The Comedy of Marriage

Writer-director Lisa Cholodenko’s comedy The Kids Are All Right tells the story of a lesbian couple (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore), whose two teenage children contact their sperm-donor birth father (Mark Ruffalo) and, as they say in the business, hilarity ensues. Part of the fun is how Cholodenko mines marriage for all its comic potential: “Go easy on the wine, hon, it’s daytime,” says Moore to Bening, who shoots back, “OK, same goes for the micromanaging.” So what’s so funny about marriage? It turns out the better question is what isn’t. The following slideshow looks at this funny institution in Mozart’s 18th century The Marriage of Figaro and Wycherly’s Restoration comedy The Country Wife, as well as films (like The Thin Man and Frankie & Johnny Are Married), TV shows (from The Honeymooners to It’s All Relative) and even comic strips (Blondie).
Slide 1: The Country Wife (1675)

Restoration comedy, that strain of English drama that emerged after the “restoration” of Charles II and the re-opening of the theaters in England, often made marriage an institution for ridicule. These chatty, ribald comedies of marriage often focused on badly matched couples whose marital discontent more often than not slid into marital infidelity. William Wycherley’s 1675 The Country Wife became one of the most famous plays of its age both for its licentiousness and its wit. The play is a series of married scenes, connected in effect by Horner, a young rake who uses every trick he can to bed every wife he meets. The title character is Margery, a rural lass who has been married to an older man, Bud Pinchwife, who hopes her simple origins will keep her faithful (and not kind of wife the obscene allusion in the title suggests). Of course, Margery sleeps with Horner, Pinchwife is cuckolded, and the audience has a grand time laughing at the foibles of married folk. While the play was banned for most of the 19th century for being too salacious, it was revived in recent times. Recently, it inspired Hal Ashby’s 1975 comedy Shampoo and was restaged in 1992 as a musical Lust.

Slide 2: The Marriage of Figaro (1786)

When Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro premiered on May 1, 1786 at Vienna’s Burgtheater, it was greeted with much applause, even though its source material, Pierre Beaumarchais’ play 1784 La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro had been banned in Vienna. The state was less concerned with play’s sexual content than with the way it ridiculed the aristocracy. In translating the play into an Italian opera, Mozart’s librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte also turned all the plays political indiscretions into martial ones. The title marriage between Figaro and his bride-to-be Susanna is threatened by the fear that Count Almaviva may exercise his “droit de Seigneur,” an ancient ritual that permits the ruling aristocrat to sleep with a potential bride. But the plays convoluted, farcical plot turns the table on the Count. In the end, there is only one thing scarier than the Count, and that is an angry countess who catches her husband attempting to stray.

Slide 3: Blondie (1930)
The comic strip Blondie, one of the longest-running comedies of marriage around, didn’t start off as a family story. The original character, Blondie Boopadoop, was devil-may-care flapper, and Dagwood Bumstead, the heir to the J. Bolling Bumstead Locomotive Works fortune, was a rollicking would-be playboy. Started in 1930, the strip, created by Chic Young, initially reflected the riotous nature of the 20s. But as the country descended into financial depression, the strip sobered up and quickly married its two characters in 1933. From then on, Blondie was about family, or more specifically about a smart housewife who manages to keep everything together despite the actions of her klutzy husband. Although Dagwood often finds himself at odds his irrational boss Julius Caesar Dithers, most of the real laughs were at home. Young went so far as to identify four basic tenets of humor in his strip: “Eating, sleeping, making money, and managing family and household.” The series popularity led to a series of 28 films (from 1938 to 1950) and two separate television series. Chic Young’s son Dean took over the strip when his father died in 1973, updating the clothes, furnishings and circumstances but keeping the family and its disorienting dynamics the same.
Slide 4: The Thin Man (1934)

In the 1930s, Nick and Nora Charles, the creations of pulp novelist Dashiell Hammett, were the darlings of the silver screen. First introduced in The Thin Man (1934), an adaptation of Hammett’s book of the same name, the ex-private detective (played by William Powell) and the rich society dame (Myrna Loy) made the ideal couple. They fearlessly investigated crimes, they drank copiously, they bantered wittily, they had an adorable wire-haired fox terrier named Asta. Most notably, they clearly loved each other and the conflict in the movie came from the murder Nick and Nora were investigating rather than any tension in their marriage – though they did lovingly bicker with each other. Following the huge success of the first movie, Powell and Loy returned for a further five movies, the final one being Song of the Thin Man in 1947 in which an 11-year-old Dean Stockwell played their son, Nick Jr.

