How has fiction changed your life
Why sitcoms changed our lives
Graphic: Francesco Vezzoli
Definition is the first problem when it comes to commenting on sitcoms. What is a sitcom? What are the limits? When we say Friends is the absolute sitcom, the question arises whether it is a genre of its own.
The etymology of the word may explain its meaning. Sitcom is short for "situation comedy". So it's a situation-related comedy. The word "situation" is difficult to explain: it can be described as a representation of things and people within a place. In this sense, the sitcom would be the comical representation of things and people within a certain place. The term "location" also has its challenges: Is the location a specific set that never changes - as was the case in the early, original sitcoms of the 1950s and 60s? Or is the location in a city, for example in the more modern, cross-genre series Beverly Hills 90210? What if the location is central, but the action of the program takes place in many other locations - as in the recent French Netflix hit show Call my Agent!
Another difficulty in identifying what a sitcom might be lies in how the genre came about: sitcoms are considered an American cultural juggernaut. In the 80s, everyone around the world was watching American comedies. Matthew Perry and Jennifer Aniston were our friends. Those of us who lived before Generation Z got to know them as contemporaries, and now the younger generation flocks to them. One could even say that a deep knowledge of sitcoms separates those in the old world - an American export culture where a few series dominated the globe - from the dwellers of the new world, for whom millennials are already too old and the sitcoms are not Having to experience the door into life - because for them life itself is a sitcom.
"The Goodbye (Rachel on Tinder)", 2021, #francescovezzoli
What made a sitcom one was the appearance of regular characters in a place as familiar to us as the one we live in. The apartments in Friends became as much a haven for us as our own houses, whether we lived in New York, Paris, Tokyo, Delhi, Lagos or Los Angeles. At a time when we no longer have a permanent residence - the most privileged of us travel the world, we all discover worlds on the Internet - there was a reassuring feeling of home in the sitcoms. These people had a home. They had a life. They lived, they loved, they were friends. The American nature of this utopia - the utopia of social happiness - went beyond the globalization of culture and entered its localization: Brazil, India, France, Italy, Spain, and Latin America all began to create their own versions of these fictional friends. We wanted to be part of the utopia of having a home, having friends, loving, living and being young forever. These friends were the family we wanted for ourselves. Family is something that is given to us and that we give to ourselves. It defines us and we define it. It is the center of our life. Sitcoms gave us the opportunity to create a new, fictional family on our own terms.
Even for those who were young with friends and happy family, this still felt like a better version of life than what they had. Bel-Air may have princes, and while the character in the series was loosely based on Will Smith's own experience, no one really knew a lifelike "Fresh Prince". So the compression, serialization and transformation of daily life made it a dream for all of us.
In this regard, sitcoms gave birth to a certain type of reality show. The Kardashians did become sitcom characters, but the show was also reportedly a chronicle of their "real life". The gesture of having one's own life filmed for others was essentially Duchampian: it made life made-up. Of course, the life put on a pedestal was not accidental, any more than the ready-made. It was intentionally designed to present a form of meaning to the audience.
As in reality TV, characters in sitcoms have no psychology. You have passions, yes, and strong feelings take hold of you, but then life goes on. There can't be hard feelings in the sitcom version of existence. Over the course of many seasons, hatred disappears, and so does love. Sometimes these feelings come back. But these characters never build on their emotional makeup - they are in a permanent state of reacting to the moment.
I remember over dinner at Azzedine Alaïa, with whom I was close friends, I explained Pierre Guyotat's motivations to Kim Kardashian when he was writing Coma. He writes about trying to clarify oneself, about knowing that you are a stage, a field. And so Kardashian agreed: that was exactly what she did and how she lived her life. To make yourself a stage on which things happen, to reject the modern separation between the inside and the outside. Life was all one and it was in flux. In both Kardashian and Guyotat - with obvious differences - these are existential choices, heroic choices. To openly show oneself as the creator of image and text, who one is and at the same time not, identifiable and empty for others to project onto. In Ion, Plato speaks of "enthusiasm", or of being inhabited by a god who gives your voice poetry. To be inhabited, you have to be empty. You can't have complex, layered, contradicting feelings. Instead, they go through you and you are the vessel that allows them to go one way or the other.
