Finally, TV's 'Dolt' Dads Get To Evolve
"Starting from the birth of sitcoms, fathers are pretty much universally morons," writes Hanna Rosin in a piece for Slate.com. The latest crop of sitcoms, though, showcases dads who are a stark contrast to the bumbling Stu Erwin, on The Trouble With Father, or Fred Flintstone, or even Homer Simpson, she adds.
Newer shows present happy stay-at-home dads, or successful businessmen who are more than just a source of comic relief. Some even depict mothers in the bumbling role usually reserved for fathers.
NPR's Neal Conan talks with Rosin, the founding editor of Slate's Double X blog, about the evolution of fathers on screen and what those changes reveal about our society.
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.
Starting from the birth of sitcoms, argues Hanna Rosin, fathers are pretty much universally morons. Doltish TV dads like Fred Flintstone or Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor regularly created improbable problems for their wives to set straight. When George Jetson proposes a father-son day, son Elroy asks, what do we both like to do?
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JETSONS")
JEFF BERGMAN: (as George Jetson's voice) Ah, um, why don't we play hooky?
(as Elroy Jetson's voice) Hooky.
(as George Jetson's voice) We could do anything we want to do, especially since your mother isn't here.
CONAN: In a piece for slate.com, Hanna Rosin says that after 50 years, change has arrived. For example, NBC's "Up All Night," where the mom, Reagan, played by Christina Applegate, is the breadwinner and Chris, Will Arnett, trades his job as a lawyer to be the stay-at-home dad.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UP ALL NIGHT")
CHRISTINA APPLEGATE: (as Reagan Brinkley) Wait a minute. Sweetie, for Amy's first word, you put da-da.
WILL ARNETT: (as Chris Brinkley) Oh, yeah. Whatever.
APPLEGATE: (as Reagan Brinkley) No, not whatever, Chris. The first word was mama. Remember, I came home from work. She put her arms out towards me. She said mama.
ARNETT: (as Chris Brinkley) In the mama ballpark, I'll give you that. But I thought that if we were going to count that...
APPLEGATE: (as Reagan Brinkley) Which we are.
ARNETT: (as Chris Brinkley) ...then she did say da-da to me at the playground a couple of days before that.
APPLEGATE: (as Reagan Brinkley) Very convenient, but I was not there to witness said da-da.
ARNETT: (as Chris Brinkley) Well, luckily, I got it on video.
CONAN: Dad's, where do you see yourself represented on TV, or do you? 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Hanna Rosin joins us here in Studio 3A. She's a contributing editor for The Atlantic, founding editor of Slate's Double X blog. Her book "The End of Men" is due out this fall. It's nice to have you back on the program.
HANNA ROSIN: Thank you. Great to be here.
CONAN: And that clip we heard from "Up All Night," there's a lot in there.
ROSIN: Yeah, they are really changing. I think sitcom writers must get into grooves, like the rest of us. And when that show started - I remember watching an early version of it before it was aired - he was a doltish dad like every single doltish dad that's ever been around. And over time, he's evolved into the wise one. And, in fact, they've almost switched roles so that his wife who is the very ambitious one, who's not home all that much is the one who creates messes at home. She comes home, tries to fix things, destroys things, breaks things, creates more messes, and he fixes them, which is usually the woman's role in the sitcom. So...
CONAN: And it's usually the men who - in the TV sitcom who feels uncomfortable somehow in that domestic setting.
ROSIN: Yeah. You start to watch sitcoms, and you feel like maybe Hollywood is run by some feminist cabalist. It's just alarming, going back, you know, to 1950, to the birth of the sitcom, as you said, what complete idiots dads almost always are.
CONAN: Let's go back to the '50s. This is a scene from "Leave It to Beaver" where dad Ward Cleaver explains why he's the one doing the cooking on the grill.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LEAVE IT TO BEAVER")
HUGH BEAUMONT: (as Ward Cleaver) Well, it's sort of traditional, I guess. You know, they say a woman's place is in the home, and I suppose as long as she's in the home, she might as well be in the kitchen.
TONY DOW: (as Wallace "Wally" Cleaver) Oh. Well, that explains about mom. But how come you always do the outside cooking?
BEAUMONT: (as Ward Cleaver) Well, I'll tell you, son. Women do all right when they have all the modern conveniences. But us men are better at this rugged type of outdoor cooking, sort of a throwback to the caveman days. Hand me those asbestos gloves, will you, Wally?
CONAN: Don't hear from Wally Cleaver much these days.
