The female stars of four comedies produced by 20th Century Fox TV gathered Wednesday (Jan. 12) to talk about their shows and their work — and also about how none of them has to play the standard-issue wife/girlfriend role that’s been a sitcom staple for decades.
None of the women (Alyson Hannigan of “How I Met Your Mother,” Lea Michele and Jane Lynch of “Glee,” Julie Bowen and Sofia Vergara of “Modern Family” and Martha Plimpton of “Raising Hope”) is stuck in what Bowen calls “the finger-shaker” role.
She’s talking about the TV-comedy trope of the shlubby guy with the way-out-of-his-league wife, whose role has often been to rain on her TV husband’s fun. Plimpton says it dates back to the earliest days of television.
“The guy is usually the star of the show, right? The show is usually built around the guy … even from Jackie Gleason on,” Plimpton says. “And of course his wife on [‘The Honeymooners’], Audrey Meadows, was very beautiful, but she was sort of his foil. She’s sort of his straight man. And that’s usually the role of the woman in the traditional sitcom.”
You could argue that Vergara’s “Modern Family” character fits that mold. But the age difference between her and Ed O’Neill as her husband is part of the joke on the show, and both of them get plenty of material to play for laughs. Bowen, Plimpton and Hannigan are also comedic equals to their TV husbands.
“We’ve been lucky enough that … it’s not just the man’s journey and the woman standing there shaking her finger, waiting for him to come back from his, like, fart-fest with the guys,” Bowen says. “… All of these women are having their own little story lines and their own little adventures, and sometimes you’re sort of at the front of the pack in some episodes and sometimes you’re not, but that is a huge change from the old, standard Jackie Gleason format.”
The idea that an attractive woman can’t also be funny is also falling away, the actresses say.
“I think for a woman to be able to be funny, we have to let go of feeling beautiful or sexy or looking good or looking silly,” Vergara says. “I think you have to forget all of that to be able to be funny.”
“But I think it’s also great is that nowadays, I feel like the mold is sort of changing,” Michele adds. “You can be beautiful and be funny.” She nods toward Vergara, sitting next to her. “I mean, hello.”
The line of the day, though, goes to Bowen, who has played her share of girlfriend parts in the past and says it was something of a revelation when she was cast as a mom in “Modern Family.”
“I have played the girlfriend roles for years, and the finger-shaker and the one that’s like, ‘Oh, fill-in-the-blank comedian, when you’re done with your crazy little adventure’ — and I find it a relief to finally get to play a mom. … It’s like, ‘Wait. So you like something about me other than you might want to bang me?'”
The line gets a huge laugh, but she’s also serious. “I want to get old in this business,” she says, “and by ‘old,’ I mean real old, like saggy-old, and the face old, and real things drooping down into my socks old, and there’s a handful of women who have done it — Betty White, Cloris Leachman. … It’s a terrible river to cross when you’re crossing it because you’re not sure if you’re going to get to the other side. So finally playing a mother of teenagers makes me feel like I’ve got a shot. They like something about me other than prospective bangability.”