The Sitcom Explained Part II: The Dawn of Crass-Com
Written by Bridger Cunningham
Do you notice several sitcoms are taking on the grimy elements of life? Taking on unsavory characters, higher reference to sexual innuendo and substance use. And topped with crude, coarse language and dialogue as the icing. It is the dawn of the "Crass-Com", or Crass Situational Comedy. We are beginning to see this rising trend, and not all in this genre aim to offend or push the "appropriate" line accepted on television with toilet humor. Since 2011, 2 Broke Girls has been crudely offending CBS viewers so shamelessly with an overdose of sexual references, ethnic jokes and blunt awareness of poverty. Two years later, CBS released "Mom", a topical sitcom aimed to tackle social issues stemming from substance abuse, from rehab following a reality-TV bender/addiction. It contains just as much sexual innuendo, yet avoids mocking ethnic groups and showcasing gritty addicts attempting to assimilate into society.
Enter 2017, and FOX is delivering its signature tacky helping of dysfunctionality with "The Mick", showcasing a dysfunctional family with no holds bar to substance use, discipline, irresponsible sex and bodily functions, save for sexual innuendo. It may seem as though our sitcoms are turning to trash, but they are merely showcasing people exhibiting trashy behavior so shamelessly. FOX was ahead of its time when it used "Married With Children" to launch its network, aimed at being "Not the Cosbys". After a few racy and suggestive episodes in 1989, Michigan housewife/activist Terry Rakolta launched a campaign to end the crude show from airing. Her efforts created a counter effect, as the show's ratings soared, and the fledgling FOX gained attention, press coverage and additional affiliates. Sorry to say for Rakolta, but she unleashed the audience's guilty desire to live vicariously through vile characters and premises.
MWC would enjoy a decently rated 11-season run and would pave the way for other "crude" shows across genres such as The Simpsons, In-Living Color (a sketch show famously ethnic-heavy), and Melrose Place (which pushed the scandal and sexuality bar albeit a soap opera). After MWC parted in 1997, other crude shows thrived. That 70's Show openly profiled drug use after being launched in 1998. Malcolm in the Middle debuted in 2000, showcasing a less than upstanding family and displaying realistic, coarse and superb dialogue from its younger cast members. And most offensively, Family Guy launched in 1999 and met an untimely cancellation in 2003. However, a subculture resurrected the series, and it has been belching out filth happily since 2005 as a mainstay. And the short-lived Raising Hope endured 4 seasons from 2010-14 showcasing a lower-middle-class dysfunctional family living well below the poverty level. And as a throughline, the Simpsons prevails, albeit it is no longer the racy, edgy black sheep of TV during its early notoriety. FOX pioneered the elements necessary for crass sitcoms and seems invested to take the risk at offending its audience 30 years later.
Outside of FOX, other networks have attempted to offer up Crass-Coms through the years. NBC's lone foray, My Name Is Earl, had a brief run from 2005-09, yet gained critical acclaim for shamelessly displaying the poor behaviors of the lower class, roach motel/trailer park inhabitants. ABC let out its belt from 1988-97 with heavy-hitter Roseanne from 1988-97, depicting the struggles of a working class family. CBS displayed the same shameless behavior with an upper-middle-class sitcom, Two and a Half Men, in 2003. Usually wholesome and topical, CBS drew ire for this show's display of sex lives through the point of view of the male. Having lasted 12 years, viewers spoke that they enjoyed the premise through the ratings soaring through the roof. Come the 2010's, CBS took bolder risks with new sitcoms, allowing crass references to percolate through censors. Mike and Molly had its share of sexual and stereotypical humor while guarding its approach showcasing two plus-sized leads. The following year, 2 Broke Girls took a modern approach to Laverne and Shirley in the guise of displaying anti-hero characters exploring poverty and sexual shamelessness. The trend continued in 2013 with a detox of addiction on Mom. And of course, cable has too many honorable (more appropriately, unhonorable) mentions.
The characteristics of "Crass-Coms", as defined below, meet several of these criteria:
1. Brash, offensive, obscene, coarse and crude dialogue.
2. Often depicting classes, more so of the lower reaches.
3. An open and adept exploration of sexuality. Does not have to include sex scenes, but suggestive dialogue, situations and references.
4. Substance use and abuse are a normal mainstay in this genre.
5. Topical issues often are explored. Whether skewed toward awareness or keeping up with current affairs, these shows explore issues of major and trivial issues such as sexuality, substance use, disciplining children, illness, etc...
6. Youthful characters associated with these productions often exhibit poor and gritty behavior.
7. Characters who are often "not the beauties" can enjoy a front and center part of the story.
8. Frequently pushing the envelope with censors, mainly through explicit words and expressions.
9. Escapism is rarely explored in favor of realism. Sets are often bleak, dirty and undesirable places for the audience to imagine existing.
