“What is this salty discharge?” Jerry asks as he dabs at his eyes with his hands and looks at them in horror.
“Oh my God, you’re crying,” Elaine responds in disgust.
“This is horrible,” Jerry says, “I care.”
The laugh track launches, cuing the folks watching Seinfeld at home that they can laugh.
Following Seinfeld’s lead, today’s sitcoms jump at the chance to show gobs of tears running down the cheeks of a “macho” character.
It took 159 episodes for Jerry to shed a tear on Seinfeld. As a character who rarely showed any emotion, having him “care” was a joke that was a long time in the making. Nowadays, sitcoms employ the joke by surprising the viewer with a character unexpectedly bursting into tears. The audience is able to laugh at a grown man crying because of its abruptness.
In How I Met Your Mother, marriage-hater and womanizer-extraordinaire Barney, played by Neil Patrick-Harris, attempts to hold back sobs as he officiates Marshall and Lily’s wedding.
On Parks and Recreation, the ever-lovable Andy, played by Chris Pratt, is seen in an office where he seems to be yelling at a high schooler who is thought to have vandalized the parks and rec building. As the camera enters the office the viewer sees that it is Andy who is tearing up as he yells at the boy, “I am not crying, okay? I'm allergic to jerks!”
The king of crying, however, may be Troy of Community. Donald Glover portrays Troy, the football playing jock, who turns out to be one of the most emotionally unstable characters on television. Whether he is crying in his high-pitched squeal because his “feet are long and stupid” or while trying to sing the Reading Rainbow theme song, Troy has mastered the art of sobbing on screen for laughs.
While New Girl has shown that it is okay to laugh at a crying Zooey Deschanel, most laughter at crying is directed towards the men.
But is it just a cheap laugh, or is there really any substance to the form?
The aforementioned sitcoms show the use of juxtaposition as a comedic device, but it can also be viewed as emotional, slapstick humor. Watching these characters cry is like watching them get hit in the groin with words.
The viewer is laughing at someone who is hurting. Just like laughing at someone who slips and falls, the comedic value comes at face value. This doesn’t mean it can’t be funny.
The first time I got dumped — and I mean the I-didn’t-see-it-coming-even-though-there-were-a-million-signs dumped — led to what many would consider a pretty pathetic few days. Like my fictional counterparts, I was a sight to behold. I was the crazy guy walking down the street with tears rolling down his cheeks; I was the nut-job crying at a bus stop where I wasn’t going to catch a bus; a sad song would come on my iPod and I would have to stifle the tears.
Even though I couldn’t stop feeling awful, I could take a step back, realize how ridiculous I was being, and laugh at myself.
If someone can laugh at himself or herself for hurting, then they can laugh at someone on TV for it. One of the points of comedy is to take something in life that is absurd and riff on it.
Whether it’s enlightening humor or not shouldn’t matter, what should matter is whether the audience is laughing. Not crying.