ROSIN: Exactly. Well, there you see the difference between him and Chris. He's still uncomfortable in domestic role. He has to justify it so strongly. I'm not cooking. I'm like a caveman dude. I'm not, you know, at the kitchen and so - whereas right now, Chris is changing diapers, you know, he's doing all sorts of things with the baby that I don't think you've really seen men do on TV that much before.
CONAN: Yet, there is another role, and that's sort of the pater familias. This is the father-knows-best type role. This is the dispenser of wise advice. I guess, the most recent example of that was, of course, Bill Cosby, where, as Dr. Huxtable, he confronts Rudy after she steals from him $2.30.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COSBY SHOW")
BILL COSBY: (as Dr. Heathcliff "Cliff" Huxtable) Why didn't you come and ask me for the money?
KESHIA KNIGHT PULLIAM: (as Lillian "Rudy" Huxtable) Well, if I asked you, you would have said, what's it for? And I would have said, it's for a sweatshirt that lights up. And you would have said, do you know how much coal miners got paid in 1919?
CONAN: Well, she is pretty wise herself.
ROSIN: I would say Bill Cosby stands out as an exemption. After watching all the clips, he's the one dad who gets to be wise, loveable, not so much of an idiot, pretty helpful around the house. He's an exception to a lot of the doltish dads on TV. I'm not sure why.
CONAN: Well, he was an exception in a lot of ways.
ROSIN: Right, right.
CONAN: And that program was certainly an exception. But you go back to the doltish - well, "The Honeymooners" - there weren't any kids in "The Honeymooners" family. But Jackie Gleason's character, Ralph Kramdem, clearly the model.
ROSIN: He's the classic idiot, where his wife fixes all the problems and he creates all the problems. And he is not all different from dads you see today.
CONAN: And indeed, there is the character closely modeled on Ralph Kramden. That is Fred Flintstone. And here he is - Fred and Barney are saying goodbye to their wives after they both join the army by mistake.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANIMATED SITCOM, "THE FLINTSTONES")
ALAN REED: (As Fred Flintstone's voice) Goodbye, Wilma.
MEL BLANC: (As Barney Rubble's voice) Bye, Betty.
REED: (As Fred Flintstone's voice) We'll write to you every day.
BLANC: (As Barney Rubble's voice) Yeah. Me too, Betty.
JEAN VANDER PYL: (As Wilma Flintstone's voice) How do they always manage to bollix things up, Betty?
BEA BENADERET: (As Betty Rubble's voice) I don't know, Wilma. Practice, I guess.
CONAN: Oh, I like the little drum there, too.
ROSIN: Right. You see a long lineage, from Ralph Kramden to Fred Flintstone to George Jetson to Homer Simpson and on and on and on to the King in "Brave," in fact, the new Pixar movie. The King...
CONAN: I haven't seen it yet. Don't - hey, don't - no spoilers.
ROSIN: All right. I'll just say he's classic idiot, that's all.
CONAN: A Scottish idiot in this particular case.
ROSIN: Yeah. Exactly.
CONAN: And the importance of this evolution - you cite a cultural critic who said that TV sitcom dad has been stuck in cultural aspic for the last half century.
ROSIN: I think it's really important to men in general because you get a lot of stay-at-home dads, for example, or men playing slightly non-traditional roles, who write in saying, I can't see myself anywhere in pop culture. And if you can't see yourself on TV in America, you effectively don't exist. It would be nice if there were television role models for men who want to break out of the role of what we think of men as doing. For women it's kind of easy. They can work. They can stay home. They've had a lot of different ways to play around with their roles and the balance between domestic and public life. But men haven't really - they haven't really been able to move out of their relatively narrow space for much of the century.
CONAN: Starting with "That Girl" and then going on to Mary Tyler Moore and "Murphy Brown" and all the rest.
ROSIN: Exactly, exactly. We've seen so many different kinds of women. We don't see so many different kinds of men until very, very, very recently.
CONAN: Let's see if we'd go to the phones. And we'd like to hear from dads in the audience: Where, if at all, do you see yourself on TV? We'll start with Mark(ph), and Mark is on the line with us from Nashville.
MARK: Hi. How are you?
CONAN: Good. Thanks.
MARK: Good. That clip you played from "Up All Night" reminded me of my home. And my wife works, and I generally perform the function of stay-at-home dad, to a certain extent anyway. But, you know, what I run up against is the stereotype, to the extent that my mother is disturbed that I do much of the cooking in the house. So, she was visiting last week and she said, Mark, I didn't know you could cook. Well, yeah. Who's going to get it done?
