Thursday, October 05, 2017

Maybe the most thankless role in televison

What's the most thankless role in television?

Ask any actress. They’ll tell you in a heartbeat. Playing the TV wife in a sitcom.

In most cases the show is built around the husband. He’s usually a dolt, and it’s the wife’s job to tolerate him, to be amused by him, or worse, be the wet blanket.

She’s the one always saying, “Don’t do that!” She’s the one always refusing to go storm chasing. He’s the fun one. She’s the “grown up.” She’s the rational one. There’s no greater vein of comedy gold than rationality.

Also, it’s difficult to establish chemistry when in many cases, let’s get real, the wife is so much prettier and/or younger than her husband. So you don’t believe them as a couple for a second. And on top of everything else, the actress has to somehow try to make it believable that she would be married to this clown.

Yeah, like Courtney Thorne-Smith would be married to Jim Belushi.

And this is after years of TV evolution.

Originally TV wives were dingbats. Lucy, Joan (I MARRIED JOAN), Gladys (PETE & GLADYS). Okay, you’ve probably never heard of those last two but trust me, they were knock-off Lucy’s. The only exception (and she was a phenomenal exception) was Audrey Meadows as Alice Kramden on THE HONEYMOONERS. She was the smart one, the savvy one, and got laughs from her dignity not shenanigans.

With the ‘60s came Laura Petrie from THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. Here the wife was an equal partner. But she was still a housewife, and still did goofy things like dye her dark hair blonde, and get her toe stuck in a bathtub nozzle. And there was still resistance to her getting a job or even taking a night class.

70’s wives ran the spectrum. Emily was truly a partner on THE BOB NEWHART SHOW. She worked, but there was no need for her to be a stay-at-home mom because they had no children. ALL IN THE FAMILY’S Edith was a complete dingbat, but then came Maude. She was the powerhouse and her husband was a limp noodle. Louise Jefferson took no shit as well.

Roseanne was in the Maude mold (although with a very different sensibility), but slowly family shows gravitated to stand-up comedians doing versions of their act and wives were relegated to cockblockers.

Kudos to the few who broke through that. Patty Heaton on EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND had a lot of Alice Kramden in her, Leah Remini was every bit Kevin James’ equal on KING OF QUEENS, and Julie Bowen elevates MODERN FAMILY’S Claire despite being saddled with another man-child husband. (Sofia Vergara remains a sketch.)

And again, it’s not because these actresses in thankless roles aren’t capable of much more and delivering way more comedy; it’s that they aren’t given the material necessary to shine.

So my heart goes out to Patricia Richardson, Nancy Travis, Jamie Gertz, Liza Snyder, Courtney-Thorne Smith, Marion Ross, Phylicia Rashad, Meredith Baxter, Joely Fisher, Wanda McCullough, Betty Rubble, and all the rest.

Obviously, there are more examples for all of these, and exceptions to all as well. And I suspect the comments section will remind me of all of them. But again, ask a working actress what her least favorite roles have been and I’ll bet they tell you TV wives. And it’s not like they can seek counseling.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

At your Sitcom Room in 2012, my group had three men and two women. We got into a discussion about the female character in the scene you provided. The other woman and I kept saying, "We need to give her something more to do...what's her back story?" and then men were saying, "Oh, she's fine as she is." Finally one of the men said, "Lots of sitcom wives are like that." And as one, the other woman and I said, "Yes, and that's what's wrong with a lot of sitcoms."

I then turned to the other woman and said, "Do you think we have a gender gap problem here?"

We gave her a back story. It was one line, but to us it made all the difference.


alkali said...

"Yeah, like Courtney Thorne-Smith would be married to Jim Belushi."

Don't disagree with the rest of your points here, but as a factual matter this is wrong. You can see who Jim Belushi is married to -- check his Wikipedia page and Google her name along with the word "belushi" -- and she is also a nice-looking person.

If the claim is "Courtney Thorne-Smith would not be married to a suburban contractor dad like the lead character on 'According to Jim'," I'm not even sure that's right.

Andrew said...

A little off topic, but I couldn't help thinking of Anna Gunn as Skyler White.

And "Betty Rubble." LOL.

Stephen Robinson said...

