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.