By: Jonathan Harris
For most of us who are conservative Christians we know that there’s a “culture war” afoot in our society. We also know that we’re losing it—at least most of us do. Some have even said that the war is already lost. Now I’m not one to admit defeat due to my belief in God’s sovereignty and his power to turn any culture around if and when He deems it fit, but I do admit that the pendulum isn’t swinging in our direction. I hope I don’t have to go into statistics to prove any of this to you. All you have to do is look around. In fact, the culture war is raging in my own heart so much of the time that I feel as if the deadliest struggle is an internal one. My heart is at enmity with the world yet attracted to it at times, as are all Christian hearts. Some of the undermining temptations that serve to dull my senses, lower my standards, and replace my godly affections with worldly ones are television shows—especially sitcoms. Now I’ve known this for a couple years now, but it didn’t really hit me until recently that sitcoms from different time periods tend to have different effects on my heart. I then came to the realization that the culture war itself has really been fought in the area of sitcoms. Let me show you what I mean.
In Genesis 18 God essentially tells Abraham that his wife Sarah will bear him a son who will be the fulfillment of the covenant. Sarah’s reaction is recorded in verses 12-15.
And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, "After I have become old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?" And the Lord said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh, saying, 'Shall I indeed bear a child, when I am so old?' "Is anything too difficult for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, at this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son." Sarah denied it however, saying, "I did not laugh"; for she was afraid. And He said, "No, but you did laugh."
Now you may be wondering, “What does this have to do with the culture war and sitcoms?” It’s really very simple. Sarah was ashamed of her laughter because it was a sign of disbelief. In other words, Sarah wasn’t taking God seriously and her laughter was the outward indication. That’s what laughter is. It lightens the situations, makes it not a “big deal,” doesn’t take whatever it may be seriously, etc. You get the point. So when it comes to laughing at things like sin we have a problem don’t we—that is if through our laughter we are conveying a lack of seriousness. God takes sin seriously, so should we. Unfortunately, we’re not much like Sarah. We don’t usually hide the fact that we laugh at sin, we’ll even laugh at sin with other Christians yucking it up right beside us.
It is my contention that sitcoms have done more to change culture than any other media venue precisely for this reason. Think about it! Turn on the most popular modern sitcoms and what do you end up laughing at? For the last few weeks I’ve been off and on checking out the popular comedies on network television in order to answer this question and I have to say, I regret it. My conscience has been desensitized even when I’m trying to be critical. (Imagine what happens to those who aren’t being critical, i.e. no shield to protect them!) There exists a definite digression between say the 1950s and modern times when it comes to popular television. Let me illustrate.
The 50s and the “Ideal” Family
We’ll start with the classic sitcoms. Most all of the situation comedies during the 1950s featured a strong family engaging in the day to day antics and awkward situations that come naturally to families. There are times I’ve thought if cameras were put in my home it would often resemble this genre. The situations were out of the ordinary (I mean they have to be since the very nature of comedy demands it) yet somehow ordinary at the same time. They were “natural” so to speak. For instance, if we take Leave it to Beaver as our example, we’ll find a traditional family in which the mother never takes off her apron, the father is either at work or reading the newspaper, the older brother is busy trying to impress girls (in an innocent way), and the younger brother is busy trying to annoy them. When all these competing interests—the mother’s interest to keep the house in order, the father’s interest to have some peace and quiet, the older brother’s interest to be accepted by his peers and girlfriends, and the younger brother’s interest to be accepted by his brother and get into mischief—collide in a sticky situation, we end up laughing. Think about family interests in today’s sitcoms and then tell me if they are just as innocent? Usually I find that they portray situations in which the husband or wife is afraid that the other one will find out they’re watching pornography such as in Curb Your Enthusiasm, or that they’re romantically attracted to other men or women such as in the King of Queens—that is, in the shows that even feature a traditional couple.
Continuing on with our look at classic sitcoms: Have you ever heard the charge that the traditional families represented are just “too perfect?” Sometimes you’ll even hear someone call a perfectionist housewife a “Harriet Nelson” after the Ozzie and Harriet Show. Programs like the ones previously mentioned along with The Dyck Van Dyke Show, Father Knows Best, Family Affair, and The Donna Reed Show, etc. presented an ideal to shoot for even amidst the numerous innocent imperfections that accompanied each of them. This was a time in which the entertainment industry raised the bar for society by showing what people ought to act like. Women were treated with respect, men were portrayed as intelligent, and children weren’t rebellious. The family was, by and large, the canvass on which humor was painted.
