It’s common knowledge that stars’ behavior behind the scenes can have drastic effects on what we viewers get to watch at home. Despite amassing nearly 18.4 million viewers on the night the series opened, “Roseanne” was canceled after the star sent out multiple racist and offensive tweets. Going further back, Paula Deen’s cooking show was canceled after revelations of her using racial slurs, and even reruns of “The Cosby Show” were canceled in 2014 following sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby.
But what about what actually makes it to our screen? What about the shows themselves? We don’t always address problems mixed in with the themes of our television programs, like sexism and racism. However, more and more shows are finding ways to make us laugh without these issues, while being kind to all viewers.
Humor at the expense of others has often been a staple of television, with some shows going out of their way to offend large groups of viewers. Shows like “Family Guy” and “South Park” have been doing it for ages, sometimes even facing legal consequences for their actions. While groups that have been the targets of jokes such as these have spoken out against this type of humor on television, these shows remain widely successful. “The Big Bang Theory” has had multiple instances of moments, puns and characters used as setups for sexist punchlines and has still remained one of the top-five most popular shows this year.
The arguments in favor of these shows? “Humor that makes people uncomfortable sells.” “Offending the ‘other’ leads to increases in viewers.” “They’re just saying what others are thinking!” Well, I disagree. On more than one occasion, “Family Guy” has made me uncomfortable with jokes about sexual assault, and as a woman who’s considering pursuing a career in academics and science, I know I wouldn’t want to be treated like the female characters in “The Big Bang Theory.” I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. Despite the average of nearly 20 million regular viewers of “The Big Bang Theory,” many people are happy to see the show come to an end.
The truth is, well-written shows that are mindful of stereotypes can still do well. “The Good Place” is a massive success on NBC, the show entering its third season with a representative cast and clever jokes (I think the most “offensive” joke I’ve heard was regarding multiple characters making fun of Florida). When Fox dropped “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” a show well-known for diversity, tactful handling of sensitive subjects and humor, it took a mere 31 hours and pleas from fans, ranging from an everyman to celebrities like Mark Hamill, to get the show picked up by NBC. This mindfulness isn’t without difficulty, though. When the internationally popular show “Doctor Who” announced Jodie Whittaker as the first woman set to play the iconic title role, BBC faced massive backlash. Meanwhile, Whittaker has received massive praise for her performance, and the show has a more diverse supporting cast.
Good television isn’t just about shock value humor; it’s about telling stories that matter and make us care. I care much more about a compelling plot and realistic characters than I do about rape jokes and racial stereotypes. Frankly, I’m of the mindset (for all media) that if your humor relies on shock and insensitivity as a crutch, your humor probably couldn’t stand well on its own to begin with.
Elizabeth Short is a sophomore majoring in biology.