The A-B-Cs of Comedy

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Disclaimer: I have no personal, professional or financial connection with ABC-TV.

Every week I look forward to the comedic television lineup of The Middle, Modern Family, and Blackish. Somehow ABC has produced a trifecta of engaging, side-splitting half-hour sitcoms, all of which center on family dynamics and dysfunctions.

The Middle is the unsung sibling of the mega-hit Modern Family. While both shows depict the ups and downs of family life, The Middle focuses on the vicissitudes of one family trying to make ends meet in Middle America. The Heck family is so easy to relate to because they are far from perfect. For instance, mom Frankie yells, “I made dinner!” and plops bags of fast food on the kitchen table. In another episode, I found myself completely relating to the parents, who decide to “take back the house” and do nothing special for their children. They inevitably cave, and things go back to normal, which is to say that the kids rule. Yes, that’s my family life. Yet the Hecks have a connection that makes each episode heartwarming. As much as I am laughing at the Hecks, I am also smiling at their obvious affection for each other.

Modern Family is bigger and brasher than The Middle. The extended Pritchett family have unique family makeups, such as the gay couple raising an adopted Vietnamese daughter and the patriarch and his much younger, voluptuous Colombian wife and her son. The dialogue and timing in Modern Family make it a comic masterpiece. In one scene, Jay Pritchett feels underdressed when his gorgeous wife Gloria comes down the stairs dressed to the nines for a parent-teacher conference. He asks her, “Why do you look like that when I look like this?” Without missing a beat, her son Manny responds, “My friends say it’s because of your money.”

There are tears-inducing moments in Modern Family too, but overall the show is just one giant laugh fest. I think what makes these sitcoms so effective is the strength of their casts. The Middle boasts comedy veterans Patricia Heaton of Everybody Loves Raymond fame and Neil Flynn from ScrubsModern Family, on the other hand, took a cast of virtual unknowns (with the exception of Married: With Children’s Ed O’Neill) and turned them into stars.

The excellent cast is also one of the factors that makes ABC’s new sitcom Blackish so enjoyable. I was leery of a show whose premise rests with humor centered primarily on race. Yet the show avoids the cringe-worthy offensiveness I found in the ill-fated Michael J. Fox Show, which took cheap shots at Parkinson’s disease without any real sense of humor in evidence.

In Blackish, Andre Johnson, a black ad exec, presides over his upper middle class family, including doctor-wife Rainbow (played by Tracee Ellis Ross, daughter of the singer Diana Ross) and four precocious kids. The kids really elevate the show to something special. Although they are wise beyond their years in the style common to sitcoms, they are not obnoxious, but extremely likable.

What really impresses me about Blackish is that race is addressed in a very open way without being trite or offensive – rather, hilarious. In a recent episode, Andre wants to be his office’s first black Santa, but when the role is given to a Hispanic woman, he protests, “There’s supposed to be a Black Santa before a Mexican Santa.” His mom agrees, “Mexicans can’t be jumping the line. It’s bad enough they started taking Black people’s jobs with sneaky tricks like working hard for less pay.”

What could come off as offensive simply comes off with a laugh. Blackish, with its sharp, humorous focus on a racial minority, gives me hope for another ABC sitcom set to air in 2015 – an Asian-American comedy titled Fresh Off the Boat.

There’s something about humor that helps expand our horizons in a non-threatening way. A lovable gay couple on Modern Family helps normalize the idea of gays for its audience. Likewise, Blackish gives us a glimpse of how blacks see racial stereotypes without making us feel defensive.

As I get older, I have noticed the inevitable lines that are starting to appear on my face. And since I’d rather live with laugh lines than frown lines, I plan to enjoy my favorite comedies as much as possible.

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