COMEDY, WORKPLACE

Workplace comedies provide a convenient vehicle for the writers/producers of the television program to access all the essential components of series drama. The workplace frame adapts to changes in the production context, gives the characters a continuing mandate for action, provides the dramatic tension of continuing relationships among persons of different backgrounds, and offers the opportunity to introduce additional or visiting characters. The significant structural weakness of the workplace comedy is that it is deprived of the interaction between youth and maturity often central to situation and domestic comedy in television. But even this arrangement can be addressed by creating a work situation devoted to child nurturing, or by introducing the workers' family members who can appear regularly or randomly at the will of producers.

In pragmatic industrial terms, the workplace series provides a flexible format that can adapt to changes in the real world production context. With the workplace series, the departure of a cast member allows a new performer to assume the job responsibility and simultaneously introduce a new interpersonal dynamic to the ensemble--as with the departures of McLean Stevenson (Lt. Colonel Henry Blake) and Wayne Rogers (Capt. John [Trapper John] McKenzie) on M*A*S*H. The characters introduced by Harry Morgan (Col. Sherman Potter) and Mike Farrell (Capt. B.J. Hunnicut) did not simply replace the job functions of their predecessors, they created new personalities that varied the mix of relationships within the ensemble. The death of Nicholas Colasanto (Coach) was mourned on Cheers and his character was replaced by the much younger Woody Harrelson (Woody Boyd) who portrayed a naive Indiana farmboy who had been taking a mail order bartending course from the Coach. Cheers writers and producers dealt with the departure of Shelley Long (Diane Chambers) with the introduction of Kirstie Alley's Rebecca Howe and an increased emphasis on the Kelsey Grammer (Dr. Frasier Crane) and Bebe Neuwirth (Dr. Lilith Stern) characters.

As these industrial strategies indicate, the humor in the workplace comedy may come from the personalities of the characters, the interaction of the characters, or the situations encountered by the characters. The successful series draw on all these elements, but the balance differs from program to program. Some shows emphasize character relationships, others are best at creating comedic situations, still others offer characters who are individually funny in their own right, often the case when a series is developed specifically to showcase the talents of a stand-up comedian.

Series like Our Miss Brooks, Newhart, The Andy Griffith Show, The John Larroquette Show, Frasier, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show drew many of their laughs from the antics of a few eccentric characters. Some of the comic characters were objects of ridicule, some were simply out-of-step with their surroundings, and some so superior to their surroundings that they were humorous. Richard Crenna's dimwitted Walter Denton was often a source of amusement on Our Miss Brooks; Don Knotts made the bumbling Barney Fife a laugh-getter on The Andy Griffith Show; and Newhart's Larry, Darryl, and Darryl needed only to appear on screen to draw anticipatory giggles from many viewers. Even Rhoda's unseen Carleton the Doorman acquired a unique comedic persona. On The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the pompous Ted Baxter, acerbic Sue Ann Nivens, and ditzy Georgette Franklin Baxter were all ridiculous characters who inspired varying degrees of sympathy.

Workplace comedies can also draw on references to the popular forms they parody. The incompetent spy of Get Smart and the bumbling policemen of Car 54, Where are You? developed the comedy line by contradicting the premise of a strong, competent leading character. The Wild, Wild West and The Rockford Files parodied the Western and Detective forms so well that they are generally categorized among those forms instead of being regarded as comedies.

Persons in a work situation are granted a franchise to action by the nature of their work--the job requires them to deal with problems or participate in events related to their work. Professions such as law enforcement, medicine, and media provide ready made opportunities to place the characters in varied situations and involve them with a wide range of characters.

WKRP in Cincinnati, Barney Miller, E/R, Taxi, and Night Court often found their strength in creating bizarre situations, then letting the established characters play out the story. Episodes such as the WKRP Thanksgiving story in which Herb Tarlek and Mr. Carlson dropped live turkeys from a helicopter as a promotional gimmick take logical premises and carry them to illogical extremes.

