As Chris Rock fills the screen in What to Expect When You’re Expecting, Notorious B.I.G. thumps in the background. Rock, who plays a dad named Vic, is wearing a Baby Bjorn and pushing a stroller with twins. He is surrounded by a small army of fathers, infants, and toddlers. One dad is chugging what looks like malt liquor but turns out to be apple juice. Another dad sucks on what could be a crack pipe but is actually an asthma inhaler. What we’re expecting next is the usual barrage of moron-dad jokes familiar from half a century of sitcoms, and we do in fact get one or two stupid confessions (my toddler ate a cigarette butt, mine drank from the toilet).
But then this otherwise uninspiring movie throws us a welcome surprise: The dads, for once, are not total fools, peripheral to the domestic drama and played entirely for jokes. The whole point of Vic’s “dudes group,” in fact, is to teach reluctant would-be dads about the charms and wonders of fatherhood. “We love being dads,” Vic earnestly tells a potential inductee. “When I was young I used to think I was happy but now I know I’m happy.”
By the standards of cinematic dad-dom, such a simple declaration of dedication to fatherhood counts as a small miracle. For nearly the entire history of cinema and especially TV, the doltish dad has thrived as a steady source of comic relief whose only role is to screw everything up and set off the laugh track. Think of Fred Flintstone, Tim Taylor, and Homer Simpson, and the collective number of household appliances and Christmas trees they have accidentally exploded.
But the stock type is ever so slowly evolving. In Modern Family, Phil Dunphy should be the house boob, with his embarrassing philosophy of “peerenting.” But Dunphy is not just comic relief; he’s a successful salesman and the center of joy and fun in his household, especially compared to his uptight wife. No one really disdains him, and the domestic space belongs as much to him as to her. In Up All Night, Will Arnett’s character Chris started out as an idiot who stayed home with the baby because he had nothing better to do. In early episodes, he propped up the infant on the couch so he could play his video games or watch hockey, and didn’t really notice when she tipped over. But over time he has morphed into the sane, sensible parent we all want to be. Now his role is to check his wife’s crazy competitive instincts and to never renege on a promise made to his daughter. In fact, the show’s main innovation is creating a reliable stay-at-home dad whose wife still wants to sleep with him.
This past fall, the networks began to experiment with new gender dynamics. In a crop of new sitcoms, from Man Up! to Last Man Standing, the husbands were unemployed or otherwise obsolete while the wives went to work. (In Up All Night, Chris’ wife Reagan is a TV executive for an Oprah like diva.) At first the shows just overlaid the old sitcom stock types—doltish dad, haranguing wife—onto the new storylines. But then the writers began to relax and experiment, assigning certain personality traits of the old stock type to the wrong gender. Reagan for example turned into a version of Ralph Kramden, prone to tantrums and meddling. Like the classic doltish dad, she creates elaborate schemes to fix domestic problems but only winds up making everything worse. And then Chris swoops in, Alice-style, to make it all better. The success of Up All Night bodes well for the slightly evolved dad; Last Man Standing, starring Tim Allen, has also survived.
The network collective subconscious seems to be picking up new cultural signals about fatherhood. The number of stay-at-home dads is still tiny, but the rules of fatherhood have changed a lot since the Honeymooners days. The father who comes home to pat his kid on the head and then sits down to read the newspaper is now an anomaly. Consequently, jokes about dads who can’t figure out the diaper fall flat. Recently, a group of fathers started a public campaign to protest a Huggies ad showing a group of football watching dads ignoring their infants as the diapers grew heavy and smelly. Huggies pulled the ad and shot a new one. The updated version is arguably equally condescending. The narration still refers to dads as “the ultimate test” for a diaper. But at least it shows a room full of fathers tenderly rocking their infants instead of neglecting them.
If this seems like a minor concession, then spend some time watching old clips of TV’s most famous dads. Starting from the birth of sitcoms, fathers are pretty much universally morons. On the Trouble With Father, Stu Erwin is a high-school principal who pontificates on big questions but can’t do anything small right. (Here is a 1951 clip showing Erwin blowing up the fire pit.) Accident-prone is a requirement of the role. “How do they always manage to bollix things up?” Wilma Rubble asks in a 1960 episode of The Flintstones. “I don’t know,” Betty replies. “Practice I guess.” George Jetson is shockingly idiotic. Here he is in a clip teaching his son to lie, then putting the electric shaver to disastrous use.