The Sitcom Dad. A simple, good-natured guy who just wants everyone to be happy and who will do anything to prevent disappointment. He's an easy-to-laugh-at character. Make dad the "Mr. Mom" caregiver and it gets even funnier. Yet, the joke is getting old, and does it really represent reality?
Unless you have been sleeping under a rock for the past 30 years, you know the American family has changed. The industrial revolution plucked our stay-at-home farmer and tradesman father from the home to the factory, but the women's liberation movement, the great recession and the switch to a service-based economy has brought him back. He's back home and proud. And more often than not, doing a great job at it. In fact, men are more likely to enjoy cooking than their female counterpart, are doing the household grocery shopping and are spending three to seven times more hours per week than their own fathers did on cleaning and childcare.
This all sounds positive for the American family. So, why is he still being made fun of?
"See Dad Run" and "Guys with Kids" are two of Hollywood's recent reactions to the return of the father at home. I confess that I don't own a TV, and when I watch a show, I watch about 10 of them at once on Hulu. This weekend, I sat down with my husband for a marathon viewing of both shows and when they were over, I felt the urge to apologize to him.
Both shows are about middle-aged men becoming the primary caregiver. Both poke fun at the man who is apparently out of his "natural habitat." In "See Dad Run," the father is a well-intended idiot who is incapable of taking care of himself, let alone his children. He's married to an overbearing, non-supportive "tiger mom" whom no one should spend a childhood, let alone a lifetime with. "Guys with Kids" does a better job of portraying more competent or at least engaged men dealing with the transition into parenthood while still trying to remain relevant as men. The title scene has three dads wearing Baby Bjorns, which, like the scene in "Aliens" where the implanted spawn bursts through the chest of its victim, makes anyone, male or female, look funny. However, the characters are a bit one-dimensionally baby focused, and the dad plus baby visual isn't going to stay funny for long.
Men are entering the domain of women, but what if the tables were turned? How did sitcoms treat the woman when she entered the workforce? Did we laugh at Ms. Working Woman like we laugh at Mr. Mom? Take "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." As a professional Minnesotan woman, I feel a strong affinity with Mary. Like the men of "Guys with Kids," she was a pioneer of a new age with whom we could relate. The show made us laugh, but not at her incompetence. We laughed at how she brilliantly handled awkward situations at home and at work.
I invite Hollywood to do for men what it did for women. Fortunately, we have an example role model, for it was once done, 92 years ago. After the death of his first-born child, a transformed Charlie Chaplin created "The Kid," an instant success and the quintessential movie on fatherhood. The humor is found not in Charlie Chaplin's incompetence, but in his loving ingenuity and the deep bond between a mutually mischievous father and child.
Thank you, Mary and Charlie. Thank you for showing us that we can laugh and have our sitcoms spurred by changing social roles. Let's start treating dad with the same respect we gave Mary Tyler Moore. Let's tap into the brilliant, creative ingenuity of the real fathers of today, and that's where we will find our best, timeless humor.