But other than Saturday morning cartoons, there wasn’t a whole lot of programming for children. So what’s a nature-averse kid to do? Watch adult shows, of course. And the sitcoms of my time weren’t all fluff. We’re talking Korean War, living in the projects, lovable racists, child abduction and more divorced, harried moms than you can throw a Hungry Man frozen dinner at. Even Scooby and the gang couldn’t solve the mystery of why Ann Romano was still single! “Ruh-ro, Raggage!”
And if you stayed home sick from school? Reruns of sitcoms made before you were even born. Barney Miller, The Bob Newhart Show, The Odd Couple. The middle-aged men and women of these shows were complicated, often unsatisfied with their lives, mildly depressed and just this side of fugly. In other words, totally relatable!
Which brings me to the scourge of the present TV landscape: sitcoms starring and made for children. I have a 7-year-old son so, naturally, I’ve seen a lot of this crap. The basic formula is a bunch of impossibly good-looking kids who wear designer clothes, live in gigantic homes, rarely see or listen to their parents and get everything they want. Oh, and they’re mean. For no reason. I mean, these kids will tear each other or any adult present apart for how they look, act or breathe.
I’m not saying kids in real life can’t be cruel. As a child I was known to occasionally cut a person down, but I was ugly and acting out of insecurity. No judge with reasonable eyesight would’ve convicted me. Besides, my barbs were at least witty. Today’s TV kids have everything and complain about everything and do so in the most unfunny, skin-crawling of ways. But these kid characters are “aspirational.” I know this because, as a TV writer, I’ve been in meeting after meeting where I am told that they want “aspirational” characters. This means they want kids who are in some way better than your kids watching the show. Richer, prettier, more popular. You see, that is what kids aspire to and we, apparently, should encourage that.
To be fair, when I was a kid, I too aspired to be like the people I saw on TV. Which is why today, I’m a somewhat neurotic (Odd Couple) comedy writer (The Dick Van Dyke Show) who’s made some poor choices in men (Cheers) and spent a good amount of time in therapy (Bob Newhart). I’m also kind and a hell of a good friend (Mary Tyler Moore).
Of course, I in no way want my son to aspire to be like the a-holes on TV. I did ban one Disney show from our household but hey, if I was allowed to watch The Brady Bunch when I was a kid, I figure I’m not going to stop him from watching every bad show ever made. So when I watch these Disney or Nick shows with him, I do two things: Politely excuse myself to go vomit and, upon returning, loudly say things like, “Wow is that kid a brat!” or, “Why is he so mean?” or, “Girls can be smart, you know!”
My bigger concern is that my son thinks this stuff is actually funny. I have a two-pronged approach to this problem. One, I no longer pretend that the bad stuff is good. He regards my opinion highly, so when he says to me, “Isn’t that funny?” I’ll say something like, “Not my cup of tea,” or, “Really? You didn’t see that coming?” Two, I make him watch the classics. We’re not up to Rhoda or One Day at a Time yet, but he has an appreciation for the Marx Brothers and we just started watching The Carol Burnett Show. So far, the big hit is Dinah Shore singing “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” Unintentionally hilarious. Tears of laughter rolling down his 7-year-old cheeks. Check it out.
And we’ve just started letting him watch the adult sitcoms Fresh Off the Boat and black-ish. He doesn’t get all of the jokes, of course. The sexual stuff goes over his head and the racial humor needs to be explained, which is an interesting dialogue in itself, as the differences in race aren’t as obvious to his 2015 second grader self as they were to us as kids. And yes, there are adorable kids on those shows, but they’re well-written, imperfect adorable kids. The important thing is, we can all sit around the TV and laugh together, like my brother and I did with our parents. ‘Cause it’s not like we’re going to go camping or something.
So if you’re out at CPK one night enjoying some Avocado Club Egg Rolls with your family and the little girl at the next table is bitching that her iPad’s run out of juice and the dad is stewing in his own juice and the boy is screaming “Hey I want more juice!” just remember those kids are just achieving what they’ve aspired to: becoming little shits.