December 16, 2020

Laughing matters: Course tracks history of sitcoms, social change

Q&A with instructor Tamy Burnett

Touchstone Television / Everett Collection / Scott Schrage | University Communication

Touchstone Television / Everett Collection / Scott Schrage | University Communication
Nebraska's Tamy Burnett is packing 70 years of socially conscious sitcoms, including "The Jeffersons" (left) and "The Golden Girls" (right), into a three-week Honors course.

More than a year before Rodney King was beaten and nearly 30 before George Floyd was killed, it spoke truth to millions about racial profiling through the eyes of a self-styled prince.

It became the small-screen door through which Ellen DeGeneres chose to publicly come out.

A 1960s-era Mary Tyler Moore used one to ditch skirts for pants in her role as stay-at-home mom. A 1970s-era Moore used another to announce the arrival of the single, 9-to-5 woman.

The situational comedy — the not-so-humble sitcom — has long acted as a bullhorn for social mores and a pop-cultural measuring stick for social movements.


Nebraska’s Tamy Burnett, assistant director of the Honors Program, instructor in women’s and gender studies, and courtesy faculty in English, had been looking for a chance to explore the social significance of sitcoms in the classroom. While teaching a previous course on “quality TV” — mostly hour-long dramas that have attracted the sort of critical analysis that usually rebuffs the sitcom — Burnett realized that Honors students were plenty intrigued by the idea, too.

The coronavirus-altered academic calendar closed the fall semester in late November, cracking a brisk December window for mini-courses that could help students catch up, get ahead or just explore some interests. So Burnett decided to pack 70 years of socially conscious sitcoms into a three-week, 3-credit course that wraps Dec. 18.

As part of the 300-level Honors course, Burnett’s 18 students are remotely watching and discussing episodes from dozens of sitcoms. They’re examining gender norms through the lenses of “I Love Lucy,” “Who’s the Boss?” and “Murphy Brown.” They’re exploring the mainstream evolution of Black identity via “Good Times,” “Family Matters” and “Black-ish.” They’re considering LGBTQA+ issues as portrayed by “Will & Grace” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” Changing views on socioeconomic status, family structure, disability, age, political affiliation and other issues also get their due.

Burnett stepped away from the three-week blitz long enough to speak with Nebraska Today about Lucille Ball, Mr. Moms, and how a spoonful of comedy can help the empathy go down.

What’s the value in understanding the relationship between sitcoms and social change?

The way that humor allows us to talk about things that we might not otherwise be comfortable talking about — and can open the door for people to be willing to entertain ideas or perspectives that were not immediately ones that they had thought of — is really fascinating to me.

I think, nowadays, we would say that most of the boundary-pushing is (in) the hour-long dramas, shows like that. And that’s been true for a while. But it was sitcoms that really helped pave the way when TV was just taking off as a mass-consumption medium.

There are some wildly popular sitcoms that were not terribly progressive in terms of social issues, and not every show has to do all things for all people. But there is a preponderance in sitcoms, over the course of the early ’50s to now, where you do see a number of them engage with changing social norms. And I think it’s because humor is an accessible way for a lot of people to engage with these topics and for an audience to entertain commentary on social change.

How do you go about illustrating the sitcom’s ability to reflect social change and, in certain cases, maybe even help spur that change?

We talked about how, in “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” Mary Tyler Moore made a big push that she was going to wear pants when she was at home (in the show). Because her perspective was that it was ridiculous that her character was expected to always wear a dress, even inside the home. At that time, women at home most often didn’t wear dresses while they were cleaning the house. The studio had to be really convinced. So she was reflecting something that was actually happening, but the narrative that was culturally relevant at the time did not include that. They started off agreeing to allow her to wear pants in one scene per episode, and only certain types of pants. … But that elicited a change and helped push the boundary a little bit.

Same way with “I Love Lucy.” Lucille Ball became pregnant, and she wasn’t even allowed to say the word “pregnant,” because it was considered a vulgar word on television. It makes me laugh, because the episode is titled, “Lucy is Enceinte,” which is the French word for “pregnant.” … Obviously, people knew other people who were pregnant at that time. It’s not exactly a brand-new or a radical thing. And yet, I think it’s the “I Love Lucy” episode where she goes to the hospital to have the baby that has the second-highest share of viewers for a single broadcast — the percentage who watched out of all people with television sets — second only to Elvis Presley’s first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The network may have considered her pregnancy storyline dangerous, but the viewing public clearly didn’t share those concerns.

Tamy Burnett
Burnett (top, second from left) meets with her students over Zoom as part of UHON 395H: Sitcoms and Social Change.

