There was a nice bit of good and subtle writing on the TV sitcom Parks and Recreation this week.
Ron Swanson is the head of the Parks Dept. His admin assistant, April, quits. There’s a shoe shine stand in the Pawnee city government building manned by Andy, who happens to have a good relationship with April.
While shining Swanson’s shoes, Andy tells him, “You have to get April back. If April quits, I quit.”
Swanson says, “You don’t work for me.”
Andy replies, “I don’t, nor will I ever.”
Then Andy goes back to happily shining Swanson’s shoes and Swanson relaxes because he likes to get his shoes shined by Andy.
The main joke here is the awkward exchange. It helps to know the characters to understand that humor.
To me the subtle joke was even funnier. There may not have been an intended subtle joke, which would make it even funnier to me because that would mean even the makers of the show didn’t catch the irony. But, I have to believe that the extra second or two the show focused on Andy shining Swanson’s shoes was intentional.
What was the subtle joke, you might ask?
While Swanson declares that Andy doesn’t work for him and Andy agrees and states he would never work for him, what exactly is he doing? He’s working for him.
He’s shining Swanson’s shoes. Swanson voluntarily hires Andy every time he decides to sit in Andy’s shine chair. And Andy works for Swanson every time he voluntarily decides to shine Swanson’s shoes in exchange for the few dollars he charges to complete his work.
I thought this was funny because not recognizing this is common. We pay others to do things for us so frequently that we take it for granted and don’t even realize we’re doing it. We hire and fire people from our lives every single day.
When we decide to buy something, we’re hiring the people that brought us that something. When we decide to not buy something, we’re firing them. This is the essence of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. It directs a great deal of the activities that take place in our country.