Although Ron Swanson once described his employee, Jerry Gergich, as “both the schlemiel and the schlimazel,” this statement is not entirely true. Jerry certainly suffers from a lethal combination of poor coordination and bad luck, but so much of Parks & Recreation’s humor is built around failure, both physical and karmic, that singling Jerry out seems nitpicky. Other than possessing a name which sounds like a piece of food getting stuck in your throat, Jerry Gergich is not an obvious candidate for office whipping boy: he is hard-working, loyal, and empathetic. He’s also a skilled painter and pianist who has three beautiful daughters, a loving wife, “a time-share in Muncie,” and, most surprisingly, a giant penis. Nevertheless, every major character on Parks & Recreation dislikes Jerry.
The humor of the office’s Jerry-bashing lies, as Charlotte Howell has argued, in its stubborn persistence. This collective affect is positioned as something that was always already there (much like Pawnee’s worship of L’il Sebastian), transcending the diegesis. Initially at least, it is the baselessness of this scorn that forms the crux of the running gag’s humor -- the less Jerry deserves his coworker’s contempt, the funnier the scene. But beyond the inherent humor of unfounded cruelty, Jerry’s schlemiel/schlimazel character serves another function in the Parks & Recreation universe: generating camaraderie. A recent study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that shared dislike for the same person helps people bond. For example, in the featured clip, Chris, a character known for his kindness and sensitivity, cannot help but join his co-workers in laughing at Jerry. Contempt can be contagious; it makes us feel like part of the group.
A shared dislike of Jerry also creates a bond between the viewer and the show. After four seasons of devoted viewership I'm not simply laughing at Jerry; I'm laughing with the show’s characters (at Jerry). This acquired contempt is an earned privilege for a Parks & Recreation fan like myself, drawing me closer to the text and allowing me to “fully consume the fiction” (Jenkins 62). As Henry Jenkins writes, “the difference between watching a series and becoming a fan lies in the intensity of [the viewer’s] emotional and intellectual involvement” (56). My ideological complicity with Parks & Recreation's other characters -- my ability to truly find Jerry annoying -- makes the world of the show feel more real.
nail and head
Amanda, I think you got to the heart of a really interesting aspect of the show. So interesting that I've been thinking about it all day. In part, my interest results from my own compassion for Jerry--I don't hate him. But I was persuaded by your suggestion that a communal antipathy to Jerry in part positions the audience alongside the rest of the team.
I also wonder what else distinguishes Jerry. He, more than any other character on the show, seems content. He does not desire. He does not strive to achieve more. He is happy exactly where he is. And that, also, is a source of the scorn. There is an ideology of achievement pervasive throughout this show, beyond Leslie's own empowerment. Success remains elusive for every other character because there is always more to desire. Whether it is "Treat Yourself" or a college women's studies course or finding a way to impeded government from the inside, these characters want something...else. But not for Jerry.
Thanks for a really thought-provoking piece.
My attitude toward Jerry is more one of embrace than dislike. In fact, I think this is another area where the show has effectively calibrated the character as it's gone on. There was a point in the series where the mockery of Jerry became uncomfortable for me to watch, because many of his problems are generated by good intentions gone awry, and it made me sad to see his genuine value dismissed (like when his piano playing is ignored in the Telethon episode). Yes, a big part of the humor is the absurdity of these things happening again and again to him, and sometimes undeservedly so, but there have also been many moments where he happily carries on despite his problems (like after finding out he’s messed up countless campaign envelopes, he brightly says that it isn't a government work if you don't have to do things twice and gets started again). In this, he fits with the spirit of the show – he just keeps going (presumably til he gets that pension), and he is valuable and valued in his own way.
I was instructed to come over
I was instructed to come over here from Twitter so Amanda can tell me why I'm wrong about this:
But I don't hate Jerry! Like Christine, I like him and recognize his positive attitude (which totally fits with the show overall). So it seems like I haven't gotten past the initial joke (that everyone hates Jerry for no real reason).
Marianne is a good sport!
I was kidding about proving you wrong, Marianne. I just wanted you to share your thoughts over here. Success!
And I do agree with Christine and Marianne--Jerry does fit with the show's overall positive attitude and Leslie Knope's tireless optimism. But even Leslie finds Jerry annoying and laughs at the cruel jokes made by his co-workers. We expect Tom to be a jerk but Leslie? That's why I love this clip of Chris -- he's such a nice guy but even he laughs in Jerry's face because, why not? Everyone else is doing it!
Over time, I found myself in Chris' position -- I just had to laugh at Jerry too. So Christine and Marianne--maybe you guys are just really really really nice? : )
Perhaps this is another area where, much as David wrote of Ron and government, the show's writing is nuanced and has its cake and eats it too. Just as Ron thinks government is a waste yet also shows how it can work, Jerry is pathetic yet we can also love him for that. And as much as the group mocks Jerry, I still sense an underlying affection there, even if it is just an affection for being able to laugh at him collectively. He's one of them. If an Eagletonian made fun of him, they'd defend him. And finally, like Karen says, for all his public failures, his personal life and sense of self might be the strongest among them, so he's always got that to fall back on. If he didn't, if he was an all-around sad sack, then the mockery might be too tough to take.
weakness and humanity
Jerry also doesn't fight for himself, which makes him a fit object of scorn (also sympathy, maybe). Weirdly, he humanizes people like Leslie and Chris, who otherwise appear to be unnaturally good. Jerry's a natural victim, and even the most virtuous of the other characters appear to be willing to treat him as if he's "asking for it," which exposes their own moral flaws.
It hurts to dislike Jerry, since it's a sign of our weakness. It's pulling wings off a fly: cruel but easy. Maybe no coincidence that social bonding rituals, from schoolyard games to frat rushes, often involve the abasement of not just of the victim but of those doing the bonding? I agree with Amanda's insight that this is something we and the characters bond over. But it seems to me that it's not necessarily meant to feel innocent or entirely satisfying. In the moment, it lets everyone off the hook, but there's a bit of shame in it too, yes?
I feel bad for Jerry! I understand the need for a character like this, a sort of sad-sack devoid of much personality since all of the other characters have such colorful personalities. The show wants you to laugh along with the other characters and make fun of Jerry, but I actually feel sympathy for him. In one of my other favorite shows, Scrubs, the sad-sack Ted is often made fun of, but for some reason he always rubbed me the wrong way so I disliked his character and had no problem with the other characters poking fun at him. With Jerry, however, I see a realistic portrayal of a guy just trying to fit into his workplace. Perhaps this is because I identify Jerry a bit with my father and I wouldn't want others to make fun of my dad. Whichever way you see Jerry, laughing with him or at him, he provides an interesting counter-character that I feel is necessary to the show.
Jerry is the moral compass
Jerry has it all. A great wife, beautiful children and an attitude that says his life is outside of work, unlike the others. Jerry is human and makes mistakes, but he is a gifted painter (maybe!) and pianist. He thinks little of his go nowhere job and and his co-workers are jealous of his accomplishments outside work. By showing the characters that we have grown to love as insensitive, it allows us to see that the liberal progressives portrayed are indeed very flawed and not the all they seem to be.
Jerry is the moral compass that values human dignity before government service.
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