"The Reunion (Joey on Grindr)", 2021, #francescovezzoli
This way of thinking beyond psychology was expanded across cultures through sitcoms: Since they were defined not only by their characters but also by the situation, it was not about them. It was about the site that could be exploited, moved and shaken. It wasn't personal and so it could be relational. Sitcoms are all about relationships: between families, friends, and friends who become families. For so many of us, the people on our screens were our friends and families too. One might wonder if gossip Girl qualified as a sitcom. I remember going to Sant Ambroeus on Madison Avenue during my stay in New York. Kelly Rutherford was sitting in the shop in front of the pastry window, playing the socialite Lily van der Woodsen from the Upper East Side. I remember seeing the depth in her eyes and looking at something that no one else could see - the living, breathing image of melancholy. She really looked like Lily. I wondered if she was acting or preparing for it, or if she was Kelly and was actually living her life.
There's the actual, conservative definition of a sitcom anchored on a set that never changes. Another combines this set with a specific era - haven't we gone beyond the sitcom era? Or we can expand it, and I'd rather do that. Because then sitcoms become a fascinating metaphor for our lives: calling people who would have viewed our predecessors as strangers, our friends who do not distinguish between fact and fiction and romanticize our own lives. It may be that sitcoms were once an escape, that they gave us the life we wanted to have received, or that we felt guilty about. Are you a carrie Are you a Miranda or a Samantha? A popular question in the 90s.
There is certainly an escape. More importantly, sitcoms gave us the opportunity to bring magic into our lives. They gave us the friends who didn't want to be friends with us. One of the basics of sitcom is the existence of some kind of company, group of actors, and we dream that they are friends. It had to be them to be ours. Sitcoms presented us with the idea that life could be new, an epic, a series - and that concept continues through reality TV and social media.
Instagram, Facebook, all social media are a sitcom. It's a sitcom where everyone plays a part. In Shakespeare's words, "The whole world is a stage and all men and women are just players." But what if we collectively agreed that we didn't need escapism? That we don't need these fictional friends? Our lives can become a sitcom, and we can be the heroes of our own story. We love each other, we don't love each other; we are friends, we are not; we talk to each other, we don't talk to each other. We share our life.
Let's ponder the consequences of such an idea: we agree to make our life experimental again, to make it fluid again, to make miracles happen. That's what fiction makes possible. Of course we have to pay taxes, we have to work to make a living. We're not all Princes of Bel-Air. How about if we agree that our lives shouldn't be limited and that we should have one thing that leads everything to the beauties and perfections of fiction. That we should be able to leave ourselves unencumbered in order to stage our lives.
"The Goodbye (Phoebe on Tinder)", 2021, #francescovezzoli
My friend Emanuele Coccia has just sent me the manuscript of his brilliant new book, Philosophy of the Home, which I was reading when I was considering writing this essay. He comments that a home only exists after you've moved in - that identity only exists through transformation. That seems like a pretty strong thought when looking at a situation, something that is situated. I started this piece by emphasizing that the location of the situation can change, that it doesn't have to stay in one place as long as its representation, its characters, its relationships are moved. There may be a genius loci, but hopefully relationships are stronger than places.
Over the past year, many of us have found ourselves at home, alone or with a partner, family, or pet. Not exactly the setting for a multi-character sitcom. Could Lockdown be a sitcom? In fact, people all over the world have tried filming themselves and pulling strings of life through a time when the idea of community was simply broken. Her attempts pointed out the two loopholes that constrained her: One was the narrative, which is what is most lacking in our lives right now. What should I do? What's next? These questions were very difficult to answer. The second is the community: the family, the personal interaction between groups, the theatricality of it all. Alone or with just one other person there is hardly any theatricality; it could very well run the risk of looking spurious.
This situation gave us an indication of what our life as a sitcom might look like in the future. The only way it can exist is to highlight the relationships, the interaction, the fact that we are all together, that our groups of friends are better when they can come and go, meet and part again and that once we agree to these wonderful terms, we are ready to create miracles every day, every day. In our sitcom lives, we will accept that there can be fun, that there can be trouble, that one can be in one place and many others, and that your friends and family are relationships that you build and maintain. And maybe, one day, your life will end on a sitcom of its own. A Duchampian coup.
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