So we’re having a little political intrigue in Portland, Oregon, home of Character LLC. It’s a sadly familiar drama. Apparently, our mayor, Sam Adams, had an affair with someone he shouldn’t have, covered it up while running for office and then got found out. Now there’s a move afoot to have him recalled.
No one is suggesting he be recalled for having the affair–only for attempting to cover it up. It brings to mind the Sitcom Factor.
The Sitcom Factor is a key story theme that almost every sitcom plays with at one point or another–sometimes for entire seasons. It goes like this: Somebody does something wrong–usually not such a horrible thing, and generally with some justification–but when he is discovered, he lies to protect himself or others. The little lie snowballs inexorably until the whole thing is crazily and hilariously out of control. And then it all comes crashing down in an avalanche that buries the poor transgressor.
This theme is built on the universal human truth that the consequences of a lie can be more damaging than just telling the truth. Sitcoms play with this theme both because it’s generally pretty funny to see how a person’s world spins out of control in the attempt to “fix” things with a lie and also because the situation flows out of a conflict everyone experiences at one point or another and results in a problem that almost everyone will face. Sometimes it’s hard to reconcile wanting to be truthful with wanting to be loved or accepted or safe, but lying is a very unstable solution.
The basis of almost any great story is a powerful conflict and a fundamental human truth that connect to the audience emotionally because they’ve been there. Great stories take that material and spin it into a meaning intended to help the audience learn something about how to cope with their own struggles. As vacuous, shallow and hilarious as many sitcoms are, if they work, it’s because, at the end of the day, they still touch on something true–some deeper meaning.
Funny, then, that after so many sitcoms have made so much hay from this conflict and truth, so many public figures seem to have missed the message entirely.
Bill Clinton is a favorite example. When he was in office, we called him the Sitcom President. “I did not,” he said, banging his hand on the podium for emphasis, “have sexual relations with that woman.”
Oh, Bill. Didn’t you ever watch Friends? Did you miss the episode where Ross lies to Rachel about having sex with another woman? Sure, he would have gotten in trouble for what he did, but what bothered Rachel was that “he lied to me.” Ultimately, in Bill’s case, having the affair was nothing compared to the scandal associated with lying about it. That lie nearly got Bill impeached. What an excellent season of The Bill Clinton Show that would have made!
Martha Stewart is another poster child for the Sitcom Factor. It’s not that she acted on a tip to bail out of some stock that was going to lose value. She was cleared of the insider trading charges. It was the obstruction of justice that sent her to prison. I suppose, in Martha’s case, that she may not have had time to watch television–what with all of the relentless organizing and endless optimizing she was doing –but didn’t she or any of her advisors see The Brady Bunch when they were kids?
And now, Mayor Sam Adams. Okay, having an affair with a barely legal guy might have had a negative impact on Sam’s image while he was running for office. But once the story started to surface, Sam should have gone back to what the sitcoms teach. Lying about what you did will get you in more trouble than what you did in the first place. It may even get you recalled from office. So why can’t people resist lying? Why do people think they can get away with it? Because the possibility of making the problem go away is so tantalizing. That’s why it’s a fundamental human conflict and why we constantly need to be reminded to resist the temptation and come clean. That’s why we’ll watch the same story play out over and over again in almost every sitcom on television. That’s the power of story.
Of course, we all know what we’re supposed to do, the message that all that mediocre (and sometimes awesome) television conveys. Hell, even George Washington supposedly knew.
“I cannot tell a lie, Father. I chopped down the cherry tree.”
It’s a really simple idea. Obviously, it would probably be best not to do anything wrong in the first place. But let’s not kid ourselves. We just don’t live in that world. So here’s the condensed message of a million hours of television, spelled out for anyone and everyone in the public eye:
Public figures, if you get caught, fess up right away. Take your lumps, comforted by the certainty that they’ll be smaller than the ones you’ll take somewhere on down the line when the hilariously complex web of lies you’ve spun comes crashing down on your head and you get impeached, get sent off to jail or find yourself facing a recall vote. And please, please, pay better attention to sitcoms. That’s why we have them.