Extra funny, extra sad: the fear of extraneousness

From ''Mécanisme de la Physionomie Humaine'' by Guillaume Duchenne, 1862

From ''Mécanisme de la Physionomie Humaine'' by Guillaume Duchenne, 1862

My husband (in my opinion a delightfully funny man) likes to joke that I have no sense of humour — it isn’t my fault, he says soothingly. It might be my Dutch background. When he brings home funny movies, he holds them up and says “Not available in the Netherlands!”

It’s true that for the most part I don’t like funny movies or funny TV shows, or at least the ones that are billed as comedies. I cringe at most stand-up comedy, where the jokes are rolled out one after another and the audience sits gawking and guffawing in all the right spots. But I do love to laugh. I think the best humour is woven in with other things, so that it surprises you when it comes. I guess my funny bone is particular, like my sweet tooth. I don’t like sweet desserts, but sweet with salty, with bitter, with sour, can be delicious.

Recently we watched two seasons of the show Extras, in which English comedian Ricky Gervais portrays a lowly extra, Andy Millman, who eventually soars to fame by playing a character he comes to despise. He gives up on his integrity, and dismisses his closest relationships, which have become irrelevant — extraneous. I liked Gervais’ earlier series, The Office, but I didn’t expect that this one, with its parade of enormously famous stars (David Bowie, Robert de Niro, Clive Owen, Kate Winslet), would really pull me in. So I watched most of the episodes with one eye on the TV and the other on the newspaper. I laughed occasionally while my husband dissolved into hysterics beside me.

And then came the series finale. Andy Millman’s fame has peaked and is now on the downward spiral. He begins taking every opportunity to claw his way up to a more respectable level of celebrity, but of course it’s the slipperiest of slopes. He winds up on a reality TV show, with a bunch of “stars” he’s never heard of, and they all sit around talking about themselves and imagining their futures, which, for one woman who likes to rhyme off all of the famous people she’s slept with, includes a celebrity wedding for which Hello! picks up the tab. “Andy, will you come to my Hello! wedding?” she asks. This sets Andy off on a fabulous rant about the pointlessness of “selling ourselves … selling everything,” and living life’s most personal moments out in the open.

“What are we doing?” he asks.

Partway through, the tears were streaming down my face. Not funny tears, but real weeping tears. I turned to my husband and said, “Now this is the kind of comedy I can appreciate!” (Which should prove that I do indeed have a sense of humour.)

This show expertly reveals the emptiness inside that desperate search for recognition. And that sense of desperation, I think, is something most of us can relate to, whatever our career or situation. It’s easy (not to mention painful) to fall into the trap of determining your own self worth by what the wrong “audience” thinks of you. Watching Extras, I was reminded of those excellent children’s books, Frog and Toad, which should perhaps be required reading for all ages.

In one story, “The Dream,” Toad falls asleep and imagines himself on stage in a large theatre, wearing a grand costume and a feathery hat. Only Frog, his loyal companion, is in the audience, cheering Toad on. A voice introduces each of Toad’s acts and Toad plays the piano magnificently, walks on tight rope, and dances, calling out each time, “Frog, can you do this?” Each time Frog answers “No,” and grows smaller and smaller, his voice fainter and fainter, until finally Toad cannot see him or hear him at all. The booming voice begins to announce Toad’s next amazing accomplishment, but humbled Toad is “spinning in the dark,” fearing he’s lost his one true friend.




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4 responses to “Extra funny, extra sad: the fear of extraneousness

  1. Lenny

    Back in the day you and I were surrounded by so many talented people who were going to be famous. Even we, as we scribbled away on Tuesday nights, dreamed of being great writers. Now looking at the various trajectories of all our lives it seems that those who have embraced what they do, recognized or not, have found fulfillment while others have dealt themselves a serious blow by feeling like failures because they did not gain or maintain that mythical recognition. Time to put this notion of recognition in its rightful place; far behind the absolute freedom and fulfillment of just doing what we do without answering to anyone else’s expectations.

    • kristendenhartog

      Tuesdays with Lenny. I remember that we read our pieces aloud to each other, and how different the words sounded outside of my own head. The curries and the red wine and that Mary Tyler Moore apartment of yours….

  2. Tracy

    Too bad more people wouldn’t come to the same realization as Andy. I was weepy too, watching him rant, and agreeing with him, but had a good laugh at the last line of the clip.
    Excellent blog entry, as usual. I must read Frog and Toad.

    • kristendenhartog

      Re Frog and Toad, I sometimes feel glum about the fact that I’m not doing enough reading, but it recently occurred to me that actually I’m doing a ton of reading — kids’ books, at least. And some of them are really excellent. Right now we are in a Roald Dahl phase, and don’t expect to emerge from it any time soon. On our third reading of the BFG, and have also read Witches. We spent a lot of time with Pippi Longstocking and also read Charlotte’s Web. I find something inspiring about all of them.

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