More than just a punchline

Riding on the subway over the past few weeks, I kept coming across ads for ABC’s new “Comedy Wednesday” sitcom lineup: Hank, The Middle, Modern Family, and Cougartown. Now, aside from my personal feelings about some of these shows (Courtney Cox, what happened to you?) what struck me was how white–and I mean WHITE–the lineup looked, at least from the ads.

The lack of diversity in network programming isn’t anything new, but this fall it really bothered me, especially after reading this great article over at Movieline called “Who Is Killing the African American Sitcom?” Why is a comedy labeled as an “African American sitcom” as soon as it includes more than one black person in the cast? And why don’t sitcoms about people of color make the lineups of major networks anymore?

Still I decided to give Modern Family a try, and I’ll admit that it was pretty funny. It wasn’t as white as I’d thought it would be, either; in fact, there were three characters of color: a baby adopted from Vietnam; Gloria, the much younger Colombian wife of the show’s father figure; and her son, Manny.

But when people of color are so outnumbered in a cast, especially a comedy cast, the question becomes: are they around for more than just a punchline?

After watching the pilot, I’m still not sure. When the baby is first brought back from Vietnam and introduced as Lily, one of the family members asks, “Is she, uh, going to be able to pronounce that?” (still, this is the same man who thinks that WTF stands for “Why The Face?” so maybe the joke’s on him). Likewise, Gloria serves up plenty of the standard “sassy latina,” along with a few jokes about how her beautiful village in Colombia is known for the highest number of… “What’s that word?” “Murders, dear,” replies her husband.

One Big Straight Gay Multi-Cultural Traditional Happy Family Comedy
"One Big Straight Gay Multi-Cultural Traditional Happy Family Comedy"

From the pilot alone, it’s impossible to know whether the coming episodes will turn Gloria, Manny, Lily and the rest of the cast into three-dimensional people. And I’m not saying I didn’t laugh quite a bit. But I am reminded of the title of this article that appeared not long ago on Racialicious: “Your joke is not my joke.” If we’re going to laugh, it’s worth asking–just what is so funny?