I recall how it seemed like Clare Huxtable's sole duty was to sit and laugh at Cliff Huxtable's comedic mugging.

Katey Sagal deserves credit for being *hella* funny as Peg Bundy on MARRIED... WITH CHILDREN in a period (the 1980s) when the TV wives were mostly dull (heck, even the TV dads were dull -- the kids were the focus from GROWING PAINS to FAMILY TIES).

One thing I especially liked about THE MIDDLE was that it was a show about Sue Heck and her husband was the "straight" man.

My issue with the "man child" husband is that the wife comes across as a frazzled mother type rather than as a true "straight person" in a comedy pairing. There's no "Burns and Allen" dynamic.

Rock Golf said...

Special consideration for Erinn Hayes, whose TV husband (Kevin James) left her for an older woman.

Aaron Sheckley said...

You've described one of the main reasons that I've come to hate family based sitcoms; the gorgeous yet shrewish wife/lovable idiot man-child husband. They've been relying on this trope since at least the '70's, and it baffles me why it doesn't turn off both male and female viewers. I can't even suspend my disbelief on most of these sitcoms long enough to believe that these two people would ever make it past one date, let alone get married and have kids.

I can recall they did try a type of reversal of roles in Dharma and Greg, though they made her a "free spirit" and not an idiotic 35 year old who doesn't know how to turn on a washing machine. I also hated Dharma and Greg, though that may have been more due to the actors than the writing.

Covarr said...

As much as Patricia Richardson had to play the voice of reason, it was always quite apparent to me that HOME IMPROVEMENT wouldn't have worked at all without her. I'm rewatching this show now that it's on Hulu, and I've definitely noticed that even though she doesn't always get the good laughs, Jill is regularly a driving force for the plots rather than just a foil for Tim. I love that she's not the perfect wife, only... ahem... almost perfect... which I gather was at least partially at the insistence of the actress herself.

Kirk said...

Betty Rubble? How about Wilma Flintstone?

David Schwartz said...

This was not a structure that only played out on television. Teri Garr played that role in both "Oh God" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Of course, she was terrific in both roles, however it was that same type of situation where the male lead was the dominant character and she was the disbelieving, hesitant person in the relationship. Oh, and as a licensed therapist, I'm happy to offer my services to any put upon, TV wives! Mrs. Cunningham, Laura Petrie, Georgette Baxter, Edith Bunker, Emily Hartley, even Morticia Addams... I'm waiting for your calls! :-)

Dr Loser said...

No no no.

Fran, in Dinosaurs. I was actually in love with Fran at one point.

However, I don't imagine that most actresses these days would be overly enamoured of climbing into a giant sorbo-rubber suit every day at work.

Philip said...

That might be why i liked FRASIER so much – Daphne could get trampled underfoot at times as the help but she could also take a swing or two. And of course Roz was a wonderful female character esp. the way she handled Bulldog.

One of the things I disliked about FRIENDS in the later years is how "naggy" Monica could become after she was "wife," but maybe that was just a general decline in the show (i.e. Chandler becomes schmaltzy and uxorious and Joey crosses the line from sitcom-stupid to unbelievably stupid)

blinky said...

Friday question:
I just saw the new sitcom 9JKL. I couldn't even get through the whole half hour. It seemed like every character was a cliche. The pace of the dialogue was relentless. There was not room for a breath between witless repartee. It was like they were afraid to have a natural moment. Is it just bad writing and directing or do you think they got network noted to death?

Anonymous said...

I have to say Samantha Stephens definitely had it all over (both) Darrins. Throw in Endora and those guys had zero chance!! Happy Thursday. Janice B.

Eric J said...

I remember both I Married Joan and Pete & Gladys. Strangely, I remember Jim Backus from the former and Harry Morgan from the latter. I couldn't remember who played the eponymous wives or their faces, though I recognized them when I looked them up.

Mike McCann said...

Yvonne de Carlo's Lily Munster was hugely underrated. Peel away the monster schtick and she was the calm, level-headed and logical one. She kept Herman (the airhead in that relationship) in line. When you think about it, she had a lot more Alice Kramden in her than you'd assume at first glance.

VillageDianne said...

Not a wife, but I think you can add the excellent Pam Dawber of Mork and Mindy to this list as well.

Barry in Portland said...

