The more I write about comedies, the more you’re going to hear me going on and on about the difference between laughing at characters and laughing with characters. It’s almost unavoidable that I’m going to mention it for “Mike & Molly,” for “Raising Hope” and also for “Outsourced.” That’s a lot of “laughing with” vs. “laughing at” discussion for a single week.
Really I do.
No, seriously. It wasn’t my idea to have NBC, CBS and FOX all premiere all of their new shows in the same week.
Anyway, it’s a question that involves issues of representation and hegemony, which means that more than a few people will automatically reduce it to “political correctness,” which is just a bit stupid.
In its lowest form, my feeling on the subject boils down to this: If you have a comedy about any group of people who aren’t represented extensively on television, you probably don’t want to be laughing *at* them. Beyond just being smug and insufferable, you’re pigeon-holding the totality of a group’s representation down to being the subject for mockery. It’s here that one sadly needs to point out that in TV comedy, just about anybody who isn’t pretty, thin, white and middle-to-upper class is under represented. We’ve advanced a tiny bit from the days where the cast of “Friends” could wander around New York City for over a decade and meet roughly two people who didn’t look exactly like them, but not very far.
If your comedy finds itself laughing *at* black people, Hispanics, Indians, fat people or poor people as its primary vehicle for humor, you’re doing it wrong. But guess what, anti-PC rage-aholics? I’m not a hypocrite here. If your comedy finds itself laughing at Conservatives or people with any sort of notable religious leaning, you’re also doing it wrong. There are all sorts of different folks who don’t get a tremendous amount of representation on TV. I’m not oblivious to the fact that it’s as hard to find an unmocked practicing Christian (or Jew or Muslim) on TV as it is to find several other disenfranchised groups.
Laughing *with* people is harder to do, because it requires empathy or, at the very least, basic understanding.
So NBC’s “Outsourced”? Laughing *at* Indians, for the most part. That’s only part of why the show is awful, but it’s definitely part.
FOX’s “Raising Hope”? Frequently laughing *at* lower-income white folks, but ultimately coming down with sympathy, so it’s both empathetic, but also condescending. I still haven’t figured out how I’m going to review that show.
And CBS’ “Mike & Molly”?
That’s what this review is probably for!
After the break…
Billy Gardell plays Mike, an overweight police officer cursed with the last name of “Biggs.” He’s a sweet and funny guy, but he’s also overweight. In addition, he’s a bit hefty.
Melissa McCarthy plays Molly, an overweight school teacher. She’s a sweet, funny gal, but she’s also overweight. In addition, she’s a bit plus-sized.
When they meet at Overeaters Anonymous, it’s instant affection. Because they’re both overweight, but also sweet and funny people.
Both Mike and Molly come equipped with sitcom-ready sidekicks.
For Mike, it’s his partner Carl (Reno Wilson) and enabling African waiter Samuel (Nyambi Nyambi).
For Molly, it’s mother Joyce (Swoosie Kurtz) and pothead sister Victoria (Katy Mixon).
While “Mike & Molly” was created by Mark Roberts, the name everybody’s going to mention in relation to the show is executive producer Chuck Lorre.
For CBS, Lorre’s name means success. He brought the network “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory,” which buys you a lot of clout. And if you want to use that clout for a traditional multi-camera sitcom about two overweight people falling in love, that’s your prerogative, if you happen to be Chuck Lorre. Anybody other than Chuck Lorre probably shouldn’t bother.
For critics, though, Lorre’s name brings caution. It’s not that we don’t like Chuck Lorre. It was only two summers ago that I personally handed him a TCA Award for Outstanding Achievement in Comedy for “The Big Bang Theory.” But when we think of Chuck Lorre, we think of a certain brand of broad humor and when we think of the idea of a traditional multi-camera sitcom about two overweight people in love, perhaps we yearn for just a little subtlety.
That’s a trepidation that’s unlikely to vanish after watching the show.
There are two different shows at war in the pilot for “Mike & Molly.”
