The death in October of Tom Bosley, ranked ninth on a 2004 list of the “50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time” according to his obituaries, reminds us of that golden era of Happy Days and other shows which taught us, virtually from the beginning of television itself, that TV dads — and, therefore, probably, most real ones too — were great. No longer, obviously. Now the best a TV dad can hope for is to be a harmless, lovable simpleton and buffoon like Homer Simpson, whom Entertainment Weekly recently ranked — as The Simpsons celebrated 20 years on the air — number one on its list of the 100 greatest fictional characters, in any medium, of the last 20 years. Quite an accolade! To be sure, Homer had his precursors in the form of Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden of The Honeymooners, who wasn’t actually a dad, and his cartoon version, Fred Flintstone, who was. There was another cartoon dad with similarities to Homer who goes back even further, to whom I shall return in a moment. But it was the Father-Knows-Best dad of what the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin would have called the official culture who was the face of American fatherhood in the popular culture up until Bill Cosby’s Cliff Huxtable in the 1980s.
The other day I heard Mr. Cosby being interviewed on a radio show where he was asked who were the role models for black families today in the way that he was for those of the ’80s. He quite rightly replied that there were none — nor for white families either. Now TV dads are all like Homer or his spin-off, Peter Griffin of Family Guy — or Stan Smith of American Dad, who is a spin-off of Archie Bunker — and therefore mockeries of the patriarchal and TV ideal. As such, they are creatures of the anarchic, subversive, and disreputable unofficial culture that once existed alongside the official one but has now expropriated it.
One exception might be the excellent Mitchell Hurwitz sitcom of a few years ago called Arrested Development, whose too-brief three seasons between 2003 and 2006 are now available on DVD. Its big idea was that the Bluth family patriarch, played by Jeffrey Tambor, was a criminal property developer and the appalling father of a large, dysfunctional family one of whose sons, Michael (Jason Bateman), aspires with limited success to be an old-fashioned sitcom-type dad to his own son.
There was a kind of apostolic succession from Happy Days to Arrested Development in the form of the Bluth family’s corrupt and useless lawyer, Barry, played by Henry Winkler or “The Fonz” of happy memory. But the show was far from being a throwback. Mr. Bateman’s Michael represents the frustrations of the so-called millennial generation at the often appalling self-absorption and self-indulgence of their baby-boom parents, which has left them with no moral compass for raising their own children — or for doing much of anything else. Michael’s watchword was “Family First,” even though the family in question consisted, apart from himself (a widower) and his son, George Michael (Michael Cera), of pretty uniformly appalling people from whom he was constantly trying and failing to detach himself. The problem was that they were too appalling. As the show was live action rather than animated, it didn’t contain talking dogs or space aliens, but it had in common with the cartoon family shows to which it was a partial response a lot of the exaggerated and surreal character that has been the hallmark of American cartooning since Gary Larson took up his pen.
We are now so accustomed to the anarchic and fantastical Larson style that we may be in danger of forgetting that self-mockery long antedates it among America’s family values, though it was formerly self-mockery of a more measured and serious sort. As The Simpsons celebrate their 20th anniversary this year, so the comic strip “Blondie” celebrates its 80th. Originally drawn in 1930 and for more than 40 years afterward by Murat Bernard “Chic” Young, the syndicated strip is now drawn by his 71-year-old son Dean, in partnership with John Marshall, and he plans to pass it on in his turn to his daughter, Dana Young Coston. The survival of “Blondie” is a reminder of the kind of humor that preceded the fashion for the surrealist fantasy that now holds sway on the equally old-fashioned “funny pages” as well as on TV — and of the kind of society such humor once appealed to and to some extent still does.
Actually, the secret of the strip’s success is not that different from that of The Simpsons. The Bumsteads — Blondie, Dagwood, their children Cookie and Alexander, dog Daisy, and a curious neighborhood boy called Elmo — reflect both an important aspect of America’s self-image and an ability to laugh at ourselves. That’s also true of The Simpsons, which is one reason why George H. W. Bush’s wish for an America more like The Waltons than The Simpsons turned out to be a joke on him. He might have done better to have wished us more like the Bumsteads, even though Dagwood, like Homer, is lovable for his faults. And they are largely the same faults, too. Both are lazy, work-shy, perpetually hungry, semi-detached husbands and fathers whose gargantuan appetites and capacity for goofing off (like that of Mort Walker’s Beetle Bailey, another hardy survivor of the earlier era) have made them worldwide symbols of American manhood.
DAGWOOD IS OFFICE MANAGER for the J. C. Dithers construction company, and Mr. Dithers has much in common with Mr. Burns of The Simpsons, owner of the nuclear power plant where Homer is chief safety officer. Yet it is in their respective workplaces that we can best see where Homer and Dagwood diverge. Dagwood’s malingering is of a classically pure kind, while Homer’s also regularly endangers himself and the whole community. That this is meant to be comical points to the fact that Homer, for all his comic excellences, lacks Dagwood’s recognizably human quality as well being, like him, an embodiment of appetite and laziness. Similarly, Mr. Dithers is an irascible and tyrannical but unmistakably human boss, partly because he is as much in awe of his formidable wife, Cora, as Dagwood is in awe of him. Though they joke about it, the Simpsons writers have made Mr. Burns, one of whose catchphrases is “Release the hounds,” near of kin to the Prince of Darkness, which no one would say about Mr. Dithers — someone who, as his name suggests, is scarcely less of a screw-up than Dagwood himself.
Similarly, though Dagwood has never been a mental giant, one couldn’t imagine him, like Homer, playing checkers against a chicken-and losing. What is gained in the humor of such an episode or others that are funny only in their preposterousness is lost in the sense of our connection to the real world of middle-class striving that Dagwood and Mr. Dithers alike still inhabit, along with most of us. There was just a touch of the fashionably surreal in a recent strip in which Dagwood found that his pay had been docked by 5 percent for something called the BEGF. “That’s a favorite charity of mine,” says Mr. Dithers. “It’s the ‘Bumstead Employment Guarantee Fund,’ which goes back into the company to make sure nobody suddenly decides to fire you!” Dagwood expects to be the victim of injustice, if not the epic and therefore unreal injustices of “Dilbert” or The Simpsons, as much as we expect him to be, and accepts this philosophically as he turns to the reader and says: “Shoot, that’s my favorite charity too!”
There is exaggeration here, but also more truth to life than you will find in most of the comedy of The Simpsons or others of today’s TV-family sitcoms. When Marge briefly leaves Homer after finding that he has paid off a gambling debt by allowing Fat Tony and the mob to make a porn film in their house, we know that this is not the familial disaster it would be in real life, any more than the meltdowns caused by Homer’s incompetence are real-life environmental disasters. This is fantasyland. Dagwood and Blondie still live (just about) in the real world. Both the Bumstead and the Simpson households are based on, even as they mock, a “Victorian” model family in which a downtrodden working man, exploited by his employer, is able to take his revenge by slacking off, as well as to regard his home as his castle — and, accordingly, to regard his wife with a certain chivalric deference. But the mockery of The Simpsons is unleavened by the lingering suspicion conveyed by the relative realism of “Blondie” that, in spite of the hits that model has taken in the last century, there is something about it that strikes many people, and not only men, as a sort of middle-class state of nature, with all the reassuring stability of work and family life that that implies. That’s something worth hanging on to for another 80 years.