Why working-class sitcoms don’t work

Chuck Lorre meets the modern viewer’s aversion everyday working people
Monty Brinton / CBS

Mom should have been a sure thing. The new sitcom is a creation of Chuck Lorre, who already has three hit shows on the air; it stars former movie star Anna Faris. But while the show is hardly a flop, TV By the Numbers says its initial ratings make it “likely to be cancelled.” What makes this show different from Lorre’s The Big Bang Theory or Two and a Half Men? It’s not that Mom’s main character is a recovering alcoholic; it’s that she’s raising a family on meagre wages from a bad job. Viewers say they want comedies to reflect the problems of everyday working people, but they may not tune in to watch them.

Veteran TV writer Ken Levine says in today’s TV industry, it’s conventional wisdom that “working-class sitcoms will seem too depressing.” But it wasn’t always that way. Some of the most popular sitcoms, such as The Honeymooners and All in the Family, dealt with poverty, layoffs and small household budgets. Lorre was the producer of Roseanne, a hit about raising a family on no money. Today, this tradition lives on in reality TV; Pepi Leistyna, professor of applied linguistics at the University of Massachusetts and creator of the film Class Dismissed: How TV Frames the Working Class, notes that on reality shows, “you see every dirty job possible, from fishing to the kitchen, from the mechanic’s garage to the pawnshop, and everything in between.”

But in sitcoms, not only do affluent people dominate the ratings, they also dominate the award-winners. Though Roseanne never even got nominated for the Emmy for Best Comedy, the prize has gone four times in a row to Modern Family, about three families, all wealthy or upper-middle-class. Co-creator Christopher Lloyd told the New York Times that he dealt with economic anxiety when he showed a character “leave a comfortable job at a law firm for a less well-paying but more rewarding job.” Before that, the perennial winner was 30 Rock, about the travails of a well-paid TV writer and a corporate executive.

Though some dramas, like Breaking Bad, deal with household problems such as medical bills, prestige comedies shy away from these issues: Comedian Louis CK bombed on HBO with Lucky Louie, about a family living in poverty, but became an award-winner for Louie, about the pressures of being a successful comedian.

Why can’t comedies deal with people who aren’t affluent? Levine, who has written comedies about surgeons (M*A*S*H) and psychiatrists (Frasier), says it’s partly that money and employment problems aren’t good fodder for escapist comedy. “Viewers would rather escape to worlds where the jobs are cool, apartments are nice and problems are ‘Am I going to get laid?’ rather than ‘Am I going to get laid off?’ ” Jon Cryer on Two and a Half Men may be constantly strapped for cash, but since he’s a successful chiropractor with a rich brother and mother, audiences know his problems aren’t serious. Real economic problems make networks “worried about being associated with sad, down-at-the-mouth families,” says sitcom writer Chip Keyes (Perfect Strangers). “Downer.”

Still, there are some shows that hint at a brighter future for the lower-middle-class comedy, and not just Mom, which, despite its initial weak ratings, has gotten good reviews for its respectful portrayal of a struggling single mother. Leistnya points to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the long-running FX comedy about a bunch of dimwits running a failing bar, though its negative portrayal of its heroes as “working-class buffoons,” more like Trailer Park Boys than Roseanne, isn’t always flattering. The Middle, on the same network as Modern Family, has spent five years as a moderate hit about a mother (Patricia Heaton) making ends meet. And in the U.K., one of the biggest hit sitcoms is Mrs. Brown’s Boys, a throwback to working-class kitchen-sink sitcoms of the 70s—complete with a man playing the titular Mrs. Brown. These shows prove that money problems don’t have to be depressing, as long as the characters act happy. “We don’t want to see our characters lose, of course,” Keyes says, “but we don’t mind if it’s only a little victory.” It also helps if there’s a man in a dress.