One is a surprisingly sensitive, occasionally funny character study about two people who have had struggles in their lives, but now have maybe found a life partner. It’s not that you ever forget that the characters in this version of the story are overweight. No, the majority of the punchlines are still girth-based, but the gags rarely seem malicious and the tone of the comedy stems from welcome and familiar interaction with friends and loved ones. That is to say that there are definitely fat jokes, but they’re sheltered within a safe space.
In this show, Gardell and McCarthy are excellent.
Gardell is especially notable because he has the rare and difficult job of playing a sitcom character written as a funny character within the world of the show. It’s the kind of thing that sounds like it shouldn’t be unusual, but people in comedies only occasionally laugh at each other. It’s hard to write a punchline that plays to both people in a scene and viewers at home, but Gardell pulls it off. It’s not like the TV world hasn’t often embraced overweight leading men who joke about their size, but it’s easier, for example, for Kevin James to crack wise about his belly when his character is married to Leah Remini. Gardell isn’t self-conscious as a performer and he’s just as comfortable going big as he is just playing the natural rhythms of a man who has always used humor as both a social tool and a defense mechanism.
I don’t know that McCarthy is venturing that far from Sookie on “Gilmore Girls,” except that she’s playing a more grounded version of that character, which is good, since Sookie was usually pitched as a supporting foil, though she got to have a romantic and domestic life of her own.
Still sticking within that good version of “Mike & Molly,” you have Swoosie Kurtz, caustic as ever and nailing every punchline, as well as the very gifted Katy Mixon, whose persona as a living blow-up doll belies joyfully off-kilter comic timing.
I swear that if you look closely, you’ll see this version of “Mike & Molly.” That’s the version that’s laughing with its characters. the show about two people in love, who are also overweight.
The problem is that there’s a different version of “Mike & Molly” that’s much easier to see and that’s the version that Lorre’s detractors were probably afraid of.
I don’t know if Lorre can be blamed for that version of “Mike & Molly.” It’s still Roberts’ name on the script, after all.
The easiest person to blame may be James Burrows, the legendary TV director, since almost all of the tonal failings of the pilot can definitely be attributed to the delicacy a good director can enforce and that a bad director can let slip away.
In that version of “Mike & Molly,” our female lead is introduced comically and frantically and somewhat humiliatingly working out to the blaring strains of “Brick House.” That version has one table destroyed and another upended by Mike’s inconvenient heft. That version has a ridiculous scene in which two Overeaters Anonymous members literally get stuck in a stairwell because they’re walking side-by-side.
I think that there’s less of this “Mike & Molly” than there is of the good version, but this is the version that the studio audience (sweetened laugh track) seems to most enjoy and this is the version that probably will stand out as the most memorable. This is the version about two fat people, who happen to be in love. This is the version that’s laughing at its main characters and not with them.
And if you walk away from the “Mike & Molly” pilot and tell me that you hate it, because the only version you remember is the grating, pratfall-laden “laughing at” version, I can’t say you’re wrong. I can try to point you to the better parts of the pilot, like Mike’s “share” to the Overeaters Anonymous group or his very different “share” to Molly’s class of students, but as Chris Farley could have told you, those things don’t get cheers like the “fat guy falls down” hijinks.
But I remember the pilot for “The Big Bang Theory,” which was a contemptuous mixture of dumb blonde jokes as nerd-baiting. That was a show with no affection for any of its characters, much less their lifestyle. But over time, the “Big Bang Theory” writers found that they loved the geeks and that Penny wasn’t necessarily as dumb as they originally thought she was. They went from a pilot that only laughed at its main characters to a series which, much more frequently, laughs with them.
I guess I want to see the best in “Mike & Molly” and hope that its better angels will win out. And then sometimes I flip by the braying misogyny of a “Two and a Half Men” repeat (squandering the gifts of its stars) and the doubts return.
“Mike & Molly” premieres on Monday, Sept. 20 at 9:30 p.m. on CBS.