CONAN: You got to get it done. Is the circumstance that you are the stay-at-home dad by choice?
MARK: Well, it's by circumstance, you know, the economy and all. But I'm glad I'm doing it. I mean, I'm older than my wife, and I'm in my 50s now. And this gives me a chance to enjoy my kids more than I otherwise would have. So...
CONAN: That's an opportunity that is fleeting as you have come to understand, I'm sure.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
MARK: Thank you. Bye-bye.
CONAN: And to some degree, Hanna Rosin, at least as I understand it, that's what your forthcoming book is about too.
ROSIN: Yes. I mean, there is something within us that recoils, flinches when we see the dad at the park at 3 p.m. or the dad cooking or doing things that we don't think of men as being good at or competent at, and we really just have to get over that. We really have to. Look at, you know, the problem we've been discussing with women lately. Women want to have it all. Well, women could get some more help, maybe, if we would just let men stay at home, do the cooking, and that would be great.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Steve(ph) and - there you go, Steve. Steve with us from Cincinnati.
STEVE: Yes. Neal, we look at this stuff on TV and we laugh at it, but it has to come from somewhere. It has to come from some reality. I think you said that. And when I look at it, we laugh - my wife and I laugh at that she is Jill and I am Tim from "Home Improvement." I try to fix things or I break things, and she fixes things that I break and I fix things that she breaks. But the situation that they're in are very much like the situation with the sponges. The sponges are the clear example. She has a dish sponge, I don't know what to do with a dish sponge.
But it's because men are men and women are women. They are different. We think - we don't think in the sensitivities that women think in. So we're very good. We change diapers. We did all those things. And Tim can do all those things. It's just that in situations that make it funny are the things we see on TV. You can relate to those.
CONAN: Well, here is an example, a clip from "Home Improvement." Jill upset with Tim because he spent the boys' savings bond on a model Indy car that, of course, they subsequently wrecked.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOME IMPROVEMENT")
PATRICIA RICHARDSON: (As Jill Patterson-Taylor) I can't believe you let them do this.
TIM ALLEN: (As Tim Taylor) Before the steam starts coming out of your nose, let me explain what happened here.
RICHARDSON: (As Jill Patterson-Taylor) You don't have to explain what happened. I know what happened. You all went to the store. You saw the car. You all started drooling. The drooling led to grunting. The grunting led to buying.
ALLEN: (As Tim Taylor) You are so far off, it's not even funny. We grunted, drooled, bought.
CONAN: Interesting that Tim Allen is - sort of comes at this both ways because he's in one of these new sitcoms.
ROSIN: He is in one of the new sitcoms. And there, there's a nostalgia-tinged note to the new sitcom. In other words, he's kind of recognizing that those forms of manhood had slipped through his fingers. There's a lot of younger guys, you know, who have, like, gel in their hair and his daughter plays soccer. And so he's realizing that the world is changing under his feet. And he talks a lot about how he wishes he could get that old roles of manhood back. So that's, you know, the new sitcom has evolved in that way.
CONAN: We're talking with Hanna Rosin, the founding editor of Slate's Double X, an online women's magazine and a contributing editor for The Atlantic about her piece, "The Evolution of the Doltish Dad," which she published for Father's Day. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to Brody, and Brody's on the line with us from St. Louis.
BRODY: Hi, thanks. This is a great topic. I'm about to become a stay-at-home dad. My daughter is going to be born on Saturday, and it's been an interesting thing for me to - I love "Up All Night." I watched the whole season, and I think that that form of father is not being represented even in other forms of media. You can't go to Barnes & Noble and find a book about fatherhood that doesn't assume that you're an idiot. It's all the "Caveman's Guide to Babies" and "How to Survive Your First Year" and things that just don't - they don't assume that you have any sort of human functioning at all as a father, that you're not capable of doing it. And while men and women are different, I think there are some parts of just raising a baby that you should be able to figure out just as a functioning person. So it's nice to see the new role models.
CONAN: The sitcom trope of the doltish dad has spread into all kinds of culture then.
BRODY: Yeah, I think it's - we see it all over the place and - because that's they way it's been and that's what we've seen portrayed, then that's what the literature is representing as well when that's not necessarily the case.
CONAN: That speaks to the importance of your research, Hanna Rosin.
ROSIN: Yes, and congratulations, by the way, on the baby. That's great. That's great.
