The Project Professional's
One of the key traits of some of America's most enduring television comedians is their fundamental incompetence. In the 1950s, in I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball played a well-intentioned humbler whose basic ineptitude was constantly getting her in trouble. Her television contemporary Ralph Cramden of The Honeymooners (played by Jackie Gleason) was a self-important know-it-all who, when the bombast was stripped away, was clearly an incompetent. He was constantly dreaming and scheming and, like Lucy, creating enormous problems for himself. Both Lucy and Ralph were fortunate, however, because despite their ineptitude, things always worked out well for them by the end of the TV program.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the incompetence of the key players continued to be a theme of TV comedy, but their incompetence assumed a somewhat sinister flavor. This is evident in such big comedic hits as Married with Children, Roseanne, and The Simpsons. There is little endearing about the lead characters in these programs (Al Bundy, Roseanne Connor, and Homer Simpson, respectively). Each of them heads a dysfunctional family. They are losers who build their self-esteem by mocking traditional virtues such as honesty, hard work, and competence.
Why are TV programs that focus on incompetent characters so popular? To me the answer is simple: the laughter we hear when Al Bundy is shown winning a contest by cheating a capable adversary is a nervous laughter rooted in the insecurities of the viewing audience. They identify with Al Bundy, not with his capable adversary. On TV, Al Bundy can beat his better-qualified adversary by