“Classic” Stigma: Great Sitcoms of the 90s, Pt. 1

Times sure have changed, and they’re changing fast. Will & Grace and Seinfeld are two of the most influential sitcoms of the past twenty years: one changed the face of television comedy forever, and the other joined Ellen DeGeneres in opening the door for gay men and women to be visible on mainstream television.

But looking at these gem of the ’90s through a ’10s lens, we can see that they’re far from perfect. More specifically, we can see that each series has contributed at least one episode worthy of a Mental Health Stigma Hall of Fame, if such a dubious honor did indeed exist. Let’s take a look at the missteps each show took in their treatment of mental health and where the episodes in question fall in the grand scheme of mental health in comedy.

First up is the Will & Grace episode aptly titled “Crazy in Love.”

When Karen and Jack think that their friend has borderline personality disorder, they fear for their lives, and laughs ensue. What does this say about the way we see mental health in our culture?

Stigma Synopsis

In this episode, which aired February 1, 2001 (the ’90s are, by my definition, the period between the debut of Rocko’s Modern Life and the day Chandler and Monica got married, so this counts), we find Grace (Debra Messing) lying to get out of jury duty. To do so, she’s concocted a fake doctor’s note, on which she’s written that she has borderline personality disorder, with “high risk for psychotic break, particularly under stressful situations.” This description, of course, has no connection to borderline personality disorder, which is characterized by impulsivity, black-and-white thinking, turbulent relationships, and unstable self-image.

The BPD bit is dropped until nearly halfway through the episode, when Jack and Karen (Sean Hayes and Megan Mulally, respectively), find the faked letter. They read aloud some snippets from the note: “personality disorder,” “job-related stress,” “prone to aggressive outbursts,” and simultaneously gasp “she’s a psycho!” Cue audience laughter.

Now hold up just a second. Karen has known Grace for about three years now, and Jack’s known her even longer. Surely they know her well enough at this point to understand that, even if the diagnosis of BDP were real, she’s not the type of “psycho” they’re picturing? Sure, they’re shallow and judgmental people with little regard for logic, but they’re making a pretty big leap off of one letter.

In his next scene, Jack uses some sound effects and hand gestures to demonstrate the kind of “crazy” that he’s always suspected Grace to be (the universal “cuckoo” sign) and the kind of crazy that he now believes her to be (Psycho theme and stabbing motion. Cue audience laughter. Karen replies, to more laughter, “My mother’s crazy. That’s why I had her committed.” (I’m sorry if I’m going into too much detail on this episode, but there’s just so much.)

Jack and Karen are worried. Not for Grace, of course, but for themselves. As Jack points out, “Ninety percent of assaults are committed by someone you know.” Karen points out that maybe Grace isn’t violent though, because (now get this): “She doesn’t even have one personality, let alone six or seven.”

In classic sitcom fashion, unrelated events are meanwhile causing Grace to behave strangely, feeding her friends’ suspicions even more. They play it safe, feeding her compliments and staying a few steps away from her at all times. This is all played for more laughs. When Grace realizes where the misunderstanding’s come from, she decides to use it to her advantage.

Enter Will (Erin McCormack), who helps Grace decide “what kind of crazy” she should be. She can’t be “Barbra Streisand in Nuts,” he says, because “crazy people don’t have French tips or $600 highlights.” Grace decides that the best route is to “kiss the wall and hum.”

Once Grace has finally gotten what she wanted (free rein in designing Jack’s apartment), she confesses to her ruse and everyone lives happily ever after.

So What?

This TV episode takes a classic theme in horror and drama – fear of people with mental illness – and applies it to comedy. In the process, it commits some major offenses.

First off, it fudges the facts a little. Throughout the episode, Grace’s alleged diagnosis is discussed as though it were a mental illness, but it’s not. A personality disorder is a set of traits and behaviors that, over time, threaten a person’s daily functioning. They can be managed but, unlike a mental illness, are not treated with medicine.

While inappropriate anger is a symptom of BPD, violence toward others is not especially common. All four characters seem convinced otherwise, based on three telling false assumptions:

1. That all psychological disorders and personality disorders are alike

2. That only a certain type of person has these disorders

and

3. That these people are prone to violence

I don’t know whether these unfortunate notions were shared by the writers, but the nature of the show is such that they were certainly assuming that said notions were shared by the audience.

The episode also makes light of mental health, somewhat cruelly. Karen should never be expected to be politically correct, but she speaks of having her mother committed so callously, it’s a little chilling.

So’s the way Karen and Jack have their entire perception of Grace changed after knowing her for years. They’re quick to judge and cast their friendship aside in favor of more selfish concerns. (Granted, that’s how they always behave, but seeing it applied to mental health might just be too real to be funny).

In fact, the episode offers a pretty realistic look at how two completely uninformed people might react to finding out about their friends’ mental illness. The fear and confusion that Jack and Karen feel is very real, but, like I said, it’s not funny. We, as the audience providing that ever-charming background laughter, should not be relating to the sentiment that Grace is a “psycho.” We shouldn’t be laughing at the mockery they employ to cope with the fear, or as Grace exploits the fear for her own gain. There’s comedy in the darkest of circumstances, but this episode tries to make us laugh viciously at the expense of others, rather than healthily at the things in life we can’t control.

This episode says a lot about how we react to mental illness. It may be intended to be funny, but it’s more effective as a tool for examining stigma than it is as comedy. I’d like to say that this aired just eleven years ago with little outcry is a strong indicator of how far mental health advocacy has come in that time, but I wonder whether there would have been much more reaction if this episode aired today.

The things we laugh at can speak volumes about our fears and insecurities. When mental illness is exploited for comedy, what are we really laughing at?

I’ll be back for Part 2 of this series on Monday, to explore a classic episode of Seinfeld.

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