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TV, or Not TV...What's So Funny About Idiots?

TV, or Not TV...What's So Funny About Idiots?
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It's a given that sitcoms aren't meant to be taken literally. But if humor is based on the familiar, what does it say about us as a society when in order to be funny, comedic heroes are most often portrayed as bumbling boors, while their female counterparts are relegated to the ranks of a more infamous “B” word?

  And That’s Why They Call it the Boob Tube

Today’s television landscape is heavily populated by standup comics who have garnered enough attention to leave the smoky clubs for the small screen. They give us the cleaned-up versions of their routines—since primetime doesn’t require a two-drink minimum. Their material, however pithy and wickedly observant on stage, inevitably gets dumbed down for the television audience and sponsors.

Many of these successful comedians are men, who, if they’re going to produce this thing, then damn it, are going to star in it, too. They’ve been in the habit of keeping their names: Sienfeld, George Lopez’s eponymous George Lopez, The Drew Carey Show, starring not surprisingly, Drew Carey. Ray Romano played family man Ray Barone in Everybody Loves Raymond—but he was still Ray, so we knew who the funny guys was supposed to be. From channel to channel we are bombarded with a parade of oafish boors whose wives or girlfriends become the de facto “straight men” every comedy act needs, left to clean up hubby’s messes and forgive him no matter what. To borrow a line from bad comics everywhere: “What’s up with that?”

  The Evolution of Falstaff TV

This trope is nothing new. Jackie Gleason was playing the fat fool as far back as the 1950s in The Honeymooners. Some say the gags have gone too far, but has anything really changed?

While ABC’s hit mockumentary Modern Family may have challenged the concept of the nuclear unit being composed of a Mommy, Daddy, and 2.5 children—but the outcome remains the same. Phil, the straight, married father of three, is clueless, employing high fives and misused slang to feel like he understands his kids. His wife, Claire, is stereotypically uptight and bossy. Good thing he’s such a nice guy.

The writing and directing credits for Modern Family don’t include any women, so it seems odd men would want to make their own sex look so foolish, but comedy is all about exaggerating the folly of our everyday, mundane lives. The missing link between today’s sitcoms and their earlier counterparts is that nowadays, the cheap shot trumps insightful humor nearly every time. Satire and irony are sacrificed in favor of quick farce… or even farts. (Because there’s nothing funnier than potty humor, right?)

  Settle Down, Beavis

But live-action buffoons and their one-dimensional mates pale in comparison to their animated counterparts. If you take Al Bundy’s blundering from Married, With Children and remove the laws of physics—and pretty much anything else—you arrive on the doorstep of Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin (where chances are good that you will find a flaming bag of dog poop.) For those of us who aren’t teenaged boys, it can be hard to watch Peter and Homer’s antics, especially when Marge and Lois are required to be sensible, sensitive, and skinny.

Again, bumbling heroes and their long-suffering spouses are not recent cartoon inventions. Dudley DoRight had his Nell. Fred Flintsone had his Wilma. George Jetson had his Jane (and daughter, Judy). What’s changed is that no matter how addle-pated or idiotic those characters may have appeared, their actions were guided by a kind of moral compass that has, in today’s currency, been reduced to little more than a 20th-Century footnote.

  Smart Women Aren’t Funny (on TV)

Anti-misandry organizations (groups that defend the rights of men) don’t think there’s anything amusing about the portrayal of men in sitcoms. Antimisandry.com, at the forefront of the fight against male bashing in the media says: “The next time you switch on the television, count how many programs have the token ‘stupid boyfriend’ or ‘abusive husband’ or ‘pedophilic father’ figure.” The site also bemoans the inequity of representing sitcom wives as “smart, sexy, sassy and full of beans; capable of juggling a career lifestyle with children, a husband and a social circle,” effectively reducing males to the status of dependent child, rather than adult partner.

Women, both on TV and in real life, face more pressure to balance their friends, their kids, and their relationships than men do. So, if a woman has a long list of roles she needs to trot out in a half hour—cook, voice of reason, neighbor, bad cop parent, and nagging wife—when does she have time to be whimsical?

What we’re left with as a result of this dichotomy is a sitcom landscape in which intelligent women just aren’t funny. Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane routinely has his animated alter-ego Peter Griffin trot out female comedians such as Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho or Fran Drescher in the break-the-fourth-wall moments the show so often uses to illustrate that smart/funny woman are a) annoying b) mannish or c) deranged.

  Vitameatavegamin

The glass ceiling has always been a reality in the entertainment industry. In order to succeed, pioneering comediennes Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett not only allowed their ditzy, larger than life on-screen personalities to overshadow their genius behind the scenes, it’s a good bet they encouraged it. Funny women were welcome guests in every home; brilliant creative female minds were a threat—especially attractive ones. Considering that these were two of the most successful TV brands ever, it had to be factored into the equation.



TV wives who did manage to be smart, funny and attractive were given fatal flaws as sex objects. From control freak Jane Kaczmarek’s Lois on Malcolm in the Middle to alien Cyclops Lela on Futurama (ironically voiced by über-ditz Peg Bundy actress, Katey Sagal), to blue-collar wise-ass Brett Butler, all had enough damage to make anyone think twice about bedding them. While Roseanne (without the Barr or Arnold) was the first woman to loudly proclaim complete creative control of her vehicle—which meant she was “the one who wore the pants” and therefore “allowed” to be funny and smart—few who tuned in to her show would have put “hot” on her list of attributes—if at all.

  Pretty Smart

At the 2009 Emmys, Tina Fey’s 30 Rock took home the award for Outstanding Comedy Series. Fey writes and produces the show. Her character. Liz Lemon, straddles the line between straight man and funny guy. While she gets her share of jokes, Fey has tweaked the formula rather than tossing it. The show’s most outrageous characters are men—Tracy Jordan, played by Tracy Morgan and Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy. Baldwin’s bossman still needs Liz to clean up his mistakes, and while Morgan’s character manages to balance his beer-belly angst with moments of true insight (thanks to Fey’s smart writing), much of the humor in Fey’s own character is marked by that manic “Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” gleam in her eye—how many plates can she juggle before it all comes crashing down?



Sitcoms obviously aren’t real life, which is why at the end of the half hour the producers package everything with a pretty bow. The husband stumbles through an apology, the wife accepts and they get into bed, maybe with even the suggestion of sex after the credits roll. We’re left with the impression that sure, the guy has faults, but he’s only human. Maybe that’s because we know that for all the offensive jokes comedians make about their wives, they go home and take care of their families—or at least we like to think they do.

In cartoon land, however, there is actual hope. King of the Hill (brought to you by the same folks that spawned Beavis and Butthead) stands as testament that even a smart, shrewish wife can be funny and disarming, and your average Joe (or in this case, Hank) who sells propane and propane accessories for a living can be a loving husband, devoted father and solid role model—even if he does like to down a few beers in the back alley with his buds at the end of the day.

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great review

03/05/2012

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