»  Taki's Magazine

May 19, 2010

  Two and a Half Men: Airing Otherwise Unpalatable Truths


One of my National Review colleagues recently declared himself "flummoxed by the fact that Two and a Half Men is the top sitcom in America." If any TakiMag readers are in a similar case, let me try to deflummox you.

T&aHM has been running on CBS since the fall of 2003. It is the brainchild of writer/producer Chuck Lorre (no relation to early-talkies horror-movie star Peter Lorre) and writer Lee Aronsohn. The IMDb plot summary gives a sufficient idea of the story line. An episode of T&aHM delivers most of its laughs via glimpses into the world of modern mating. There are many, many sex jokes. The show is coarse and crude. This probably accounts for the disfavor it has attracted from conservatives like my colleague. I think they should take another look, if only for the sociological interest.

T&aHM belongs to the category of subversive humor. The ur-text here is George Orwell's essay on the smutty seaside postcards of cartoonist Donald McGill, from which:

 … one sees what function these post cards, in their humble way, are performing.

What they are doing is to give expression to the Sancho Panza view of life, the attitude to life that Miss Rebecca West once summed up as "extracting as much fun as possible from smacking behinds in basement kitchens." The Don Quixote-Sancho Panza combination, which of course is simply the ancient dualism of body and soul in fiction form, recurs more frequently in the literature of the last four hundred years than can be explained by mere imitation. It comes up again and again, in endless variations, Bouvard and Pécuchet, Jeeves and Wooster, Bloom and Dedalus, Holmes and Watson … Evidently it corresponds to something enduring in our civilization, not in the sense that either character is to be found in a "pure" state in real life, but in the sense that the two principles, noble folly and base wisdom, exist side by side in nearly every human being …

It will not do to condemn them on the ground that they are vulgar and ugly. That is exactly what they are meant to be. Their whole meaning and virtue is in their unredeemed low-ness, not only in the sense of obscenity, but lowness of outlook in every direction whatever. The slightest hint of "higher" influences would ruin them utterly. They stand for the worm's-eye view of life … Their existence, the fact that people want them, is symptomatically important. Like the music halls, they are a sort of saturnalia, a harmless rebellion against virtue. They express only one tendency in the human mind, but a tendency which is always there and will find its own outlet, like water. On the whole, human beings want to be good, but not too good, and not quite all the time.

Postcards like McGill's, and shows like T&aHM, show us the underside of normal — I mean, non-psychotic — human nature. We all recognize it; but our social protocols bid us pretend it's not there, so when we see it on-screen, we laugh. The private-intimate and the public-social collide in a bisociation, generating mirth.

For a strictly limited time period, we're permitted take a break from official reality to ponder unpalatable truths.

And so on. Now, these aren't the kinds of truths you'd want as up-front advertisements for a stable, harmonious society. They are truths none the less, and need an occasional airing. There's some guilty relief in seeing them paraded brazenly across a TV screen — relief that expresses itself in laughter.

Our society is very different from Orwell's 1941, and our subversive humor has different things to subvert — political correctness, mostly. Further, the subversion is slight and harmless, strictly for entertainment value.

Subversion on this scale is not revolution. It might, in the right circumstances, be a contributing factor to revolution; but in most places, at most times, establishment culture can take care of itself. T&aHM isn't going head-on at major social shibboleths, any more than Donald McGill could have published a postcard trashing the Royal Family. While enjoying this kind of humor, though, we are at least permitted to forget about those shibboleths for half an hour. (There are, for example, so far as I can recall, no racial minorities in the world of T&aHM. Like Cheers and Friends, it's a white-folks show.)

Oh dear: having apparently been the only conservative in America to enjoy Married With Children — which was pretty much just Donald McGill with live actors — I may now be the only one with a good word to say for T&aHM.


A friend emails in with this correction: "You may have missed some episodes. Charlie and Jake stumble in to a Watts 'Clucky's' (read Colonel Sanders) calling for a dozen black extras. Two episodes featuring a famous football player, playing his very large self. Jake, 'dates' the guy's daughter. The difference in size between between the NFL-er and Charlie is emphasized by good camera work short of blue screen. James Earl Jones plays James Earl Jones, hired for Charlie's funeral. There is a black woman on the volley ball team that Charlie and Alan court and a black woman in Judith's support group. They sometimes include a black in public venues, motor vehicle or the like.

It is the funniest show on television. It is not about blacks but it does not ignore them."