Sitcoms can present some fairly abrasive material without causing too much of an uproar. The idea is to be funny, and that requires a bit of the unexpected; to that end, “high concept” shows like Soap (which parodied soap operas with cutting-edge satire) and M*A*S*H (funny antics in a war hospital) have been hits, as was the intentionally-offensive All in the Family.
The key is the humor. No matter how sensitive a subject might be, if actual laughs can be delivered, all may be forgiven. A good example is the Germans episode of Fawlty Towers. John Cleese plays Basil Fawlty, the obsequious owner of a failing hotel who is eager to put his best foot forward with some European guests. Unfortunately, he’s had a recent head injury and isn’t thinking clearly….
While that is an example of how to treat a sensitive topic correctly, there are many examples of how to mishandle a script, and on rare occasions an entire television show.
Take, for example, The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer. In this show, Chi McBride plays a black Englishman who becomes President Abraham Lincoln’s valet. As far as sitcoms go, the jokes and the acting weren’t horrible, but they weren’t good, either. The show was attacked by some for taking a light-hearted view of slavery and by others for its derisive and perverse presentation of Abraham and Mary Lincoln. It’s since become known as one of the worst mistakes of network television.
Leave it to the British to outdo the Americans. The U.S. made a hit comedy out of a World War II prison camp with Hogan’s Heroes. It was a risky decision that paid off for the show’s producers. The U.K. made its own comedy about World War II… Heil Honey, I’m Home.
The show was exactly like every other failed knockoff of I Love Lucy, with bad jokes and predictable dialogue presented by mediocre acting. In this case, the wretchedness of the show was intentional: that was the joke, it was where the core of the humor came from. What was left was basically, “Oh, isn’t it funny that Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun are a wacky sitcom family?” The answer is “no”. It didn’t require anyone to be hypersensitive to realize that normalizing mass murderers was a bad idea; in fact, the creators realized that they might be stepping in a massive figurative feces pile, so they cobbled together a fictional excuse about how the show was recently unearthed footage from Hollywood. The excuse, the show, the ratings and the reviews all fell flat, and no second episode was aired.
Question of the night: What’s one of your favorite sitcoms?