The 99%: What’s Funny About Being Poor? Roseanne and Working-Class Humor
Can being broke be funny, after all?
Monday's post on 2 Broke Girls generated a lot of comments—from fans of the show who felt I was being too harsh, and from others who felt I was too forgiving of the show's many flaws. One commenter said, "You can't expect a comedy to be so heavy and grounded in real life struggles."
Well, yes. I can.
One of my favorite Friends episodes deals directly with socioeconomic difference within the friend group. Yes, the friend group was all white people from middle to upper-middle class backgrounds who live in preposterously large apartments in Manhattan. But back on season two, there was an episode that specifically explored the clash between the friends who had more disposable income—Monica, Ross, and Chandler—and the three who didn't—Rachel, Phoebe, and Joey. The friends with less money comically order side salads when they go out to dinner at a fancy restaurant, protesting the suggestion to split the bill evenly. Later, the three who can afford more buy concert tickets for all six of them to celebrate Ross's birthday, and the others are made to feel like charity cases. A lot of the humor is derived from the awkwardness of having to talk about money. The line, "OK…. we can… talk about that" is delivered with the hesitancy of friends that know they're venturing into a sensitive discussion, but are willing to address the issue openly. The zinger, of course, is that Monica loses her job at the end of the episode, showing how tenuous financial stability can be.
While Friends may have made a brief acknowledgement of difference within the group, economic disadvantage was certainly never a recurring theme in the show. I use it only as example to show that entertainment that, superficially, has nothing to do with class doesn't need to ignore these issues. Roseanne, though, was about finding the humor in the hardship. And there was no one better at it.
Roseanne never shied away from real issues families face: social class, of course, but also gay family members, working conditions and job insecurity, birth control and unplanned pregnancy, divorce, domestic violence, mental illness, abortion, and alcoholism. In fact, not only did it not shy away from these issues, but it embraced them as critical to the show's comedy and the "working-class domestic goddess" persona of the title character.
Where's the humor in unemployment, or in getting the electricity shut off? In just one of many episodes that deal with real-life economic woes, The Dark Ages, the temporarily unemployed Roseanne comes home and her son asks what's for dinner: "Well, DJ, even though Mommy was out all day looking for a job, she still had time to plan tonight's menu. Go through these pizza ads and order whatever's two for one." When filtering through the pizza menus, she finds a notice from the electric company that their service will be cut off that evening: "I can't believe they're cutting us off after the very first final notice!" As the lights go out, she sighs sarcastically: "Well, middle class was fun."
The episode continues with her children making fun of their parents' attempts at storytelling and shadow puppets. They don't seem too put out, though; Darlene wryly notes that she's gotten out of having to vacuum the house. When Darlene's boyfriend asked when they'll have light again, Roseanne answers, "Oh, just as soon as the earth spins back around towards the sun."
The next morning, Jackie, Roseanne's sister stops by, busily chattering and obliviously putting toast in the toaster and ingredients in the blender until realizing, of course, that nothing will work. "We don't have any lights," says Roseanne, "but now we know the speed of stupid."
Horrified that the lights aren't on, Jackie asks, "Did you tell them you have children?" Well, yes, says the somewhat despondent Roseanne: "They don't want 'em."
All of this sarcastic banter also serves as a set up for a serious conversation with Darlene after her boyfriend accidentally spends the night. Roseanne talks to her about birth control, and Darlene angrily responds, "Do you think I'd have sex with you twenty feet away?" Roseanne says, "You could do it all quiet without us knowing about it." Darlene's response: "Oh really? You can't!"
Later, when Darlene asks her father for money to get out of the house to see a movie, he laughs and answers: "Sorry! All I have is hundreds!"
All of this is pretty heavy stuff: Unemployment. No electricity. Talking about birth control with your daughter. Not having enough money to give your kid to go see a movie. And on Roseanne, it was hilarious. Television can be both entertaining and real. We can talk about class, even real economic setbacks, and still be amused. At the end of the day, that relatable, realistic humor might even be better for us.
In a piece for New York magazine that was published last spring, Roseanne Barr chronicles the ongoing battle with classist, sexist television producers and writers that she had to go through to get her show on the air the way she wanted it. How many actors have this fight in them? I don't know, but it's critical to acknowledge the systemic issues that stifle this type of representation of working-class families. Roseanne writes: "Hollywood hates labor, and hates shows about labor worse than any other thing. And that's why you won't be seeing another Roseanne anytime soon. Instead, all over the tube, you will find enterprising, overmedicated, painted-up, capitalist whores claiming to be housewives. But I'm not bitter."
I think, perhaps, we should all be bitter about this particular pill that Hollywood is handing us to swallow, and we should be extremely suspect of dismissive lines like "comedy can't be grounded in struggle." If we're not seeing well-written characters and families that actually represent American lives that's not the reason—Roseanne (which is available to watch instantly on Netflix!) puts the lie to that particular statement.
I must admit, I wasn't a regular Roseanne viewer when it was on the air. What are your favorite Roseanne moments, or favorite moments from other comedies that find the humor in working-class life?
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