Over the past year, American political culture has become interested in the class war all over again. From the Occupy Wall Street movement to Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” video, issues of who should be paying what share into the government are everywhere, to the degree that the outcome of the current presidential election might hinge on these questions. Discussions of class issues are all over the media, from the front pages of the biggest newspapers to the lowliest of current-events blogs, and they’ve even started to creep their way onto television, particularly in dramas invested in current events, like The Good Wife, or shows based on economic circumstances, like Breaking Bad—which got lucky by starting right before the Great Recession began, making it more topical than it would have been had it debuted even two years earlier. Even reality series explore this arena, though they usually treat working-class people as odd curiosities from a roadside museum. (See also: Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.)
Yet a whole area of television remains uniquely uninterested in the working class, and it’s an area where many of its finest examples from the past are about the working class: TV sitcoms, a genre where blue-collar representation is currently minimal. At present, only Raising Hope, The Middle, and 2 Broke Girls show a serious interest in questions of economic instability. There are other comedies set in working-class or middle-class milieus—series like Ben And Kate or Happy Endings—but most of them glide over issues of how the characters make the money necessary to live as they do. (This has shades of Friends, which often treated how little it cared about the realism of its characters living in such huge apartments as a gag.) Yet in spite of the ratings success of The Middle and 2 Broke Girls, if not so much of Raising Hope, the networks continue to make series about upper-class characters who never have to worry about money or possessions, including every new comedy this season, with the aforementioned—arguable—exception of Ben And Kate.
Creating a sense of stakes is one of the hardest tasks for a TV comedy, which makes this phenomenon even stranger. By design, TV comedies are meant to be simultaneously low-key and dramatic. If the situation is too desperate, then the story of any given episode might become too serious for laughs. But without some sort of drama, episodes can easily become a long string of empty jokes. This is why, traditionally, one of the most common methods for sitcoms to inject drama into a scenario has been to give characters a limited amount of money. Certainly there have been plenty of comedies over the decades where all involved always had whatever they needed, but sitcom history is also littered with the flipside, series like The Honeymooners, All In The Family, and Roseanne, where it was never clear whether the family would make it to the next paycheck.
Even 10 years ago, the highest-rated sitcoms on TV included series like King Of Queens and Still Standing, shows where the characters didn’t worry about money constantly, but plausibly could worry about money—shows with cramped houses filled with crap because both members in the central couple had to work, and couldn’t afford a maid. Even on ensemble comedies like Cheers or NewsRadio, there was almost always a character from a working-class background, like Cliff Clavin or Joe Garelli. Gradually, most of that has been leeched out of TV.
For a good example of a current comedy that follows in this tradition, consider Cougar Town, whose co-creator Kevin Biegel, lists the show’s Bobby Cobb as one of the poorest characters on television. “He lives in an abandoned boat, steals electricity and water, and drives a golf cart. The man’s a folk hero,” Biegel says. Biegel blames some of television’s fear of portraying poor people on the fact that audiences don’t seem terribly interested in watching comedies that deal with social issues anymore, outside of South Park. Furthermore, writers who’ve grown up in working-class backgrounds don’t want to glamorize economic struggle, while writers who don’t come from that background have to worry about writing it accurately.
The gradual loss of blue-collar comedy is a close cousin to the gradual whitening of television, and the way it’s gotten increasingly younger, but it’s far more insidious. It’s easy to tell a sitcom has no non-white cast members just by looking at a photo of the regulars, just as it’s easy to tell everyone in it is in their mid-20s to mid-30s by doing the same. Yet realizing how few working-class—or, for that matter, poor people—are on TV takes time, particularly because some shows give the appearance of being about people with jobs just like those watching them, but don’t depict any of the actual circumstances of having to live within a set of means.
Take Modern Family, currently one of the most popular comedies on television. The series’ central family—Phil and Claire Dunphy, played by Julie Bowen and Ty Burrell—is headed by a real-estate agent and his stay-at-home wife. Yet even though the show debuted in 2009, at the height of the financial crisis, when a real-estate agent would have been at wit’s end, trying to make sales, the Dunphys never want for money. This isn’t even about how the family can afford a gigantic house—it’s perhaps plausible that Phil got a sweetheart deal. The lack of worry about money is built into the DNA of the show. The characters are constantly getting in car accidents that don’t seem to have any financial effect on them. (Even with good insurance, the number of cars this family goes through should be prohibitively expensive.) They take time to indulge in expensive whims and weird hobbies. These qualities extend to the series’ other two families, who have mostly indiscernible sources of income. This does raise the question, “Who cares?” If it’s funny, it’s no big deal, right? Biegel agrees. “Take Modern Family,” he says. “Rich or poor, anyone can relate to those characters’ dynamics. That’s ultimately the most important thing, and I think the reason that show is so great is that it deals with those relationships so well. It’s realistic and relatable.”
