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Why working-class sitcoms don’t work

Chuck Lorre meets the modern viewer’s aversion everyday working people


 

Monty Brinton / CBS

Mom should have been a sure thing. The new sitcom is a creation of Chuck Lorre, who already has three hit shows on the air; it stars former movie star Anna Faris. But while the show is hardly a flop, TV By the Numbers says its initial ratings make it “likely to be cancelled.” What makes this show different from Lorre’s The Big Bang Theory or Two and a Half Men? It’s not that Mom’s main character is a recovering alcoholic; it’s that she’s raising a family on meagre wages from a bad job. Viewers say they want comedies to reflect the problems of everyday working people, but they may not tune in to watch them.

Veteran TV writer Ken Levine says in today’s TV industry, it’s conventional wisdom that “working-class sitcoms will seem too depressing.” But it wasn’t always that way. Some of the most popular sitcoms, such as The Honeymooners and All in the Family, dealt with poverty, layoffs and small household budgets. Lorre was the producer of Roseanne, a hit about raising a family on no money. Today, this tradition lives on in reality TV; Pepi Leistyna, professor of applied linguistics at the University of Massachusetts and creator of the film Class Dismissed: How TV Frames the Working Class, notes that on reality shows, “you see every dirty job possible, from fishing to the kitchen, from the mechanic’s garage to the pawnshop, and everything in between.”

But in sitcoms, not only do affluent people dominate the ratings, they also dominate the award-winners. Though Roseanne never even got nominated for the Emmy for Best Comedy, the prize has gone four times in a row to Modern Family, about three families, all wealthy or upper-middle-class. Co-creator Christopher Lloyd told the New York Times that he dealt with economic anxiety when he showed a character “leave a comfortable job at a law firm for a less well-paying but more rewarding job.” Before that, the perennial winner was 30 Rock, about the travails of a well-paid TV writer and a corporate executive.

Though some dramas, like Breaking Bad, deal with household problems such as medical bills, prestige comedies shy away from these issues: Comedian Louis CK bombed on HBO with Lucky Louie, about a family living in poverty, but became an award-winner for Louie, about the pressures of being a successful comedian.

Why can’t comedies deal with people who aren’t affluent? Levine, who has written comedies about surgeons (M*A*S*H) and psychiatrists (Frasier), says it’s partly that money and employment problems aren’t good fodder for escapist comedy. “Viewers would rather escape to worlds where the jobs are cool, apartments are nice and problems are ‘Am I going to get laid?’ rather than ‘Am I going to get laid off?’ ” Jon Cryer on Two and a Half Men may be constantly strapped for cash, but since he’s a successful chiropractor with a rich brother and mother, audiences know his problems aren’t serious. Real economic problems make networks “worried about being associated with sad, down-at-the-mouth families,” says sitcom writer Chip Keyes (Perfect Strangers). “Downer.”

Still, there are some shows that hint at a brighter future for the lower-middle-class comedy, and not just Mom, which, despite its initial weak ratings, has gotten good reviews for its respectful portrayal of a struggling single mother. Leistnya points to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the long-running FX comedy about a bunch of dimwits running a failing bar, though its negative portrayal of its heroes as “working-class buffoons,” more like Trailer Park Boys than Roseanne, isn’t always flattering. The Middle, on the same network as Modern Family, has spent five years as a moderate hit about a mother (Patricia Heaton) making ends meet. And in the U.K., one of the biggest hit sitcoms is Mrs. Brown’s Boys, a throwback to working-class kitchen-sink sitcoms of the 70s—complete with a man playing the titular Mrs. Brown. These shows prove that money problems don’t have to be depressing, as long as the characters act happy. “We don’t want to see our characters lose, of course,” Keyes says, “but we don’t mind if it’s only a little victory.” It also helps if there’s a man in a dress.


 

Why working-class sitcoms don’t work

  1. This comment was deleted.

    • Have you seen Curb Your Enthusiasm? Don’t judge what’s produced by only what’s on the majors like NBC and Fox.

  2. “Roseanne” was never nominated for Best Comedy because Ms. Barr/Arnold/Whatever hated the Emmy establishment, and vice versa. It had nothing to do with the subject matter (except in her own mind, over-populated with conspiracy theories). She burned so many bridges in Hollywood it wasn’t even funny.

  3. Honestly, the biggest problem with ‘Mom’ is their lead actress. And unfortunately, I don’t think it’s something she’ll be able to fix because I don’t think it’s tied up in the scripts, which are very good; or in her acting ability or comedic timing, which are perfectly decent — not great, not bad, but decent. No, I think the problem is more part of her directly. Something about the way her looks and natural mannerisms combine to make her just a bit off-putting.

