Telling More Than Just Jokes: How Sitcoms Tackle Politics And Trump

Sitcoms give viewers the opportunity to laugh as well as empathize.

Telling More Than Just Jokes: How Sitcoms Tackle Politics And Trump
ABC / "Roseanne"

President Donald Trump is a fixture in the world of comedy as the punchline of jokes and the target of fiery criticism. But beyond sketch comedies like "Saturday Night Live" and late-night talk shows, Trump has also gotten some airtime on another popular television format: sitcoms.

The hit '90s sitcom "Roseanne" came back this year and made clear the titular character's support for Trump. That caught the attention of the president himself. He called to congratulate actress Roseanne Barr, a Trump supporter herself.

"Even look at Roseanne. I called her yesterday. Look at her ratings. Look at her ratings," Trump said at a rally in Ohio. "And it was about us."

"Roseanne's" March 27 premiere reached 25 million viewers, and many of them were in states that Trump easily won in 2016. But "Roseanne" didn't even have to mention the president by name. Instead, the show focused on issues afflicting Middle America. That's arguably more than what could be said for other sitcoms tackling Trump. 

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Before its revival's debut, "Will & Grace" aired a special mini-episode encouraging viewers to vote in the 2016 presidential election. With zingers about the president, The Atlantic says the message was "unsubtle" and "aggressive" without any action. Critics say the quick one-liners established a firm stance against the president, but not in a way that went beyond the surface.

Like "Roseanne," other sitcoms wanted to go beyond the quick jokes.

"We have to dig in deeper and stay later and have more real conversations and argue amongst ourselves more and really bring our emotions to the surface and really say things that people want to hear  — have said," Kenya Barris, creator of "Blackish" told NPR. "We have to do that more. We have a responsibility. It's not just TV for us anymore."

In its election-themed episode "Lemons," Barris chose to include the perspective of a Trump voter. That character explained herself as more against Hillary Clinton than for Trump because of her family's economic position.

Barris told Variety that scene wasn't "very well-received at the table read," but he said the perspective of a Trump voter was important to have. The Atlantic said the episode "expresses anger while also insisting on empathy."

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By focusing on empathy, sitcoms give viewers the opportunity to think about the perspectives of fictional characters as if they were loved ones. Beyond portrayals of Trump supporters, this focus on empathy happened with "Will & Grace," which reflected the growing acceptance of LGBTQ rights. It also happens with the reimagining of "One Day at a Time," which touches heavily on immigration policy. Viewers may not side with the perspectives on screen, but at least they'll hear them.