By Simon Demetriou
‘Guilty pleasure’ really is a stupid phrase – unless of course what you take pleasure in is something truly awful like kicking kittens or tax fraud. Surely, we should all just enjoy enjoying things because enjoying things is great. But, if you happen to be someone who might have described romantic comedies as a guilty pleasure, or even someone who avowedly despises romantic comedies (I’ll never believe you’re not lying to look cool), then Romantic Comedy is probably for you.
Sally Milz is an Emmy-winning writer on The Night Owls, a fictionalised version of Saturday Night Live, who has sworn off serious relationships in favour of having a ‘mediocre fuckbuddy’ because he saves her from having ‘to resubscribe to a hookup app and meet enough strangers at enough bars to determine which one probably wouldn’t kill me if we went back to my apartment.’ Needless to say, all that changes with the entry of Noah Brewster, ‘cheesily handsome, extremely successful singer-songwriter’. When Noah makes his appearance as TNO guest host, sparks fly before Sally’s belief ‘that a gorgeous male celebrity would never fall in love with an ordinary, dorky, unkempt woman’ leads her to sabotage the obvious attraction and drive the plot from their 2018 meeting to their pandemic-inspired reunion.
Romantic Comedy works because not only are Sally and Noah utterly relatable and skilfully drawn, but Sittenfeld also never skimps on the support cast. And this is an ambitious move because if you fill your novel with characters who are meant to be among the funniest people in the English-speaking world, then you have to deliver dialogue that is sufficiently witty and non-contrived as to make those characters plausible. Sittenfeld never misses. Not only is this novel an homage to SNL, it’s also a virtuoso demonstration of Sittenfeld’s own comedic skill.
If I had described the novel at the beginning as a romantic comedy about a comedy writer who aspires to write ‘non-condescending, ragingly feminist screenplays for romantic comedies’ and in which the two central characters engage in discussions about ‘where the dividing line is between cheesiness and acceptable emotional extravagance’, you would have been forgiven for thinking that Sittenfeld had written a book that was so disgustingly meta that it would read like having a joke explained to you over and over again in the hope that afterwards you might actually find it funny. Romantic Comedy is nothing like that. It’s a romantic comedy about romantic comedy that manages to just be an absolutely brilliant romantic comedy. And it answers its own question about cheesiness: ‘When it’s happening to other people, it’s cheesy. When it’s happening to you, it’s wonderful.’ So next time you find something cheesy, look to yourself…