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.’
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