Last week, I attended the Cinematheque screening of sitcoms. We watched an episode of Good Times, in which the family argues about politics, as James wants to stick to voting for the candidate he has always voted for, and the rest of the family wants to vote for someone new. We also watched an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, wherein Will’s father, who had abandoned him as a child, comes back and almost takes Will on a cross-country road trip with him, but again abandons him at the last minute. Finally, we watched a Black-ish episode in which they address “the nod.” At the end, a writer from Black-ish, Peter Saji and a television scholar, Bambi Haggins, had a sort of Q&A panel. The most memorable answer from that session, for me, was from Saji, in which he stated that he believed there was essentially no such thing as offensive comedy, and the only difference between an edgy joke and an offensive one is that the edgy joke is funny.
The thing that interested me most about watching these sitcoms through the ages is how the style of humor has changed, and how that seems to represent a shift in the mentality of the viewing audience. In Good Times, almost every line was some sort of joke, and there was a laugh track in place just in case the audience couldn’t tell that every line was a joke. Additionally, serious subjects, such as women’s rights, were played for laughs, and the severity of the subject was not addressed. Fresh Prince and Black-ish were much more nuanced; while they made jokes around serious subjects, like racism and family abandonment, at the end of the day, they allowed for the serious nature of those subjects to stand on there own. While there were jokes, not everything was a joke, which I appreciated.