Sketch-Time Continuum is a Chicago-based group of actors, writers, and improvisers that call Under The Gun Theater home. In their latest project, “Death of Sitcom: What Do We Do Now?” they worked with creators Allie Keller, Matt Pina & Tyler Zencka and choreographer Mel Safford to create a play that serves as commentary on both TV sitcoms and the ‘real’ lives in which we live.
In “What Do We Do Now?” (Sketch-Time’s fictional on-stage sitcom) actors Cassie Belek, Gabe Caruso, Ross Compton, Emily Hock, Andrea Lattanzio, Tim Lee, Seth Origitano, and Surena Watts play a sitcom writer and heightened characters of what you would see on a typical TV show like How I Met Your Mother or F.R.I.E.N.D.S. The actors take on the personas of the stereotypical characters such as the GOOD GUY, the GIRL NEXT DOOR, the SLEAZE, the STICK, the WISECRACKER and the maybe not as well-known ROBOT-CREATED-OUT-OF-LONELINESS. We learn about their campy lives as “What Do We Do Now?” plays out as the actors’ reality. Meeting in the typical HIMYM-style neighborhood bar, story-lines emerge as the characters search for love both within their friend-circle and without. The GOOD GUY (Rob) stops lamenting about how he’ll never find love and goes on a date with with the GIRL NEXT DOOR (Q). We catch flirty vibes between the SLEAZE (Barry) and the STICK (Meryl). The WISECRACKER (Raina) programs her lover (the ROBOT, “Josh”) to be her perfect fit. Everyone is coupling up in the first few scenes and things are peachy in TV land.
Then the play takes a tragic turn and we find out that the network has dropped “What Do We Do Now?” With their writer MIA, the six characters are left to fend for themselves in a world with no script. With no direction for their story-lines, self-awareness suddenly creeps over the group. “Why do we never experience personal growth?” Meryl asks, simultaneously exposing the situation and posing a relevant question to the rest of society. She proceeds to call out every character on their own rote fallacies especially Barry with the cutting remark, “You’re not commenting on being an asshole… You’re glorifying it.”
While viewers are left to ponder this revelation and what it means about the writing and characters of their own personal favorite sitcoms, the WDWDN characters experience a temporary reprieve in which they undergo a period of self-discovery… before eventually retreating back to their own personalities. Yes, this is a ‘guy gets the girl,’ story, but this is also a ‘guy looses girl’ story as relationships are more difficult to define when the people they are comprised of are struggling to maintain their own individual identity.
“Love is… The part of the movie that you miss when you get up to go to the bathroom,” our ‘Good Guy’ (Rob) recites at a poetry night during a later scene. “Love is a zoo where all the animals are dressed as different animals…. A LIE!!!” he persists, before being interrupted by the appearance of Q, the girl he proclaims broke his heart. Even though Rob continues searching for love for the rest of the show, we learn that Rob actually had Q’s love all along and though he loved her back, he still cheated on her which ultimately ended the relationship.
Rob’s character bears resemblance to someone who constantly tells themselves “I’ve got a good thing going but I’m gonna fuck this up, I always do” and then they inevitably do ‘fuck up’ their relationship- they cheat or use another form of a cop-out. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy… Because who you tell yourself you are, is your narrative – your personal story – and it’s so important to your identity that without it, you have no sense of self in which to see the rest of the world. This theory, referred to by psychologists as the narrative bias, is discussed in David McRaney’s book You Are Now Less Dumb. “All brains are bards, all selves audiences to the tales of who they are,” McRaney explains, further delving into the fact that our personal narratives are so strong, that our own story and identity within it is literally the last thing the brain gives up before death.
Is it possible to re-write your own story and experience personal growth and development? Of course. Is it far easier to find ways of making your life screenplay work out for you without completely re-writing the script? Absolutely.
One by one we see the characters of WDWDN turn back to their own tales of who they originally were. Rob perpetuates the fact that he is alone. Q moves on to her next adventure. Meryl and Barry end up together despite their differences, and one could argue that they did experience personal growth- but their growth was becoming more authentic versions of themselves instead of trying to change each other. Raina doesn’t give up on Josh. And Josh (the Robot) despite his mechanical makeup, actually proves to be just as human as anyone else in the show. After experiencing his own form of love and loss, he returns to Raina with the question, “Why did you create me? Is it so I could feel this pain?”
Sometimes even as full-bodied humans, we too feel as though we have mechanical hearts. The pain in our lives is at times too great of a burden to bear, so we shut off our emotions, in favor of “being strong” because society glorifies those who “do not give a fuck” or are unaffected by those around them. So, unable to be in tune with our own emotions as we have become accustomed to “shutting them off,” we turn to entertainment to fill that void as we empathize with characters on screen as they fall in love and try desperately to win the affection of their crush.
I’ve heard it said before that we don’t actually want to see the guy get the girl, we just want to see him try. There’s something about sitcoms that glorify the eternal struggle with ourselves, between who we perceive we are, and trying to fit that into our place in the world. Thus, we feel close to characters on-screen even though they’re not actually real and we may never even meet the actors in our lives. But that doesn’t matter because though the technicality of the sitcoms may be far from realistic, the emotional truths out-shine the faulty factuality.
Sketch-Time Continuum’s project Death of Sitcom: What Do We Do Now? is a reflection of the roles we play in our lives both on-screen and off. WDWDN explores themes of personal narratives and complications of relationships. The show makes us laugh at the obscurity of the over-the-top characters, while simultaneously letting out a heart-felt sigh when we see Barry reach for Meryl’s hand.
And when you create and play characters so well that people can see themselves in your reflection- and recognize social truths that are ushered it to their head and hearts accompanied by honest laughter… That is art in its best form.