While watching a 2012 Christmas episode of animated comedy Bob’s Burgers recently, I was struck with a realisation. A scene in the episode revolves around a discussion about what Christmas presents the Belcher children wanted to receive. The children request what they each want: Louise wants an apartment; Tina wants a whiteboard, and Gene wants the exact bobsled from Cool Runnings. Bob Belcher, the dad of the family, plainly replies: ‘We can’t afford any of those things, kids.’ Even the whiteboard is denied – and it’s denied because of lack of money.
Bob’s Burgers has most often and most easily been compared either to other animated comedies based around a specific family, such as The Simpsons and Family Guy, or to other adult-skewed animated comedies like Archer and BoJack Horseman. But as I watched this particular scene unfold, I realised that none of those comparisons really fit. What the scene flicked in my brain was the realisation that the show Bob’s Burgers most closely resembled is one I loved as a child – the 90s sitcom Roseanne.
It’s often not possible to hide financial struggles from children. Living in a house where the financial situation is precarious is stressful for everyone, and children pick up on that. In fact, a major recurring plot point of Bob’s Burgers is the family’s struggle to pay the rent each month, with both parents and kids aware of the situation, and all working to help resolve it. There’s no sugarcoating the reality of their situation, and there’s no pretending that everything is achievable. But it never gets easier, and it never goes away, and children are not shielded from it. Bob’s Burgers shows this reality – but it also shows a family loving and supporting each other, doing the very best they can in the face of hardship. Having money doesn’t make you a better person, or make your characters more loveable. The overarching narrative of Bob’s Burgers treads similar ground to that of Roseanne (at least until its bonkers final season), and also importantly, to my own experiences watching Roseanne as a child.
To be able to see a family surviving and laughing and loving while struggling in similar ways as you are is emboldening.
For most children, no matter how much we hypothetically discourage sitting and staring at a screen, the reality is that television will be at least somewhat of a feature in their lives. For kids from working-class families, television becomes even more of a feature. When both of your parents work in unstable industries that might involve shift work, or travelling long distances, or working two jobs, or even relocating to find stable work, it means that kids in these families might have to spend more time being self-sufficient, and therefore may spend more time with the television. We didn’t go away during the school holidays, our parents worked. I didn’t get on a plane until my early 20s. My mother went overseas for the first time last year. Having the opportunity to turn over from something like 90210 or Modern Family, shiny shows where everyone either lives in trendy New York apartments or immaculate suburban streets, and nobody ever thinks or worries about money, to be able to see a family like the Conners or the Belchers surviving and laughing and loving while struggling in similar ways as you are is emboldening.
In recent years the tendency for sitcoms in particular to portray the struggles of working-class families has fallen away. Television comedy has tended to ignore class issues in favour of lighter viewing, especially after the successes of Friends, Seinfeld, Will & Grace and Frasier. Unlike in dramas, where there has been an increase in the prevalence of ‘gritty’ or ‘realistic’ portrayals of people struggling (think Breaking Bad and Shameless) in order to create tension and narrative, when working-class lives are depicted in comedies, or at least used as a narrative framework, they rarely actually portray the real high stakes of living paycheque to paycheque to anywhere near the same extent. King of Queens, for example, features working-class main characters – a parcel deliverer and legal secretary – but their lack of resources never poses any real threat to their lives. It seems that some shows try to have it both ways, wanting to portray lives that people might relate to, while also providing escapism from the actual reality of class struggles. Roseanne, though, went much further – Roseanne and Dan Conner consistently stood on the cusp of losing everything. In the very first season, Roseanne loses her job at a factory, and over the next several years she moves through several iterations of menial jobs, including a long period as a waitress, while Dan goes into partnership in the opening of a bike repair shop. But unlike in other shows, where we generally see the lives of characters we love gradually improve, the money problems for the Conner family not only continue, but actually becomes worse.
When working-class lives are depicted in comedies, or at least used as a narrative framework, they rarely actually portray the real high stakes of living paycheque to paycheque.
For most people, the cultural experiences you have throughout your childhood are important, and remain so as you move further and further away from them. It is with a great fondness and nostalgia that people look back upon the TV shows they loved as a kid, remembering the racing home after school to catch an episode of something, or getting up on the weekend to watch hours of their favourite cartoons. The television you consume while you are young, for a lot of people, can inform the kind of interests you develop, and even the path your life takes. There’s a kind of informing of comic sensibilities that happens in these formative years, with the kind of comedy you love and are exposed to affecting your own sense of humour, and that love only staying strong as you grow older. Were you someone whose dad introduced you to Monty Python? Did you stay up to watch late-night talk shows? Are you one of ‘those people’ we all know whose parents didn’t let them watch The Simpsons?
For me, the comic sensibility I was exposed to, and the one that ultimately became part of my personality (literally), was based entirely on Roseanne’s sardonic and sarcastic Darlene. It was based on the interactions between the members of the Conner family, who every single day fought against the overwhelming difficulty that is existing while poor, but still mocking each other and making jokes and laughing. On the series’ 25th anniversary a few years ago, creator Matt Williams reflected on Roseanne’s working class elements, saying that he wrote what he knew – and what he knew was growing up in the Midwest with working class parents who worked as a waitress and assembly line worker. He said the intent of Roseanne was:
To represent the people I grew up with – without condescending – and basically celebrate this working-class family with a husband and wife who loved each other.
Alicia Goranson, who played Becky #1, reflected on the importance of this aspect of the show, saying that its biggest impact was:
this archetypal family that had story lines around money issues and personal issues and love and … that was such a mirroring for families in the United States and around the world. I think it really helped people communicate better … and also not feel isolated.
And that’s what it was, for me. I watched Roseanne religiously; there was so much that I could relate to, that I couldn’t get from other series, or from my wealthier friends.
Audiences don’t seem to want reminders of the daily struggle, especially when it comes to comedy.
The type of portrayal seen on Roseanne is not one that all people will enjoy watching, as a lot of the television we consume is now more aspirational than realistic. Think of the rise of reality shows depicting the lives of the rich. Audiences don’t seem to want reminders of the daily struggle, especially when it comes to comedy. But for my family, as my brothers and I were in charge of ourselves before and after school, heating up pre-made dinners our parents had carefully spent the previous weekend filling the freezer with, and tuning in to our favourite shows while our parents worked the night shift in menial jobs – it was refreshing and important to see families similar to ours, struggling like we were, but being able to keep a sense of humour about it all. We, as they did, laughed together a lot. Having a sense of humour is absolutely vital for people who are struggling, in order to not be completely overwhelmed by the daily grind just to get by. And it is heartening to see bright spots every so often on the television landscape, from Roseanne to Malcolm in the Middle, and now Bob’s Burgers, representing these kinds of families. Now, someone buy me an apartment for Christmas please.