Of course, we all watch the shows that makes us “Laugh and Cry!”, but that strong artistic spirit in the artists who watch the shows always ask themselves, “Why is this funny?” They wish to ascend to and become their favorite artist, and so, digging into the structure and possibly the psychology behind their favorite shows (or other pieces of art) is a necessary process. And even for people who don’t wish to be artists, seeing many works by the artist enable them to see patterns and things not first noticeable.
The last two days, I’ve wasted time away by watching 6-hour marathons of “Married…With Children”. It’s an old show but retains the same structure as a lot of hit comedy shows today, like “Family Guy” and “The Simpsons”. Years ago, when it was a primetime show on T.V., I thought it was gut-wrenchingly hilarious, even when I didn’t understand some of the jokes (I was like 13 or 14 or something like that and it’s an adult show). I think all of these shows are gut-wrenchingly hilarious, and some of the best written comedy ever.
The shows I’ve listed in this paragraph all share that one obvious component: a dysfunctional family. On top of this, the subjective approach to these families usually includes content that is exaggerated and suggestive more than anything. And it’s from that content that the humor stems.
In Married...With Children, conflicts are all over. This is mainly because all of the characters hate each other, and still find time to center even more hate and disrespect on the central character, Al Bundy. Conflicts range between being within the family, to people outside of them, to their surrounding environment.
The show centers on a lower-class family in Chicago who must deal with the absence of necessities as well as each other’s depravities on the daily basis (but that lower-class status is sometimes suspended at the cost of the reality of the story, see way below).
-Al Bundy is a chauvinist pig whose family life is torture, next to constantly dealing with fat women who complain to and about him at his lowly and desolate shoe store.
-Bud, their son, is a mischievous coming-of-age kid who is always taking cash from family members to protect secrets from other family members whilst trying desperately to unvirginize himself with girls at school.
-Kelly, their older daughter, is a reckless and promiscuous teen who is always bringing men from jail and tough bikers home, not to mention ones she barely knows.
-Peggy, the wife and mother, watches Oprah Winfrey and Phil Donahue all day long and takes the little bit of money Al makes and spends it on herself instead of buying things like food for the family or paying bills.
Family Guy also has the character roles that conflict, but the show itself is more about turning those conventional societal roles inside out. It is about the life of the typical nuclear, suburban family in Providence, Rhode Island. But since everything and everyone has been flipped into their much, more perverse and unusual identities, there ends up being nothing typical about the town or people what-so-ever.
-So Peter Griffin, the father of the family, is expected to be the working, brave leader but instead is a bumbling, childish idiot who is usually the reason the family gets into their episodic problems.
-Lois, the wife and mother who is expected to know only about the kitchen and bedroom while being sexually repressed, is actually a sagacious, vibrant woman who usually gets the family out of their problems and has quite the sexual zest.
-Meg, the daughter who is expected to be the beautiful growing teen that stays at the top of the popular crowd in high school, is actually afraid to be looked at by everyone on earth and is the butt of every joke and victim of every circumstance.
-Chris, their son, is supposed to be the mischievous deviant but is actually quite friendly and harmless, and as dumb as his father.
-The dog Brian is, instead of some furry, primitive beast kept around for entertainment, a very mature and cultured being who sips martinis, walks on two legs and smokes cigarettes.
-Last but not least, Stewie, who is, on the surface, an adorable, lively infant (and the most popular character on the show), is actually a super-intelligent, megalomaniacal arch villain who speaks with an encyclopedic, Oxford accent and lives for not much more than to kill Lois.
Both comedies exaggerate to get their point across, and it’s usually all for the sake of the joke. Trying to remain realistic is where it would become garbage, mundane crap, or another words, like the rest of the comedies on T.V. and in theaters today. There have been countless times on Family Guy where Peter has had limbs severed (a few of which he did himself), yet, in every new episode, he appears whole and fine. On Married…With Children, they cannot pull that kind of thing off since they aren’t animated, but Al continually talks about how inhumanly fat Peggy’s mother is (“Why is it that your three sisters take up one bed, but your mother alone takes up three?”). In reference to them being ultra-poor, there was one episode where, for breakfast, the family had to sip chicken soup out of M&M shells. But on a side note, Al’s reportedly super low salary (below $10,000) is questionable when there have been plenty of episodes where he’s given the family money when they asked, still lives in the house with running electricity and water, and can afford to go bowling and to strip bars although no one else in the family works.
The stark contrasts between everything in both shows is the driving point of the plotlines, which sometimes gets lost and ceases to matter due to the shows being so joke- and punchline-laden. There’s the contrast between Al the chauvinist and Marcy, their neighbor, who is a staunch, upper-class feminist. The contrast/conflict between Bud and Kelly, who are the ever feuding siblings. Between Al and Steve, Marcy’s husband, who brushes his teeth, works at a bank where he is a great and orderly employee and has a respectable wife and car, and still finds things in common with Al, who hardly ever has clean clothes on his back, rarely brushes his teeth, insults the customers at his job and has a wife who sucks the happiness clean out of his life.
Family Guy also talks about itself, being aware of its existence as a T.V. show. In the end of a particular episode, Peter talks about how networks should be ashamed of themselves for showing violence and sex on T.V. and the government should regulate what broadcasts. After being warned by Lois that he should quit while he’s ahead or the budget for their show will get cut, he continues to criticize Fox network (the channel they’re on in the U.S.), and then walks away in cheap, choppy animation (indicating the budget has been cut).
I think “That 70’s Show” also had the main conflicts within the family, but I didn’t follow that show as closely, so I can’t go into details. The Simpsons also had the conflicting roles and extreme wackiness. But, much like “Family Guy” and “Married…With Children”, love always held them together. The structure in all of the shows will probably remain to be same in the future, but this is irrelevant. It is all about the mastery of the details.
See also: The Graphic Novel series “Transmetropolitan”. It’s science fiction and political, but has the same humor.