BRODY: Thank you very much.
CONAN: And one piece of advice you may have run across: Get as much sleep between now and Saturday as you can because you're going to need it.
BRODY: For sure.
BRODY: Thank you so much.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call.
ROSIN: I will tell you, you should look up this Huggies campaign. It's very interesting. Huggies ran a commercial which was about - which featured prominently like a roomful of idiot, doltish dads who could barely be bothered to change their very soggy children's diapers because they were watching a football game. And a stay-at-home dads group started a successful petition to get them to take that ad of the air and they did. So it was a great example of what you're talking about. Stay-at-home dads fight back.
CONAN: Let's got to Christopher on the line with us from Ogden in Utah.
CHRISTOPHER: Hi. Thanks for having me on.
CONAN: Sure. Go ahead.
CHRISTOPHER: So I found it very interesting that we're highlighting this "Up All Night" show. I was very excited when it came out last year because I recently have become a father. But unfortunately, or contrary to the main character, I'm an active duty military, so I don't get to stay at home with my son a lot. And I really - I idolize or I wish that I had been in that position now. And as far as that cultural perspective of being represented, I also feel like that side of being the breadwinner and just kind of filling that role, not as chauvinistic as the "Leave it to Beaver" side, but filling that main male role has kind of been left by the wayside.
CONAN: I can't think of a sitcom dad who was in the military, except in "I Dream of Jeannie" when he was an astronaut.
CHRISTOPHER: But - yeah. Was he a father during that show? (Unintelligible)
CONAN: I don't - well, maybe in the last season.
ROSIN: But it's interesting what you're saying, that as a breadwinner father, you feel beleaguered. I mean, there is an economic reality in this country that a lot more women are supporting their families than ever before. And so it might be that you are starting to feel the sociological reality shifting away from you, that it's become unusual, something you have to defend that you're a breadwinner father.
CHRISTOPHER: Well, yeah, absolutely.
ROSIN: That those words, breadwinner, head of household, they seem like, you know, ancient chauvinistic words or something that you're not supposed to use.
CHRISTOPHER: Yeah, I would agree. I mean, I shuddered when you played the "Leave It to Beaver" clip, where the husband is talking about his - wife's place in the home. I just expect my wife to slap me at the back of the head by listening to that. But...
CHRISTOPHER: ...it definitely, I mean, it echoes throughout all those generations. But, you know, there's a trace of it, and there is that culture that continues to carry out.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the phone call, and we'll hope that there's a sitcom that shows you.
CHRISTOPHER: You're welcome. Thank you very much.
CONAN: Appreciate it. We can't possibly do a show about sitcom dads without talking about the longest-running sitcom dad in history. That, of course, is the immortal Homer Simpson, who as a cartoon character, gets to do any number of roles. They switch it up a little from time to time, but he is generally the doltish dad. He is the quintessential doltish dad here in a scene trying to cheer up his daughter.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")
YEARDLEY SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson's voice) It's not frown. It is a straight line of resignation. Looks just the same upside down.
DAN CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson's voice) What are you talking about? You're right.
SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson's voice) Dad, if you really want to help, please stop trying to help.
ROSIN: I mean, every dumb thing that a doltish dad has done, Homer Simpson has done. And if you read the writers of "The Simpsons" talking about how they stretch the comedy of the show, they stretched it by making Homer the giantess idiot you could ever imagine. So, you know, eventually his IQ is 55. He can't read. He waves to Bart when Bart comes to visit on, you know, bring your son to school day and sets off a nuclear facility. I mean, there's nothing stupid that was done that Homer didn't do.
CONAN: But by the end of the show, it's generally back to the aw moment.
ROSIN: Yeah, I guess so. Yeah.
CONAN: Every one of these dads has that moment where everybody's reconciled and everything's going ahead swimmingly before the time for the last commercial.
ROSIN: Well, it's funny, and the new generation of sitcoms have an edge to them because, in fact, they do tap into a real economic reality, which is what I write about in my upcoming book, "The End of Men." But the fact that, as I said before, men are having trouble these days, are struggling and women are supporting their families in many cases, so these sitcoms have an edge they didn't used to.
CONAN: Hanna Rosin with us here in Studio 3A. As we mentioned, contributing editor for The Atlantic and founding editor for Slate's Double X blog. You can find a link to her slate.com piece, "The Evolution of the Doltish Dad," on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. As she mentioned, her book "The End of Men" is due out this fall. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.