The following is an essay I wrote a few years ago about how much I relate to a character on a TV show. That TV show is called Community. The character is named Abed. I love that TV show.
Bring Me the Head of Abed Nadir...
Just make sure it’s still attached to the rest of him because I think we could totally hang out.
My buddy Luke is my best friend in the world. I met him when I was a junior in high school and he was a freshman. Over the last couple decades we've been classmates, housemates, and co-workers at three different jobs. We co-created a short-lived micro-press comic book series (three issues of Captain 9-Ball, circulation: 30). He has tolerated my pedantry on all subjects nerdy and academic, even those about which I know less than he does. He sadly shook his head and kept his mouth shut when I got back together with my first girlfriend (the girlfriend I couldn’t quite break up with because I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to convince anyone else I was boyfriend material). He put up with a few full-blown tantrums over his tendencies to leave the living room looking as though guys in their early twenties lived in our house (we were, in fact, in our early twenties). He got internet ordained to perform the ceremony for my first marriage, nursed me through the divorce, encouraged me when it was time to try dating again, and gave me the best damn Best Man's toast when it counted.
He’s also the guy who introduced me to Abed.
He’s also the guy who introduced me to Abed.
I was about a month or two into my first serious binge into research on Asperger’s and autism. What brought the research on was a panic attack relating to the facts that, 1) I was having a lot of trouble communicating with the instructor of an online class I was taking, and, 2) I didn’t have a clue what I was supposed to be doing as I was meeting with potential cooperating teachers for my student teaching internship. In the throes of confusion, I happened to catch a radio interview of writer Tim Page, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s in adulthood. What I heard Page describing was just too similar to what I had been going through my entire life. I took a break from my classes and plunged into the available reading material.
I started soft with Wikipedia and a Facebook meme of a widely used autism diagnostic tool. Then I moved on to a couple titles I picked up at a local used bookstore, titles I had known about for years, but was afraid to look into. With good reason, it turned out.
My reading binge confirmed that Asperger’s was me. No doubt about it. I am a person who has these issues: a tendency to monologue without regard for my audience’s lost interest; a fascination with minutiae; motor clumsiness; difficulty reading the intentions of others; and, yeah, a lousy track record for romantic relationships.
Luke was my best friend from forever. My best friend even though sometimes months would pass without us actually speaking. He’s the first person I talked to outside of my family about my Asperger’s suspicions. He knew a bit about the topic, and enough about me, to accept what I was saying as truth. He also knew that I was still the same person I always was, just with a handy new set of nouns adjectives at my disposal. Nouns and adjectives that described the stuff I’d been doing for as long as he’d known me.
A couple weeks after I’d shared with him my self-diagnosis, he said to me “You should watch Community. There’s this character, who, well, they only say the word once, but, yeah, he’s got Asperger’s. You’d like him.”
He was talking about Abed Nadir. Now, at this point, I could monologue at length about the NBC sitcom Community, giving you airdates, character and actor bios, and my own take about why former show-runner Dan Harmon was fired and what that means for the show. But, I know enough about myself now to know that this isn’t necessary. If you’re reading these words, you have internet access. You can open your own tabs for Wikipedia, YouTube, and IMDB. Go ahead and do some background research if you want. I’ll be right here, silently scrolling my monologue through my head, till you get back.
(Time passes… or not)
Right, so now we all know that Abed is a quirky member of a quirky community college study group who makes meaning out of the world by filtering real life experiences through his encyclopedic film and television knowledge. One of his main motivations for joining the group, besides a universal desire for friendship, is that the setup reminds him of the John Hughes movie Breakfast Club. It’s quickly revealed, however, that study group instigator Jeff Winger is neither a certified Spanish tutor, nor actually interested in being part of a study group. He just wants to get into the blonde girl’s (Britta Perry’s) pants.
Abed expresses his disappointment at this revelation by telling Winger, “I thought you were like Bill Murray in any of his films, but you’re more like Michael Douglas in any of his films.”