Let's take a moment to remember and appreciate Gracie Allen.

Sean S. said...


In her book IN SUCH GOOD COMPANY Carol Burnett repeats the following from a conversation she had with Larry Gelbart.

BURNETT: I don't know, but when I watch a comedy show on TV today, I know exactly what's coming so far as the writing goes. No surprises. No originality. Usually it's the 'setup' first, and then comes the obvious joke, and then you hear that awful laugh track. It's as if all the shows are alike and repeating themselves.

GELBART: I think it's because most of the writers today grew up watching television. That was their childhood, so they're writing about life once removed.

BURNETT: What do you mean?

GELBART: They never played stickball in the street.

Thought that was an interesting observation from Gelbart and wondered if you had any thoughts on it.

Elf said...

@VillageDianne, good call on Mindy, though she and Mork did marry at some point towards the end. Pam Dawber's job may be the singularly most thankless in TV history. Even the best written character would still have gotten lost in Robin Williams' shadow on that show.

Toby the Wonder Horse said...

I have a question for Ken that has no bearing to the subject at hand. I tried to read your blog at a local coffee shop but the WiFi provider blocked it because it contains “objectionable content.” Good Lord, man, what sort of salacious material are you trafficking in? A site like Mistress Cleo’s International House of Pain (don’t judge) is OK – but Jim Belushi references are beyond the pale of polite society? (Actually, when I put it that way, it kinda makes sense.)

McTom said...

Hey - Marion Cunningham held her own with Howard AND the Fonz...

Paul Duca said...

An attractive woman is Mrs. Jim Belushi only because he has money...and is able to put up with his endless rants of "Hollywood blacklisted me because I'm a Republican!"

Gary said...

This post made me think of Marcia Strassman, the wife on Welcome Back Kotter. Every episode began with her husband telling her a joke, and she LITERALLY did nothing except listen and laugh at the joke!

benson said...

Sean S. Good Point. Imagine how much worse it will be when the video game and then smartphone generations take over.

Barry in Portland...Yes. And to her successor, Lisa Douglas.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Sean S, benson: I think that's exactly right. Think how many jokes are self-referential TV jokes these days. (Same is true in movies referring to other movies.)

Also, early movies aspired to be as good as theater; early TV shows aspired to be as good as movies. Today, most network TV shows aspire to be as good as earlier network TV shows.

Aaron Sheckley: As for DHARMA AND GREG, that was also I LOVE LUCY - ditzy wife, husband who keeps her in check. Fortunately the show was really more about the clash between their families. I don't know which actors you didn't like but I love Mimi Kennedy's work.


Unknown said...

Mr. Duca:

Jim Belushi's only known political endorsement was for Barack Obama in 2012.

You're likely mixing him up with Tim Allen.

Small wonder, they look so much alike ...

Peter said...

So the news has just broken that Harvey Weinstein, a man who's cultivated a fearsome reputation as a hard nosed producer with a tendency to hold grudges and take revenge against perceived slights, has been sexually harassing women for three decades, including Ashley Judd.

Now in his statement he's taken a leaf out of the Mel Gibson handbook and says he's going to get therapy to become a better person. Because he didn't realize he was doing anything wrong for the last thirty years and it's just coincidentally at the same time he's been exposed that he suddenly wants to get better.

This type of damage limitation has become the default option for celebrities exposed as behaving in variously disgraceful ways. Isaiah Washington made a homophobic comment, refused to apologize, and it was only after he was fired that his representatives announced he was going to get therapy.

Last week, the odious and illiterate Harry Knowles was exposed as a sex pest. His reaction was to deny it and then bizarrely announce he was going to get therapy to "get to a better place". If he's innocent as he claims, what's the therapy for?

All these and other celebrities who resort to this bullshit to save their careers aren't fooling anyone. Just admit what you are. You're perverts, sex pests, homophobes, anti-Semites, whatever it is you've been exposed as. I'd have more respect if they just admitted they're assholes instead of insulting everyone's intelligence.

OJ is probably regretting he didn't try that defence when he was arrested and charged with armed robbery. "I apologize for going in there with a gun and making threats. I'm going to take some time to seek therapy to help me heal and become a better person".

JoeyH said...

Was Lisa Douglas truly ditzy or was she just "playing" Oliver?

