Social changes mean today’s punchline can be tomorrow’s fighting words
For the season finale of ABC’s “Black-ish” the writers wanted to use vintage ads to demonstrate the evolution of civil rights since the 1920s. “We looked up an original Jell-O ad, with two black servants serving a white woman, and an ad of a man spanking his wife for using the wrong coffee,” says Vijal Patel, the writer of the episode “Pops’ Pops’ Pops.”
The network was not onboard, Patel says. “These were ads from the 1930s and ’40s that were on billboards, and we can’t even put them on television saying that they’re racist and misogynistic.”
Indeed, what is socially acceptable has not only changed dramatically in the past century, it’s still rapidly evolving, particularly in regards to race, sexuality and gender issues. That poses a dilemma for comedy writers: What is funny today could, in less than a decade, be considered outdated or even derogatory.
The CW’s “Jane the Virgin,” for example, features as wide range of ethnically and sexually diverse characters, and its showrunner, Jennie Snyder Urman, often lets dialogue marinate to make sure it doesn’t make fun of a cultural perception. “The first thing that comes to your mind is probably not the best joke because it’s drawing on things that are either familiar or stereotypical,” she says, adding that the characters are not meant to represent a particular group. “Every character makes different jokes based on their own person, and they usually do it at their own expense.”
ABC’s “Modern Family” avoids making political statements, instead mining laughter from its characters facing ordinary issues and dealing with them honestly — and imperfectly. “I think you’re always asking for trouble if you get preachy or overly political,” says executive producer Christopher Lloyd. “We have a gay couple, but they’re not out raising the flag for gay rights particularly. We just show them raising a child in a loving way and hope that that makes whatever point that makes.”
Facing fewer restraints than their network cohorts, cable comedies are almost expected to push the boundaries of political correctness, but even when few things seem off limits, one doesn’t want to “light up the Internet the wrong way,” says “The Comedians” (FX) executive producer Ben Wexler.
Fellow executive producer Matt Nix agrees. “The thing you have to really watch out for is the casual treatment of subjects that people are getting more aware of,” he says. He notes that the casual racism of 1930s comedies is among the things from the past “that don’t travel so well.”
Even where no controversy is intended, there is an occasional battle over verbiage. “Modern Family” executive producer Steve Levitan recalls getting pushback over the use of the word “homo,” but standards and practices allowed it after the context was explained.
“You can get what you want,” Levitan says. “You have to just make an intelligent case for it. You say, ‘Look, this won’t offend anybody. Here’s why.’ Or ‘This might offend a few people, but it’s worth it, and here’s why.’ We’ve typically won those particular battles.”
“Black-ish” writers will continue to push boundaries in season two.
“We lean towards finding something that starts a conversation,” says writer Corey Nickerson, who penned the spanking episode, “Crime and Punishment.”
“It’s not a politically correct room,” adds series creator Kenya Barris. ”But you want a group of people who are able to talk about things that people don’t want to talk about. And then write about it. It’s hard to do.”