Being a parent gives you a different perspective on the standard plot rotations of the standard family sitcom. Take “Career Day,” for example. Aliens surveilling our planet from outer space are convinced that every American schoolchild is treated to a parade of parents talking about their jobs at some point in each school year. Now, maybe my local school system is atypical, but neither of my kids have ever had a Career Day in their classes, in 11 combined years of primary education. Come to think of it, I never had Career Day when I was in school, either. (If we had, my dad would have dominated with fresh produce samples from his grower-to-grocery brokerage business. Every kid gets slightly bruised zucchini to take home!)
Maybe the comments section will be full of your Career Day stories, readers. But I suspect Career Day happens much more frequently in sitcom world than in the real world. Ditto for tooth fairy drama. For every major lost-tooth dilemma that takes place in real life, there must be a dozen causing 20 minutes of commercial-interrupted consternation on TV.
But here’s the thing: The conventionality and overexposure of these plotlines isn’t a dealbreaker. Because if you’re a parent watching the show, it doesn’t matter that these situations aren’t really regular occurrences. They’re occasions for reliving the regularly recurring fears, hopes, and anxieties involved with having kids. Even though I’ve never attended a Career Day as a student or parent, I’ve still lived through the emotions of the situation from both perspectives, multiple times, wondering: Does my family measure up when juxtaposed with my neighbors’? Are we successful enough, fascinating enough? Or are we frauds?
The tooth fairy storyline hits even closer to home. When your firstborn loses his first tooth, and you are a decade or two away from the traditions and valuations that were set by your parents as a benchmark in this venue, you have a decision to make. Are you playing along with this particular bit of cultural theater? If so, how much is a tooth going to be worth? There’s more than a little unexpected stress in this moment. What if you lowball the tooth, and your child has an idea of what the market will bear from the preschool grapevine, and he’s disappointed? What if you overcompensate and are stuck shelling out a lot more than you could have gotten away with? (Note to Mitch: Five dollars? Dude, the tooth fairy should only deal in coins. Move the decimal point to the left of the five to get in the ballpark.)
So even though I never pulled a Cam and mistakenly slipped a hundo under the pillow, causing a scene requiring Haley in a pink wig and tooth-emblazoned costume to rectify, I’ve spent way more time thinking about tooth fairy precedent than I imagined I would before I had kids. The dance Mitch and Cam improvise, trying to fix things without spilling the beans in front of their child, is all the funnier for hitting close to home. Cam and Mitch have made arguing with each other passive-aggressively while trying to present a united front to Lily into their signature move. When Mitch suggests that the tooth fairy can’t afford dropping a c-note on Lily’s tooth, Cam corrects him: “What I don’t think she can handle is criticizing someone who made an honest mistake in the dark of night.” While Mitch favors a direct approach to retrieving the benjamin, Cam wants to both preserve the illusion of the tooth fairy and convince Lily to give up the yard of her own free will. Hence, the rather wonderful moment when Mitch excitedly yet disbelievingly reads the return address on the tooth fairy’s letter to Lily: “1 Tooth Fairy Lane, Tooth City… Tooth Dakota,” and the comic futility of the ridiculous appeal the envelope contains: “Please leave the hundred dollars under the pillow tonight, and I’ll give you a dollar. Sorry if that bites.”
Over at Career Day, Phil predictably (yet adorably) wants to be super-cool in the eyes of Luke and Manny’s class, eventually tossing out his first idea of a business card with a head-shaped cutout (“I thought I’d offer the kids a chance to put their face on my body”) and going with a video of his past self as a Spicoli-esque skater dude who interacts with present-day Phil learning all about how awesome real estate is. But his nemesis Gil Thorpe interrupts the video playlet with his Gil Pickles (the stick has his name and number on them), leading to Phil frantically trying to catch up with his past self’s punch lines (“The ball’s in your court!” he yells desperately at the screen after video-Phil catches an unthrown beach ball and says “Guess it is in my court!”). Later, Claire confesses to Gil that the bit actually went a little better than it did in rehearsal.
Pressed by the teacher to talk about being a stay-at-home mom, and antagonized by a smart-mouth girl who reminded me of Margaret from Dennis the Menace (“My mom went back to work when I was 4,” she announces, and Claire retorts: “That’s why she never taught you not to interrupt”), Claire is receptive to Gil’s offer of a job liaising with the city council over permits he’s seeking for an office park redevelopment. Gil’s seeming sincerity evaporates when he repeatedly calls Phil to needle him about having his wife as an employee, but Phil supports Claire’s need to be valued in the workplace, refusing to use the veto he mistakenly believes he has over Claire’s decisions. (He believes this because Claire is always vetoing his decisions, but she refutes his assertion of veto power with an unseen monologue that ends: “And lastly, this conversation would be happening in a yurt.” “It’s the perfect structure!” Phil protests.)
The C-story involves Jay claiming that he has a great spy novel (Chuck Stone: They taught him how to kill, but he never learned to love!) in him if he could only find time between naps and wandering around the office saying “Wassup, sport” to write it. Long story short, Manny takes over, only to be stuck defending his prose as if it were actually Jay’s when Gloria is dubious of its quality. “Long, or dynamic?” he asks when Gloria says the first sentence is too long; when she points out that there were no cell phones in the '60s, he interjects anxiously: “You can’t change that! It comes back in the end! … I presume.” It’s a terrific scene, and even though this storyline is the most disassociated from anything real people have experienced, it hardly matters; the build-up to a minute or two of perfectly-staged farce is part of what sitcoms exist to provide.
The tooth fairy thing? I have a modest proposal. What if we save Haley the trouble of shoring up tooth fairy ethics with a double-down appeal to Santa Claus, and just give up the charade? It would save all us parents some pre-ulcerous lesions, I promise you.
- I know the joke in Cam’s story about having his tooth yanked back on the farm by tying it to a Guernsey is in the “cow-shaped hole” line, but I thought it peaked with the revelation that the tooth-yanking scene took place indoors: “And the cow went runnin’ out of the room!”
- Why were Haley and Alex’s Career Days cancelled? Haley: “Cutbacks.” Alex: “Nor’easter.”
- Gil invites Luke to get lessons on throwing a tight spiral. Phil retorts, “He already knows how to throw!” and Luke chimes in, “Yeah, my gay uncle Cam taught me!”
- “If it helps, picture Tom Berenger.” “I always do.”