Slide 5: My Favorite Wife (1940)

During the Golden Age of Hollywood, the wittiest writers in Tinseltown seemed capable of making any scenario funny. Marriage was maybe a little harder to make hilarious, but Leo McCarey and his co-writers on My Favorite Wife worked out that having a spouse maybe wasn’t that funny, but two spouses could be hilarious. The 1940 hit comedy My Favorite Wife starred Cary Grant as Nick Arden, a man who declares his wife Ellen (Irene Dunne) dead after she’s been missing for 7 years, so that he can marry Bianca, the new love in his life. But, on the day of Nick’s marriage to Bianca (and before he can consummate it), Ellen miraculously appears. What’s more, it turns out Ellen herself has a new partner, making the already complex situation even stickier. McCarey’s comedy of romantic entanglement was remade in 1963 with Doris Day and James Garner under the title Move Over Darling (1963), which was a recast version of Something’s Got to Give, the movie abandoned when Marilyn Monroe died during filming. The theme of multiple marriages was dealt with once again with even more farcical results in Micki & Maud (1984), which featured Dudley Moore as a hapless bigamist who tries to keep his two pregnant wives from meeting each other.

Slide 6: Unfaithfully Yours (1948)

One of the great writer-directors of the classic Hollywood era, Preston Sturges was a man who was more familiar than most with the dynamics of marital life, as he tied the knot four times during his sixty years on this earth. Having previously mined the comic potential of marriage in both The Lady Eve and The Palm Beach Story, Sturges made Unfaithfully Yours just months after the collapse of his third marriage, and its dark tone is telling. The movie is a black comedy about a middle-aged conductor (Rex Harrison) confronted with evidence indicating that his young wife (Linda Darnell) has cheated on him. Over the course of a concert, he fantasizes about three ways of dealing with the infidelity: killing his wife and framing her lover, forgiving her and graciously stepping aside, or playing Russian roulette with her lover. Though now considered one of Sturges’ great movies, Unfaithfully Yours – despite its happy ending – was too dark for audiences at the time, and its failure at the box office accelerated the end of Sturges’ career. (Ironically, Sturges shortly afterwards married the much younger Sandy Nagle, to whom he remained happily hitched until his death in 1959.) Unfaithfully Yours was remade in 1984 with Dudley Moore and Nastassja Kinski. 

Slide 7: Adam's Rib (1949)
Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, after starring together in two films in 1942, Woman of the Year and Keeper of the Flame, became not only a much beloved onscreen duo but also an offscreen couple. They remained devoted to each other until Tracy’s death in 1967, but were never married as Tracy was a Catholic and thus would not divorce his wife. However, they were highly convincing as husband and wife in their third picture together, Adam’s Rib (1949), in which they played warring spouses, married lawyers representing opposing sides in a case involving a woman accused of shooting at her unfaithful husband. Tracy’s Adam is representing the errant hubby and Hepburn’s Amanda the spurned spouse, and their determination to win the court case spills over into a war of the sexes which turns their home into a battlefield. They slam doors, he slaps her hard on the bottom, she kicks him hard in the leg. The film tapped into prescient gender issues as it addressed the fact that Tracy (a self-professed “old-fashioned” man) needed to get used to the fact that modern women such as the redoubtable Ms. Hepburn were every bit the equal of men both at home and in the workplace. Tracy and Hepburn had their screen swansong in Stanley Kramer’s 1967 Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner as the parents who Katherine Houghton brings fiancé Sidney Poitier home to meet.
Slide 8: We’re Not Married! (1952)

Most romantic movies choose to end their narratives with a literal or implied “happy ever after” conclusion, so those films which deal with what happens after the bride and groom say “I do” are always looking for where the narrative conflict is going to come from. The solution presented by such movies as the 1952 quintet of stories We’re Not Married is to take a distinctly negative view of matrimony. This Edmund Goulding film, most notable for starring Ginger Rogers and Marilyn Monroe, is about five sets of spouses married by a priest before his license to wed has come through, and who then find out a few years later – to their considerable relief – that their unions are not, in fact, legal. In the 1960s, there were two more prominent anti-marriage movies which tapped into the ethos of the sexual revolution in a very old-fashioned, misogynistic manner. How to Murder Your Wife (1965) starred Jack Lemmon as a confirmed bachelor who immediately rues wedding gorgeous Virna Lisi and then decides the only way to get his old life is to bump her off, while the Walter Matthau vehicle A Guide for the Married Man (1967) presents a primer on the dos and don’ts of cheating on your wife.

