Archie Bunkerism and the Nature of Comedy

Written by: Jacob deBlecourt

Since the, shall we say, outspoken Roseanne Barr returned to network television with the reboot of her eponymous 90s sitcom series, many have called into question whether Ms. Barr, a supporter of President Trump, should be “normalized” by the American community. In 1990, Barr grabbed her crotch while singing – more like screeching –  the national anthem. More recently, she tweeted out the actual address of George Zimmerman, who was acquitted of the shooting of an African-American teenager, and attempted runs for Prime Minister of Israel and President of the United States. In short, she’s a loon. But her actions as a comedian tell us a lot about what comedy is on a fundamental level.

One of the more substantial arguments against her having her own television show has to do with a photoshoot in which she participated in 2009. Barr, a Jewish woman, dressed up as Hitler and posed for the camera while pulling burnt cookies in the shapes of humans out of an oven, a subtle homage of sorts to the Holocaust. These images have circled throughout the internet and caused a great deal of uproar in the past couple of days. I, myself, as a Jew, was slightly offended. How dare she make light of such a serious situation? But, after some slight digging, I gained some greater insight into the situation. Barr was posing for Heeb Magazine, a now defunct Jewish publication that sought to gain attention by questioning the modern Jewish status quo. The issue in question discussed how Jews approach horrific events in our history, especially the Holocaust (a topic worthy of its own post). Barr claimed that she chose this appearance to bring to light the Jewish community’s attitude towards post-Holocaust world genocides, which she claims have not been given the attention they deserve. In an interview with The Green Room with Paul Forenza, Barr lays out her reasoning: “There’s another, deeper layer to it. You know just the everyday. Moving off this Holocaust. There’s been about fifty of them since then. That’s what I’m kind of trying to say. Is like, Jesus Christ it’s so fucking every day now, holocausts, it’s like baking cookies.” This reasoning might be just B.S., but it does fall in line with her Star-Spangled Banner performance, which she claims was also a commentary: “let’s care about freedom, instead of symbols of freedom for a fucking change.”

Let me be clear: I am not exonerating Roseanne. Far from it, I find her politics to be detestable and her public presence bothersome. Frankly, I don’t even think she’s that funny. But there is something inherently…comedic about her. I’m certainly not the first one to make this comparison, but she is in many ways like a real-life Archie Bunker. For those who don’t know, Archie Bunker was the lead character of the classic 70s sitcom, All in the Family, a show about a Peter Griffin-esque Dad trying to come to terms with the changing and more progressive world around him. Watch as Archie demeans his wife, condescends to a gay friend, and just lays in to the black community season after season. What Archie, portrayed by the great Carroll O’Connor, is saying is not funny, but it is comedy. We laugh AT Archie because we know his ideas and his methods are old and he either cannot or will not make improvements on himself. We laugh AT Archie because we understand he is a part of a dying generation of bigotry and hatred. It’s the kind of pitying laughter you give to a toddler trying to read a book facing upside-down: They just don’t understand how ridiculous they are, and it’s adorable.

Roseanne Barr is like a living, breathing, real-life Archie Bunker. She wears her antagonism with pride. And now, like a persistent customer yelling at an employee, she’s being rewarded with her own show. Roseanne is not funny, but comedic in a Shakespearean fool kind of sense–there to point out the flaws in our society by manifesting them within herself. She represents an anachronism in our society, the strong regressive force there to highlight America’s effete character even as we progress.

Perhaps even more comedic is the possibility that she might be oblivious to this fact. Plenty of comedians go against political correctness for an artistic purpose. Dave Chappelle, for example, makes a lot of jokes about the African-American community, the LGBT community, even the Jewish community as well, not because he necessarily believes what he says, but because he uses comedy to think through difficult issues, reflecting on his personal experiences through the lens of comedy. Roseanne is different though. Her comedy is not done from behind a persona. She’s just Roseanne. In many ways, her F.U. attitude is the most genuine form of comedy there is.

I don’t think Roseanne is that funny, but she is comedic. But can comedy be comedy if it isn’t funny? What is comedy? For me, comedy, like any other art form, exists to elicit a reaction. While other media or art might try to extract an emotion, comedy asks us to reflect on our own experiences to generate an opinion or new outlook on life. The true comedy behind Roseanne Barr is that, though I am aware she is wrong, she has forced me to think about how I view myself: my politics, my thoughts on free speech, even my Jewish identity. I’ve still got a lot to think through on this issue, but before you get angry at people like Roseanne or any other shock comedian, ask yourself what you are feeling and why you feel that way; you might learn a lot about yourself.

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