Inspiration – Laughing Through the Tears with Barney Miller

The Original Cast of the TV series "Barney Miller"
The Original Cast of the TV series “Barney Miller”

Many of us have encountered those moments in our lives when we don’t know whether to laugh or cry. When everything has gone so wrong, or seems so bleak, that the only option is endless sobbing or hysterical laughter. But why do we feel the need to laugh? In some instances, it’s because the circumstances are too ridiculous to be believed; that events should have unfolded the way they did, that people should have acted as they have, is nothing less than the height of absurdity. I think there is another answer to this reaction, however. I personally believe that when we are faced with that decision to laugh or cry, we are really deciding whether we give up or whether we try again.

To laugh at the things that hurt us most is to refuse to concede power to those people or events. It’s a form of necessary self-delusion, a way of making oneself believe that no matter what has happened, it doesn’t really matter – we can get pass it. Like many self-delusions, the harder we pretend, the more likely it is to become our reality. Laughing at life gives us a way to keep going, even when logic or our own crushed emotions would have us quit.

The television shows I like the best are the ones which illustrate this most important human coping strategy. Many Joss Whedon shows do this admirably. After all, when you’re facing multiple apocalypses, you can either lie down and die or make jokes about it and keep going. But I feel that Whedon, and many other creators like him, owe a debt to certain older shows. One of these is the 1974 to 1982 television series Barney Miller. Barney Miller follows the NYPD detectives of the 12th Precinct through their daily activities, during which a large host of wacky and wild characters pass through the squad room. Playing the eponymous captain is Hal Linden, and his detectives include actors such as Jack Soo, Maxwell Gail, Ron Glass, Abe Vigoda, and many others as the show goes on.

The complete set of all 8 seasons of "Barney Miller", released last year.
The complete set of all 8 seasons of “Barney Miller”, released last year.

The series was on for eight seasons, which should tell you all you need to know about its quality. Cop shows have always been, and continue to be, very popular with the television viewing public. But what makes Barney Miller stand out from the rest, is the way in which it handles many serious issues (gay bashing, spousal abuse, suicide, etc.) while remaining a definite comedy. Few jobs are more serious or grinding than that of upholding the law, but the detectives and officers in Barney Miller use humor not just to lighten their own spirits, but also to lighten the loads of those they come in contact with through their work. While never making light of tragedy or adversity, Barney Miller illustrates that it is indeed a mad world out there – and the best way to handle the curve balls it can throw at you is to laugh.

Take for example, the scene below. Ron Harris, an African-American detective played by Ron Glass, has experienced a blatant case of racism and is feeling less than comfortable around his predominately white colleagues. Wojciehowicz, played by Maxwell Gail, goes to Barney because he’s confused about the hostility he’s receiving from Harris because of the incident.

Few could argue that racism and bigotry are not incredibly serious subjects. In my opinion, this scene is particularly well written, insightful, and relatable in how it explains this complicated problem. But, the fact that there are jokes during it, that there is laughter to ease the tension, makes it all the more poignant and memorable.

There’s no question that, at the moment, we live in a deeply troubled world. Tragedies happen every day, to strangers and loved ones alike. As a reflection of such a grim reality, it’s natural for our creative works to similarly touch on or explore darker themes and events. But I would caution against pessimism or melodrama. It’s true that personal misfortunes bind humanity together, crossing boundaries of culture and class. However, I would urge us not to forget that laughter as well has the power to bring disparate souls together. Finding a silver lining to chuckle at, even if only for a moment, can give your work the grounding it needs. If a scene seems to be drowning under the weight of its own gravitas, throw in a joke; a snide remark, a character pulling a face, a random, hilarious act of nature. Give the audience, and yourself, a break from the gloom and doom; you’ll be glad you did.

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Published by rsjeffrey

Robin Jeffrey was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming to a psychologist and a librarian, giving her a love of literature and a consuming interest in the inner workings of people’s minds.

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