America Was A Funny Place, Until It Got Nicer

March 6, 2013 Current Commentary Comments Off
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A divorced woman raising two teenage daughters does not attract any attention these days, unless, perhaps, an online dating site happens to pair you with her. We encounter high-achieving career women every workday.

We don’t think twice about arrangements in which a young man shares living quarters with a young woman (or women). Such arrangements are as likely to be about money as about love, anyway.

An African-American nurse is just a nurse. A black person visiting a white couple’s home is just a guest. A gay man or woman is just a man or woman who happens to be gay.

Not very long ago, these everyday situations were fodder for situation comedy – often, very good situation comedy. We may be a more tolerant society today, but at least we used to be funny. (We still can be funny, however, as millions of Modern Family fans would attest.)

The untimely death of actress Bonnie Franklin last week got me thinking about the ways in which situation comedy has helped change the culture it laughed at.

As Ann Romano, the single mother in One Day at a Time, Franklin personified the everyday struggles and rewards of women who made “women’s liberation” a reality in the 1970s. With expanded career opportunities and divorce freed of stigma, a baby boom woman could extract herself from an unhappy marriage and live a more independent life. Nobody said “independent” would mean “easy,” however. Raising children is seldom easy under any circumstances, and it does not get easier when you have to make all your mistakes alone. Franklin’s character was a woman that real women could recognize, and one whom real men – the kind who see children as something other than baggage – could admire.

It was one thing to be a mother who became a working, single parent because of divorce; it was quite another to be a working woman who became a single parent by choice. Around the dawn of the 1990s, Vice President Dan Quayle picked a fight about family values with a fictional television journalist by the name of Murphy Brown (played by Candice Bergen) and was decidedly the loser. This may not have been entirely fair to Quayle – there is a lot of attention today given to the disadvantages faced by children growing up in one-parent homes – but few Americans in 2013 question either the right or the wisdom of a woman who can provide a good home to raise a child without a domestic partner.

Sitcoms are not documentaries. They are not in the business of furnishing facts and figures. They don’t give us the probabilities that the members of a certain household will grow up to finish college, own a home, get married or stay out of prison, which are a few of the indications of success in our society. What sitcoms do give us is a look at people whose situations might be different from ours, but who usually turn out not to be so different after all.

Back in the 1960s, black Americans were hard to find on network television except in three contexts: in news broadcasts about crime or the civil rights movement; in sports and musical entertainment; and, occasionally, in stereotyped portrayals that showed them as servants, cartoons, or both.

One evening in 1968, we met Julia Baker (Diahann Carroll), a nurse who needed a job to support herself and her young son after her husband was killed in Vietnam. In the first episode of the series to which the character gave her name, Julia calls Dr. Morton Chegley (Lloyd Nolan) about a job.

“Be here at nine,” the doctor tells her, “and make yourself as handsome as you can manage. I’m tired of looking at ugly nurses. I married one.”

“I’ll do my best, sir,” Julia replies. “But has Mr. Colton told you?”

“Told me what?”

“I’m colored,” Julia says, reminding us today how the vocabulary of polite speech can change over time.

“What color are you?” inquires Dr. Chegley.

“I’m a Negro,” Julia clarifies.

“Have you always been a Negro, or are you just trying to be fashionable?”

Today this exchange is mildly amusing, in an archaic way. But Julia first aired less than six months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, barely a year after race riots sundered Detroit and other U.S. cities, and only four years after the Civil Rights Act was passed. It took courage for NBC to put it on the air, even though critics at the time derided it for portraying a sanitized view of African-American life. The show gave many white Americans their first look at a black household that was recognizably like their own. Less than 20 years later, The Cosby Show portrayed a prosperous and loving black American family and earned top ratings with scarcely an ounce of controversy.

If Julia showed white America someone who was more like itself than it expected, Archie Bunker showed white America someone who was more like itself than it wanted – loudly bigoted and ignorant, though not mean-spirited or evil at heart. Archie (Carroll O’Connor) was the central character of All in the Family, which premiered on CBS in 1970 and dominated ratings for a decade. In one episode, entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr., pays an improbable visit to the Bunkers’ home in Queens, N.Y. Ever the considerate host, Archie asks his wife, Edith (Jean Stapleton) to fetch a beer for him – and to bring Davis a Twinkie.

Gays were even less visible on television than blacks until they started coming out of the closet in real life and turning up in sitcom fantasies. (I am not counting Jack Ritter’s portrayal of a straight man cohabiting with two attractive women in Three’s Company, in which Ritter’s character pretends to be gay in order to divert a landlord who is simultaneously suspicious, judgmental and lecherous.) Famously, in the case of Ellen DeGeneres and her 1990s sitcom, Ellen, the two events occurred together in 1997.

DeGeneres’ coming out occurred just a year after Congress passed, and President Bill Clinton signed, the Defense of Marriage Act. It came seven years before the first legal same-sex marriage was performed on U.S. soil. Ellen and the many shows that have portrayed gays since, from Will and Grace to Modern Family, have chipped away at the law’s fundamental principle of “otherness” almost from the moment it passed. In a few months, we may see the final result of this societal sculpting, if the Supreme Court strikes down all or part of DOMA.

I doubt that most of these sitcoms set out to change society. I suspect the primary goal was just to be funny, which was essential to stay on the air. Yet I think it is fair to say that in the course of entertaining us, they changed us, or at least they made it easier for us to change ourselves.

Condolences to those who were close to Bonnie Franklin, who died at age 69 of complications from pancreatic cancer. And thank you to all of the creative talents, past and present, whose work has helped us grow so much over the years, even if we did not mean to.


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