That can be the case for many shows. There are even series where the characters’ success is the point. The Huxtables on The Cosby Show were successful, but that was part of Bill Cosby’s desire to show a happy, intact African-American family with two parents working in professions that denoted success: medicine and law. There’s no real reason for Modern Family’s central family to live such a carefree existence, but the fact that one of TV’s most popular shows takes place in a world where money seems to fall from the sky ignores the reality of much of its audience. At a time when these issues are everywhere else, it can feel as if TV comedy is as ignorant of what’s going on in the world as the fantasy sitcoms of the 1960s, though at least those shows often found ways to turn the turmoil of their decade into metaphor.
Even if TV comedy’s borderline ignorance of class issues shouldn’t be considered politically irresponsible, consider how much it robs any given series of stakes. When Modern Family started out, it was about a family where the individual members often didn’t get along. As time went on and the conflicts softened—inevitable on a TV comedy—the source of drama too often has to come from outside elements, like all those car accidents. Attempting to avoid this is why so many great TV comedies have given their characters money troubles. (On Roseanne, those money troubles actually got worse as the series went along, until the central family won the lottery in an ill-advised final season.)
There are likely many reasons for this, including the fact that many of today’s comedies are written by people heavily influenced by a specific strand of ’90s comedies, either because they grew up watching them, or because they got their first jobs on those shows. These programs were almost entirely about people who didn’t really worry about money, including Seinfeld, Friends, Will & Grace, and Frasier. Notably, they were all on NBC, a network that specifically targeted young, white, urban professionals living in a time when the American economy seemed to be expanding well out into eternity.
“I think after Roseanne, perhaps it was the NBC Must See TV that got people excited about beautiful people in beautiful giant, colorful apartments,” says Eileen Heisler, co-creator of The Middle, and a story editor on Roseanne. “They started thinking that was the key to success, that people only wanted to watch people whose lives they aspire to.” Those shows, which turned to other methods of developing stakes, from the intra-family squabbling on Frasier to the constant romantic tangles of Friends, took over the dial at that time, and they remain lodged in the memory of those who lived through that decade.
Another potential reason TV writers avoid tackling class issues: it can be too easy to feel as if these sorts of shows are pointing and laughing at these characters. Working in television is a high-paying job, and many comedies about the working class have struggled with accurately portraying working-class life while not seeming to mock working-class people. Raising Hope is one of TV’s funniest sitcoms, but it took the better part of the first half of its first season to convey that it had real affection for its characters and didn’t just regard them as buffoons whose stupidity kept them from making their way up the class ladder—the kind of comforting fiction about economic stratification (or the lack thereof) that TV has been selling for ages. Even today, when the show has mostly figured out what it’s doing, Raising Hope turns in the occasional clunker where its characters are just a little too stupid or reckless. (And the less said about 2 Broke Girls, where a formerly rich woman is portrayed as needing to come in and help all the show’s poor people, the better.)
By and large, though, the reason so many TV shows ignore these issues is simple. It’s easiest for writers to write what they know, which can lead to scripts about a world of planned communities and lives where a car accident is a minor incident, instead of a major crisis. It’s easiest, too, for executives to go with what they find familiar. Biegel recently sold a pilot script about working-class people in the army—one that will feature non-white cast members as well—to Fox, a network that seems at least willing to consider sitcoms about the middle- or working-class, but the vast majority of pilot deals have to do with shows where class likely won’t be an issue. In spite of a long history of working-class sitcoms on TV, executives always seem to be chasing the next Friends, and Friends doesn’t fit that description.
“I think it’s always a little harder to sell something that is low-concept about people whose lives are not glamorous,” Heisler says. “ABC bought [The Middle] right away, but we did continually have to, throughout the process, do a lot of reassuring that it wasn’t going to be depressing.” ABC ultimately went with the show—largely because its past success with Roseanne marked the network as a natural home for the show—and has mostly let Heisler and co-creator DeAnn Heline make the show they want, though Heisler pointed to a moment early in season two when the network briefly asked the two to consider furnishing their set with more up-to-date trappings. (The creators refused.)
Class issues haven’t disappeared entirely from television. Cable has stepped in to fill in the breach here and there, thanks to the It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia gang, whose members all live in near-squalor, or the characters on Louie and Girls, who still have occasional money problems, or come in contact with those who do. Fox’s animated comedies have some economic awareness as well, though the worlds of The Simpsons and the family of Family Guy are only blue-collar in description nowadays. Yet even in an age of eroding ratings and slipping influence, the four major broadcast networks are still the best platform to reach a majority of Americans and discuss the issues they face each day, an opportunity the networks ignore at the risk of their own relevancy. After all, there are many kinds of aspirational TV. As Heisler said, “We always maintained that our show is aspirational in a different way, in that this is a family that sticks together, and is there for each other, and loves each other, no matter how hard things get. And I think that is something people of all income levels can aspire to.”