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Why TV comedies rely on racist, sexist old characters

The fact is that the old person who knows too little (and says too much) is a highly effective trope for an ensemble-driven comedy

‘Mythic Quest’ is now in its third season.

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The comedy series Mythic Quest (Apple TV+) is a workplace sitcom set in the very specific (and often very bonkers) world of video-game creation. While the show had started out scathing—a first-season plotline involved the video-game creator giving the game’s sizeable Nazi players their own server, so they could fester within their own hate-fuelled echo-chamber—it has admittedly lost its bite. Currently in its third season, the new episodes seem eager and optimistic—but in that unmemorable, everything-will-be-fine sort of way that feels boring for a show that once had something to say.

This is partly because Mythic Quest—where the game headquarters are so full of young, diverse, radical employees that staffers over 40 fall into a “protected” category—might be skewing too young. And not in a good way. The show, co-created by and starring Rob McElhenney, features a hilarious ensemble cast but one of the show’s shining lights was the out-of-touch old man. C.W. Longbottom, self-revering science-fiction novelist, was a dotard mixing himself sickening drinks, living nostalgically in the past, and saying things all the young people around him told him he couldn’t say. He was played by the titan F. Murray Abraham (who most recently dazzled on the new season of The White Lotus) and he was sensational.

The new season, however, has no Longbottom. The sexist who forever said problematic things has not only vanished this season but was given an off-screen death and doesn’t seem to be missed by the characters. This leaves a huge gulf, particularly when season 2, already running out of big, beautiful ideas, found its stride only with one remarkable episode about Longbottom’s past.

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The show needs his madness and this isn’t just because we saw an exceptional actor feasting on well-crafted, absurd lines. (Longbottom’s favourite drink was “fortified port wine mixed with drip coffee and three teaspoons of sugar. I call it ‘The Rutger Hauer’”.)

The fact is that the old person who knows too little (and says too much) is a highly effective trope for an ensemble-driven comedy. These are politically incorrect characters who say appalling things, and they get away with it because they are old. In one episode of Community (Netflix), Chevy Chase’s obnoxious character, Pierce, is described as “our closest, oldest, craziest, most racist, oldest, elderly, crazy friend”—and this is a pretty darned accurate description.

“Oh no, you’re not letting some slumlord take your money,” Pierce tells his friends when trying to be helpful. “I’ll fix it. I used to do that kind of thing all of the time when I was a slumlord.” In another episode, when teaming up with black classmate Troy Barnes (played by Donald Glover), Pierce’s description of the duo is, “We’re like Batman and Shaft.”

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This is an ageist caricature, certainly, but its utility is understandable. Having a character who is judged by other characters for saying sexist, misogynistic, racist things gives the show’s creators leeway: Not only do they get a licence to be politically incorrect for shock and giggles, they also get to point at the incorrectness, signalling that they are mocking the person making the offensive joke—while using the joke. It is a shamelessly blatant trope but un-woke characters in otherwise sharp comedies do often end up stealing scenes.

In Hacks, the great Jean Smart plays old-school—and mean—comedian Deborah Vance, who slays with unbearably cruel and perfectly delivered lines, like when she tells her assistant Ava about her hands: “They look like catcher’s mitts. Your manicurist must use a paint-roller.” In Modern Family (Disney+ Hotstar), sitcom veteran Ed O’Neill’s Jay Pritchett frequently says the wrong thing (“Stephen Hawking could ride that bike”). And in that other McElhenney comedy It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia (Disney+ Hotstar), Danny DeVito’s Frank regularly says things as appalling as “When it’s white people, it’s surviving. When it’s black people, it’s looting.”

Once a racist old character is in place, dislodging them is hard. In a Community storyline (from season 3), when Pierce is being removed from the group, the de facto leader of the group Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) soon mistakes a picture of a black man for another black man, and in the next episode he starts acting like a creepy “daddy” figure to the youngest girl in the group. This was creator Dan Harmon commenting that since an elderly racist vacuum had been created, someone else in the group would fill it.

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Ironically, for a show that laughed at television tropes, when the makers of Community later decided that Chevy Chase was a problematic colleague and decided to write his character out (at the end of season 4), the group dynamic suffered massively from his absence. The last two seasons of Community— missing cast members and personality—ended up a pale imitation of the trailblazing series it once was.

It isn’t merely about politically incorrect jokes. The true import of the ignorant old character is that the viewing audience can find comfort in somebody who knows less than they do. And, despite being cartoonishly oblivious, they still serve as an audience surrogate because most audiences can’t keep up. In the recent stand-up special Blocks (Netflix), comedian Neal Brennan laughs about how it’s easy to join a right-wing crowd simply by saying you are one of them, but when you tell a group of liberals you are a liberal, “they look you up and down and say, ‘We’ll see.’”

At a time when, as audiences, so many of us are trying to be more aware, it is reassuring to have a foolish, out-of-touch character show us what not to be, and what not to say. On some level, each of us is the old character who should know better. We must listen harder.

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STREAMING TIP OF THE WEEK

With Avatar: The Way Of Water out now in theatres worldwide, it’s a good time to revisit James Cameron’s original groundbreaking film from 13 years ago. A viewing of Avatar (Disney+ Hotstar) will set you up for the new epic.

Raja Sen is a screenwriter and critic. He has co-written Chup, a film about killing critics, and is now creating an absurd comedy series.

@rajasen

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