Familial Love: The Special Ingredient in Bob’s Burgers

Bob's Burgers family panorama
The Belchers from 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.

Linda Belcher from Bob's Burgers
Linda Belcher from Bob’s Burgers

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.

Family Guy Peter Griffin still
Family Guy’s Peter Griffin

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.

Homer Simpson choking son Bart Simpson in The Simpsons Movie
Homer Simpson choking son Bart in The Simpsons Movie

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 Belcher of Bob's Burgers
Bob Belcher of Bob’s Burgers

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.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Kathleen is a TV production professional in the greater NY area. She is also a freelance writer published across the web.

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35 Comments

  1. LaurenCarr

    I love this article! Great read and interesting perspective.

  2. Aaron Hatch

    I have always loved this show, but I never really thought about why I love this show until I read this article. Bob is more of a dynamic character than Homer or Peter Griffin, and the family interaction is better done than in most sitcoms these days. Nice article.

  3. Venus Echos

    Thanks for the article, I have never watched this animation; however, I am all too familiar with the other shows you speak of.

  4. To me, it’s very heartwarming show in contrast to some animated comedies Fox currently has or has had to be mean-spirited just to be funny. I also think that everyone behind Bob’s Burgers puts a lot of effort into each episode.

  5. At first I didn’t like this show but I’ve fallen in love with it but I don’t know why!

    • Annie Vos

      I think one of the big appeals to “Bob’s Burgers” is definitely the depth of personality to each character. Consider the Belcher kids. Each one is emphatically unique. I believe that the success of the show correlates to the disorders that each kid seems to have and that they are relatable regardless of those differences. Tina could easily be on the autism spectrum, Gene seems to have ADD, and Lisa is a narcissist. These diverse characters give a great breadth of personality in which audiences can identify.

  6. Almost every character is likable. Even Hugo & Jimmy Pesto have their moments.

  7. I love way they can actually write for a woman/girl (unlike Simpsons where a ‘Lisa’ episode spells trouble, or how there’s very few Meg or Lois themed episodes). Some of the Tina episodes are the best.

  8. Ann Bedford
    0

    Great series! It has more heart because the family isn’t as dysfunctional as Family Guy or even The Simpsons. They rarely fight with each other, and when they do, it’s nothing serious. The kids get along with each other almost all the time. The kids don’t fight with the parents (except ‘Bad Tina’), yet they manage big laughs because the show is very grounded. No anthropomorphism unlike most other shows.

  9. Gerda R.
    0

    Good piece you have here. I had my doubts about this animation, and didn’t even start watching it until early last year. Then I couldn’t stop and binge watched all of it.

  10. brittni smallz
    0

    I feel like Bob’s Burgers is brilliant in its simplicity. Every character is funny and likeable, and the characters are all oddly realistic even when they’re not. The writing is fantastic, but non-verbal parts are great as well.

    The scene where Bob is high on pain killers and trying to help Daryl with his bully is just comedy gold. It’s not like Family Guy or The Simpsons. It’s different. It’s subtle in its simplicity but IMHO it’s pure genius.

  11. A show about a family. Both MacFarland shows stopped being about families and switched from families to being about talking dogs,babies and aliens. And what is worse, is that they are all voiced by Seth. I’m glad that Bob’s Burgers used the whole cast unlike Seth.

  12. McCaggers

    Wonderful work here! Its so nice to have a show with positive family dynamics.

  13. I find it very funny, but I think my favorite element is that this is a functional, loving family who look out for each other.

  14. Montalvo
    0

    There is very little that happens on Bob’s that couldn’t actually happen, minus a few exceptions. It’s one of the few shows that I could see being performed as a live action sitcom, since it’s not ‘effect heavy’.

  15. Lawless
    0

    I like this because of:
    1. no politics
    2. no religion
    3. there are good female characters but they are have more personality

  16. Maren Soria
    0

    I like how Tina and Louise are bonding. It’s just nice.

    • Paulson
      0

      It is nice, isn’t it? There was never any question they loved each other, but there’s more of a partnership than there used to be, and I’m enjoying it too. I think something changed ever since “Boyz 4 Now.”

