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TCA: Dads, FX, and How to Do Offensive Comedy Right (and Wrong)

The makers of Fox's Dad say objections to its racial humor mean people are just too easily offended. But Fox has an entire sibling network--FX--doing offensive comedy much better.

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Frank Micelotta / Invision for FX

The Always Sunny cast presents at the Television Critics Association press tour, Aug. 2, 2013

It’s never a good sign for a network at the Television Critics Association press tour when people are most interested in talking about your worst new shows. Fox came to TCA with plenty to talk about–new shows, the return of 24, how Glee would handle the death of Cory Monteith–but one of the most anticipated subjects, for better or worse, was Seth MacFarlane’s new sitcom Dads.

Dads’ premise is that two friends and business partners (Seth Green and Giovanni Ribisi) have their lives upended when their fathers (Martin Mull and Peter Riegert) re-enter their lives. But its most distinguishing feature is that its jokes–lots of them–involve racist comments (its the chief defining feature of the dad characters), racist situations (a young Asian woman has to dress up in anime getup to flirt with business clients), or flat-out racial stereotypes played for laughs (there’s a joke, for instance, about an Asian man’s small penis).

In his executive session, Fox chief Kevin Reilly came prepared for criticism, trotting out savage reviews of the pilot for The Big Bang Theory, which became a huge hit. And an afternoon session with producers and the cast turned defensive, with the actors arguing that, these days, almost everyone will offend somebody. Hey, Archie Bunker offended people, too! In other words: people are too politically correct, good comedy presses buttons, and if people are bothered, it must be a sign that we’re doing something right. (At one point, producer Mike Scully said, “We don’t want to become ‘the racial-insult comedy.’”)

I don’t want to say too much about Dads, which is in fact a pretty terrible pilot but also, like many pilots, may be changed before it airs. But it was an interesting, or unfortunate, contrast that Fox’s defenses of Dads came the day before the Friday presentation by its cable sibling network FX–whose comedies, almost across the board, derive humor from people acting awfully and offensively, and almost across the board do a far better job of it.

Take It’s Almost Sunny in Philadelphia, which going into its 9th season has built episode after episode around its characters’ selfish and sometimes bigoted attitudes (its pilot episode, after all, was called “The Gang Gets Racist”). Yet you don’t get the sense watching it that its jokes rely on you agreeing with the characters or believing that the stereotypes they believe in are true.

Like South Park–or for that matter, other FX comedies like Archer or The League–no one would accuse Always Sunny of being politically correct. It doesn’t lecture, provide “audience surrogates” to correct its characters, or try to provide morals to each episode.

So how does Always Sunny pull it off? Simplistic as this may be, for starters it’s just hugely funny, and being funny gets a comedy plenty of mileage. A show with laughs is a show with intelligence (even if it’s not intellectual); it’s a sign that it knows its characters and has thought through its reasons for being. Always Sunny’s cast talked a little about this on Friday, answering a question about how the show has broken from the traditional formula of making sure to provide the audience at least one “straight man” or “likable” character. Sunny’s characters can be horrible, said Glenn Howerton, but they exemplify “some of the worst impulses we all have.”

Or to take another Fox comedy, critic Alyssa Rosenberg contrasted the way Dads handles its racist-old-people premise with the excellent “Country Drive” episode of Louie, in which Louis CK takes his two daughters to visit an elderly relative who turns out to be a casual, unreconstructed racist (she calls Brazil nuts “nigger toes”). The episode plays out with Louie struggling between setting a good example for his daughters–who are baffled that anyone would actually talk like this–and his reluctance to get in a conflict with an old woman on death’s door.

That’s an idea, something bigger and more productive–and funnier–than just: “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if we had two guys who are always saying really embarrassing, racist things.” And there’s a similar outrageous thoughtfulness in other FX shows–Legit, for instance, whose first season built much of its comedy out of the social pieties around disabled people.

Political correctness may be the death of humor, but crying political correctness can also be an enabler for really lousy humor. It may be easier for Fox and Dads’ creative staff to say that some people are just automatically offended by edgy comedy. Unfortunately, Fox has an entire other network that argues otherwise.

30 comments
mrbomb13
mrbomb13

Reading articles like this gives one the impression that James Poniewozik was that 3rd-grade kid in who cried all the time when teased in even the slightest of ways.