Greg Ehrbar said...

I wouldn't necessarily put Lisa Douglas solely in the same category as Gracie. While she had similar non sequiturs and strange logic, so did the entire community. That was the way of the show, which, as it progressed, descended into fine madness making it one of the most subversive comedies of the 60s. Eddie Albert, who was much more progressive than people might realize, said, "Most people didn't realize what we were really doing on that show."

Because of Paul Henning's clout, Green Acres went on the air without a pilot. That gave Jay Sommers, who ran the show more than Henning (thus the sly undercurrent), the luxury of building the structure gradually, and perhaps surreptitiously.

Lisa was a 60s trophy wife, but if you watch, you'll see that she stays on the farm by choice and eventually adapts better than her husband, who gets increasingly frustrated at the calm insanity of the goofballs around him, perhaps out of his own internal anger (yes, I know it's just GREEN ACRES!)

While their stupid husband/long suffering dynamic proves Ken's point, this show also turns it on its ear. In this case, Lisa always succeeds on her own strange terms in a place that does the same thing. She apparently did just fine in New York as well.

The question is -- it were today, would she have been married to Jim Belushi?

Cap'n Bob said...

I Married Joan: Joan Davis. Pete and Gladys: Cara Williams. IIRC, Pete and Gladys was a spinoff from December Bride, where Gladys was never seen.

Anonymous said...

Of course no one has mentioned the vastly underrated Barbara Billingsley.
She played the wife/mother as well as anyone.
And Donna Reed wasn't bad either, although the writing on that show was weaker than Leave It To Beaver, and she sometimes came across as Lucy on Prozac.

Jonathan said...

Harry Knowles was exposed as a sex pest

"Sex pest"? What the hell is a sex pest?

Pat Reeder said...

I came on here to toss some bouquets to Patricia Richardson on "Home Improvement," and I'm glad to see I wasn't the first. She had the requisite idiot husband, but she was also a fully-formed character in her own right, with separate interests and interesting family issues aside from her husband and kids. Also, there was genuine chemistry between her and Tim Allen that made them seem like a real couple, not my wife's biggest pet peeve of the hot young chick with the ugly schlub hubby.

I also second Sean S. on the pale Xerox feel of most current writing due to writers having grown up doing nothing but watching TV. Years ago, I was asked to be head writer for a local cable sketch show. Showing the "SNL" influence, nearly every script that was handed to me began with an announcer saying, "And now it's time for another episode of..." I kept asking them why it had to be a sketch about a TV show about two guys talking on a park bench instead of just two guys talking on a park bench.

As for Harvey Weinstein's Mel Gibson defense, it's even more blatant: he righteously declared that he's going to spend his away hours of reflecting on his sexual harassment by also going full throttle to destroy the evil NRA. Could the waving of the bloody shirt to deflect Hollywood's attention from his own reprehensible behavior possibly be any more blatant?

Peter said...

Jonathan, you'll have to excuse my use of a British colloquialism. It's just a term for a sleazebag pervert.

James said...

Worse, you could be Hope Lange, who got to be Dick Van Dyke's other TV wife. She not only got the straight tv wife role, she got to do it totally in MTM's shadow. And during a time when MTM was star of her own show. Like having the totally intimidating ex-wife living across the street.

Kyle said...

Pete and Gladys: Cara Williams

Poor Cara Williams had to labor under the burden of CBS pushing her hard as "The New Lucille Ball." This was in the early 1960s when Ball was not on television. Williams was never able to get out from under Ball's shadow to establish her own identity with TV audiences.

Worse, you could be Hope Lange, who got to be Dick Van Dyke's other TV wife. She not only got the straight tv wife role, she got to do it totally in MTM's shadow.

The example I always think of there is Mary Frann, who did a capable job as Bob Newhart's wife on his 1980s series NEWHART, but had to spend the entire series hearing people comment, "Well, she's okay but she's sure no Suzanne Pleshette."

Anonymous said...

As Al Kaline said when some kid said he's no Mickey Mantle (google it),
"Son, NOBODY'S Suzanne Pleshette"

Terrence Moss said...

Clair Huxtable was hardly a thankless role.

Andrew said...

