It shouldn’t be radical to like your kids—but on TV, and especially in comedy, it absolutely is. Homer Simpson doesn’t like his kids. Peter Griffin doesn’t like his kids. Everybody Loves Raymond’s Raymond didn’t like his kids. It’s baked into the DNA of the sitcom dad: You love your kids, you provide for them, you have the occasional heartwarming moment when the writers realize they’ve left the heartstrings un-tugged too long. But like them? Genuinely enjoy their company? It simply isn’t done.
And that’s what makes Bob’s Burgers’ Bob Belcher, back this week for his 13th season on Fox, the greatest sitcom dad on TV.
He didn’t start that way, admittedly. This is a guy who, in his very first appearance, grouses (in H. Jon Benjamin’s beautifully grumpy voice) that “You’re all my children, and I love you, but you’re terrible at what you do.” For most of the show’s weak-by-comparison first season, Bob is often the stereotypical sitcom dad: The guy who constantly tells his kids to stop having fun and get back to work, threatening groundings aplenty, and only occasionally humoring Gene (Eugene Mirman), Tina (Dan Mintz), and Louise (Kristen Schaal) and their various weirdo impulses.
But the first signs of cracks forming in Bob’s grouchy-and-mustachioed exterior came pretty quickly, as early as season one’s “Spaghetti Western And Meatballs.” That’s the episode that establishes that he and Louise—the Belcher kid who most closely shares her dad’s sarcastic but secretly sweet worldview—have a standing date to play “Burn Unit,” a game where they flip through TV channels and make fun of whatever they see. It’s one of the show’s first signs that Bob values his kids, not just as children (or cheap burger joint labor), but as people he actually likes spending time with.
That genuine affection is an unorthodox comedy weapon, one that’s always been present in series creator Loren Bouchard’s quiver. It dates back at least as far as Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, Bouchard’s first credited gig as a writer, where the relationship between Jonathan Katz’s title character and his son, Ben (Benjamin, again) was as much “two roommates cracking each other up” as anything more filial. (Another Bouchard hallmark: Characters who actually laugh at each others’ jokes.) The novel notion that parents and kids could actually be friends was even more prominent in Bouchard and Brendon Small’s Home Movies, where young filmmaker Brendon and his mom Paula (Paula Poundstone in the first season, Janine Ditullio later on) had a relationship that was characterized by an endless desire to make the other laugh.
Bob’s Burgers operates in a (slightly) more grounded reality than Home Movies, but it’s still given Bob plenty of opportunities over the years to acknowledge that he doesn’t merely tolerate his children, but actively enjoys them. Another standout example (and another classic Bob-Louise episode) is season 3’s “Carpe Museum,” where, after some token resistance, Bob fully embraces Louise’s desire to sneak off during a boring field trip, the two making their own fun even as inevitable problems break out. (It’s also the episode that introduces Brian Huskey’s cheerfully asthmatic Regular Sized Rudy to the show’s ensemble, a character whose manifest greatness is unfortunately beyond the scope of this essay.) “Carpe Museum” establishes that Bob doesn’t need to be an authority figure to work as a dad; within the logic of the show’s universe, there’ll always be some Mr. Frond-type ready to hand out punishments. Having Bob instead act as his kids’ low-key, deeply amused ally is infinitely more fun than making Benjamin find another hundred ways to yell “Stop it!”
(On the topic of Benjamin: I note this with some regularity over in my Archer reviews, but—for all that he tends to play grouchy assholes—there really is nobody in the voice acting game better at expressing sheer delight at something. Bob’s joy, on those occasions where the world doesn’t conspire to suppress it, is really a thing of beauty.)
Even beyond his bond with Louise, though, Bob just simply gets a kick out of his kids, whether he’s cooking with Gene, indulging Tina’s various equine obsessions, or simply taking up a support role in their efforts to put on an ice show to win the mercies of a cantankerous mall Santa. The kids still annoy him sometimes, sure. He occasionally has to be the voice telling them to cut it out. But they also make him laugh more than any other sitcom dad in ready memory.
It’s an evolving process, too. As the show has progressed over its last 11 years on the air, Bob has said yes to more and more things, for the simple fact that there’s no especially good reason for him to say no. (Beyond the strictures of how TV family comedies are “supposed” to operate.) At the same time, the show has given us more and more glimpses of his own inner weirdness: His love of pranks, his running joke of imbuing all the food he cooks with silly little voices, his ability to throw himself into absurd situations with total conviction. It not only makes his relationship with his wife, the uber-hammy Linda (John Roberts), make sense, but it helps the viewer to see how the Belcher spawn are a reflection of both their parents’ oddball sides. (Even if, in practical terms, that was mostly done by making Bob more like the kids over the years, rather than the other way around.) His fatherhood grows out of their shared weirdness, and an appreciation for how strange and funny they are, not despite it.
And so, let’s raise a glass to Bob Belcher: A TV dad who surpasses 99 percent of the pack by the simple trick of liking his children. There’s not many like him; more’s the pity.