Do TV Sitcoms give Public Servants a Bad Rap?

Lately I’ve become obsessed with the show Parks and Recreation. I think it’s hysterical — and maybe part of that is because I work around government, and can relate the characters to people I’ve met. But it does make me wonder, is the show reinforcing negative stereotypes about government? For example:

1) Leslie Knope is a bright eyed bureaucrat, trying extraordinarily hard to make positive change for the City of Pawnee. However, she’s discovered the pitfalls of endless bureaucracy, and what seems like a simple project (turning a pit into a park) becomes endless long lines and red tape.

2) Tom Haverford is the stereotypical do-nothing bureaucrat. As described by Ron Swanson, “I like Tom. He doesn’t do a lot of work around here. He show’s zero initiative. He’s not a team player. He’s never wanted to go that extra mile. Tom is exactly what I’m looking for in a government employee.” Tom seems to spend most of his time making things more difficult for Leslie by intentionally doing things wrong.

3) Crowd-pleaser Ron Swanson is the anti-government character, who, ironically, is the director for the Parks Department. He strongly believes that big government is bad, and wants the parks department to do as little as possible. However, he’s so likable, you want to be on his side.

4) Jerry Gergich is an employee who seems to either do everything wrong, or if he does something right, nobody pays any intention and instead mock him into submission. Thus he is unable to make any positive change for the City of Pawnee.

In the classic TV show, Cheers, Cliff Clavin is the know-it-all postal worker who still lives with his mother. According to a Pew Research Center telephone poll (then the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press), Cliff was only 2% of respondents favorite character from Cheers. Cliff’s know-it-all attitude, while funny, also apparently makes him fairly dislikeable. The fact that he is always in uniform may reinforce these as stereotypes about postal workers.

Newman from Seinfeld is another famous — and highly dislikeable — postal worker. He makes statements that “postal workers are authorized to take lunch breaks that last three hours,” and that “no mail carrier has successfully delivered more than 50% of their mail (comparing such a feat to running a three minute mile).” Thus he is characterizing postal workers as generally lazy and not particularly good at their jobs.

So this has me wondering, do these shows reinforce negative stereotypes about government and its employees?

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Samuel Lovett

I’m a fan of Parks and Rec too. One of the show’s funniest aspects is how it plays up several stereotypes about municipal workers to wild extremes. But I would guess that as much as the show may hurt perception of public sector workers, it must also be raising questions about the role of community government and civic participation for people who might not otherwise have reason to think about these things. It’s the same logic that asks whether its bad that a large percentage of Americans get their only news from the Daily Show, and other satirical sources. It may be comedy, but it’s informative.

Corey McCarren

Right on, Sam. It could potentially turn people on to being more active in their communities by recognizing problems, even if the problems are satirized (and slightly ridiculous), such as everyone falling in the pit.

Joe Flood

Actually, I think Parks and Rec is the best representation of civil servants out there. It presents them sympathetically, as ordinary people trying to get things done in a bureaucracy. It’s unusual that we see the perspective of govvies and are invited to identify with them.

David B. Grinberg

Great post, Corey. In my opinion, sitcom comedy shows almost always reinforce negative stereotypes of government workers, in addition to many private sector employees (The Office, 30 Rock, etc.). On the flipside, it appears that drama/crime shows (like CSI, Hawaii 5-0, Rookie Blue, etc.) shine a more positive light on the serious nature of work by federal, state and local law enforcement. Speaking of Seinfeld, I recall one funny episode in which Elaine complains to the EEOC’s New York office about the diner only hiring large breasted women. Of course, the fictious EEOC officials make the complaint a priority and several of them go to check out the situation firsthand over lunch like a bunch of frat boys. It turns out the voluptuous female foodservers were the owner’s daughters! Not sure about the legality of the situation, but it was certainly funny.

Carol Davison

Sitcoms only give public servants a bad rap to the less than inquiring mind. I don’t believe that all wives are scheming to get over their husbands like Lucy, that all Cubans loose their temper like Ricky, or that intensified Tide atually cleans my clothing any better than the next product just because its on TV.

WE are rersponsible for Federal and government workers’ reputations.

Corey McCarren

Glad you enjoyed it, David. I had fun writing it. It’s true that sitcoms reinforce negative stereotypes across all sectors, because that’s what’s entertaining.

I like your outlook, Carol, that federal workers control perception and reputations rather than TV. Unfortunately I think Washington is very much a bubble, and not many people outside of the bubble actually know many bureaucrats personally and the great work they may do. TV may not alter the reality of what government workers are doing, but I do think it plays a role in how people perceive them. I do agree that people should be looking beyond their television to see what’s going on in the real world.