Him (and other picked-on columnists) do not seem to be able to stomach humor. 

djmeyer
djmeyer

South Park does acceptable offensive humor perfectly. They usually do it to make a point and the reason we laugh or don't get mad when they really offend is because they will usually have one of their characters who is the "moral" one or the one that can side with what a majority of the viewers are actually feeling about the subject. 

buffalo.barnes102
buffalo.barnes102

What I got out of this article: "I don't like Seth McFarlane or his comedy. I think "Always..." is funny."

Captain_Tragedy
Captain_Tragedy

@buffalo.barnes102 Then you didn't read it very closely.

buffalo.barnes102
buffalo.barnes102

@Captain_Tragedy @buffalo.barnes102 

Anything to do with "Always Sunny" bores me.

buffalo.barnes102
buffalo.barnes102

@Captain_Tragedy 

Thanks for your calm logical reply. (Something in short supply a little further down the board.) McFarlane always swings for the fences, sometimes going a little too far. It's a thin line to walk and not everyone can do it successfully. Seth may have found that his brand of humor has veered over the edge.

Captain_Tragedy
Captain_Tragedy like.author.displayName 1 Like

The point of the comparison is that a show like "Sunny" uses racial stereotyping as a character trait, and when they're used in show, the joke is on the person who believes in the stereotypes.

On "Dads", apparently, the joke is usually on the person who's the victim of the stereotype, and that's the difference.

ChristopherLoFong
ChristopherLoFong like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

I haven't seen the pilot yet but this great writer hits on a big distinguishing factor between "racist but doesn't cross the line" and "crosses the line" and that is: intelligent humor. 

Also, I've always felt that "bullying" is a big factor.  That is, if the context of the punchline lands at the expense of the minority group that is the subject of the joke, then it's just plain bullying and crosses the line. But if the punchline winds up being turned on the head and end sup against the instigator, then that's safe.  

But that's just my opinion. 



Openminded1
Openminded1 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

This country has a double standard when it come to comedy and racial issues, black comedians can say anything they want about whitey or hispanics and yes even people with slanted eyes, but god for bid if a white comedian says something about a black  Al not so Sharpton will come out of the dark and call in the news media the NAACP, and Obama and cause more social unrest and racism in this country by using the race card, get over people its comedy on both sides of the street not just the black side.

Captain_Tragedy
Captain_Tragedy

@Openminded1 Because white people have been the cultural, economic, and political power and majority of this country since it was founded. Because black people in America have been consistently throughout its history subject to treatment as lesser than whites. From slavery to Jim Crow laws to white flight to the War on Drugs to stop-and-frisk, it is pervasive in the history of America, and it still happens today.

So, boo-hoo that white people can't make jokes about black people. Suck it up. White people get everything else. Like @ChristopherLoFong said, making the joke at the minority's expense is just bullying. 

If you're really so concerned about racism, why don't you turn your intention to real economic and cultural racism, or political racism like the voting-restriction laws states are now passing, or stop-and-frisk, or people like Rep. Steve King who can't stop comparing Mexican immigrants to animals, or the economic inequalities national policy has fostered? If racism is a big deal to you, go do something about it, go do something where racism makes a real difference in the quality of people's lives, and stop whining on the internet that white people can't make fun of black people anymore.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@Captain_Tragedy @Openminded1 @ChristopherLoFong Listen bleeding heart liberal i do not know about you but I am black. So I can say from real experience that I know blacks are more racist, I do not live in a fantasy world like you. I spent 30 years as a cop in a . major city What the F-have you done for your community. Likes of Al no so sharp sharpton  does not help racism people like him hurt relations and he makes money off his own people. Do not tell me about racism I have lived on both sides blacks calling a uncle tom because I was a cop and whites using the N word. But I also no the truth blacks are far more racist, and more of a danger to whites then the other way around. this is 2013 moron times have changed i saw it first hand in the streets not on tv like you hearing then black race card being used.  so do not talk before you read in to a persons post. now you go out and help the community.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@Captain_Tragedy @Openminded1 If you think bleeding heart liberal is a bad name you do not know of my post. remember moron you attacked me first i only answered you and you did not like the answer. No is whining it called say it like it is brother not the Bs that come from blacks using the race card for every answer they do not like or verdict they do not like I am sick of the double standard and what happened 200 years ago. You were not around so stop listening to the AL not so Sharp Sharptons of the world and become a real man not a follower. Dummy  now that is meant as an insult.

