Pop culture can be a barrel full of monkeys eating dill pickle-flavored potato chips as a side to a portobello steak on a pretzel bun. Of course, when you wake it up at 2:37 in the morning, pop culture may not quite as pretty as all that. Sometimes, you see, the monkey started out eating plain salt-flavored potato chips eating a ground chuck patty slapped between two white bread buns. The big bang theory posits the notion that as time spreads ever-forward, nothing remains static. Things change. Evolution occurs. In pop culture terms, one of the immutable laws inscribed by the big bang theory is that society eventually reaches an evolutionary stage during which it deems certain things no longer worthy of laughing at.
One of those evolutions of pop culture has traced the transformation of a character stereotype known as the lovable lush. The guy who gets laughs from acting drunk. It’s a character that pop culture entertainment expected one and only thing from: to produce laughs by acting drunk. The lovable lush was once as common on the big screen and the small screen as the foul-mouthed elementary school student or the bungee-jumping granny is now.
For about two generations of TV audiences, Foster Brooks was the pop culture king of lovable lushes. Here was an actor who enjoyed nearly thirty years of uninterrupted success as the very definition of the guy who made a career out turning alcoholism into a comedy fodder. Only one thing was expected of Foster Brooks by the viewers watching the sitcom, variety show, game show or talk show on which he appeared and they were never disappointed. Foster Brooks is the Kleenex or Xerox of lovable lushes: a brand name specialist who became a generic example.
Not that Foster Brooks was the originator. In fact, you have to go back to the earliest days of talking pictures to track down the lineage that stretches down to Brooks. Arthur Housman and Jack Norton both staked a claim for being the king of the lovable lushes in the movies of the 1930s. If you have occasion to watch the work of Housman and Norton on TCM sometime, here’s a little game to play: was Housman merely acting drunk or was he really drunk? Norton was a teetotaler, while Housman really did have a serious drinking problem. Almost certainly if a movie were ever made about Housman, the real life battle with the bottle parts of that movie would be deadly serious to the point of tragic counterpoint to his on-screen drunken behavior.
Perhaps the last full-time alcoholic whose every scene was in some way dependent upon drawing comedy from his inability to control his compulsive craving for alcohol that didn’t experience at least some long-term sobriety was Otis Campbell on “The Andy Griffith Show.” Many episodes actually built their plot around the fact that Otis was the town drunk incapable of rehabilitation. Bad as that was, some episodes even included dialogue that painted a very sustainable portrait of Otis Campbell as not just an unrepentant alcoholic, but a misogynist and wife abuser.
The 1990s version of the lovable lush typified by Housman, Norton, Brooks and Campbell was Barney Gumble from “The Simpsons.” In fact, you could make a strongly-supported argument that Barney Gumble was the last of the old-style Foster Brooks-type lovable lushes to be found on an American sitcom. A more appropriate description of Homer Simpson’s most reliable drinking buddy is that of iconic symbol of the transition from Otis to the style of lovable drunks that dominate the world of pop culture today. While Homer Simpson definitely has a drinking problem, he was never the full-time alcoholic that Barney Gumble was. Barney’s drunkenness could be hilarious–just the phrase “Sure thing, giant beer” is enough to get me laughing–but he was also patently pathetic (as evidenced by his infamous short-lived career handing out pamphlets while temporarily wearing a diaper), a state of being that that Otis Campbell never really had the dignity to become. What sets Barney Gumble apart from the many Otis Campbell drunks that preceded him was the desire and ability–again, short-lived–to get clean and stay sober.
Which brings us to troubling return of the lovable lush in a form that is especially distressing. Sure, drinking on sitcoms has made a comeback in a way not seen since the glory days of “The Bob Newhart Show” but only one major character on an enormously popular show can really be painted as the retrogressive evolutionary figure of homo alcoholus.
I’m sure there are other shows currently airing that tread lightly upon the concept of the lovable drunk, but if so I either can’t reall or don’t watch ’em. I do watch “The Big Bang Theory” and there has been an increasing sense of sadness whenever Penny is in a scene. In fact, in a great many episodes of “The Big Bang Theory” since the moment she got back together with the genius across the hall she now once again calls her boyfriend (and more than a few earlier episodes along the way to that moment) Penny has increasingly begun to remind me of Otis Campbell. Or, as he was always better known, Otis the Drunk.
Because, of course, Penny is seen drinking or referred to as being a big drinker in more and more of the scenes in which she appears. So why shouldn’t anyone feel a tinge of sadness when the writers try to make Penny’s quite obvious problem with drinking–at the very least a borderline alcoholic and, let’s face it, the borderline part is being overly charitable–funny. The best that can be said is, ultimately, if you are paying attention to the character arcs of “The Big Bang Theory,” the colorful portrayal of Penny’s lovable lushness is occasionally outlined in the broad dark strokes of the depression and pathetic being she has become. Which is more than can be said about any episode about Otis or any appearance by Foster Brooks ever did. Unlike the old-school lovable lush, there is more to Penny than just the ability to stumble around convincingly. For now.
Unfortunately, that sadness at watching Penny’s palpably obvious downward spiral into a state of alcoholism that in real life would unquestionably have her end up in state much closer to Otis or Barney Gumble than she’s likely to wind up on the show is intensified by two things. One of those things is that neither her boyfriend nor any of her friends seem to care much about helping her avoid that spiral. It would be nice to say they are simply oblivious to the extent of Penny’s drinking problem, but plenty of dialogue exists as evidence to the contrary. Perhaps even sadder–and definitely more frightening–from the perspective of “The Big Bang Theory” fan as well as the big bang theory’s effect on pop culture evolution is ever-strengthening indication that the writers of the sitcom are more than content to allow Penny to become little more than a one-note character situating her as the unlikely spawn of a drunken orgy involving Foster Brooks, Otis Campbell, Barney Gumble and the devil.