According to Wikipedia, “A trend beginning in the 1960s was the expansion of the domestic comedy beyond the nuclear family or married couple. The Andy Griffith Show and My Three Sons featured widowers and their children. At the end of the decade, Sherwood Schwartz's The Brady Bunch focused on a blended family.” By and large though, the 60s largely kept the traditional family trend going with perhaps some slight alterations in thematic material. I Dream of Jeanie and Gilligan’s Island—both programs not centering on families—portrayed women in a slightly more provocative way. Less clothing was worn and innuendo was starting to become just a little more common though nothing compared to modern times. Compare the widowers Larry Hagman and Andy Griffith portrayed to the ones Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer portray in Two and Half Men and you’ll see what I mean.
Shifting Foundations in the 70s
Moving on to the 1970s, sitcoms become more and more political. Some family-centered comedies did exist such as All in the Family—which eventually turned into Archie Bunker’s Place parodying the white conservative male as a racist—but by and large the family shows were relegated to the place of rural dramas like The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie. Although this is supposed to be about sitcoms, I can’t help but notice that rural comedies (i.e. The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, etc.) and Westerns (The Rifleman, Have Gun Will Travel, Maverick, etc.) begun to really phase out giving way to a more cosmopolitan and urban style in programing. Families were not the center of laugher anymore. They were portrayed as serious mainstays of the past being outmoded just like the Western. They were rural, as if our grandparents could relate to them, but we couldn’t, except as something nostalgic. The light-hearted rural comedies gave way to Maude and the Mary Tyler Moore Show, both centering on feminists, The Odd Couple and Laverne and Shirley, both centering on friends, and Three's Company which really exemplifies the first time the mainstream has ever laughed at homosexuality (even if the main character was faking his orientation for cheaper rent). I see the 70s as the first big transition in American culture. Our societal foundation had shifted. It was individuals that we took pleasure in, not institutions. In other words, we weren’t primarily laughing at antics that took place in the context of the family anymore. We also weren’t laughing at the same type of things. Sexual promiscuity and potential perversion were themes that also happened to be humorous to us. In the 80s and 90s we’ll find that perversion was no longer potential, it was portrayed.
The 1983 airing of Cheers featured a plot in which the main characters become worried that their bar will become a “gay bar.” The Golden Girls repeatedly featured lesbian characters in the mid-late 80s. The Love Boat did much the same thing in addition to the questionable heterosexual material that permeated the series. What we have in the 1980s is a general acceptance of mature thematic material in sitcoms. It used to be in the 50s-70s that sexual indecency was generally relegated to drama, and even then it wasn’t glorified (homosexuality was never mentioned). It was in the 80s the traditional glass ceiling was shattered. The feminist theme continued in shows like Roseanne, the “mixed family” theme found its salvation in Full House, and the traditional families finally had a show they could once again claim—The Cosby Show. One thing I’ve noticed is that family-centered programming never really dies throughout time, it simply becomes relegated to a lesser and lesser share of the market and morphs into less than what we would think of as a traditional family. We can take The Cosby Show as an example of this. The mother, in contrast to Mrs. Cleaver, is in the workforce, the children, in contrast to Wally and the Beaver, are slightly more rebellious and more likely to throw temper tantrums. This portrayal of the family becomes more and more common as time goes on eventually leading to the depiction of the father figure as an ignorant fool who can’t really do anything right. The 90s are simply chalked full with this type of portrayal.
One thing that should not be missed is the relationship between deconstructionism and postmodernism. They’re really two sides of the same coin. As the family was redefined and relegated to a place of lesser prominence in situation comedy, so was the idea of the narrative. Seinfeld really marks the beginning of postmodern comedy. Portraying life as it actually is in time, with a storyline, and people who acted within the context of an institution, albeit work, family, government, etc. began to die with this show. All the main characters were individuals having almost no relation to themselves and lacking any compelling reason to be on friendly terms. They all treat Jerry’s apartment like it’s their home—barging in whenever they want, drinking out of his cups, eating out of his fridge, plopping down on his couch, and watching his television. It’s almost “as if” they’re a family, when in reality they’re not (Happy Days may have been a slight precursor to this idea). This theme of the “peeps” being the family replacement becomes strong in the 90s up until the present. The program is also literally self-described as being “about nothing.” What we get when we watch this show are little “slices of life” with no apparent relationship to the next slice of life.
The 90s Nontraditional Family
By the time we arrive in the 90s, sexual perversion is the laughing point in most of the programming. 3rd Rock From the Sun, The Drew Carry Show, Frasier, The Nanny, and just about half of all situation comedies were picking up on homosexual themes. Home Improvement and Everybody Loves Raymond exemplified the traditional family, this time with the father being portrayed as the bumbling selfish appendage to the one who really got things done—the mother. Even the children had more of a chance of getting things right than did the dad. All men really want is a beer, some time pursuing their favorite hobby, and a little sexual excitement. Friends signified the continuation of Seinfeld’s “peep group” mentality as a replacement for the family—even to the point that during the course of the series different characters would end up sleeping with each other and then trading partners a couple episodes down the line. The televised family was an almost completely nontraditional one.
