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Friday, August 12, 2016

August 12, 2016: American Fathers: Sitcom Dads

[August 11th marked the birthday of AmericanStudier pére, as well as one of the very best digital humanists, scholarly writers, and grandfathers I know, Steve Railton. In his honor, a series on some noteworthy cultural and historical American fathers! Share your paternal responses and reflections for the father of all crowd-sourced posts!]
AmericanStudying the clichéd extremes of sitcom dads, and the men in the middle.
1)      The Wise Men: It’s no coincidence that one of the first popular TV sitcoms was entitled Father Knows Best (1954-60, based on the 1949-54 radio show). A central thread throughout the genre’s history has been the trope of the wise father responding to his family’s problems and issues, from Father’s Jim Warren (Robert Young) and Leave It to Beaver’s Ward Cleaver (Hugh Beaumont, proving in that clip that father most definitely did not always know best) to The Cosby Show’s Cliff Huxtable (Bill Cosby, now ironically but nevertheless) and Growing Pains’ Jason Seaver (Alan Thicke), among countless others. It’s difficult to separate this trope from 50s stereotypes of gender and family roles (especially after seeing that hyperlinked Leave It to Beaver moment), but at the same time the trope’s endurance long after that decade reflects its continued cultural resonance. If sitcoms often reflect exaggerated versions of our idealized social structures, then there’s something about that paternalistic wise man that has remained a powerful American idea.
2)      The Fools: Yet at the same time that the TV version of Father Knows Best was taking off, Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners (1955-56, based on a recurring comedy sketch) was experiencing its own brief but striking success. I’m not sure whether Gleason’s foolish, angry husband (not yet a father in Gleason’s case) character was a direct response to wise characters or just the natural yang to that yin; but in any case such foolish fathers have likewise continued to be a sitcom staple in the decades since, with Married with Children’s Al Bundy (Ed O’Neill) and The Simpsons’ Homer Simpson (voiced by Dan Castellaneta) representing two particularly exaggerated end of the century versions of the type. Yet also two significantly distinct versions—Al Bundy consistently desires to escape from his wife and family (putting him in the American tradition of characters like Rip Van Winkle), while Homer is a macho stereotype who loves his beer and donuts but also mostly loves his family. To paraphrase Tolstoy’s famous quote, each foolish sitcom father is foolish in his own way.
3)      The Middle Men: Because these two extremes have been so prevalent in sitcom history, it’s easy to put each and every sitcom father into one or the other of these categories. But I think doing so would be a disservice to (among others) those sitcom dads who might superficially seem like caricatured fools, but whose characters included complexities and depths beyond that stereotype. I’d say that’s especially the case for a few 1970s dads: All in the Family’s Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor), The Jeffersons’ George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley, who first appeared as the character on All), and Sanford and Son’s Fred Sanford (Redd Foxx). Each of those fathers could be as foolish and angry as any, but to stop there would be to miss much of what made them and their sitcoms memorable: partly the willingness to engage with social and political issues such as race and class; but also and just as importantly the messy, dynamic humanity each character and actor captured, all without losing an ounce of their comic timing and success. Few fathers are purely wise or foolish, after all, and these dads in the middle help remind us of the full spectrum of paternal possibilities.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So one more time: what do you think? Fatherly texts or figures you’d highlight?

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