To cut a long story short, I was on a flight from the U.S. to the U.K. when a man died right there in the cabin, on the seat behind me. The crew moved him to an empty row at the back of the plane near the engines. Where the noise was. They put a blanket over him. This was with four hours of the flight still to go. He was obviously very dead, and everyone on the plane knew about it. Everyone kept facing forward.
We had to stay around when we landed, while they did checks and reports. People were anxious and complaining. But it didn’t take too long. The crew did a good job. We were already off the plane and into the terminal when they took his body away.
Then I saw on the internet a couple of days later that this man who had died on the plane was an actor in a TV sitcom. I’d never even seen this man before, and I didn’t recognise his picture in the paper. So, naturally, I completely forgot about him; the second time in the same week. I just did my usual stuff, I was pretty busy actually.
Then after a week it came to the holidays and I decided to download his sitcom from the internet. I was bored, and it was raining, and all these bugs were coming into the house, and the smell of the house made me remember the man for some reason. I put the shows on, and a part of me felt bad because maybe I was denying his widowed wife and fatherless kids some royalties. But I must have felt ok because I didn’t stop to think, not really. You see, all the bugs were coming into my house because of the rain, with the smell of the rain, and I felt awful.
And his sitcom turned out to be quite good. He played a man called Pete. He has a couple of dogs, and that was just about it. That was his character, that he didn’t have a thing; pure sitcom. He was just Pete and he had some dogs, and he endured.
One episode his fridge breaks, and he has to eat all of the food because it was going off. Does this sound familiar? It felt familiar to me. He has to eat all the food, and some of it is obviously bad, and he’s ciphering off all these jars of things and condiments and meat on to his dogs, because he can’t get through it. The episode ends with Pete in the vets with his sick dogs, and the vet gives Pete a quick look over. The vet’s the straight man and Pete is the stooge, and its obviously ridiculous that a human would be examined by a vet. But the thing is, it really isn’t a very funny scene. In fact Pete and his dogs are seriously ill. And there’s not a punchline; the episode simply ends. I play it back to double-check that it isn’t funny, and it isn’t funny, even less so. It fades out with Pete doubled up, in pain, with his dogs running around him. And the audience is silent.
I watch the vet episode a few times and start feeling strange and depressed; that this man died behind me and I got his sitcom for free. I start feeling bad for his family. The fact he’s so ill in the sitcom, this one episode, I can tell you definitely contributes to it. I resolve to give this man’s family something so I buy every series of this show on DVD, and there are three of them. The smallest noblest gesture in the history of the world, but so what.
I watch them as soon as I get them and enjoy them all. I suppose Pete is the clown character, funny and sad, tall, stupid accent. Another episode he’s going to give a phone, a landline phone as a wedding present to this couple, but it’s actually his own phone. So he wraps it and takes it to the wedding but when he gets there the wedding’s off, its been off for days but his phone’s been wrapped up so no one can contact him to tell him. The reason the wedding’s cancelled is the main joke of the episode, and the scene in which Pete turns up at the wedding doesn’t really work. The audience is muted, they want to see what happens with the other characters. The situation with Pete is too silly, it hasn’t been set up properly. In fact I find it depressing. For a short second I well up and whimper, and a bubble of snot comes out of my nose. For a short second it’s just awful. He’s a tragic figure, I decide in that moment.
But of course the next episode he’s back to his usual self, which is the point of sitcoms, and if anything this makes me feel even worse, to see this person in a basically endless cycle, functioning whether he wants to or not. The opening credits shows him on a park bench with his dogs. No matter what goes on in the show, he’s always on that bench. But in real life he’s dead and decaying in the ground somewhere, so the irony is glaring, and I find it hard to take. I spend a whole weekend alone watching this show, and I’ve seen them all a couple of times by now. I’ve seen him do these clownish things more than once, sometimes even five times. And he died a couple of feet away from me, and I barely noticed. I put my headphones on in fact. And now all this imaginary stuff seems much more real.
One episode he’s about to be deported, but it never happens. The government agent tells him he is merely deportable. This brings the house down with the studio audience. But Pete just repeats: ‘deportable.’ Maybe he wants to be deported.
Another episode he meets a woman who is basically a female version of himself. This is the last episode of series three, the last ever episode. She’s blonde and Scandinavian and has dogs that look just like Pete’s. Again, it’s a pretty lame premise but there’s a good joke with the dogs at one stage, a good visual joke. Maybe this woman is going to be a permanent character in the next series, but we’ll never know. She doesn’t even split up with Pete. Although I suppose they don’t strictly get together either. I look on IMDB and find out her name is Siobhan something. An Irish girl playing a Swede.
So I spend my holiday feeling bad about their relationship that didn’t come to anything. About the deportation that never happened. And then I think about the aeroplane again, and feel totally useless. This is the point of sitcoms, I tell myself.