10. In general, these shows are shameless in their approach to entertainment.
The shows mentioned up to this point can register a fit to more than half of the categories, if not all. Are we experiencing a new trend and surge with "Crass-Coms"? Only a foolish audience member would rue this concept. A viewer offended by overt sexual dialogue and situations would never accuse My Name is Earl, Raising Hope or Malcolm in the Middle of offending this category. Viewers who wish not to sit through a preachy "Public Service Announcement" will never feel this burn from Married with Children, 2 Broke Girls, The Mick, Raising Hope, My Name is Earl, or The Family Guy. The promise, this new sub-genre of sitcoms demonstrates sitcoms are still durable and able to reinvent the premise. We already have family shows, work comedies and hangout premises. Now, we have shows which allow us to let our hair down and embrace crass behaviors in favor of restricted social graces.
New eras form and create sub-genres. The 50's were about enjoying a simpler life following the tragedies of World War II and the great Depression. The 60's moved the action from urban to rural-themed shows with zany leads. The 70's painted the black and white silliness with surreal color in an effort to explore social issues. The late 70's/early 80's reverted back to escapism and allow people to forget their troubles against the economic troubles. The mid-80's to early 90's invested heavily in The Family Era, targeting younger viewers and their parents who fit the demographics. The mid-90's-mid 2000's introduced a level of sophistication known to cater to upscale professionals in said demographics. And the remainder of the 2000's created an "Independent Era" of comedy, attempting to break the generic mold and complete with a proliferation of reality TV. This era would continue well into the 2010's, until 2013 gave birth to multiple eras.
During this 2013 renaissance, each of the four networks funneled their own eras. CBS launched the "I Cannot Believe That!" era, featuring racier, envelope-pushing concepts which honed the Crass-Coms, as well as allowing less family-friendly fares to cover their schedule. NBC, once the sitcom maven for 20 years, faded quiet during this time and is finding a new footing with "The Reinvention Era". ABC successfully cemented their place as the next "Family Friendly" era, thanks to Modern Family, The Middle and The Goldbergs launching entertaining three-dimensional families. And FOX, once proudly boasting the 2000's Animation Domination Sundays, has reverted to its mixture of tacky, thrifty sitcoms which it built its network. This has become FOX's "Eclectic Era." They fave families, raunchy, workplace, hangout and fantasy/animation, all of which are sleepers at best. Having a complex, divisive group of four networks sounds messy, yet has given the mid-2010's the "Scripted Renaissance" title to encompass these four offerings.
The mid-2010's has it all, as networks realize scripted fares had to justify their value against an aggressive trend of cheaper sitcoms. Adding to the obstacles are the prominence of cable and internet platforms. So where will Crass-Coms fit best? The cards are stacked in favor of CBS, FOX, cable and alternative platforms. All possess a potential space for Crass-Coms, but would have to mold with ABC and NBC to survive. In order to be viable in the large ABC ranch, a Crass-Com would need to rely heavily on a family with children. On NBC, the crassness would have to be met with equal doses of sophistication in crisp writing to relive the mild success of My Name is Earl. Crass-Coms have lay dormant for 30 years throughout the landscape and appear to be the next trend.
The Mick has flaunted a teenage girl's sexual escapades throughout the house, smoking cigarettes like a 50's cocktail lounge singer, and slapping the referenced tart repeatedly in another episode which bordered on child abuse. This is a departure from gentle discipline and exploring youth issues with sensitivity from wholesome fares like Full House or The Cosbys. This speaks to the legions of demo-appropriate parents who have likely had their patience tested by unruly children coming of age. CBS mainstay 'Mom' handled teenage pregnancy thrice over, as well as a 12-year old principle smoking and drinking. And at least one episode featured the principles from 2 Broke Girls needing to make a run to the free clinic after an STD scare. These demonstrations from Crass-Coms speak to viewers who had setbacks in their wild heydays before they held full-time jobs and drove SUVS and minivans.
Thankfully, Crass-Coms will never proliferate our TV landscape. Too many would protest and call for said shows to be removed. They are to be handled in responsible doses, and 2017 seems to be the ideal time to shine a spotlight on such poor behavior. The last 10 years have been a bummer, and no political party held complete responsibility as it was the era which our country was in the dumps. After years of reality, recessions and deplorable politicians consumed our existence, we need a laugh! And who better to be the butt of these jokes than the despicable? Let's embrace these Crass-Com's, as society needs to lighten up in 2017. So what shows are foreseen as being the next Crass-Coms? Let's not speculate or jump the shark, but rather enjoy the vile ride. Instead of mourning the Tire Fire that was 2016, let's celebrate it with marshmallows and graham crackers and let these vile characters absorb life's unpleasantness for us and watch with glee.