It goes without saying that vulgarity was given a shot in the arm during the later part of this decade, though it had been slowly gaining speed from the mid-70s onward. Most of the shows on television became slightly on the deconstructionist side by incorporating scenes that had little or nothing to do with the overall theme of the episode at times. I like to call this a “cheep laugh.” You’ll find this in comedy today as well. You’ll be watching your favorite sitcom only to find an extraneous situation in which one of the characters is made fun of for no apparent reason in view of the overall plot. If I could come up with one thing to describe the comedy from the 80s through the present I might sight the frequency of these “put downs” and cutting remarks as the distinguishing feature.
2000 A.D.: The Death of the Family
In the 2000s to the present what we find is an aggressive attempt to undermine traditionalism in an overt way. No longer are sexual things alluded to. No longer are mixed families and “peep group” replacements slowly taking the place of the customary family. Instead, they are consciously letting their viewers know what’s going on. Two and Half Men centers on sex-related themes portraying as much as is legally allowed on television. The New Adventures of Old Christine and Cougar Town actively portray middle-aged women attempting to “get laid.” Scrubs, The Office, 30 Rock, and Parks and Recreation have made a joke out of story lines by simply not having them. That 70s Show is particularly interesting simply because it does portray families. In fact most of the episodes are almost exclusively filmed in the main characters house with his parents present in the kitchen or living room. However, the identification of the main characters is not with their families, but rather with their friends. It is a continuation of the “peep group” mentality with the added bonus of having the families present as well. Community is also interesting in that its “peep group,” which is actually called a “family” throughout the series, represents people from all ethnic and age categories. Modern Family, the most popular sitcom currently, presents multiple examples of consciously nontraditional families including a homosexual couple with children. Malcolm in the Middle and Family Guy have not only depicted the father as a bumbling fool, but for a change they’ve also depicted the children as being smarter than their own mother. Gilmore Girls (a semi-comedy) salvages the maternal figure against this reinterpretation by giving her “best friend” status with her teenage daughter. After all, if the new source of identification is not to be found in parents, why not have parents join the children?
Now if you think I wrote all of this to scare you you’re wrong. I’m not surprised in the least at the condition of the world. What I am a little surprised at is the reaction Christians have to it, myself included. The more I watch newer shows the more I feel my heart taking joy in perversion simply because it’s comedy. I can easily justify my reaction by saying, “Hey it’s only a joke.” When I view older sitcoms I don’t find myself laughing at the same things, and thus, while some of my time might be wasted in front of a television, at least my conscience isn’t being numbed. I do want to clarify, this isn’t an old vs. new issue. Just because something’s old doesn’t mean it’s good and just because something’s new doesn’t mean it’s bad. If our culture was going through a revival I’m sure it would be the newer stuff that would be the more wholesome. This is a right vs. wrong issue. If you feel that your conscience is being tampered with, stop being influenced by whatever it is you’re viewing. I’m not here to create any legalistic rules, or to say that the “old” shows are somehow “funnier.” In all honesty, I think a lot of newer sitcoms have writers that are geniuses, while more primitive television was a bit on the cheesy side. What I am saying is this—examine your own heart and see what direction it goes in when you watch your favorite comedies. Every time you laugh next time, ask yourself, “Would Christ laugh with me?”
A second reason I wrote this was to show how the culture war is being lost and where a huge front is that we’ve largely ignored as believers. As a result of the fundamentalist movement, Christians largely got out of the entertainment industry in the early-mid 20th century. It’s time we went back. I’m not suggesting going the Hollywood route (you can if you think you’re capable) but instead going the independent film route. I watch more television on the internet than I do on the television itself. I know I'd be willing to pay a little extra to see something that doesn't offend Christian sensibilities.Start thinking of ways you can influence film for righteous causes. I’m not saying you have to make a repeat of Leave it to Beaver. In fact, I hope you don’t! Just make sure whatever it is honors God’s standard, and is, well, actually funny (the one thing previous Christian attempts have lacked). I'm also not saying that it has to feature a family in order to be righteous. A group of friends is a fine palate on which to draw comedic material. The reason I traced the decline of family programing was for this very reason: It's a decline. We don't want this trend to continue I would hope. If it continues who knows where it will lead next? What kind of perversions will your children laugh at, and who will teach them what a true family is all about?