Quirk is new camp: on ‘Bob’s Burgers’

Charles Stephens is the Di­rec­tor of Counter Nar­ra­tive and co-editor of ‘Black Gay Ge­nius: An­swer­ing Joseph Beam’s Call.’

GA Voice - - Voice - By Charles Stephens

At best, tele­vi­sion has the power not only to rep­re­sent the high­est val­ues of our cul­ture, but also to el­e­vate the cul­ture it­self. The au­di­ence in par­tic­u­lar is pushed and chal­lenged to imag­ine worlds be­yond their own and to ac­cept that these worlds are not only pos­si­ble, but in­evitable.

The best, most iconic shows, like “Maude” and “A Dif­fer­ent World,” and even less ob­vi­ous shows like “Golden Girls” and “Roseanne,” demon­strate just how ready peo­ple are to ac­cept what’s be­ing of­fered to them, no mat­ter how com­plex or provoca­tive, if it’s wrapped in a com­edy pack­age. If the novel “At­las Shrugged” had been a com­edy-mu­si­cal writ­ten as a satire of cap­i­tal­ism, we would all be ob­jec­tivists now.

An­i­mated shows like “South Park” and “Fam­ily Guy” seem more of­ten than not to man­i­fest what the cul­tural critic Camille Paglia meant by “any­thing that can be imag­ined should be de­picted.” To that end, I will con­fess that I’m ab­so­lutely ob­sessed with the Fox show “Bob’s Burgers.” It’s my fa­vorite show on tele­vi­sion right now, and one of the smartest. There is a sub­tle and at times not so sub­tle sub­ver­sive hu­mor to the show that makes it edgy and en­dear­ingly quirky.

The show cen­ters around Bob Belcher. Bob owns a burger res­tau­rant, “Bob’s Burgers,” in a fic­tional coastal town. He and his wife, Linda, and their three chil­dren: Tina, Gene, and Louise, run the res­tau­rant. It’s a work­place com­edy wrapped in a fam­ily com­edy.

Part of why I like the show is that it re­minds me of early John Wa­ters. One could imag­ine Linda Belcher as a John Wa­ters hero­ine, and her sis­ter Gayle even more so, fanny-pack and all. One could also imag­ine Gene throw­ing a fit if he didn’t re­ceive chacha heels for Christ­mas, or Tina as a ver­sion of Tracy Turn­blad in “Hair­spray.”

Let me also say that from my per­spec­tive, “Bob’s Burgers” im­proves upon the genre of adult-tar­geted an­i­mated comedies in that it re­sists overt shock-com­edy and is re­fresh­ingly char­ac­ter-driven. When you watch “South Park,” for ex­am­ple, if you’re not ap­palled at some point dur­ing the course of the show, you feel cheated. “Bob’s Burgers” doesn’t do this, nor does it rely on the end­less cut­aways of “Fam­ily Guy.”

That said, “Bob’s Burgers” is ob­vi­ously in­flu­enced by “Fam­ily Guy,” in the same way that “Fam­ily Guy” has been in­flu­enced by “The Simp­sons.” For ex­am­ple, “Fam­ily Guy,” with its end­less ref­er­ences to 1980s pop cul­ture, in­clud­ing ev­ery­thing from “Stand by Me” to “Star Wars,” has per­fected the art of turn­ing nos­tal­gia against it­self, us­ing comic an­ar­chy clev­erly to al­low us to both love and poke fun at the decade.

Sub­ver­sive com­edy doesn’t dis­tort re­al­ity, or history for that mat­ter, as much as it clar­i­fies it. “Bob’s Burgers,” great stu­dent that it is, has also very clev­erly used 1980s films as its muse.

The new golden age of tele­vi­sion, made pos­si­ble by tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ment, media in­no­va­tion, and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of plat­forms and out­lets for sto­ries, must in­clude “Bob’s Burgers” in its canon. Cul­tur­ally speak­ing, we are in the age of “Bob’s Burgers.”

Au­gust 21, 2015

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