Familial Love: The Special Ingredient in Bob’s Burgers
The TV family has changed dramatically over the years. Most families on TV are extremely dysfunctional in the hopes that their antics will connect with viewers who have frustrations with their own families’ various dysfunctions. Sadly, the concept of familial love is almost vacant from today’s TV sitcoms, especially those that fall in the animation category. Family Guy bases most of its humor on the total lack of respect between children and adults and the surprising idiocy of its main characters. American Dad uses its characters as punching bags and emphasizes opportunity to ridicule over all. The Simpsons has evolved over its endless seasons to mostly feature plotlines that satirize current events and barely scratch the surface of the family dynamic it once featured. But one show has risen above this trend of “hilariously dysfunctional families” and easily avoids half-hearted jokes about how much parents hate their kids: Bob’s Burgers.
The plot of Bob’s Burgers is simple: an eccentric, lower-class family running a failing restaurant gets into bizarre comedic antics. Right away, from the first scene of the pilot, Bob’s Burgers seems like nothing special compared to all the other animated sitcoms on TV right now. It quite literally starts off with Bob, the titular character, telling his family members, “You’re all terrible.” But as the show progresses, it becomes clear what Bob’s Burgers has that other shows do not. Each character has a distinctive personality, not just defining traits, and each character accepts each other for those very personalities, rather than using each other as the butt of rapid-fire hit-or-miss jokes. The missing ingredient of all animated sitcoms that Bob’s Burgers makes perfect use of is familial love.
The Belchers may not have much in the way of money or physical things, but they all have three-dimensional character profiles and fleshed-out backstories that exist to make them likable, not just to elicit easy laughs. Bob and Linda are not just frustrated parents making sarcastic comments about the trials of raising three children; they have a plethora of eccentricities that define them as individual people. They are not defined by the jokes they tell, but are rather defined by their personalities, making them more real and relatable than most animated characters despite the ridiculousness of those personalities. Linda Belcher is one of the most bizarre characters on the show, but her character traits make her one of the most relatable and genuinely funny characters on FOX itself. Her disregard for what anyone thinks of her combined with her excitement for everything (often punctuated with a drawling “All-riiiiight!”) makes for great dialogue, but also establishes a connection with viewers and other characters. Linda may be ridiculous, but her family and friends love her for it, and so do the viewers.
To draw a comparison, look at a character from an extremely popular sitcom: Family Guy. Family Guy’s Peter Griffin character is almost entirely based on two aspects: his weight and his stupidity. Both of these are tired, played-out tropes in animated comedy: the overweight klutz and the idiotic manchild. Peter gets the benefit of one, maybe two genuinely funny lines per episode, but most of his big laughs are pulled from physical comedy. He has no other elements to his character but buffoonery. The animation medium makes it easier to get away with this kind of disregard for character development, but Bob’s Burgers overcomes the simplicity of slapstick comedy and creates a relatable, funny protagonist with a real personality, not just a case of morbid obesity. There are jokes about character’s body types or lack of personal hygiene, mostly directed at Bob and the fact that his “favorite shirt” is a white T-shirt covered in grease stains, but they aren’t the only jokes in the show. One of the best running gags of Bob’s Burgers has nothing to do with physical comedy at all; Louise, the youngest Belcher daughter, is seen as a criminal mastermind and often makes comments that reveal how much she knows about the outside world for a girl her age. In one episode, her Christmas list simply says: “My own apartment, towels (for apartment), Doll whose head comes off and it’s a knife.” Her bizarre attraction to weaponry as well as her desire to be an adult make for a truly funny character with dialogue that is witty rather than simply funny. That is the defining factor that makes Bob’s Burgers decidedly more watchable and far more enjoyable than other animated TV sitcoms such as Family Guy.
Bob Belcher has multiple facets to his character and an optimism that shines through his cynicism. He is a failed restaurateur, but his failures don’t make him into a total pessimist; rather, they keep him grounded. This is an important trait for a cartoon character to have. Most cartoon characters who have faced major failure in their lives do not ever learn from their failures. An example: Homer Simpson repeatedly hitting his own hand with a nail as he attempts to fix the roof in The Simpsons Movie. Homer’s failure at traditionally “manly” tasks do not give way to any character growth; they serve as physical comedy that turns violent when he takes his frustrations out on his son Bart by strangling him for an entire scene of the film. In contrast, Bob takes his failures as a restaurateur and uses the extra time he has on his hands to be a better parent to his three children. In several episodes of Bob’s Burgers, both he and his wife Linda are shown as active, involved parents. Season 5’s premiere features an entire night spent at Wagstaff Middle School to support Gene and Tina in two different school musicals. Jokes are made at the kids’ expense, of course; Gene’s play is a one-man re-enactment of Die Hard, so it would be kind of impossible for that experience not to yield big laughs, but nothing is said about the kids being untalented and no complaints are made about the time being spent at the event by Linda or Bob. In fact, the two of them try to attend both plays, leaving Tina’s engagement in Working Girl: The Musical to try and also see Gene’s simultaneous performance as John McClain and Hans Gruber. Unlike Peter Griffin and Homer Simpson, Bob channels his failures into an energy that makes him a better character, rather than using them to serve as quick, hard laughs for an unattached audience.
Bob’s Burgers may seem like a typical, slightly off-color but generally family-friendly cartoon comedy at first blush, but it is so much more than that. Bob’s is a triumph in animated television programming. Not for its decent production value, not for its great voice acting, not even for the zany storylines each episode portrays, but for its deeply flawed and beautiful characters. The Belchers make use of something that has been absent from TV comedy for a long time: genuine love.
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