In this essay I will analyze how television comedy is the ideal medium in which to challenge the confines of representation. Comedy is the second most popular genre of program on British television. It tolerates the expression of ideas that are restricted in other contexts, playing ‘a critical part in reflecting our national culture and the way we live now’ (Mark Thompson, BBC, 2004). In addition, this reflection of society is most deliberately played upon with the representation of gender and race.
Both of these representations in comedy tend to form crucial elements from which humour is essentially derived. Gender acts as a comedic tool where social norms can be broken. Furthermore, the changing of contexts can create odd perceptions of typical behaviour, while stereotypes of masculine and feminine identities are often exaggerated and mixed. Similarly race allows us to laugh at our prejudice by amplifying the behaviour, accents and social situations that we see, hear and experience everyday.
Situation comedy’s enforcement of stereotypes allows the viewer to recognise personality traits, creating pleasure through decoding identities and forming a type of abstract relationship with the main characters. Fundamentally, this makes the viewer experience a thirty-minute cluster of the similar type of humour he/she would normally experience with friends and family. During the last decade, this has reached new heights with the popular American sit-com ‘Friends’ (1994-2004). Based around six ‘twenty-something’ characters, the show is fairly reliant on its representations of gender.
The even mixture of three females and three males allows room for a range of gender based comical situations and dialogues. Male characters, Ross, Chandler and Joey are defined through masculinity, which is based on their strength and perception of women. Among the three, Joey is seen as the most masculine as he is known for his success with women, seeing them as sex objects (Mills. B, 2005). The other two characters get emotionally involved with women and are less masculine and accepted as weaker than Joey.
In some cases they even show signs of feminine behaviour. This contrast in itself acts as a platform for humour. One example shows Ross boasting about the way his work colleagues find him intimidating. In his need to prove himself as ‘tough’ he tries to intimidate Joey as he walks by, but Joey, barely acknowledging him, pushes Ross’s chest and he pathetically falls over, collapsing to the ground. (Episode 5. 09) However, the feminist lobby has not really responded much to these depictions of male identities in ‘Friends’.
I believe this is because the characters in friends do not use masculinity as a requirement for success. Although Joey is the most masculine, he is also seen as the one with least intellect. He is often the slowest in the group and spent most of the early episodes as an unsuccessful actor. Whereas Ross and Chandler were both in well-paid jobs and both had a long-term partner when the final series ended. Other uses of gender stereotypes as the crux of humour include the 1970’s popular British sit-com ‘Bless This House’ with renowned actor Sid James.
The comedy was about the Abbot family with parents, Sidney and Jean, and children, Mike and Sally. Sidney was the typical middle-aged frustrated male, finding it difficult to put up with his wife and the generation gap between him and his children’s values. Jean was the stereotypical 70s housewife. She was primarily concerned with cooking, cleaning and ‘what the neighbours thought. ‘ She often used empty threats when angry at Sid and hysterical behaviour to show annoyance, which made her character on the borderline of a ‘battle axe’ stereotype.
Mike was the liberal, artistic teenager and Sally was the pretty yet dim girl. Most of the humour is derived from a lack of understanding between father and children, not to mention Sid’s traditional values leading him to insult and joke about his children. The viewer is constantly reminded of Sid’s persona in each episode and most situations lead to a comedic reinforcement, whereby the sheer predictability of Sid’s character becomes comedy; you find yourself laughing at him rather than with him.
One example of this is seen in the episode ‘Day of Rest’, where Sid tries to make sense of his son’s abstract sculpture and is disgusted that his daughter has the knowledge to see the phallic symbolism of a drain plug. However, later that day he thinks his son is having an affair with the neighbour and typically encourages him to by all means ‘spread his wings’, just not with the married neighbour. This protectiveness over one’s daughter is a typical double standard of Sid’s old-fashioned character. It reflected an ideology that had started to become a commonly recognised issue of the times.
By addressing the issues of generation gaps and parental double standards, the makers of the show were allowing mass audiences laugh at the ridiculous nature behind them. Thus, they were attempting to bridge the gap between the new generation of young adults and their parents. Female characters in sit-coms used to generally be subordinate; however, present time comedies like ‘Rosanne’, ‘Ellen’, ‘Ally McBeal’ and ‘Sex and the City’ have paved the way for a new era in situation comedy. These shows have brought about a reinforcement of positive female roles that women can relate to.