You also see, then, the sitcoms that feature ethnic and racial minorities. In the ’70s and ’80s, there were a number of sitcoms featuring African American characters and families. Let’s say you’re in a part of the country that’s not very diverse, and if you’re a white audience member, you might not have any actual experience interacting with someone who is racially different in 1982, or whatever. You might see a show … break down (these) inaccurate ideas that are entirely based in stereotypes about other people who are different than you and come away from that viewing experience with a broadened understanding of others’ experiences in the world.

So I think that art — the TV shows — are reflecting existing norms, as well as helping shape new ones. Sitcoms have always been able to push the envelope. … Not all sitcoms are really focused on reflecting these changing social norms. But the ones that invest in that or that are structured around that, I think, do a good job of helping the viewers see other perspectives and reflect changing ideas, but then also are able to help influence that change by providing a different norm or predicting changes that are forthcoming in our culture.

Do you find that sitcoms wield humor differently depending on the social value or audience they’re addressing?

Humor is predicated on violating social boundaries — often, benign violations. You’re probably not going to have a sitcom … about a serial killer, the way you have (a drama) like “Dexter.” But when it’s, say, gender roles that we can recognize within a nuclear family, where we can recognize that that’s not the only way to exist in the world, we can use it to sort of call out the unnecessary rigidity of these expected roles or find humor in someone who is crossing the boundary. We saw a whole bunch of these in the ’80s. They were the Mr. Mom (characters), where you have a man who’s in a more traditionally feminine role. “Who’s the Boss?” is a good example, where the woman is a high-powered executive, and the man is the housekeeper and does the cooking and the cleaning and (provides) the emotional support that often comes with the stay-at-home parent role.

But humor can also be a little biting. Recently, for example, we talked about “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” One of the episodes we watched involves the two teenage boys driving a neighbor’s luxury automobile and getting racially profiled, pulled over and put in jail. I think it’s very different than it would be if it were on the air today, because we have a different consciousness (on the issue). But at the same time, that episode is from 1990, which is only a couple of years before the Rodney King riots, which were getting at some of the same issues about police brutality that are really central in our consciousness today. There are a couple of moments (in the episode) when there are lines of dialogue that are a little sharper. They’re a little less, “Ha ha, isn’t that funny?” and more like, “Hey, we’re calling out something really serious here.” But I think if you’re talking about an issue that affects minority individuals — whether that is by race or gender or sexual identity or socioeconomic status — that there’s often a feeling that you have to tread more carefully to get your message across or be received as well. Humor can be a good way to do that — to help laugh at the situation and make people say, “OK, yeah, I get the message.”

It’s been a while since I watched the episode, but I know “Black-ish” did an episode that involves how black parents talk with their children about police brutality, and how to behave if pulled over by the police. That’s a much, much more serious episode than the “Fresh Prince” one. But it’s also a much more socially aware audience now. All members of the audience are going to already be aware that this is an issue. I’m not as certain how aware every audience member would have been in the early ’90s, before the L.A. riots.

What lessons do you hope your students take away from the course?

The stories we tell are important. A lot of times, people will approach sitcoms as mindless TV. But if you tune in repeatedly, week after week, or binge-watch, you are taking all of that in. And it’s important to be conscious of what you’re taking in. It’s sort of like: If you decide you’re going to have a candy bar for lunch, that’s fine for one day. But if you do it every single day, that’s not a great life choice, and you should be aware of what you’re doing. Don’t just mindlessly do it.

I do want students to take away the broad cultural shifts and to be a little more aware of those social movements over the past 70 years, in terms of human diversity: gender, race, sexuality, attitudes, perspectives, how we engage with that socially. But also (I want them to) think: How can I engage with my entertainment media in ways that are perhaps a little more thoughtful or critical or aware? And that’s not to say that you can’t just sit down and enjoy something that you don’t ultimately think has a ton of value intellectually or socially. That’s fine. But be aware. If you find a character hilarious, be aware of why you think they’re funny. Is that a behavior you want to imitate, or are they funny because they’re mean to people? Are they funny because they’re fulfilling a stereotype? And what does it say if you’re laughing at that?

Courses about TV contend with their own stereotypes. Any thoughts on those?

People may tend to think, “Well, it’s about TV, so it’s not rigorous or substantive.” I don’t think that’s true at all. And I guarantee my students would not agree that it’s not rigorous. [laughs] The three-week format alone makes most things rigorous. But we are asking students to engage with new material deeply and to think critically and draw connections across disciplines. The students in my class come from all different disciplinary backgrounds. They’re not all English majors or film studies majors.

The idea of being a critical consumer of your entertainment media is one step removed from being a critical consumer of your news media or all of the other ways that we obtain information and that we come to understand the world around us: the norms, and what is changing, and which directions things are changing in. I do think it’s a fun class, but the goal is certainly to learn from it.