When Bob’s Burgers first began airing back in 2011, it was a pleasant surprise. A new Fox animated show that not only wasn’t horrible, but managed to actually be funny and have a great deal of heart. In hindsight, that shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise, as series’ creator Loren Bouchard had previously helped create Home Movies, one of the funniest, earnest and underappreciated adult animated shows of all time. At the start of its eighth season, Bob’s Burgers is nothing short of a phenomenon. A critical darling with a massively devoted fanbase, the show has hit that sweet spot all animated sitcoms have dreamt of reaching since the early Simpsons first showed the way.
I would argue that the success of the show is largely due to its focus on strong character-based humor. Most sitcoms, animated or otherwise, tend to use their characters as vehicles for whatever joke is wanted, rather than letting the jokes emerge from the characters themselves. Not to beat up on Family Guy too much, but it IS the classic example of a bad gags-over-character show. Can you define Peter Griffin’s character in a concrete way other than “dumb fat guy”? He has no specific dreams, hobbies, interests, fears or neuroses. He will simply become whatever is needed to facilitate the joke the writers and animators want to tell. Modern Simpsons too often falls into this same pattern, where once specific characters like Homer or Lisa end up acting completely contrary to their described natures if it means being able to tell a specific joke. South Park is no better, with its characters changing personalities and motivations episode to episode in order for the writers to fit whatever pet issue, jokes or bigotries they want into their mouths. There isn’t necessarily a problem with doing wacky joke-based shows as opposed to character-based humor, but the latter tends to develop a very strong and dedicated connection to its audience in a way other shows struggle with. The last big, successful animated sitcom that focused strongly on character-derived humor was Fox’s King of the Hill, whose best episodes came from the show’s creators putting a character in any wild situation and understanding their motivation and behavior well enough to let the humor flow from the character’s natural reactions. If I say “a Peggy episode” or “a Dale episode” you automatically have an idea of the kind of humor and tone the episode will have. Bob’s Burgers follows that tradition, with the creators strongly invested in understanding and drawing humor from the differences between how, say, Bob would react to an absurd situation compared to how Tina would.
But this post isn’t meant to be an overview of what makes this show so beloved by me and other fans who think like me. I just want to highlight the importance of the show’s strong characterization before I get into the one thing about the show that’s gotten stuck in my fan-craw.
The core cast of the show are all unique and relateable in different ways. There’s slovenly, but dedicated and surprisingly brilliant Bob himself. Its easy for me to identify with Bob’s desire to create and share his gifts artistically despite getting so caught up in himself and his worries that he sabotages his ability to do so. He can make the fanciest high-class burger in existence, but he also can’t dress himself nicely or do anything with his restaurant to get people in the door to eat said burgers. I identify with his wife Linda’s unbridled enthusiasm and inability to not get caught up in other peoples’ joy. I identify with Louise and both her feeling of being smarter than everyone else in the room and her letting that feeling screw herself over. I definitely identify with Tina and both her weird confused, awkward sexual awakening and her refusal to let that confusion stop her from enjoying things. Then there’s Gene.
Gene is, superficially, perhaps the simplest character on the show. He’s the fat, loud, “random” kid. The one who screams when excited and makes fart jokes and wants attention. But there’s a lot more to Gene than that. More than anyone else on the show, Gene understands himself and loves who he is. He is not simply seeking attention, but is seeking to share himself with others. He is immune to embarassment or shame. If a gag or a credits sequence calls for a character to dance without reservation, it will call on Gene. There is an unbridled joy to Gene’s physicality. We should all be as lucky to love ourselves and own our bodies as much as Gene does. Gene’s strong sense of self doesn’t stop there. Like Tina, he’s approaching the age where kids start thinking about subjects adults have tried to keep them from, but while Tina’s thoughts swarm around butts and erotic fantasies, Gene leaps headfirst into fluid gender expression.
“We’re working girls now! Deal with it!”
“You’re a girl?”
“Yes I am!”
“No he’s not.”
“TELL THAT TO MY VAGINA!”
Gene gleefully jumps back and forth between identities, but not just for “haha wacky joke” purposes, but out of his natural, established character. When Gene appears in a dress for a bit, its not just out of “haha boy in dress” but because he clearly feels comfortable in one. When Gene describes himself as one of three sisters its not just a joke, its how he seems to view himself within the family. Gene is not just fluid in his gender identity either, but in his emerging sexual identity too. Gene jokes about and expresses attraction to all kinds of people, and always with the same enthusiasm and lack of implied judgement. The humor comes not from WHAT Gene says as much as from that enthusiasm. And yet, its never used as anything OTHER than humor.
