Is 30 Rock's Tracy Jordan a racist caricature? Huffington Post contributor Zeeshan Aleem made the argument last year, complaining that "Tracy, the only black protagonist of the show, is invariably depicted as a hyper-sexual, mentally challenged, violent, emotionally unstable, irresponsible man-child." His essay got some more hits last week when Slate's Elizabeth Weingarten reported on 30 Rock creator Tina Fey confronting the issue on her book tour. Fey conceded that "Tracy Jordan is a ridiculous character" but implied that he's basically an extension of actor Tracy Morgan's public persona.
I don't know if Fey made the "everyone on the show is a caricature" response (though plenty of people did in the comments to Aleem's piece), but 30 Rock, and sitcoms in general, have plenty of "mentally challenged" characters. It's almost a prerequisite for a successful TV comedy. (There are a few exceptions. None of the central characters on The Dick Van Dyke Show have dimwittedness as a defining trait.) The trick is to provide each "stupid" character with some positive aspect — an "anti-kryptonite" — that allows viewers to accept them as more than the butt of jokes.
Three types of (not-so-) stupid characters seem to be the most prevalent in popular sitcoms. Below are their definitions, along with examples from NBC's current Thursday night comedies — not just 30 Rock, but also The Office, Community, and Parks and Recreation. Do you have other favorite examples or character types?
The naif takes everything at face value and can't comprehend how anyone else can act with less than pure motives. Her (or, less often, his) anti-kryptonite is a surprisingly tough resolve that keeps her out of real harm and absolves us of any guilt at laughing at her stupidity. The prototype is Gracie Allen (playing "herself" on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show). In this clip (start at 3:06), she effortlessly takes a gun away from a mobster played by (of course) Sheldon Leonard. A more heavy-handed example is Elly May Clampett (The Beverly Hillbillies), who simply beats up any man who turns out to be a threat.
A much more nuanced take on the naif was Edith Bunker (All in the Family), whose indefatigable faith in human goodness made her a perfect foil for husband Archie (as I argued in a previous post). Her most dramatic show of strength was in fighting off a rapist (see clip starting at 9:50) even after some daffy business with the locking and unlocking the front door. The '70s also featured Georgette Franklin (The Mary Tyler Moore Show), who finally forces a marriage proposal out of boyfriend Ted. And the '80s brought both Coach Ernie Pantusso and Woody Boyd (both from Cheers), as well as Rose Nylund (The Golden Girls).
On 30 Rock, Kenneth Parcell fills this niche, though in a more disturbing way than most of his predecessors (there have been suggestions that he's ageless, for example). The Office has Erin the Receptionist, one of the most literal-minded characters in Sitcomville. On Community, Troy Barnes comes the closest to fitting the role, often showing squeamishness at sexual matters and, notably, serving as the unlikely hero of the "Epidemiology" episode. On Parks and Recreation, of course, Andy Dwyer is the resident naif, having evolved from the deadbeat he appeared to be in the pilot episode.
The alien is at least as strange as he is stupid, causing viewers to wonder how he's lived so long without accidentially killing himself or being torn apart by angry villagers. It's OK to laugh at him because he drifts through life with a peculiar kind of happiness, along with a lot of odd knowledge that can be used to start or resolve sitcom plots. The prototype is Ed Norton (The Honeymooners), who actually seems to enjoy his job working in the sewer. He genially goes along with pal Ralph's get-rich-quick schemes, but class-conscious Ralph is often exasperated by Ed's seeming acceptance of his place in the world.
Sitcom aliens often have hedonistic qualities, which viewers can feel slightly envious of. After Norton, there was the pseudo-beatnik Maynard G. Krebs (The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis), but it took a while before the character type took a leap forward with Reverend Jim Ignatowski (Taxi), a serene pothead (or ex-pothead, as ABC would have us think) who doesn't know what a yellow light means but somehow can turn into a classical pianist at the drop of a top hat ("I must have had music lessons") in "Elegant Iggy" (see clip starting at 5:20). Things went even further with "hipster doofus" Cosmo Kramer (Seinfeld), who has both an inexplicable sexual magneticsm to women and the ability to rationalize his inevitable failure to maintain a relationship.
30 Rock's Tracy Jordan may not be an obvious candidate for this category, if only because he lacks the tall, lanky build that has been associated with it. His hedonistic qualities are evident, but he also has unique mental skills (most notably in overcoming the uncanny valley problem to create a pornographic video game). On The Office, Dwight Schrute qualifies on the basis of his bizarre fixations (beets, bears, etc.), but he's hardly a happy-go-lucky type; the infrequently seen Creed Bratton is the more qualified alien. Community has Abed Nadir, with his meta-references and acceptance of his lack of social skills. Nobody on Parks fits securely into this category; Ron Swanson, with his breakfast-food fixation and shaky familiarity with Julia Roberts, comes closest, but being out of the pop culture loop isn't enough to convey stupidity.
The narcissist is probably the toughest stupid archetype to get right. A lot of the characters here aren't consistently dumb, but they're easily duped because of their fears and insecurities, and many are pretty selfish (but are forgiven by other characters for "not knowing better"). The prototype is Jack Benny (playing "himself" on The Jack Benny Show), who works as a sympathetic character because all of his flaws are exaggerations of traits that most of us have. There's vanity and the fear of getting old (though most of us don't claim to be 39 for four decades); cheapness and the fear of ending up broke; and a basically childish need for constant attention. The anti-kryptonite here is the occasional flash of self-awareness, which Benny would accomplish by joking about his failed movie career and sheepishly acknowledging that he might not be the world's greatest violin player.
In the '60s, Barney Fife (The Andy Griffith Show) became an iconic character: The small-town cop who imagines himself to be a tough guy, even though he invariably screws up in the face of actual danger. (He also consistently overestimates his intelligence in other areas.) The early '70s saw a race between two sitcom blowhards: tongue-tied TV "headlights reader" Ted Baxter (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) and hypocritical war hawk Frank Burns (M*A*S*H). Ted became somewhat sympathetic by revealing the fears behind his bragaddocio; Frank was deemed irredeemable and written out of his show.
Other examples include paranoid talk-show sidekick Hank Kingsley (The Larry Sanders Show) and self-absorbed dance club queen Jack McFarland on Will and Grace (who, like the show, never evolved much from the first episode and very rarely shows even a glimmer of self-awareness.)
The 30 Rock equivalent is spotlight-hogging Jenna Maroney, whose total lack of self-awareness is part of the show's take on show-biz types (which, I think, makes her less popular with viewers than Tracy Jordan or many sitcom Narcissists). Community's Pierce Hawthorne is another problematic character in that it's getting difficult to believe other characters would put up with his arrogance. Parks and Recreation's gentler humor precludes having such a jerk in its central cast; Tom Haverford is the resident braggart, but his vulnerability (emphasized by his diminutive build) makes him difficult to dislike. Then there's The Office's Michael Scott, one of the most emotionally needy characters in the history of television. How you feel about the show (my thoughts here) probably depends on whether you think the writers (and actor Steve Carrell) have been successful in balancing his ridiculous need for attention (throwing tantrums at parties and weddings, and promising nonexistent scholarships to underprivileged kids) with his moments of introspection and genuine concern for co-workers.
UPDATE: Several readers have pointed out that NewsRadio's Bill McNeal also belongs in the Narcissist category.