    I mean, it’d help if she had top teeth, I guess. (I know, she does, but her natural expressions keep them covered, and with thin lips, they do seem to be missing) but it’s something a bit more than that.

    Unfortunately, having a lead character that’s simply a bit off-putting can make the show hard to watch — but if you can get past that, it’s certainly decent. Some original beats to the plots at least, which can be rare in sit-coms..

  4. Jon Cryer’s character on “two-and-a-half men” is a chiropracter, not an orthodontist.

  5. Married With Children…Roseanne…The Honeymooners…All In The Family…Cheers…Taxi. All failures right?

    • LOL: thesis destroyer.

      • I Gotta Be Meeee…

    • The genre, obviously, will never get off the ground.

    • I thought about those shows too but I do agree that the zeitgeist changes and in there’s little doubt in my mind that in this day and age: the attitude of dumb and obliviousness to real problems is king amongst most people.

  6. Maybe most TV writers are so far removed from the working-class existence that they mostly haven’t a clue what it’s like and struggle to write it well? Jaime, your fave King of the Hill had to work to get this tone right, yes? As I recall you’ve written that Mike Judge had to constrain the Harvard guys in the writers’ room from condescending to Hank et al. And there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of Ivy League men (and it is, still, overwhelmingly men) anywhere on scripted TV.

  7. Maybe it would help if the premise was a little more fun and upbeat. Alcoholism, drug addiction and teen pregnancy just don’t lend themselves to a lot of comedy. Why not have ordinary people who are struggling? Not everyone is broke because of addictions. And most low-income families manage to have good relationships and know how to have fun. Economic problems are everywhere, and real life situations are more varied than TV would have you believe.

  8. You know if more of these shows were actually closer to RELATEABLE in their depictions of the middle class or lower middle class I’d bet they’d be a lot more poplular than they are. Roseanne worked because people recognized their problems as absolutely real. Nowadays most lower middle class family sitcoms tend to skew one way or the other, either to the completely absurd caricature, or the “try too hard to tug at your heart strings and appeal to the mothers in the audience.”

  9. In short: people want to escape.

    This article reminds me of a skit by Dave Chappelle where he talks about why he prefers to get high with white people instead of his black brethren. He basically summarizes that when he gets high with other black people all they talk about is their trials and tribulations, and to reflect; something Dave does not care for. He states that when he gets high he wants to get away from his problems, not take on other people’s . He says that white people, on the other hand, are different because when they get high all they talk about are other times that they got high. Definitely, a more light hearted situation to be in.

    I think the same reasoning applies here. It does not appeal to the average Joe (regardless of intelligence level) to tune into a sitcom and be reminded of his/her problems/prooccupations. They’d much rather escape to a world of zany characters and outlandish/otherwordly situations.

  10. It’s about the market. Television programming is funded by advertising, payments to premium channels and DVD sales. All three of those make it far more lucrative to market to rich people than to market to poor people who:
    -spend less money
    -are unlikely to pay for premium channels
    -are unlikely to buy DVD’s

    In the old days, when it was hard to make money off of niche programming you would have more successful shows that featured working class characters because they sought mass audiences (also America wasn’t as unequal). To Nite_owl I’d add: The Simpsons (written by Harvardites), King of the Hill, The Waltons and Malcolm in the Middle.

    You also had shows that explicitly bridged class lines – Full House, the Jeffersons, Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Gilmore Girls. I’d argue that the Office could be added to the list, though its characters live a lifestyle that is somewhat better than they could likely afford.

    Another factor that the author neglects is race. The US has a long history of sitcoms aimed at black audiences (even dating shows are segregated – anybody remember the show Blind Date: they’d have a white half and a black half). A few were breakout hits (Fresh Prince, Family Matters and the Cosby show), but most weren’t. Poor white folks may not see themselves in poor black families and vice versa. The homogeneous nature of richer audiences (the richest 5% is about 88% white) makes it easier to make shows that target them.

  11. Check the facts. Jon Cryer’s character on Two and a Half Men is a chiropractor not an orthodontist. And he doesn’t have a rich brother anymore….

  12. I see your readers got you to fix your embarrassing Jon Cryer reference. Kind of. He’s a failed chiropractor but a successful leech and loser – this is likely what most viewers relate to! I must not be normal because I stay away form sitcoms about wealthy and upper-middle class people as much as possible. I discovered long ago these people have little of value to offer, even as entertainment. Give me a nice sitcom about a talented struggling anti-hero. Or about a bunch of doofus scientists and their social inadequacies. :-)

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