With the show so clearly defining the motivations and expectations of the characters, its hard to imagine that if Gene came home from college and said “I like boys” or even “I’m a woman” Linda and Bob would react poorly. In fact, Bob’s voice actor himself, H. John Benjamin, has said in interviews that not only does he think Gene is likely queer, but that Bob would absolutely accept it. And yet, for all the jokes the show is willing to make about Gene possibly being queer, it hasn’t ever done anything beyond that. For a show full of heart-felt moments, none of them ever really touch on this aspect of Gene. What’s perfectly acceptable for overt jokes or unspoken subtext is still not available for “real” stories.
Some people are likely already angrily thinking “oh, how dare you! Gene’s a kid! He isn’t thinking about those things!” Except, we’ve already had episodes about his crushes. If his on-again crush Courtney Wheeler (who like many women and girl characters on the show is voiced by a male actor) had been a boy instead of a girl, literally nothing else about their episodes would have needed to be changed. Not a single one of their jokes or story beats is dependent on Gene having a crush on a girl or vice versa.
“But kids don’t know if they’re gay!” If that were true, kids wouldn’t know if they were straight either. “Straight” is not a default position that all kids are in until the suddenly wake up queer. Queer and questioning kids exist, and queer and questioning adults have memories of their own queer crushes. Likewise, not all kid crushes are sexual in nature, and the assumption that acknowledging any kind of queer crush means you are “sexualizing” kids is the kind of rhetoric that further marginalizes queer people in our culture. Queer people are assumed to be primarily sexual or fetishistic because most straight people refuse to acknowledge or interact with any other aspect of us.
The show has had no problem putting queer characters in the background or for examples of “local color” before, and in general has managed doing so better than its animated prime time ancestors. One Thanksgiving episode had a gag where Bob accidentally ended up in an increasingly awkward flirtation with a gay butcher at the supermarket. The joke is not a simple “haha Bob’s being hit on by a gay guy” though, the laugh isn’t at gay peoples’ expense. The humor comes from Bob’s awkwardness and embarrassment at having to buy so many turkeys being exacerbated both by it being misinterpreted as desperate flirting and also it ending in rejection. The butcher being overwhelmingly polite and sympathetic about the whole thing feeds into that (“Hey, don’t let this stop you from trying. I know a lot of guys that are into ‘sloppy bears’”). Bob isn’t embarrassed about being mistaken for gay at all, but for being mistaken for someone who can’t cook. The core of the joke itself works no matter what gender or sexuality the butcher is. An earlier episode featured Bob befriending a group of trans women sex workers, and while it had a lot of unfortunate jokes, it also specifically built its story around the idea that Bob liked these women, considered them good friends, and that he did not doubt or devalue their womanhood at all. A one-off character from the same episode, Marshmallow, has since become a reoccurring character. Marshmallow is never directly stated as being trans, but its damn strongly hinted that she is. She’s also a valued member of the community whom the other characters consider admirable and attractive. She also doesn’t ever do anything but make brief appearances to deliver a joke.
Its great to see queer characters appear in media as something other than jokes, but honestly its also great to see queer characters in media that can make jokes. We know when the joke is meant to be at our expense and when its not, trust us. In real life, us queers can be dumb, goofy fuckups and good lord do we want to see that reflected in the dumb, goofy fuckups we identify and laugh along with. All of us queers grew up with shows we loved, but had to tolerate insulting us and telling us we weren’t human, and the fact that not all shows come with that caveat is pretty huge. It feels GOOD to have queer characters in all kinds of genres, mediums and stories who are finally “allowed’ to be funny for reasons other than mocking real-world queer people, or worse, providing a smokescreen for “gay panic” bullshit. It feels GOOD to feel ourselves and our lives not laughed at, but invited along to laugh at the absurdities of the larger world with everyone else. But we also notice which stories we’re not invited along to.
Bob’s Burgers clearly likes playing with the idea of Gene being queer, and its done some great comedy around that theme. Gene might realize he’s gay or a woman or a gay woman when he grows up, and that unstated but undenied possibility is used to connect the character to underrepresented fans. But eight seasons in, and in the world we are living in today, its getting kind of cowardly to leave it there. I don’t say this to attack the show, but because it is clearly a show that cares about its characters and its audience. If a character can make queer jokes, they should also be allowed to make other queer stories. If we’re real enough for comedy that doesn’t aim to hurt, but to elevate and connect people’s experiences, then we are real enough for the rest of it as well. If you want to dance around it, you need to sometimes be willing to SAY it.