The Harridan Effect

If one happens to be glued to a television like the majority of Americans, one may have happened upon the old stand-by of network television airtime filler: the situational comedy. At its most basic, a sitcom derives its humor from the reactions of its characters when placed in odd situations. In the case of a more subdued format, say, Seinfeld’s show about nothing, the situations tend to be more mundane, focusing on a group of friends wandering lost inside a parking garage, or the frustrations of romantic relationships. Even the odder elements, say the totalitarian “Soup Nazi”, still had its subplot of the hazards and hassles of moving a large piece of furniture. In these cases, the sitcom focused on the behavior of its characters in these normal situations to derive the comedic backbone of the production.

The same can be said of a show like The Big Bang Theory, which focuses on a small, close-knit group of friends whose social skills range from nerdy and awkward in an endearing sort of way to a complete lack of any normal sociable connection whatsoever. Again, these episodic moments focus on the interactions between our awkward protagonists and the world at large, juxtaposing the mental intelligence of the characters with their complete lack of ordinary social knowledge. It is a formula that works well, giving a solid underdog or everyman vibe that the majority of audiences can find some connection with.

And then there’re the family sitcoms. They range anywhere from Full House to Martin (it counts) to Home Improvement, or, even further back, I Love Lucy or The Honeymooners. In this sitcom genre the focus is more on the interaction with a married couple and, as the genre has progressed, the conflict that exists between the extended families and friends of both partners. Again, down to basics we have at the core of the show a double act consisting of a straight man, or feed, and the comedy foil. In these cases, the show derives its humor from the clashing of forces between the two primary characters. Of course, further derivations occur as extended family is added, say, with the harpy mother-in-law who believes the man her daughter has married is a buffoon (and treats him accordingly), or the estranged ex-wife who acts as the ice queen foil to the generally loving and doting second wife or girlfriend.

In many of these cases, the husband or man in the relationship takes on the roll of the bumbling, eccentric comic, while the wife maintains her position as the competent, beleaguered, and longsuffering straight-woman. This is typically a symptom of the main male lead being the comic around whom the show has been made, as in the case of Everybody Loves Raymond, Martin,Home Improvement, The Honeymooners…the list goes on. Counterexamples only exist when the woman is the main comedienne of the duo, as is the case with I Love Lucy. The formula remains the same, but there are key and sometimes strikingly unsubtle differences between how a straight husband and a straight wife are portrayed in these duos.

Starting with the rare examples, Enrique “Ricky” Ricardo (as portrayed by Desi Arnaz) plays the straight foil husband, a struggling orchestra leader and later club owner, suffering the delusions of grandeur of his talentless housewife Lucy (Lucille Ball). The same can be said of George Burns and Gracie Allen in the later radio broadcast and more fully in the television series. Burns would typically break the fourth wall and spy on the goings on of his wife in order to foil whatever schemes she would be cooking up in the current episode. However, these are atypical scenarios in the current climate of televised sitcoms.

A strong, even-tempered straight-woman can typically only be found if the comedienne in question is taking on the role of an aggressive, “masculine” business-like persona. Good examples rest with Candace Bergen’s Murphy Brown, so controversial in her lack of needing a man that Dan Quayle had to take time out of his busy schedule misspelling common vegetables to comment on it. Another strong female lead would be Mary Richards’ character as portrayed by Mary Tyler Moore. These women are no-nonsense, don’t need men to feel successful or whole, and generally buck the system that seems to state otherwise. They are as confident, as competent, as their male counterparts, often even surpassing the men around them.

Something seems to happen to straight-women in a male centric sitcom, however, that undoes all of this pro-feminist work done by the trailblazers of women in comedy. Your typical comic male in a sitcom lead will be bumbling, an odd-ball, and typically running (if that’s not too much exercise) to fat. Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Cramden (and his caveman counterpart Fred Flintstone),Homer Simpson, Kevin James’ Doug Heffernan, all set the scene for an incompetent, deluded overweight man with an inexplicably attractive wife (see Pert Kelton/Audrey Meadows’ Alice,Wilma Flintstone, Marge Simpson, or Leah Remini’s Carrie Heffernan to name an apt few). A more streamlined presentation of the same principle can be seen in the Ray Romano/Patricia Heaton as the Barone’s or Tim Allen/Patricia Richardson as the Taylor’s on Home Improvement. In any case, the woman is forced into the role of straight-woman in order to highlight the comedian husband who typically receives top billing and is the nucleus of the show through which all the situations arise.

This puts the women in the delicate position of maintaining the social peace of the household, maintaining ultimate stability, and cutting down the harebrained schemes of their significant other. As such, they often have to be the nagging one, the sarcastic member of the family, working to constantly undermine their partner and show the up for their buffoonery. This has the unfortunate side-effect, when dealing with a family dynamic, of turning the often only sensible character on a show into the main antagonist, forcing the wife to become the harridan, constantly harping and judging, very rarely going along for the ride.

The reactions of the husbands to the constant henpecking is often that of a losing of the self-esteem they were trying to bolster in that week’s episode, of becoming frustrated, putting on the guise of a mistreated man. Sometimes, as in the case with Jackie Gleason’s Cramden, the character will threaten his spouse with physical abuse. In a sitcom. For families to enjoy together. This has been downplayed since the advent of color television, with the husband typically on the abused end of the spectrum, receiving his fair share of slaps upside the head, vigorous arm punching, and any other assortment of physical “I told you so” gestures once things have fallen apart. Violence is the literal punch line.

Just imagine a role reversal, where Ray Romano is the straight-man, hitting his wife upside the head for bumbling another simplistic plot. Where Jackie Gleason follows through with his threats. Comedy suddenly takes a dark turn and heads into after school special territory. It isn’t that one necessarily wants to send out a general call for more violence to women, or less good natured slapstick in sitcoms, it’s that there are strict lines in the conventions of modern sitcoms that makes one-way violent outburst, be they physical or emotional, the de facto state of affairs. As only the woman is allowed to take on this aggressive role, the woman comes across as the villain, thwarting not only her husband’s attempts at getting rich quick or getting that promotion through some Rube Goldberg-esque scheme involving steamed hams and a clown suit, but also creating a target for the audience to dislike. She is the one responsible for crushing her husband’s childlike innocence, for keeping the audience from seeing just how insane and madcap the scenario could have become. The voice of reason, juxtaposed to that of chaos, comes across as a dictator in the political landscape of the home. Power is not shared, and the audience knows this. Writers for these shows reinforce the concept of a discrepancy of authority in households, and one may just feel that the overuse of this trope is lazy writing, serving only to bring up tired stereotypes in order to fit the demanding schedule of a twenty-six episode season.

It may be time to quit mining that node.

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