Sitcoms: A Hidden Effect of Laughter

Whether it is on television, Netflix or another source of streaming video, many of us like to watch sitcoms to unwind at the end of a hard day. Researchers call this the mood management effect.

We are stressed, we watch a show, we laugh and we feel better.

But could there be more going on? Is it possible that watching sitcoms cause us to re-examine our biases, prejudices, the way we think our society works?

Two hilarious sitcoms that seem to do just that are the syndicated All in the Family and Last Man Standing, currently in its sixth season.

Edith and Archie Bunker/ Photo: Public Domain

In All in the Family, lower middle class blue collar worker and bigot Archie Bunker humorously holds on to a long list of prejudices, dismissing what his sweet but timid wife Edith has to say.

Their daughter Gloria and husband Mike, or “Meathead” as he is called by his father-in-law, argue with Archie non-stop about his preconceived notions. Unlike his wife, Gloria and Mike are not dissuaded by him and their interactions with him provide the basis for much of the humor in the story.

When the series first aired in 1971 it broke new ground for television. There was concern about how it would be received so producers provided clarification before airing the first episode.

“The program you are about to see is All in the Family. It seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices, and concerns. By making them a source of laughter, we hope to show — in a mature fashion — just how absurd they are.”

And that it did.

Though backlash was expected from angry viewers, the sitcom was a hit. The series made an impact not only on television but also on society. It spoke to the times and quickly became popular, running for nine years, and spawning numerous spin-offs.

Archie and Edith, or rather the actors who played them, sang the theme song that opened each episode.

Yes, the storyline was filled with controversy but as blogger Mamdouh Alquraish wrote, “By watching Archie Bunker, the lessons were to be learned by seeing what not to think and how not to act. “

Fast forward 40 years to a similar sitcom, Last Man Standing.

Tim Allen, an executive producer who also plays the starring role of Mike Baxter, said in an interview that his character, with its loud conservative views is “meant to be an educated Archie Bunker.”

Does this sitcom have the effect that All in the Family did back in the day? Can it make us laugh while we reconsider our stands on different issues?

There is reason to believe so.

As a recent article in Slate Magazine says, “There’s one particular show that explains the world we now live in: ABC’s Last Man Standing.”

Last Man Standing Cast Photo by Disney/ABC Television Group NoDerivs CC by 2.0

The main character, Mike Baxter, is a stereotypical man perplexed by his wife Vanessa and three young adult daughters, all strong women. He loves them but doesn’t understand them. He is a man trying to hold on to his sense of manliness in a world that is increasingly influenced by females.

While Mike is having a hard time with the changes in society, those around him are not. His daughter Kristin and her boyfriend Ryan are reminiscent of Gloria and “Meathead” in All in the Family.

Though more refined than All in the Family, Last Man Standing is not afraid to bring up controversial subjects. A content analyses of the two programs would reveal many instances.

As Palash Ghosh at the International Business Times noted,

Researchers and scholars have long established that all forms of television programming and popular culture in general, have an inherent point of view. They all communicate a set of values, beliefs, attitudes, and opinions, and in doing so promote either the “conservative” view that all is fine the way it is, or the “liberal” view that change is needed. 
This happens whether the creators of the program intend it to or not.

So, while shows like All in the Family and Last Man Standing make us laugh, the question is can they cause us to re-think our points of view about controversial topics of the day? Possibly.

Laughter is powerful stuff.