To which Winger replies, “Yeah? Well you have Asperger’s.”
Rather than leading into a stilted and forced explanation of a trendy new movie of the week subject, the study group descends into the lowest form of comedy: underwear area jokes. (And thank god for that, because we already have Parenthood being preachy on the subject, and that’s enough.)
The pilot episode of Community is the only time the syndrome is mentioned in the series. And it’s the only time it needs to be mentioned. This is not a television show about how everyone copes with their friend who’s kind of autistic. It’s a television show about seven disparate individuals, each with their own strengths and flaws. And everybody’s flaws get equal time. Kind of like Mtv’s the Real World, only better.
Abed shows early on, that he knows his own strengths and flaws all too well. We see this in the first season episode, "Physical Education," when the group tries to help Abed get a girlfriend. It’s help he hasn’t asked for. It’s intrusive, disrespectful, and, as Winger reminds the group, doomed because any plan to superficially change someone to fit your own idealized version of what a person should be is doomed.
But Abed is game He goes to his strength and accepts this complicated social ploy by framing it as a movie set-up. “You’re going to Can’t Buy Me Love me,” he says, referencing the one 1980s high school movie not set in McHenry, Illinois. (In fact, it was set in Tucson, Arizona at the same high school I attended. Not when I was there, but when one of my older cousins was. However, my enrollment did overlap with that of Joe Torres, a cast-member of the very first Nickelodeon produced sit-com, Hey Dude. But, that’s all beside the point. Note the parentheses.)
The point is Abed knows who he is. When the group tells him the best way to approach a girl is to just ‘be yourself,’ Abed does so without missing a beat. He stares off into the middle distance and remains in his seat at the group’s table. Group member Troy Barnes, who will go on to become Abed’s best friend, roommate, and blanket fort rival, realizes a clarifying prompt is necessary.
“Go be yourself by Jenny,” Troy says.
“But I wouldn’t go over there.”
“How do you know that?”
“A lifetime of observation, mostly.”
Abed knows who he is and he knows that approaching girls is not something that he does. The group feels like they need to push him to help him grow socially. They ask if he can imagine a version of himself that would be near Jenny. Very quickly he decides that the version of himself that would do this would also be a vampire. He apes the posture and facial expressions, not of dreamy Edward Cullen, but of the pestilential titular character from Nosferatu.
(This entire exchange echoes scenes from my own life when friends would learn that I was still a virgin at 24. They kind of marveled that it wasn’t for religious reasons, gave me some tips, and took me out to clubs with them. Mostly, I learned how to drink gin and tonics. I might have been able to make the vampire thing work, though. This was the late 90s and Buffy the Vampire Slayer was picking up steam.)
Abed plays along with the group’s efforts to get him a girlfriend, even though he knows it’s more important to them than it is to him. He’s following the arc of what he recognizes as a typical sit-com plot development and is happy to do so. It’s comfortable for him (just how, in the late 90s it was comfortable for me to soothe my own uncertainty in social situations by repeating the mantra ‘It’s just a TV show’). The inevitable sit-com plot reversal comes, revealing the dramatic irony that Jenny already has a boyfriend who happens to look like a white version of Abed.
Abed takes it in stride. The rest of the group, however, is worried they may have destroyed Abed’s self-esteem.
Abed reassures them that he has “self-esteem falling out of (his)butt.” He also reveals some things he knows about himself and how other people relate to him.
“Everybody wants to help me,” he says. “But, usually, when they find out they can’t, they get frustrated and stop talking to me.”
Although Abed knows he is socially impaired, he is, like all humans, a social creature. He wants to be part of the study group. He does not want this group to get fed up with him and shove him in a metaphorical locker (as seen in season three episode “Virtual Systems Analysis”). He tells them directly, and unashamedly, “when you know who you are and what you like about yourself, changing for other people isn’t such a big deal.” This causes the group to reevaluate their own motives and gain a new admiration for who Abed is.