Kevin Lanahan

I think that these stereotypes don’t make anything worse. Every business has these kinds of people, which is why the characters are funny (and stereotypical). Just like Dilbert is funny to people that aren’t in the software business.

David B. Grinberg

Corey, I was still in high school or college — can’t recall — when that Seinfeld episode aired deriding the EEOC. I wonder who, if anyone, these Hollywood folks consult about govt workers when writing and producing their shows? Even though the goal of these shows is to be funny and entertaining — and govies are always easy targets — I would get in touch with a producer if that happened today. Regadless of whether the outreach influenced how the show portrays specific agencies, at least the producers would hear the other side about the serious and important work we govies do — which may make them rethink it the next time. On the other hand, there’s a PR theory out there that the only thing worse than being talked about is NOT being talked about. I’m not a proponent of that theory, but it makes sense to some PR practitioners based on whatever they may be trying to promote.

Corey McCarren

I can imagine it’s difficult having work that you take seriously derided on TV, but at the end of the day producers and comedians are just working for their paychecks like everyone else. Hopefully most people realize that, and are aware the entire point of sitcoms is to be ridiculous.

David B. Grinberg

Remember, Corey, that perceptions broadcast by the media are often viewed as realities by the public at large — especially uninformed viewers who get their news from Leno and Letterman. At a minimum, even TV comedies perpetuate and create negative stereotypes. As P.T. Barnum famously observed, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” In today’s media saturated high-tech world, it’s probably more like every 10 seconds.

Elizabeth Zelman

I’ve also recently discovered Parks and Recreation and I’m already a huge fan. Although I do work in the private sector, my job brings me into contact with a multitude of government workers. I don’t think the show intends to produce a negative stereotype, as long as viewers take the characters for what they are supposed to be — ridiculous exaggerations. How many Ron Swansons or Tom Haverfords do we actually know? Maybe there are qualities in the characters that we can identify with and say “Hey, I know that guy, he works in the office next to mine” but these people don’t exist in real life. These shows are entertaining because they represent so many things that we like/don’t like and can understand, but they are just gross exaggerations of reality. People are more dimensional than television characters, and I certainly hope that society gets it.

Eric Erickson

The fact that ‘Parks & Recreation’ plays on preconceived stereotypes is exactly what makes it SO funny. The bottom line is that there ARE government employees who mirror those on that show – just as there are douchebag corporate types working at big banks like Barney on ‘How I Met Your Mother,’ tightly-wound, neurotic realtors like Jules on ‘Cougar Town,’ arrogant & abusive athletic coaches like Sue Sylvester on ‘Glee,’ and painfully narcissistic actresses like Jenna on ’30 Rock.’

Frankly. I think it’s a waste of energy to get upset over the way characters are portrayed on TV shows…I just put up my feet, sit back, and laugh with them.

Emily Landsman

Councilwoman-elect Knope is eternally upbeat. While constantly frustrated with the roadblocks she encountered as a worker bee, she believed enough in public office to make the leap from employee to elected official to make her city better. I am sitting in a room right now with several local government people like that…my new favorite is police officer to councilman. I also know the Ron Swanson type. I met a county judge (county CEO, not judicial) in Kentucky two years ago whose sole goal in office was to eliminate the post. I couldn’t figure THAT one out.

I agree with the majority of the comments here…in general sitcoms will create characters based on one kind of stereotype. The P&R folks are at least sympathetic. I don’t think there are enough GOOD government officials represented. Lots of tv shows portray inept mayors, corrupt councilmen or a crooked state senator.

Did anyone watch Spin City? I wish I had. Don’t really know anything about it.

Eric Koch

Enjoyed your post Corey, and reading the comments too. I do find such shows to be comical. I personally felt that Newman from Seinfeld did give the mail carrier industry a bad rap at times. His character however, was still funny. I tend to find that shows or movies that are centered on executive departments and agencies in Washington can be rather dark. Also, there seems to always be something corrupt going on, and the lighting in the film/shows has a lot of dark shading in it, I’m guessing this is to signal that something corrupt is going on. 24 season 7 is an example that comes to mind.

Maybe there should be a sitcom like the Office that is centered with one of the agencies, lets say the DHS and the TSA? I don’t know if it would have as much appeal, but certainly can take the dark corrupt mood away.

Corey McCarren

I must say, the more I watch the show the more I see a positive light on government workers – in particular Leslie Knope. She came off as just foolish at first, but her character is much more intelligent later on in the series, and when she takes initiative it usually turns out well.