Thanks to Obama You’re Paying for It: The Politics of Sitcoms

The scene is a hospital room where Luke Dunphy, at age 14 the youngest of the Dunphy children, is being treated for an allergic reaction. His young cousin looks at the IV drop hanging by his bed and asks what it does. Without missing a beat Luke replies: ”I don’t know but thanks to Obama you’re paying for it”. This scene from an episode of the popular sitcom Modern Family, which aired the day after Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term in the White House in 2012, was greeted with cheer among conservatives. Several conservative bloggers and news outlets commented on how Modern Family ”mocked” the president’s signature health care reform, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act from 2010. The conservative website RedAlertPolitics expanded, writing: “even liberal Hollywood writers can’t escape the reality that is the expensive repercussions from Obamacare”. Others took to social media, within days several clips of the scene had been uploaded to YouTube and comments written on Twitter.

Commentators connected the joke to earlier reports of advertising plans in connection with the roll out of the online marketplace for the medical coverage in California. The New York Times had reported that suggestions from the Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide agency included having prime-time television shows, explicitly naming Modern Family and Grey’s Anatomy, incorporate the health care law into their storylines. The news of the plan was initially met with skepticism among conservative news outlets, criticizing viewers being “force-fed pro-Obamacare propaganda”. Following the Modern Family episode with the comment on the health care law these same voices gleefully saw it as a backlash towards the attempted marketing campaign.

Nolan Gould, who plays Luke Dunphy on Modern Family

Nolan Gould, who plays Luke Dunphy on Modern Family

The popular ABC sitcom has never been a favorite among conservatives, featuring both a gay couple and an immigrant family as leads it has been discarded as a liberal fantasy, but the apparent critique of the bête noire of contemporary conservatives was welcome. Perhaps this unfamiliarity with the show was the reason the sentiment of the joke was misjudged. Regular viewers of Modern Family certainly know that Luke is no voice of authority on the show; in fact in one episode his father calls him his dumbest child. The character of Luke has since the third season’s start been delivering seemingly off-hand comments that suggest political fringe rhetoric, such as questioning the war on drugs or portraying Canada as a high tax dystopia. Against this backdrop the comment is not so much critique of the health care law and President Obama as of the, at times, close to paranoid voices fighting the law, especially within the Tea Party movement.

The initial marketing plans for the health care law roll out as well as the responses to the one-liner on Modern Family illustrate how the political is intertwined in any public discourse, even seemingly apolitical television entertainment, although it is more seldom identified and incorporated into the larger political sphere. The case of Modern Family is especially interesting as both President Obama and his Republican opponent in 2012, Mitt Romney, have professed their love for the show. Being the most watched family sitcom Modern Family occupies an attractive place in popular culture – one previously held by shows such as Everybody Loves Raymond, Roseanne, The Cosby Show, and All in the Family – and at the same time an important political soap-box. The presidential contenders’ fandom, genuine as it might have been, was a deliberate attempt to connect with potential voters.

Recently, I came across another instance where a popular family sitcom and the president crossed paths, although in far less polite terms. Richard Nixon’s extensive recording in the Oval Office can reveal both interesting and trivial things, such as a 1971 conversation with advisors H.R. Haldeman and John Erlichman about the new sitcom All in the Family. Nixon was upset having watched a little of the show when he was trying to “tune into the damn baseball game”. The episode he caught a glimpse of was apparently “Judging Books by Covers” (Season 1 Episode 5), one of the first television appearances of an openly gay character. Nixon railed against the “glorifying” of homosexuality on public television, still unaware of how much of the show would be devoted to jokes about him. Archie Bunker never did learn the president’s middle initial, stubbornly calling him “Richard E. Nixon” throughout the show. Some twenty years after Nixon’s private tirades against the immorality on All in the Family, Vice-president Dan Quayle let his frustration with the lack of morality on Murphy Brown out in a very public way. Foreshadowing the presidential contenders public support of Modern Family Quayle’s morality crusade was, however honest, a show for the galleries. In the middle of an especially fervent period of “the culture wars” Quayle was intent on making his stance known. These three instances of political controversy when it comes to television sitcoms suggest that the personal is indeed political, and can be found in both your living room and the Lincoln sitting room.

(c) 2015, Humor in America

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