merely more honest than the rest of us. We can laugh at him without directly facing the social pain that his behaviors cause us when we commit them—which we do, all the time. He is our public court jester. He speaks the truth in a socially acceptable manner—as comedy, with a subtext we needn’t publicly acknowledge. But we know it. He’s doing public self-psycho-analysis, and we’re along for the ride.

That’s why he’s a hit with mental patients—and with the rest of us too. We’re not qualitatively different—it’s just a matter of degree. “Sanity” is a wispy line; it’s hard to say where the hill ends and the mountain begins.

It’s an old sitcom formula. Nearly every I Love Lucy episode begins with a prank gone wrong, spiralling out of control. The comedy consists in watching Lucy lie about what’s happening, until the lie is unsustainable, and she must surrender to reality. We relate to her frantic mania, knowing that Ricky will forgive her in the end. On TV, that is. In real life, Ricky rarely forgives—or so we fear.

Every single Seinfeld episode with George is about the inability to maintain a neurotic fiction he has created in the face of a reality-based onslaught. He is owned by his fibs about Vandalay industries and his casual claims about Hamptons real estate. His only success in life comes when he resolves to do everything the opposite of his instincts.

George, Lucy, Larry—they cannot tell the truth in a socially acceptable manner. We learn by watching their comic misery, because we too suffer from that inability, and are alienated from others because of it.

A lot of coming to trust others is learning how to speak the truth in a socially acceptable manner; to marry radical truth-telling with our conventions of propriety.
We learn much of it not by learning lines, or by watching others do it well, or by learning the principles of effective communication. We also learn by watching social train wrecks, made palatable by humor.

We learn many things—like truth-telling—more by seeing negative examples than by seeing positive ones by themselves. Much corporate training is afflicted by an abundance of softened edges, watered-down empathy and general happy-talk. But truth isn’t truth if it has to be constantly watered down. You can’t enable people into overcoming their addictions to neuroticism.

To get along in the social networking world of the future (or of today), don’t just bone up on good behaviors. Make it a point to study disasters too.

Just make sure you’re laughing most of the time.

 

An Honest Wedding

I went to an unusual wedding last week in Western Michigan.  It doesn’t matter whose (except to note it wasn’t mine)—call them John and Jane.

Bride and groom are both in their early 50s. She has two daughters, each in their early 20s. He has a son 16 and a daughter 11. It’s a second marriage for both.

The minister defined eclectic; she had spiritual credentials from several traditions. The ceremony featured candles and white rose petals, and was held upstairs from the minister’s husband’s bike shop.  Of the nine attendees (which includes bride, groom, minister and children), five of us chose the optional bare feet mode.

The minister said:

Like all weddings, this is a joyous celebration, a union of two soul-mates who have found each other.  A time for joy.

Yet joy isn’t the only thing that happens at a wedding like this.  There are three others who are not here, but whose presence is very real, and felt by all who are here.

We would not be honest if we did not speak of them.  And honesty is vital if this marriage, and all in this room, are to  thrive and prosper.  And so we will be honest here today.

One presence is a deceased mother, who left behind a husband—John—their 13-year old boy, and their 8-year old girl. Her children here today miss her; John senses her presence too; and Jane feels it as well.

Second is a divorced husband—the father, with Jane, to these two daughters in their twenties. The daughters see their mother with a new husband, and seek new definitions of “home” and “parent” and “marriage.”

The third is cancer.  It was cancer that claimed John’s former wife, the teens’ mother.  But Jane understands too—because Jane herself is a two-time cancer survivor.  The children know what cancer means; and John and Jane have their eyes wide open about it.
 
These three presences raise powerful issues for everyone in this room—which is why we speak of them.

As the minister spoke, I’m sure I saw the four children become more at ease.  I felt it, and think the other adults did as well.

Afterwards we ate fruit and cake.  Then we drove to Lake Michigan, changed into shorts and got wet and red from the end-of-summer sun.

We talked about truth-telling, of living in the moment.  But mostly we talked about being free of labels and roles, of learning to see and accept things just as they are.

It was a fine wedding.  An honest wedding.