Funny Women

Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the Comedy of Humiliation

The heiress who raised self-mortification to an art form is back at it in 'Veep.'

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Julia Louis-Dreyfus could have done anything with her life – her father is a billionaire (yeah, that’s a ‘b’). But instead of getting a purse-dog and creating a new fragrance every once in a while, she chose to humiliate herself on screen. Not once but hundreds of times. At this point, there’s no one better at making themselves look quite so bad – Louis-Dreyfus has raised self-humiliation to an art form.

Who can forget Elaine dancing in “The Little Kicks” episode of Seinfeld, her moves aptly described by George as a “full body dry heave set to music”? Or in the episode “The Glasses” where she’s convinced a dog bite has given her rabies and what ensues is an emotional and physical comedy rollercoaster punctuated by foaming at the mouth? Or her stint as Maggie Lizer on Arrested Development in which she feigned both blindness and pregnancy for personal gain? And we haven’t even got to The New Adventures of Old Christine, which she produced,  a show whose humor centered almost entirely around insecurities, embarrassments, and accidental hijinks.

Well, she’s at it again, in Veep, Which premieres this Sunday on HBO.  She plays Vice President Selina Meyer, complete with the suit and helmet hair. And, as the trailer shows, this is going to be Julia doing what she does best – being that neurotic, narcissistic but ultimately insecure woman with high hopes, few scruples and a knack for finding herself in uncomfortable situations.

The comedy of humiliation has a rich and cringe-worthy history, dating back to probably before there were dates – cavemen had to get their giggles somewhere.  Shakespeare’s comedies relied on it, vaudeville and screwball comedies were made of it, and it is still the core of what works for us today from The Office, to 30 Rock, to Bridesmaids. We devour embarrassment. There is a Spanish proverb, “If you want to make someone laugh, tell him your troubles.”  And it’s true, we’re hard-wired to enjoy other people’s discomfort. Why else would America’s Funniest Home Videos still be on?  (It is.)

What feels really good is when there is some small sense of justice in the humiliation.  When someone narcissistic or pompous falls off their pedestal for a moment, only to reemerge with toilet paper on their heel and spinach in their teeth.  We love to see someone who’s glossy or bossy get a reality check, and we also delight in seeing people “just like us” go through horrible things in a funny way.  It reminds us, hey, you can get through that.  It was ONE night at a friend’s wedding and almost everyone who saw you do it was drunk anyway…

Louis-Dreyfus is a genius at presenting a deft mix of neurosis, self-involvement and false security. And still somehow, her characters are lovable.  She entertains without intimidating, and we’re invested in her antics – whether it’s deciding if someone is “spongeworthy” on Seinfeld, or sleeping with her ex-husband’s current girlfriend’s father on The New Adventures, we’re ready to go wherever she’s headed, cringing all the way.

And while she excels at bringing the crazy, what’s surprising is how crazy she’s not. While her on-screen personas live in a perpetual comedy of errors, her real life is just the opposite. She was the youngest female cast member to join SNL, the sole female star of one of the biggest sitcoms of all time, and she has a 25-year and-still-going-strong marriage with Brad Hall, not to mention she’s a working mom of two. Nevertheless, she still makes us believe she’s just like us, or worse.  

But let’s put aside all her real-life happiness, and focus on what makes us feel good: Watching some hilariously horrible things happen to other people… from the safety of our couches. 

Tune into Veep this Sunday at 10 pm.

Vanessa Ragland is a comedian and writer in LA and co-host of the Pop My Culture Podcast.

Louis-Dreyfus presents a deft mix of neurosis, self-involvement and false security. And still her characters are lovable.Vanessa Ragland

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