Slide 9: The Honeymooners (1955)

In looking at the difference between films and television series, cultural theorists early on observed that in many films marriage marks the resolution of narrative conflict, while in television, marriage is the conflict. Nowhere was this more clearly illustrated than in Jackie Gleason’s groundbreaking show The Honeymooners. The characters and situations started as a sketch that Gleason and his writing team came up with in 1951 for the show Cavalcade of Stars. Later when Gleason was given his own show at CBS, the sketch gained more and more popularity until by 1955 it evolved into its own half-hour show. The comedy came from the boisterous, bickering relationship between two couples living in a Brooklyn apartment building. Jackie Gleason played Ralph Kramden, a New York bus driver, who was married to Alice (Audrey Meadows). Upstairs lived Ed and Trixie Norton (Art Carney and Joyce Randolph, respectively), the couple that provided both comic relief and moral support to their friends. Although the skits were peppered with threats of violence (“To the moon, Alice!” or “Pow! Right in the kisser!”), the fights inevitably subsided with a declaration of Ralph’s love (“Baby, you’re the greatest”). The actual show only lasted for 39 episodes, but its shadow is as wide as Gleason’s silhouette, influencing shows from The Flintstones to King of Queens.

Slide 10: Please Don't Eat the Daisies (1960)

In the 1950s, Doris Day was America’s sweetheart, the girl-next-door who every man wanted to marry. However, in the 1960s, Day went from playing single girls onscreen to wedded women, and revitalized her career in the process. The first of Day’s married romantic comedies was Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, which saw Day, husband David Niven and their four sons leave New York City for the adventure of countryside living. Day was the sweet-natured and unflappable mom who kept everything together when her kids or husband got into a jam, and she revisited the archetype of the loving and reliable wife again in Send Me No Flowers (1964). The Norman Jewison-helmed movie repaired Day with regular foil Rock Hudson in a light take on the rather serious subject of a husband who (wrongly) thinks he’s dying and secretly sets out to find a new husband for his widow-to-be. From the same era, Day also had audiences yukking it up as a married type in The Thrill of it All (1963), Do Not Disturb (1965) and Move Over, Darling (1963), the aforementioned remake of My Favorite Wife.

Slide 11: The Lockhorns (1968)

No work has mined the institution of marriage for jokes as thoroughly as Bill Hoest’s comic strip The Lockhorns.  Created in 1968 with the original title The Lockhorns of Levittown (since they lived on the North Shore of New York’s Long Island), the cartoon quickly was shortened to just The Lockhorns when it gained national syndication. Reminiscent of other unhappily married couples, like the sparring partners in the 1940s radio show The Bickersons, Leroy and Loretta Lockhorn seemed to only find joy in the torment of the other. Started as a single panel strip in 1968, The Lockhorns spread out to a strip in 1972. The series’ minimal, punch-line approach to marriage proved to be universal as before long the strip was syndicated in over 500 papers in 23 countries. But it was clear that Hoest’s view of marriage was just for laughs after he died in 1998––Bunny Hoest, his wife (and best friend) took over writing the strip.

Slide 12: La Cage aux Folles (1973)

Jean Poiret’s French farce (that premiered at Paris’ Théâtre du Palais-Royal in 1973 and ran for nearly 1800 performances) took the basic concept of the Romeo and Juliet tragedy and flipped it around to make it a comedy. Rather than focus on the star-crossed lovers whose warring families have condemned them to death, Poiret’s comedy focuses on the pairs of parents, whose needs to either control or comfort their children set them up for comic ridicule. Simone’s parents, a politically and morally conservative pair, insist on meeting the parents of their daughter’s betrothed, Laurent. The problem is that Laurent was raised by a gay nightclub-owning dad and his flamboyant drag queen lover, an unconventional pair whose love for their son will push them to any extreme, even appearing to be straight, to insure his happiness. Somehow this convoluting plot proved a surefire recipe for commercial success, as the play was transformed first into a 1978 film French film (with two sequels), a 1983 Broadway musical (which has gone through several revivals), and finally a 1996 Hollywood film, The Birdcage, with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane.

Slide 13: Seems Like Old Times (1980)

Playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon has tackled the subject of marriage repeatedly throughout his work, first with his newlywed comedy Barefoot in the Park (1967), and continuing with such films as The Out of Towners (1970), The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975) and The Marrying Man (1991). In his 1980 Seems Like Old Times – directed by Jay Sandrich, a veteran of sitcoms like I Love Lucy and The Cosby Show – Simon explored the idea that marriages never truly end for some people. The two central characters, writer Nick (Chevy Chase) and humanitarian lawyer Glenda (Goldie Hawn), are divorced, but when Nick is framed for bank robbery, he ends up at the home of Glenda and her new husband, Ira (Charles Grodin), the D.A. out to collar Nick. Though Glenda resists Nick’s charms for almost the entire movie, ultimately the chemistry between them is too much for her to deny, and she leaves her safe, new marriage for the exciting, failed union she bailed on before. Subsequently, That Old Feeling (1997), the Bette Midler comedy about reunited exes, also tackled the idea that the one who drives you crazy in a bad way also usually drives you crazy in a good way. 

