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Our Sitcom Loser Dads

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For some reason, audiences like to laugh at men who have failed to be a traditional King in their household.

homer simpson peter griffin al bundy family guy married with children

Dr. Wendy Walsh: I recently watched that dramatic video on the "Today" show of the off-duty firefighters who risked their lives to cut a four-year-old out of a burning car. And many other men were also caught on that video helping, doing one of the things men do best: protecting women and children. It was a sharp contrast to the weak male father figures portrayed in most TV sitcoms. This isn't a new trend: from "Married with Children" in the early 1990s, to "The King of Queens" and "The Simpsons," to the hit, "Family Guy," with its bumbling patriarch, Peter Griffin, which is ruling FOX's airwaves even after they cancelled the show twice. For some reason, audiences like to laugh at men who have failed to be a traditional King in their household.

To understand why so many well-intentioned "loser" fathers are tickling our funny bone, you need to understand one principle of comedy: All comedy is "tragedy," viewed from across the street. One's ability to laugh at tragedy depends on how wide that street is. Uncomfortable comedy that hits close to the bone because it is so awful or so true for a small group of people is called "black comedy." Mainstream comedy is filled with truths that we all experience together. It is a shared pain that we laugh at together.

So, what shared pain do we find funny in the portrayal of a weak father figure? Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin certainly mean well. They are not evil men by any means, but they seem to have lost control of their families and their ability to be noble leaders.

And that is exactly the "tragedy" of modern life. As gender roles become interchangeable, many men have become confused about their roles. The traditional family has given way to a host of new combinations that include villages of single mothers, divorced dads who are trying to make it work, deadbeat dads who have given up, households with two dads, and fathers who live in households with supremely successful and effective women. All these changes -- some positive, some negative -- are painful. Change is always hard. So we laugh at these struggles.

And rest assured, in real life, most men are not like our sitcom anti-heroes. Most men are not emotional failures or sorry providers. And, many, many men are not philanderers. They have made the choice of family life because they respect the value of a healthy nest in which to raise children. I also see divorced men suck up their hurt and anger, and pay the piper. They devote their time and money to their children (and sometimes wives) from previous marriages. None of these choices come without struggle. Our men are not our sitcom heroes. But they are our men in transition. We can relate to TV dads because we feel the changes in family power structure, and struggle to make the best choices for our relationships and our children. Just like Peter Griffin.

next: '30 Rock' Star Files for Divorce From Wife of 23 Years
3 comments so far | Post a comment now
ame i. August 10, 2009, 10:38 AM

Heh, I used to tease my late-husband by saying Peg Bundy was my idol. He was a pretty good husband & father but my “now” husband is even better. He’s 48 & this is his first marriage, my/our daughters (9 & 11) are his first children. Maybe he just had more years to develope patience & understanding.

michelle August 10, 2009, 5:06 PM

You miss the fact that comedy is also oppositional — it subverts norms. The reason these shows are funny is precisely because men, in real life, are still pretty much in charge.

Immobilier Bretagne March 7, 2011, 4:55 AM

Your house is valueble for me. Thanks!…

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