Perhaps one of the greatest challenges a humorist must face is making jokes on topics that are extremely personal. In times of heightened sensitivity, this challenge only becomes more difficult. Although jokes about things people can’t change are always dangerous territory for comedians, there’s one show on television right now that confronts autism in a way that is delicate, respectful and downright hilarious.
“Bob’s Burgers” was nominated for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program in 2012 and 2013 before winning it in 2014. There’s not too much talk about controversial topics — most of the humor focuses on putting eclectic and quirky characters in weird situations. But there’s one main character, Tina Belcher, who stands out. While each member of the Belcher family has funny mannerisms and personality traits, the show suggests that Tina might be autistic.
Tina is a 13-year-old girl on the brink of adulthood. The mix of pre-puberty and her supposed autism makes for a weirdly funny dimension. There’s only one episode in which this is mentioned overtly. When Tina and her brother, Gene, are arguing over who has to wear a hamburger costume in front of the family restaurant, Bob Belcher, the father, claims Tina’s “not good with the customers.” An argument ensues, and Louise, the youngest daughter, says Tina is “autistic.” Tina, in perfect monotone, replies, “Yeah, I’m autistic.” Bob shouts at them, saying Tina is not, in fact, autistic.
Apart from that, the show never confronts Tina’s alleged autism directly. The audience is forced to wonder about it indirectly. Tina has absolutely no social skills. When under pressure, she audibly groans, hides under tables, is incredibly naive and is incapable of detecting sarcasm. Moreover, Tina seems distant and emotionless, and when she experiences feelings, she does not display them. Her voice is totally devoid of inflection.
Tina is confident as hell. You’ve probably seen Tina’s face with her quintessential quote, “I am a smart, strong, sensual woman,” sprawled under it somewhere on the internet. This confidence is essential to her character not only because it’s funny, but also because it makes having an autistic character in a prime-time cartoon comedy permissible.
Because Tina is confident and capable, the writers aren’t insulting her and making her the butt (nailed it) of the joke. Tina is constantly demonstrating that she is very intuitive, creative and insightful. While she certainly is aloof, she’s not dumb. They show a tremendous amount of respect for Tina, who is constantly trying to clean up the mess her mischievous little sister and brother make, all while dealing with her own typical teenage-girl problems.
She’s ordinary. She’s normal. That’s why “Bob’s Burgers” gets away with it. There’s no doubt in the viewers’ minds that she is, in fact, a strong and smart young woman (maybe not so sensual, but it’s cute that she thinks so). The show is monumental in the sense that a character with autism is so popular, so organically funny and in no way marginalizes people who are autistic. It’s a testament that comedy can touch on seriously personal and difficult topics in a way that is acceptable, hysterical and sometimes even productive.