The Television Sitcom: Social Change Through Laughter
So many of us take television for granted, relegating it to the lowest echelons of entertainment without giving it the due for the creative and cultural force that it is. TV holds a great deal of power, being the most-accessible of all entertainment forms, besting theatre and television for price and instant gratification. With this in mind, we have to concede that television has the greatest influence on our individual and collective social psyches, shaping how we see and greet the world. TV offers opportunities for us to see how other people live, people who may not be like ourselves. Laughter is something that is also universally understood. People like to laugh, by themselves and even more so with others. It is no surprise that one of the most beloved forms of television storytelling is the situation comedy, a device for creating humor by putting characters in relatable (if often extreme) situations where they learn and grow. The greatest leaps and bounds of social change in our country have occurred when a television audience was presented with topical and challenging material though the refreshing catharsis of laughter provided by the sitcom?
Let’s think about it.
In the 1950s, situation comedy was pleasingly milquetoast in its subject matter. Most programming centered around family life that formulaically showed a stay-at-home mother exasperated by her daily chores, usually a teenager or two navigating the world of dating (in the purist sense), a youngster who is always getting him or herself into some innocuous shenanigans, and a working father who popped in to offer his sage advice before settling down to a perfect dinner and then smoking his pipe. This was the world of Leave it to Beaver, Make Room for Daddy, and The Donna Reed Show. Husband and wife slept in separate beds because we didn’t want to offend anyone by admitting that human beings have a sexual side. Remember I Love Lucy when Lucille Ball, the actress playing the title character, was pregnant in real-life, and her pregnancy was written into her character’s storyline? Television censors wouldn’t allow the word pregnant to be spoken on television, so the writers had to carefully navigate this story without using the most-applicable word for the situation. Yet, in involving the event at all, it was a big step for America’s evolution in what they would accept from a television show. Lucy began to break the mold. She wasn’t exactly content being relegated to a housewife and she was constantly amid efforts to find adventure outside of the home, often trying to break into her husband’s nightclub act. It wasn’t exactly taken seriously, but it did begin a discussion, the murmurings of how America’s view of the role of a female would evolve.
Enter the 1960s, when career woman suddenly explodes onto the television scene. Show’s like That Girl and Julia, the latter featuring an African-American woman in the workplace, were inciting a revolution in how women were depicted. Even shows like The Flying Nun, The Munsters, and The Addams Family were showing unconventional women, albeit in the most ridiculous of scenarios. By the decade’s end, the biggest game-changer would arrive on the scene in the form of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, a thoughtful situation comedy that began to tackle serious subject matter with humor. To begin, the main character, Mary Richards, decides to give up a relationship and move to the big city, opting for a career and self-discovery instead of settling for a man she just didn’t love. The show often took on, directly, her experiences of surviving (and overcoming) a man’s world. The show also featured one of the first introductions of a gay person on a television show, featured a recurring character in an African-American weatherman played by John Amos, and tackled topical news items of the day. The Mary Tyler Moore Show showed viewers that there was a much bigger world of stories to tell than had previously been explored, and it did so by using humor to teach.
The 1970s found America ensconced in a war in Vietnam, Roe vs. Wade being decided in the Supreme Court, racial inequality not exactly solved by the actions of the 1960s, and a president embroiled in a national scandal. Cynicism was at its height, and producer Norman Lear found great opportunity to take on earthshaking subject matter with the TV show All in the Family. The bigoted Archie Bunker, a blue-collar everyman who was trying hard to keep ahead in the world, was pitted against his ultra-liberal daughter and her social activist husband. This created a scenario for situation comedy that was electrified with the very tug-o-war that was tearing at the fabric of our country. All in the Family was presenting our differences in a way that made us laugh, but also helped us to see where we had room for change and where we had room to grow. Lear would fill the 70s with sitcoms of this ilk: Maude (abortion, depression, ultra-liberalism), Good Times (poverty, black suppression, inequality), Sanford & Son (generational differences, inequality), The Jeffersons (the challenges of a successful black family surviving in a white world, interracial marriage), and One Day at a Time (a divorced woman raising her children on her own). Norman Lear and his willingness to light such fires for discussion may have single-handedly had the greatest influence on America’s evolution toward a more-progressive, open-mindedness, facilitating, through humor, an opportunity to look at ourselves, warts and all. People learned about diversity and empathy and they laughed heartily while doing so. Somehow, amidst the laughter, we became more aware and found our differences palatable.