Slide 14: Roseanne (1988)

In the late 80s and early 90s, comedies about marriage and family turned tough and even nasty. Shows like The Simpsons and Married with Children pulled no punches when portraying the devolving dysfunction of married life. Perhaps the most significant example of this new trend of family comedy was Roseanne, the ABC comedy creatively lead by Roseanne Barr that ran from 1988 to 1997.  The show’s central couple were Roseanne and Dan Conner (Barr and John Goodman), an overweight, working-class, slovenly pair who are constantly behind on their bills. Through the years, the couple lost jobs, found new jobs, and scraped by. Despite the characters’ desperate times, it was one of the most successful sitcoms of recent times, leading Roseanne to quip that the show made her "more money than God but not as much as Oprah."

Slide 15: The War of the Roses (1989)

In the mid 1980s, Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner set themselves up as a popular onscreen couple in the adventure comedies Romancing the Stone (1984), in which Douglas played a dashing swashbuckler and Turner the romance novelist he rescues, and The Jewel of the Nile (1985), where the same characters, now married, returned for more exotic scrapes. Their characters, Jack and Joan, are pretty much the ideal couple, but during one particularly sticky moment in Jewel of the Nile Douglas says to Turner, “If we get out of this alive, I’m going to kill you.” In their third film together, this line was strangely relevant as The War of the Roses was a pitch black comedy charting the decline of a perfect marriage into seething anger and violence. The movie, directed by and co-starring Danny DeVito (who also took supporting roles in Stone and Jewel), shows how love can change to contempt. Turner memorably tells Douglas, “When I watch you eat, when I look at you lately, I just want to smash your face in.” Based on Warren Adler’s 1981 novel, this cautionary tale charts the divorcing couple’s battle to gain ownership of the mansion they once happily occupied, and ultimately shows that marriage is indeed till death.

Slide 16: Frankie & Johnny Are Married (2003)

There is no formula for good comedy, but certainly one thing which gives writers as good a shot as any to make audiences laugh is having their work ring true. If you can get viewers to feel like they recognize and can relate to what they’re seeing, the most difficult part is over. And arguably there has never been a comedy about marriage which had a bigger dose of authenticity than Frankie & Johnny Get Married, Michael Pressman’s movie about a TV director married to an actress who try to reinvigorate their marriage and her career by staging a production of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune which she will star in and he will direct. The brilliant hook of the movie was that Pressman starred as “Michael Pressman” and his real-life wife, actress Linda Chess, played “Linda Chess,” with thesp Alan Rosenberg also playing a version of himself. The film not only played off (and mocked) the real world dynamics of the actors’ relationships, but juxtaposed the tensions of the marriage and the tensions of the stage production, two scenarios in which Pressman, as husband and director, is desperately trying to avert disaster. Character actor Stephen Tobolowsky, playing Pressman’s friend Murray Mintz, has the choice line about the two laws of showbusiness, “Never use your own money and never work with your wife. Thank goodness there’s no dog in the play…”

Slide 17: It’s All Relative (2005)

The 2005 ABC sitcom It’s All Relative might seem to be the next chapter of La Cages Aux Folles—two very opposite families abide each others differences for the sake of the kids. But it also finds its root in early American comedies like the 1930 Abie’s Irish Rose. At the center are a young couple with plans to get married, if only their families can get along. Bartender Bobby O’Neill comes from a working-class, Irish-Catholic family; his parents are Mace and Audrey O'Neill (Lenny Clarke and Harriet Harris) own the local pub. Bobby’s girlfriend Liz (Maggie Lawson), a Harvard student, is the adopted daughter of a persnickety upper-class gay couple (John Benjamin Hickey and Christopher Sieber). While the sitcom’s conflicts were about class difference than sexual orientation, its positive portrayal of a loving gay family gained a lot of positive attention. Lloyd Braun, the head of ABC Entertain Television Group told The Advocate, “I thought that seeing two gay fathers raising a grown-up heterosexual kid was a great arena for comedy….I wanted a loving family at the core.” So while the country was embroiled in debates over gay marriage, the series demonstrated that there really could be marriage equality, at least when it came to sitcom setups.


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