In the fictional Parks and Recreation department of Pawnee, IN, Jerry Gergich [misspelled Gerry Grgich in “Telethon”] is THE object of ridicule, but Jerry differs from his kin in other NBC Thursday night comedies. His closest cousin in sad-sackery might be Toby Flenderson from The Office, but Toby only had to face unsubstantiated derision from Michael, not the entire office. He may be the “Pierce” of the Parks and Rec workers, but unlike the title-holder on Community, Jerry seems almost preternaturally kind and considerate instead of meriting derision as the group scapegoat. And yet the characters surrounding him have created the idea of Jerry as “the worst” that far outstrips his actual bouts of bad luck, which admittedly can be pretty epic.
While Jerry’s use as a comedic character is almost entirely comprised of the slapstick performances of his bad luck, much of the comedy surrounding Jerry emanates from his role as a somewhat tragic character within a comedy show. Jerry invokes pity in us because of the almost pathological lack of empathy shown him by his fellow characters. In the most recent episode, “Telethon,” Jerry beautifully and emotionally plays the piano:
But his friends and colleagues react as if they just witnessed and alternate reality where Jerry’s piano-playing was aurally offensive:
His every achievement–from artistic pursuits to his off-camera happy and loving family–is completely undermined by every other character in the show. Whatever little happiness he finds is taken from him almost immediately, but more than that, he understands his piteous position and only reaches for appropriate goals: he has a time-share vacation home, but it’s in Muncie, IN; he makes up a story about being mugged to cover up a more embarrassing tale of falling into a creek in an attempt to retrieve a soggy breakfast burrito; and he looks forward to an all-male hunting weekend because it means he can pee standing up (presumably unlike his female-crowded home), a joy crushed when the other Parks and Rec workers join the trip. But Jerry never languishes in self-pity.
Somehow, Jerry continues to put himself out there for his coworkers despite their cruel treatment of him. He offers to play the piano for the telethon even after he is stymied in his offer to perform magic when Leslie breaks his only prop, an egg. Jerry’s mild tenacity is the heart of the character. No matter what happens to him, he still tries, still reaches for the little happiness he can.
In another setting, in another genre, Jerry could be the workaday everyman character that the audience is supposed to identify with. There’s a certain nobility in his willingness to take his emotional punishment and not let it change him. He continually treats others as he would want to be treated: offering help unsolicited, treating his coworkers with respect, politely asking them not to tease him, and appreciating their work. In “Telethon,” he is the only character who wears the Pawnee Cares t-shirt Lesley spent eight hours making for her staff (I don’t count the two extras working the phones).
So is it okay to laugh at him? More specifically, is it okay to laugh at everyone else’s cruel treatment of him? This blog post was inspired by a twitter exchange between @memles and @crsbecker regarding how much cruelty they could handle seeing Jerry withstand. I aside more with Myles McNutt in that as long as the show itself is not especially cruel to Jerry (making the viewers complicit in mocking him), I think the dynamic works. Then, the question is why and how does it work?
Full disclosure: I haven’t done much research into comedy and am mostly terrified of it as an object of study. Having said that, I want to try to understand why I find the mockery of Jerry so effective and how it differs from other cringe-inducing cruel comedy like in The Office.
Let’s begin with some analysis through difference. I’ve already touched on the difference between Jerry’s treatment and Toby’s and Pierce’s on their respective sitcoms, but I think it will be useful to expand on that. Toby Flenderson is an Eeyore character: the object of undue ridicule and bad luck who internalizes that negativity and accepts the sad-sack role as his lot in life. We pity him for bearing the brunt of Michael’s hatred, but his complete pessimism makes it difficult to empathize with him. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s Pierce, a racist, bigoted, sexist, privileged old man who seemingly deserves any and all mocking he gets. He is to be laughed at by both characters and viewers alike. He is not to be pitied, but you can sometimes empathize with him because he at least owns his agency in life, unlike Toby, for whom life is perpetually occurring in passive voice.
Between the two, there is Jerry. He warrants both pity and empathy because he is a victim without being helpless. The drive to do more, be more, and be seen as more–even if it’s just a little bit–keeps Jerry from Toby’s internalized pessimism and abdicated agency, and his consideration of others keeps him from Pierce’s overbearing offensiveness. Jerry may be a sad sack character, but he avoids the extremes of these other characters, making him more accessible emotionally.
But if I both pity and empathize with Jerry, why do I laugh when others taunt him? The key point–at it is hinted at by McNutt in the above twitter conversation–is that I am laughing at the characters mocking Jerry, not really at Jerry. Though I may laugh at a good Jerry pratfall or an inopportunely timed fart, the true deep mine of comedy is the increasingly ludicrous levels the staff goes to justify Jerry’s awfulness. The funniest parts of the following clip are not Jerry’s mishaps but instead the reaction shots, especially Donna’s unbridled joy at Jerry’s split pants.
The comedy, in my mind, truly lies in the delusions of the other characters, their stubborn blindness to any of Jerry’s actual achievements in favor of maintaining Jerry as the butt of all jokes. They choose to focus on Jerry as the guy who said “murinal” instead of the guy who created a beautiful–in both sentiment and execution–mural idea. But far funnier than a slip of the tongue is the other characters’ refusal to let such a minimal joke die. They are the joke. Jerry’s just the poor schlemiel/schlemazl who instigates the joke.