"The example I always think of there is Mary Frann, who did a capable job as Bob Newhart's wife on his 1980s series NEWHART, but had to spend the entire series hearing people comment, 'Well, she's okay but she's sure no Suzanne Pleshette.'"

One of my favorite stories about NEWHART is that after the finale (the one with the surprise "it was all a dream" scene at the end), there was a huge going-away party for the cast and crew. Suzanne Pleshette deliberately didn't show up. She knew that she would be the focus of attention, and didn't think that was fair to Mary Frann. So despite the terrific cameo, she quickly went away to avoid the spotlight so that Mary wouldn't be overshadowed. Classy lady.

Edward said...

"I Love Joan" was off the air well before I was born.

Jim Bachus discusses how the show was a hit in the UK since over there a woman was not to speak until spoken to and a judge was an authority figure to be respected, revered and not ridiculed by his wife. ILJ turned that around.

Jim Bachus interview 1984 (ILJ comments at 18:55 mark)

Lauren said...

One note about Barbara Billingsley. She was a wonderful gal.
I recall a scene (Leave It To Beaver in case you don't know) where husband Hugh Beaumont walks in and says the usual 'Honey I'm home', From the kitchen she calls out 'Hello' or something then walks in and to see him saying ' Oh, it's you.'

Breadbaker said...

Archie called Edith a dingbat but she hardly was one. She worked hard to keep peace in the family. She was often the sole voice of reason. She shared many of Archie's values which were a bedrock of her existence but she was also infinitely more open to change than he was. Edith learning was in many ways the heart and soul of All in the Family. And you knew why they were married.

Myles said...

As cliche as the characters may seem the show and characters are VERY close to the family life of the creator. He did a podcast explaining where the show came from and many instances in the pilot play out just like they did in real life. Sometimes cliches originate from a real place and it'd seem even more fake to try to change what is truly honest/real.

Buttermilk Sky said...

British comedies (at least the ones we get over here) more often seem to be built around strong, funny women. I'm thinking of TO THE MANOR BORN, ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS, KEEPING UP APPEARANCES, TWO'S COMPANY (Elaine Stritch), THE VICAR OF DIBLEY and AS TIME GOES BY. Even on FAWLTY TOWERS, it was clearly Sybil who kept the place running. Maybe if we figure out why this is so, we can understand why they've had two female prime ministers and we can't have one female president.

bryon said...

Gary, you are so right: Marcia Strassman was painfully, perhaps criminally, underused in "Kotter." The end of nearly every show, it seemed, was her smiling gamely through another of Gabe Kaplan's ridiculous "uncle" stories. Those would have been bad enough if Kaplan had delivered them solo, but to force Strassman to sit through that added a special dimension of horror. I'd almost bet she had more actual lines in her six episodes of "M*A*S*H" than she did in 94 episodes of "Kotter."

I'd forgotten we lost her in 2014. That was a sad jolt to see.

Unknown said...

Am I the only one?:

... who remembers the final season of Welcome Back, Kotter - in which Gabe Kaplan all but disappeared?

I forget the exact circumstances, but for some unstated reason (I'd heard a falling-out with Jimmie Komack, but I'm not certain), Gabe Kotter was "promoted" to Vice-Principal, with Mr. Woodman (John Sylvester White) bucked up to Principal - and Julie (Marcia Strassman) becoming Assistant to both of them.
- Whereupon Gabe vanished from human ken, and Julie became straightwoman to everybody else.
The hook of that final season was that the Sweathogs were going to graduate (!), so each of them got their own episodes to dominate.
Komack still had John Travolta for a handful of shows, so since Kotter was winding down anyway, Graduation was invoked.
With a lot more to do (at least superficially), Marcia Strassman acquitted herself admirably; she was at least as good a feed to Woodman as Gabe had been, and handled the "younger" Sweathogs with aplomb.
I do remember a very late episode in which Gabe Kaplan turned up, quite unexpectedly - and the studio audience seemed startled by his appearance.
Oh well, That Was Then ...

ScottyB said...

I can think of two sitcoms from the early aughts where husband and wife were on equal ground, mainly because neither one of them were rocket-scientist material: 'Still Standing' with Jamie Gertz and Mark Addy, and 'Grounded For Life' with Donal Logue and Megyn Price. Both lasted less than five seasons, but they were funny as hell.