But, despite what Abed says, changing for other people is a big deal.
In between my first girlfriend and my second, there was someone who almost was. I was using my mantra hourly, and sometimes every minute.
It’s just a TV show, I’d tell myself. Keep following the arc until the commercial break. Collect yourself, and get back in there for the big reversal and the resolution. Thirty minutes. It’s just a TV show. You can do it.)
I told this almost-girlfriend about my mantra, because I didn’t really have any kind of filter on my thoughts then. No real conscious grasp on which of my thoughts would be good to share and which would just be off-putting. She thought my mantra, my social crutch, was absolutely ridiculous. “But life isn’t a TV show,” she said.
And no, it isn’t. It’s this terrifying thing where you never really know what’s going to happen next and people don’t make asides or soliloquies and you can’t hear their pre-recorded inner monologues, so you never know what they’re thinking. TV shows are much more comfortable. Reliable. You know that, no matter what happens, at the end of thirty minutes things will return to a sort of stasis in which the characters and their relationships come to the same equilibrium that existed before the beginning of the episode. Unless it’s a two-parter. Then you have to wait a week.
With the almost-girlfriend things started to get romantic one night until the point where I asked, “what do we do next?” and she started laughing. It wasn’t a mean-spirited laugh, but it was pretty much the end of it. Reversal. Equilibrium. Role end credits. And that ending was actually very comfortable. That evening’s episode had arrived at a proper sit-com ending. It was good. It worked. The at-home audience was satisfied with their entertainment (and, in those days, I often truly did determine an interpersonal exchange’s success by what I judged would be its entertainment value for the invisible at-home audience). I was left feeling that, just maybe, I could handle something more. Maybe a mid-season cliffhanger or a three episode story arc with a new recurring character. I was growing, just oddly.
Soon after this, through improbable circumstances, I met the official second girlfriend, the one I ended up marrying. This time I dared not tip my hand or share my mantra with her. I did my best to follow the role of awkward, quirky boyfriend according to the rules of sit-com plot development. And then, one thing led to another, and a child was conceived.
Life really wasn’t just a TV show.
At this point, my mantra had run its course. I couldn’t take it seriously anymore, and I had to look for strength elsewhere. Luckily, I found strength in my stubborn determination to be a version of me that would also be a really great dad. And, it turns out, that version's really not a version at all. I can do that. Other things I'm not so good at. Like shopping for groceries without looping through every aisle several times before remembering three of the five things I absolutely need to get while I'm there. Or making a good impression at job interviews.
Years passed, I learned some stuff, figured out some interesting and sometimes absolutely terrifying things about myself (facing that you have Asperger's can be absolutely terrifying), and, in 2009 my best friend, Luke, insisted I meet Abed. I’m glad he did.
I like to follow the exploits of Abed Nadir, because, of all television characters, he’s the one I know I could hang out with. He loves TV and movies with a depth and passion I can appreciate. He says the kind of things that I might say. He reacts to the people around him in ways I might react. He does things that I would do, if only I had self-esteem falling out my butt (and sometimes I do).
I also have a new appreciation of my buddy Luke. He’s known who I am for years. He’s seen all my autistic quirks and all the different versions of me I’ve attempted to be. And he knows that all of them do have a genuine piece of me in them. He’s even seen the worst of the wannabe bar trash asshole version that neither one of us really liked. But he’s been my friend through all of it, long past the point where he should have gotten fed up and shoved me in a locker. I watch how Abed’s friends both value him, and are frustrated by him. How, even after he’s been his most obnoxious, they still love him. I get a better idea of how Luke sees me, and why he’s always been my friend.
I guess that makes Luke kind of like my Troy, only better, because we can hang out in real life and not just on a TV show. Also, he helps me remember that this is not the darkest timeline, which is something we all need to be reminded of from time to time.