  17. This show acts like it suppose to be.

  18. I love this show because it is funny, touching, well written and very entertaining. It could be done with live actors rather than animated and it would be incredible as well. However, I wouldn’t want that because I love the characters as they are. Unlike other adult animated series, it doesn’t try too hard to be edgy or push the envelope, although it can be absurd. And I mean that in a good way (think about Linda’s sisters paintings and the haunting dreams they gave Linda).

  19. Quirky yet loveable characters, great chemistry and performances among the voice actors, sweet but odd stories, burgers…!

  20. Hailtothechimp

    You know, I remember trying to get into Bob’s Burgers when it first premiered but after the first two episodes I have up, simply seeing it as stupid. And why not? By the time it premiered Simpsons had lost its greatness for me and the rest of Fox was bogged down by Seth Macfarlene’s crappy, offensive shows so I saw Bob’s Burgers as no different. However, after reading your article… Honestly I want to give it a real chance now.

  21. Spencer

    Great article! I love how you’ve differentiated between the popular animations – I’d never thought of them in these terms before!

  22. I love this show for its realism. Most not-for-kids cartoon series (Simpsons, Family Guy, American Dad, etc.) exist in an absurdist unrealistic environment. The Simpsons features yellow people and aliens, Family Guy has a talking dog, American dad has a talking fish, and even The Cleveland Show had a talking bear. These types of shows usually try to be edgy and push the envelope (though The Simpsons not so much) with outlandish situations that could never happen in real life.

  23. I agree with those above, a very interesting article, with a refreshing topic and overall well-presented. Thanks for the read.

  24. I love this article, and I love the perspective that was taken in order to write it. It only makes me love Bob’s Burgers even more.

  25. Pointer
    0

    Bob’s is not only my favorite animated show on Fox these days, it’s my favorite show PERIOD. It’s replaced Futurama as the single best most under-appreciated show on TV.

  26. This perfectly sums up why I love this show so much. Even though at first glance it has the very common animation comedy trope nowadays of an overweight sloppy father, mom with a shrill voice, goofy brother, awkward daughter, and evil genius sibling, it goes so far beyond that and this is exactly why. The jokes are genuinely funny and don’t rely on stereotypes to get to the punchline, it’s the characters’ personalities that makes it funny. And I love that show show has familial love like you said, it’s so refreshing to watch a show where the humor doesn’t come out of everyone making fun of each other.

  27. There’s something refreshing about a show where we can laugh with the characters instead of at them. In shows like Family Guy, there are always characters who are made fun of for their looks despite having no control over them. This article does a wonderful job highlighting all the great things Bob’s Burgers has done for comedy, showing viewers that you don’t have to be violent, spiteful, or just plain mean to be funny.

  28. SStevens

    This show truly is a hidden gem that doesn’t get as much recognition as it deserves. But that maybe just my opinion. Apart from the humour associated with the characters interacting with one another, the distinct individuality of each character provides viewers with the chance to find a new favourite.

  29. Bob’s Burgars is one of the best animated shows out there right now. It is technically adult animation but at no point is there a moment were you thing kids should not watch this.

  30. YsabelGo

    A great father not only defends his kid, but is also willing to get beat up in a capoeira fight. I’ve only watched a few episodes, but I like how family is the centre of this show’s core values compared to other series.

  31. Looking back at how the Simpsons and especially Family Guy have gotten mean and stupid over the years, Bob’s Burgers is actually refreshing. Why people seem to dislike it is beyond me.

  32. Aurianna

    I love this show, and I think it’s great to look at at this perspective. The chemistry between the family draws you in without being blatant or saying “look at us, we love each other.” They understand each other to the fullest extent. It kind of reminds me of The Addams Family and how everyone was tolerant of each other’s differences and ambitions. Writing fulfilled characters isn’t common anymore and writers tend to rely on shock value. We get 1 or 2 episodes a season with Family Guy that try to establish a deeper connection with the viewer and convey a message. But that is way to far and few between.

  33. SomeOtherAmazon
    SomeOtherAmazon
    0

    This is a really great analysis. I’ve always thought that the family dynamic is why I prefer Bob’s Burgers to other animated families. The characters are actually likable, which I cannot say about the Griffins.

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