Are Miscommunications and Misunderstandings Inherently Funny?

Picture of the stars of Three's Company
Three’s Company seemed to suggest that there is something inherently funny about miscommunications and misunderstandings.

One of the gifts of graduate school, especially if you go later in life, is being able to look back and understand your life in new ways, make new connections between seemingly disparate things, and finding novelty in things we have grown accustomed to.

We might not be able to apply scholarly terms to all that we see with fresh eyes, but we see them with a new level of maturity.

When I was much younger, one of my favourite TV shows was “Three’s Company.” If you recall, the storyworld inhabited by Jack, Janet, Chrissy and others, seemed to suggest that there is something inherently funny about miscommunications and misunderstandings. Indeed, most, if not all, of the episodes seemed to be about miscommunications and misunderstandings.

Take, for example, the episode in which Jeffrey Tambor plays an overworked psychiatrist, and Terri, a nurse, invites him out for dinner so that he can get some much-needed relaxation time. Problems arise when Terri brings the doctor back to the apartment and Jack and Janet mistake him for a psychiatric patient. It’s hard to imagine this funny episode being made today in the current politically correct environment, but it is classic “Three’s Company.”

The entire premise of “Three’s Company” is surrounded by an intentional misunderstanding: Jack is able to share an apartment with Janet and Chrissy (later Terri) in 1970s-1980s California because they tell their conservative landlord (first Mr. Roeper, later Mr. Furley) that Jack is a homosexual, which is not true.

Perhaps it is best to look at the issue from the vantage of the Shannon-Weaver model of communication. The loci of miscommunication, thus, seems to be the sender of communication as he or she encodes the message, the receiver who decodes the message, or noise that interferes with the process of communication—and which can be located in the sender, the receiver or external to both such as loud music that prevents receivers from hearing the message.

So, is their something inherently funny about miscommunications and misunderstandings? In some contexts, yes. Think back to a miscommunication you have been involved in and you’ll probably shake your head and smile regrettably. On a recent vacation, I nearly missed my connecting flight to my destination because of a misunderstanding at two information booths. I was livid then, but I can chuckle about it now. There does seem to be something funny about expecting something but then getting the exact opposite because, for example, of a poorly chosen word(s).

It’s the stuff farce is made of.

Miscommunication seems to be one of the engines that keeps literature humming. Consider Shakespeare. I have read all of his plays and I can tell you that even in his tragedies or histories there is often comic relief that arises as a result of misunderstandings. There are times when you have to snicker at Othello’s misunderstanding of Desdemona as a result of Iago’s antics

Of course, Shakespeare’s comedies, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, make skillful use of misunderstandings.

But in some contexts, there is nothing funny about miscommunications and misunderstandings.  For example, some Shakespearean misunderstandings lead to tragedy. Romeo and Juliet both end up dead as a result of misunderstandings.

In the real world, consider Harrison Ford’s near miss in the air in 2017. He was told to land his single-engine plane on a specific runway at John Wayne Airport in the OC, California that February. He mistakenly landed it on a parallel taxiway, nearly crashing into a nearby American Airlines jet.

As well, there are tons of stories about police officers shooting unarmed people that they think are criminals, but who are later determined to be law-abiding citizens.

Back to Jeffrey Tambor. He recently exited from another well-loved TV show “Transparent” after sexual harassment allegations. Tambor describes the incidents in question as miscommunications, whereas his accusers describe it bad behaviour. This is typical in the #MeToo era. People accused of inappropriate behaviour claim that they have been misunderstood (Riiight! The problem is with the receiver decoding the message/behaviour incorrectly.)

So, I guess the answer to the question of whether miscommunications and misunderstandings are inherently funny is…it depends on the context surrounding the incident. At least one “Three’s Company” alum knows that sometimes there’s not always something funny about miscommunications and misunderstandings, even if he is wrong about his incident being a miscommunication.

–Authored by J. Dean Spence

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