The workplace setting facilitates interaction among characters of varied origin. Despite their diverse backgrounds, the characters on a workplace comedy are united by a common goal and are required to maintain even difficult relationships. Diahann Carroll's Julia was the first series to place a professional black woman in a starring role, but many other series have drawn humor from contrasting characters of different race, gender, ethnicity, regional, or class origin. Barney Miller's Ron Glass, as Harris--a literate, urbane black man--constantly reminded his coworkers of racial stereotyping and his own departure from those stereotypes; Jack Soo as Yemana similarly made ironic reference to his Asian background. On Designing Women there were frequent references to the "hillbilly" background of Jean Smart's Charlene, and Meschach Taylor's Anthony often made mention of his race. In M*A*S*H, Cpl. Walter (Radar) O'Reilly's rural background and Major Charles Emerson Winchester's upper class Boston upbringing were frequent sources of humor.

In some instances, workplace comedies require that individuals who are not merely different, but actually hostile to one another, maintain a relationship and the resultant tension provides humor. In The Dick Van Dyke Show, Richard Deacon's character--the pompous producer Mel Cooley--was the butt of endless jokes by the writing staff. Robert Guillaume's Benson was constantly engaged in combat with Inga Swenson who portrayed the cook Gretchen, and a truce between Craig T. Nelson's Hayden Fox and the women's basketball coach Judy, in Coach, would have removed a consistent source of humor from that series.

The ability to introduce guest or visiting characters is another advantage of the workplace comedy. The criminals and complainants who visited the police station in Barney Miller or the varied defendants who appeared in Night Court all contributed to the general atmosphere of those series. Similarly, the patients on The Bob Newhart Show and E/R added interest and facilitated the development of new plotlines. In some cases, guest performers appeared only once; others became semi-regulars who would appear unexpectedly to add further complications to their stories.

In some workplace series, the families and friends of the working group also participate in the storylines. In the case of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary's friend Rhoda and landlady Phyllis became such important characters that each was given a spinoff series of her own. Murphy Brown's resident housepainter Elvin became a significant component of the series, and The Andy Griffith Show drew heavily on Andy's relationships with Aunt Bea and son Opie. Even Get Smart assumed a family aspect when Smart and Agent 99 were married and became the parents of twins. The relationship between Gabriel and Julie Kotter was frequently the focus of Welcome Back, Kotter episodes, and The Dick Van Dyke Show included numerous segments dealing with Rob and Laura Petrie's home life.

The workplace comedy, like the society it portrayed, has both evolved and gone through cyclical changes. The form of the series has definitely evolved. Contrasting one of the earliest workplace comedies, Private Secretary, with more recent series shows changes in casting, relationships, and narrative structure. Private Secretary centered around the activities of Susie McNamara, a private secretary in a New York City talent agency, a vehicle that provided for the introduction of numerous guest characters who appeared as clients. All the cast members were middle- and upper-middle class whites. Although the relationship between Susie and her boss was congenial, there was no doubt that Susie was by no means as intellectually or emotionally competent as the male authority figure for whom she worked. While the men carried out business, the women worried about relationships--especially that special relationship that would take them out of the office and into a blissful married life. Susie was central to every episode, and each episode came to closure, bringing with it no memory of previous episodes and leaving no character or situation changes to affect subsequent episodes.

By contrast, more recent series portray a broad range of racial and ethnic characters. Members of many races and nationalities pass through the bus terminal on The John Larroquette Show, and the majority are working class characters. Most series attempt to offer a broader representation of the population and the awareness of differences within the society has expanded definitions to include persons with disabilities, older and younger individuals, gay and lesbian characters, and people practicing faiths other than Protestant. Job responsibilities and character traits are no longer always assigned on the basis of gender or ethnic stereotypes, and when they are this fact may give rise to more complication and humor.

Along with this broader range of characters comes a broader distribution of storyline emphases. The Mary Tyler Moore Show and subsequent MTM productions are often cited as a turning point in the evolution of series structure, with their refinement of the ensemble cast. Rather than focussing every episode on the actions of one clearly defined lead character, the ensemble allows any of several central characters to provide the story focus. In some series--for example, Murphy Brown--a central character will provide the stimulus for the actions of the featured character, but that character is still the focus of the storyline.

