In a trend that's reached Homeric (as in Simpson) proportions, lovable shlubs have taken over TV.
His couch is sacred. He's a little pudgy and not terribly bright. He's a "guys' guy" who works a lunch-pail job and likes to drink beer and eat bratwurst. He claims he's always right - but in the end, it's his comely, intelligent wife who wins the battles.
Sounds like Kevin James's character on "King of Queens" (CBS), right? Or, wait, is it Jim Belushi's role on "According to Jim"? (ABC) Or how about Mark Addy's character on "Still Standing"? (CBS)
Actually, it could be any of almost a dozen male characters who are belching and misbehaving all over prime-time sitcoms as their longsuffering wives try to keep them in line. He's Joe Sitcom, and he's everywhere.
Shows such as "Yes, Dear," "My Wife and Kids," "Everybody Loves Raymond," and "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter" are paying homage to the granddad of family-guy satire, Jackie Gleason, while portraying modern-day women as the heroines of the household.
"This is a time when there are more male characters who are the butt of the jokes for being dumb or insensitive or childish or lazy than ever before," says Gary Edgerton, chair of communications at Old Dominion University. The "little household drudges," as Betty Friedan characterized women's roles in the '60s, have become "the male dolts of today."
To be sure, the boisterous male comedian has been around since the '50s, when Ralphie Boy would shout "Bang! zoom!" on "The Honeymooners." In the '70s, the curmudgeonly Archie Bunker turned "Father Knows Best" on its head. Then in the '80s, Al Bundy and Homer Simpson ushered in the latest era of dumb dads and dysfunctional families.
The difference now is not just how prevalent the boorish guy is on sitcoms, but also how "childish" and "lazy" the characters have become, Edgerton says.
On "Yes, Dear," for instance, Mike O'Malley's character teaches his son how to write his name in the snow with urine. On an upcoming episode of Fox's "Oliver Beene," which debuts Sunday, the father (Grant Shaud) moons everyone at a prestigious club when he and his wife are denied membership. On "According to Jim," Belushi's character once traded in the family minivan for a sports car - without consulting his wife - to impress an attractive saleswoman.
Some cultural observers say white American men are subjected to more ridicule because they are the only safe targets left in a politically correct era.
While no economic class of white men is immune to satire, sitcom writers often home in on the working class as a basis to create their emotionally obtuse characters. On "King of Queens" Doug Heffernan (James) is a parcel deliverer, and on "Still Standing," Bill Miller (Addy) is a toilet salesman. Unlike Archie Bunker, who was a dock foreman, today's characters are not racist, but they seem uncomfortable with homosexuality.
Pop-culture experts also say the onslaught of sitcoms about men behaving badly reflects a state of confusion over changing gender roles and where the "average Joe" fits into the postfeminist world. As a result, producers are lampooning traditional Ward Cleaver roles and exaggerating cultural shifts for comedy's sake.
"We are reflecting the reality of two- income families and a little bit of confusion, and trying to do your best when it comes to parenting," says Tracy Gamble, executive producer of "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter." The satire of modern-day families stars Katey Sagal (of "Married with Children") and John Ritter (of "Three's Company"), who plays an immature dad learning to help his career wife raise the kids.
"What appealed to [Ritter] in the role was that this guy is insecure," says Mr. Gamble, who bases episodes on his own experiences raising two daughters. "He's not the dad with the shotgun. He's doing his best and asking, 'Am I doing the right thing?' People relate on a real level."
Today's sitcoms do reflect, in part, how a man's role has shifted from head of household to equal partner in raising a family. According to the US Census, in 1976, one-third of married couples with children had two spouses working; by 1998, such two-income households represented 51 percent of all families.
The racial makeup of American men has also become more diverse - with Hispanics and blacks comprising 25 percent of the population. To some extent, networks have tried to reach that audience with shows like "George Lopez" (ABC), "My Wife and Kids" (ABC), and "The Bernie Mac Show" (Fox).
Ironically, while men are the stars of these shows, they aren't necessarily the target audience. Shows like "8 Simple Rules" are also trying to cater to their core audience - women ages 18 to 49, says Kathy Merlock Jackson, a communications professor at Virginia Wesleyan College. Women like to watch when the joke is on men, she says. And men are more likely to tune in if a man stars.
That's not to say the formula is foolproof. Only "Everybody Loves Raymond" is a Top 20 Nielsen hit. Dramas - on which strong men, whether heroes or villains, are still the norm - and reality shows, in which no one comes off well, are the more popular genres.
But at least two critics of sitcoms say that such degrading depictions of men, comic or not, may be having a deeper, negative impact on the male identity and how society views men.
Professors Katherine Young and Paul Nathanson of McGill University in Montreal studied how men were portrayed in US pop culture over the past decade. They found that men in films, ads, and on TV are usually cast in three ways: as evil villains, adolescent buffoons, or as a heroic man who is either in touch with a feminine side or who has been redeemed by a woman.
"When you have a constant barrage of images that are negative of men and boys, there are going to be problems. Boys will act it out if that's what society says they are," says Ms. Young.
No one wants to return to the days when men were cast as either homogenized father figures with one-dimensional wives or lone John Wayne types, says Mr. Nathanson. But he says TV writers ought to avoid turning the other extreme, the dim-witted male, into a modern-day cliché.
A viewer could be forgiven for thinking Budweiser's "Whassup!" guys have been put in charge of network programming. Joe Sitcom has extended his reign onto everything from sports programs to talk shows. On one episode of "Late Night with Jimmy Kimmel" (ABC), two heterosexual men play a game of "gay chicken" in which they move their faces close to each other until one man balks. And the most recent reality hit, "Joe Millionaire," starred a construction worker with a, um, limited vocabulary.
For their part, some male viewers aren't taking the immaturity too seriously.
"I've rarely come across these individuals in real life," says Mario Almonte of Queens, N.Y., who watches "Everybody Loves Raymond." "Few of these sitcoms are going for meaning. They're just going for laugh and grab onto the ... easiest stereotype they know."
Edgerton also doesn't see the sitcoms as having a serious impact on society.
Instead, he says, many men simply enjoy watching funny characters. "No one aspires to be like these men.... [The characters] aren't hurtful in the way the old racial and gender stereotypes were," he says. "There are enough outlets in society for men to shine and enough strong images on TV to greatly counterbalance negative images."