So a gas guy walks into the sketchy kitchen of a rundown house and, in answer to the lady of the house’s question, “What’s up?”, delivers a long monologue about something or other.
When he pauses to breathe, Martha Plimpton says, “I meant, What’s up with the wrench?”
Gas guy looks at the tool in his hand and says, “Oh yeah. I’m so so sorry to bother you, but I’m here to shut off your gas.”
Martha: “The gas bill cannot be overdue. I always go into the check cashing place next to pharmacy to pay it when I’m picking up Maw-Maw’s prescriptions. And I do that whenever I have to go into the bathroom cupboard for a tampon. And I cannot be late because my friend hasn’t arrived yet.”
Gas man: “Says here you’re two weeks late” (as he pats dad, Garett Dillahunt, on the shoulder).
Plimpton does the quickest, realist, most complicated double take in the history of television and then pops her buggy eyes out enough to practically give me a concussion sitting at home in Toronto on the other side of the TV.
Ah! All praise Working Class Comedy!
Canadian Netflix is so lame. It has 13 and 1/2 movies to pick from, and three of them are Mr. Mom. So I end up dipping into ridiculous television shows that Netflix thinks I’ll like. Well, they got one right out of ten. I love Raising Hope. If I knew the show had Plimpton and Chloris Leachman on it I’d have started watching earlier. And the adorable Dillahunt is always a much-watch—so cute!
We like escapism in our TV shows, programs that take us away from our cares and troubles and into the cares and troubles of people who are richer and more attractive than we are. But this mainstream tendency leaves a huge hole for comedy to shock us with a more accurate portrait of our lives. Among the earliest sitcoms was The Honeymooners, a double concerto of squabbling between Jackie Gleason’s bus driver and Audrey Meadow’s housewife (who does get a bit of a job when Hubby’s laid off — which was its own kind of tectonic shift into realism).
The bickerfest in their grubby kitchen was funny because nothing was glamorized, not even the abuse. You laughed because it was uncomfortable, not because you were comforted. And of course this turned out to be so real, wives being punched by husbands, that it’s impossible to find it charming anymore. Although I don’t think the sitcom gets enough praise for being honest when every other representation of the ’50s marriage was not.
In the ’70s, Norman Lear gave us a troika of shows chronicling the mid- to low-end of the economic spectrum, All in the Family, Maude, and Good Times, updating the realness of working class comedy by including the complex social stresses landing on the poor after the upheavals of the Sixties. Economic issues intersect powerfully with issues of gender, race, and sexuality. Does it sound more like a masters-of-social-work thesis than a comedy? The experiment might have tanked, but Lear made sure to ground his social explorations in the freshest of character comedies. These were real people impacted and reacting to the real world. And damn funny!
For a long time comedy retreated from the real, enabling Roseanne Barr’s plus-size body and heart to push aside the fake with a huge and funny blast of the way we actually live. In interviews, Barr recounts the pressures on her to tame her realness, pressures from network execs to sanitize her vision of working class America, pressures that almost drove her crazy. But she resisted, only to see her honesty translate into the most popular show for years. Networks typically aren’t brave, especially pre-cable ascendancy. They nudge everything to the middle of the road in the hopes that if no one is offended or surprised they’ll keep watching. And that’s why we have so many terrible sitcoms.
With Raising Hope we are lucky to have a fresh entry into the pantheon of “povcom,” my term for comedy that rises from the trials and travails of poverty. Or at least one-and-a-half-paychecks away from poverty, which is where most of us live.
Plimpton’s mom-character scrubs richer people’s toilets for a living. Dillahunt’s dad-character cleans their pools. They live with their slacker son and their senile maw-maw. When the boy accidentally impregnates a serial killer, they are left with baby, post-execution. Like poor people everywhere, they roll with the punches, making room for the new life in their dysfunctional (utterly functioning!) family. The actors on this show, Plimpton, Dillahunt, and a glorious Leachman as the (now great-) grandma are geniuses.
They play the characters with as much grit and commitment as others bring to Shakespeare. Not for them the half-hearted knowing winks of ironic cool shows. These idiots are full bore. So real you can practically smell them. Boyish new dad is the perfect still center for the crazy to revolve around. Anarchic comedy seems best tethered to an easy access point, someone a little more moral, a little more self-aware, and someone who–like us–is stunned by the shenanigans of the nuts around him. We all feel like the sane center of a crazy world (even though we are also somebody else’s unreasonable problem).
In fact, most of the plots stem from the boy’s efforts to change the family to be a better environment for his baby girl to grow up in. Things typically resolve with him realizing his family’s genuineness was right all along, but occasionally the people around him grow a bit and change. It gives the show a bit of a heartwarming overarching through-line; these are good people who are doing their best and adapting to a difficult world. Again, like most of us. Little changes. Little evolutions. And hopefully some joy in the process.
I can’t stress enough that this is the most ethical sitcom on TV. Watching most other shows requires acts of penance; you feel you’ve been a bad person to enjoy vegetating in front of such dumb crap. This one will make you a better person.