buffalo.barnes102
buffalo.barnes102

@Openminded1 

There's quite a difference in "saying something" about a black person and calling them one of the most degrading names in history. Being called a "cracker" (if the shoe fits), and being called a "n****r" are vastly different.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@buffalo.barnes102 @Openminded1 The shoe does not fit dummy I am black and the N word is racist so is the word cracker when used by a black. What do you a black calls a white a cracker for ? He is not talking about Nabisco. It is ment the same way as the N- word and honkey is too. But you notice the double standard started by blacks and the media that you can not even spell out the N word on this post, but no problem for a brother to call whitey a cracker/honkey etc. And if it is so degrading, which it is, why does every rapper and sista and brother use in in everyday conversation and songs. Get real double standard BS, race card crap.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@buffalo.barnes102 @Openminded1 Am i a cracker Bro because I worked for the man. Or because I am only half black like Obama who also works for the man. You enjoy the sunshine brother I will sip on a glass of tea my deck enjoying the sun with you in mind.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@buffalo.barnes102 @Openminded1 by the way no one ever heard George Z use the n word, but everyone knows T Martin called white people cracker and honkey MF. So who was racist between them?

iamtanmay
iamtanmay

@Openminded1 Openminded my f***king ass. Hey whiteboy, you are the most bigoted f**kface I've seen.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@iamtanmay @Openminded1 First off black violent brother, I am not white I am black just like brother OBama half and half. You are just used to a black man saying it like it is, so you pull the black mans card know as the race card so typical,  You know the truth that there is a double standard and that blacks are much more racist then whites. I can admit because I am openminded.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@iamtanmay @Openminded1 by the way ass hole you have not seen my face and i do not see yours either, but I know it is the face of a dummy violent riot type.

FrankBlank
FrankBlank like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

@Openminded1 You are being picked on.  Mercilessly abused.  You should boycott comedy.  Boycott the internet.  Make a difference!

Openminded1
Openminded1

@FrankBlank @Openminded1 Oh my god you must be black too did the truth upset you? If you are not black you are dating a black or maybe just a bleeding heart liberal or maybe you think you are a comedian  , it does not matter moron I say it like it is and by the way I am half black just like racist Obama.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@DeweySayenoff And by the way racist ass hole your avatar says it all, hows that for smart. that is called street smarts dummy something you may be missing since you spent so much time in English Classes.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@DeweySayenoff a do we say enough where are you taking time to come up with some other wise crack remark that may make you sound not stupid, You think because you are black and have a degree that you are not a racist moron . You just can not handle a black man who does see both sides and has lived on both sides of the street so to speak saying something against your people. That is difference with me I do not use the race card for every answer that I get that I do not like, or verdict that does not go the black way.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@DeweySayenoff Self loathing does not run in my family just the opposite I have a daughter is adorable and a flight attendant a son who his a handsome cop like his dad was and a very pretty wife of 35 years, both kids went to college and live a clean life all without an English degree. I take two vacations a year and live in a gated community in a well know suburb how about you professor you in a double wide some where on your teachers salary.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@DeweySayenoff By the way what is a Dewey and a Sayenoff does that mean SAy enough, because if that is the case you have, Hows that for English ass hole.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@DeweySayenoff First off dummy  you have no idea about my self interest i am a 63 year old retired 30 year police veteran and do identify with both sides of my color.That is why I say it like it is something most blacks do not do. They think if they defend a white point of view they are a uncle Tom. My English skills are fine moron it is my computer skills that need help. But i am an old school guy who is not has good as you young no it all types with very little life experiences. You want stupid English skills listen to Rachel J from the Martin case that is stupid . And for your info when a person is considered black by appearance he identifies with that race. You are maybe black yourself or a bleeding heart moron liberal who thinks he has an English degree he can be an ass hole to everyone who only has degree in criminal justice is that plain English for you professor .

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Self loathing seems to run in your family...  Perhaps a change in politics would help your self-image.  

You see, only whites - and stupid, conservative, poor white trash at that - consistently and reliably vote against their own self interests and that's always based on their hatred, prejudice, fear or intolerance.

And since someone who is half something, racially speaking, would normally identify with both sides of their races, your post begs the question, what is the other half of your racial identity?  Conservative trailer park trash?  Or just a hateful moron?

Your English skills suggest stupid.  Your post confirms that.  The hateful moron seems self evident.  Those of a conservative bend tend to call  others what they, themselves, are.  

The nice thing about this whole exchange is that stupid doesn't depend on race.  You can be stupid and still be any race.  That you flaunt being half black (and the other half subject to question) means nothing in the long run.  You're still stupid.

SukeMadiq
SukeMadiq

Always Sunny is funny as hell.