I used to wonder how or why people in New York City could (or would) listen to the National Public Radio show “A Prairie Home Companion,” and then bust a gut laughing at the jokes. I was less surprised when my friend Jennie, from California, told me that she found the show unbearably cloying. Why should anyone other than the inhabitants of New Ulm, Minnesota and Stoughton, Wisconsin, understand and enjoy Norwegian-and-German-Lutheran-Great-Lake-States-type humor? Garrison Keillor whispering about the fact that right around the middle of July the vegetables in the garden get so thick and demanding that “in the bathroom, you reach for your toothbrush ... it’s a zucchini.” There are two reasons to laugh at this: the “my life exactly” reason (Minnesota) and the “cool, a self-propelled vegetable!” reason (New York City).
At first blush this phenomenon appeared to me to be similar to Americans’ appreciation of Monty Python humor. Americans as a general rule do not know anything very deep about the jokes the British make about their own love of their pets, for instance. Still, in the last 30 years, American audiences have guffawed about pet parrots and other types of birds that we had never heard of. We did not understand, but we thought that the skits and films were funny anyway. We laughed at something, but it was a different something than the British were laughing at.
But now I think I was in part wrong about A Prairie Home Companion (except as concerns Jennie) and that “laughing at the wrong thing” does not explain the appeal of regional clihcés. For instance, I do not think that this explains non-Texans’ fascination with the full five seasons of the TV series, “Friday Night Lights.” Okay, my fascination. I do not yet own an American TV, but over the last five years, I have followed four television series on DVD. “Friday Night Lights” is the latest, and it is very compelling to me as a psychologist.
“Friday Night Lights” tells the stories of high school football in a small town in Texas. High school football in a small town in the state of Texas. Really? Oh, okay, about high school football and the people living their lives in that small town in Texas. The positive reviews of “Friday Night Lights” have a lot to say about what is good about the series. But what I think is that viewers are contrasting their clichés about Texas to what they are seeing in the lives of these people. Eye-candy people to be sure. It does not matter at all if the details of the TV series have anything to do with the reality of a town dominated by football and the reality of that town being somewhere in the state of Texas. What matters, I think, is that non-Texan viewers see, in association with the words “football” and “Texas”, a heterogeneity and depth of feeling and experience that they were not expecting. Texas? Guns and electric chairs, right? No real people at all. And then those clichés are wrong – they have to be wrong, of course – and things are emotionally complex. The show is stirring enough that I am starting to say “Hey,” (which I say with a Chicago accent) more like “Hi-ay,” in the manner of the characters in the show, with their various (to my inexpert ear) Texan accents. I mimic them.
What we know in psychology is that mimicry is more likely to occur if you feel some connection with the person you are looking at and listening to in the first place. And then, coming full circle, mimicking actually helps you understand the person and even brings you closer to them. I think that “Friday Night Lights” might even cause a larger phenomenon of imitation of the way the principle characters, a married couple, fight and get over their fights. Again, along with the words “football” and “Texas” there is a functioning couple that viewers find compelling. The subject of the fights is beside the point. The couple’s totally realistic but pretty darn effective way of resolving the challenges to their marriage and family life captures viewers’ attention, as if the show were an instructional video.
Did I mention that I am mimicking the Texas accent when I say "Hey"? Yessir. Easing people into being able to identify with others. That’s the way beyond the clichés.