The narrative structure has made distinct changes with the move to more open stories, allowing growth and change. The series is allowed memory of previous events and stories are no longer required to return the situation to its state at the opening of the play. Episodes no longer require complete closure, and some problems requie multiple episodes to reach resolution, or even continue indefinitely.

 


Car 54, Where are you?


Alice


Night Court


WKRP in Cincinatti

Topics addressed by the workplace comedy have experienced cyclical popularity, influenced by the dominant concerns of the society and by the economic influence of other popular forms. Comedy has often addressed social concerns, and the workplace comedy has assumed that joint opportunity and responsibility. From direct confrontation--as when Mary Richards learned her male predecessor had been more highly paid--to implicit endorsement of the abilities of under represented groups--as in Benson's steady rise to gubernatorial candidacy--the workplace comedies provide a forum for the expression of social issues and offer opportunities to consider new ideas and challenges to the existing order. At the same time, television comedies are a commercial form, directly influenced by the need to remain commercially viable. Examining the popular topics for the workplace comedy reinforces Steve Allen's charge that "Imitation is the sincerest form of television." Series do tend to borrow ideas from the headlines, from other media, and from one another. These notions receive broad attention for a time, then some are integrated into the form, others disappear. In this process, the television workplace series operates in the same manner as many other elements of modern culture, evolving slowly in the process of contested change.

-Kay Walsh

FURTHER READING

Attallah, Paul. "Situation Comedy and 'The Beverly Hillbillies': The Unworthy Discourse." Montreal, Canada: McGill University Graduate Communication Program Working Papers, 1983.

Butsch, Richard. "Class and Gender in Four Decades of Television Situation Comedy: plus ca change...." Critical Studies in Mass Communication (Annandale, Virginia): December, 1992.

Feuer, Jane, Paul Kehr and Tise Vahamagi. MTM: Quality Television. London: British Film Institute, 1985.

Freeman, Lewis. " Social Mobility in Television Comedies," Critical Studies in Mass Communication (Annandale, Virginia) December, 1992.

Hamamoto, Darrell Y. Nervous Laughter: Television Situation Comedy and Liberal Democratic Ideology. New York: Praeger, 1989.

Javna, John. The Best of TV Sitcoms: Burns and Allen to the Cosby Show, The Munsters to Mary Tyler Moore. New York: Harmony Books, 1988.

Jones, Gerard. Honey, I'm Home!: Sitcoms, Selling the American Dream. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1992.

Leibman, Nina. Living Room Lectures: The Fifties Family in Film and Television. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1995.

Lipsitz, George. "The Meaning of Memory: Family, Class, and Ethnicity in Early Network Television." Camera Obscura (Berkeley, California), January, 1988.

Marc, David. Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture. Boston, Massachusetts: Unwin-Hyman, 1989.

__________. Demographic Vistas: Television in American Culture. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984.

Mellencamp, Patricia. "Situation Comedy, Feminism, and Freud, Discourse of Gracie and Lucy." in Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture. ed. Tania Modleski. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1986.

Mitz, Rick. The Great TV Sitcom Book. New York: Richard Marek, 1980.

Neale, Stephen and Frank Krutnik. Popular Film and Television Comedy. London; New York: Routledge, 1990.

Rowe, Kathleen. The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter. Austin, Texas:University of Texas Press, 1995.

Spigel, Lynn. Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Taylor, Ella. Prime-Time Families: Television Culture in Postwar America. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1989.

 

See also Amen; Andy Griffith Show; Batman; Bob Newhart Show/Newhart; Cheers; Dad's Army; Desmond's; Different World; Fawlty Towers; Frank's Place; Get Smart; It's Garry Shandling's Show/The Larry Sanders Show; M*A*S*H; Mary Tyler Moore Show; Monkees; Murphy Brown; Phil Silvers Show; Room 222; Taxi; Yes Minister