The 4 Ways TV Comedies Deal (or Don’t Deal) With Babies

By
Photo-Illustration: Kelly Chiello and Photos by NBC/Getty Images, Amazon, Hulu

Amazon’s Catastrophe, back for a second season today, is the rare television comedy that tells a thoughtful, often wrenching, and actually funny story about accidental pregnancy and impending parenthood. After a first season that casts Sharon and Rob into an unusually insightful romantic comedy, season two features a time jump that puts them deep in the trenches of parenthood. It’s endlessly familiar territory for television comedies, and yet it’s a subject that’s frequently mishandled, particularly after the pregnancy ends. New infants are constantly relegated to minor subplots, replaced with bad plastic dolls, or they disappear from the story entirely. So why are there so many babies on television if they’re perpetually shoved to the side and forgotten? And what does it look like when a TV show actually tackles babyhood in a serious way?

Babies As Milestones
If a baby shows up more than one or two seasons into a show, its primary role is often to create meaning and mark time in its parents’ lives. This is the baby of How I Met Your Mother, The Office, and if I had to predict, The Big Bang Theory. In the often-limited vocabulary of television comedies, there aren’t many season finale-sized events in the lives of characters who’ve entered long-term relationships. A baby becomes a universally recognized way to liven up a relationship when the emotional well starts running dry. Those moments in a three-cam sitcom when the live studio audience gasps in rapturous delight? They’re much harder to come by after that first will-they-won’t-they seal is broken, but a new baby announcement is a sure thing.

The baby-as-milestone model is familiar, and the results are, too. Pam and Jim weren’t dating, and then they were, and then they get married, and then the series needs another “and then.” But The Office’s main premise leaves very little room for telling extensive stories about infancy, so instead, babies in this category appear (and usually, disappear) like mile markers on a road trip. They denote a new stage in these characters’ lives, but they’re dispatched quickly, sent to the magical land of perpetual naptime where so many TV babies live.

For notable milestone babies, consider Rachel’s daughter on Friends, who becomes the catalyst for her final union with Ross; How I Met Your Mother’s Marvin, the inevitable result of Lily and Marshall being together for several seasons; Miranda and Steve’s son Brady (who was mostly a “one of these women needs a baby” baby); the Knope-Wyatt triplets on Parks and Rec; and of course, Cecelia Marie Halpert on The Office. Looking back even farther, we have the babies on Growing Pains and The Cosby Show, among others.

Babies As Props
If a TV comedy baby survives the culling of that initial “we had a baby” milestone sweep, or if the show’s premise was built around parenthood (you can tell because the series’ promo images always feature a baby), chances are pretty good these babies will become props. If you began life as a milestone baby, and you do occasionally make it back on screen, it will almost always be as a joke. These babies never actually appear as newborns because they enter the televisual world as chubby, smiling six month olds who coo responsively and grow from there into precocious toddlers who rarely throw tantrums. They tend to fade in and out of reality, frequently being swapped for dolls or undistinguished rolls of blankets. These are the babies who get wigs accidentally glued to their heads, or they’re twins whose names get swapped, or they’re forgotten or locked inside the house. In a minor bit from Friends, Joey and Chandler leave Ross’s son Ben on the bus, and have to go to a city facility to pick him up. Except once they do, they’re not precisely sure which baby is Ben. Haha, whoops!

When they’re not physical props, these babies live as tiny baby improv prompts. Consider the toddler on Grandfathered, whose most frequent job is to play up her grandfather’s juvenile behavior and egotistical tendencies. Whatever the promos and loglines may suggest, the point of these shows is rarely to illustrate parenthood. It’s to tell stories about people who happen to be near babies.

Prop babies are everywhere. Modern Family does an entire baptism episode where young Fulgencio barely appears; the Full House twins were born because the Olsens were aging out of prop status, plus of course the babies from Friends and Grandfathered. See also, Up All Night, Raising Hope, and the many prop babies not limited to TV comedy — currently, Bones and Nashville come to mind.

Babies As Mirrors
Babies on TV, especially TV comedies, are guest stars in their own families: present only when convenient, and when they’re gone, no one seems to notice or find it at all bizarre. But it’s possible for a show to strain against the boundaries of real-baby plausibility and still tell worthwhile, funny stories about parenthood. Even when physically absent, the narrative existence of a baby can become a way to drive characters to deeper, more reflective places.

Sometimes these narratives come in the form of short but weighty one-off episodes, like the sleep-training bottle episode of Mad About You. Sometimes they’re bigger arcs — The Mindy Project is one of the biggest offenders in the TV realm of magically sleeping, born-as-a-six-month-old, new-mom-wearing-gorgeous-outfits crimes against babyhood. In spite of this, Mindy’s frustration with staying at home and her conversations with Danny about losing her identity are vital and under-represented depictions of life after becoming a parent. As another example, CBS’s Mom has done a noteworthy story on parenthood after one of its characters gave her baby up for adoption.

There are some important production-related reasons why babies can’t be around all the time. They’re expensive! They can only film for short periods of time, there are all kinds of rules governing being on set, and they’re not the most reliably cooperative actors. But when they’re not physically around, the best path out of the dull mire of bad TV baby tropes is to treat the existence of a baby — and its impact on parents’ lives — as a mirror, reflecting back previously unseen angles on a character’s life.

Good examples of these are few and far between, but other than Mindy Project, Mad About You, and Mom, it’s useful to stretch the definition of comedy a bit to include Julia’s adoption story line on Parenthood. There is plenty ridiculous about Julia’s quest to adopt her barista’s baby, but that unseen baby’s ability to reflect Julia’s pain is poignant.

Babies As Babies
The rarest baby on television comedy is an actual baby. A baby who first appears on the series as an squalling, unphotogenic newborn, whose life hits not just one but several successive stages of new developmental challenges, who requires regular feedings and constant supervision, is as difficult to find as a Golden Age TV drama with a female protagonist. 

There aren’t many of them, but Jane the Virgin is one of the few comedies that’s grappled with new motherhood and the realities of parenting in an extended, fundamental (and also hilarious!) way. Like Mindy, Jane struggles to balance her new role as a mother with her career ambitions, but we get to see that happen in the context of forgotten breast pumps, sleep training strategies, childcare anxieties and — a surprisingly unusual feature of TV — real, unthinking, ordinary pleasure in her son. Jane’s depiction of parenthood feels radical because it is, and because there are so few comedies that come close to Jane’s narrative commitment to Jane as a parent. (And it’s not as though dramas do much better.)

One of the few arresting portrayals of the specific madness of parent- and babyhood isn’t even widely available to watch: the nineties trailblazer Murphy Brown. Its protagonist enters motherhood ambivalent and without a partner. Murphy’s baby is often a victim of suddenly-a-doll syndrome, and quickly becomes a tiny pawn in a larger political discussion about family values, but the series’ outlook on infancy is apparent in an early scene in the episode after the baby is born. Murphy lurches out of bed to comfort her crying son on his first night home, and Candice Bergen holds a real, surprisingly tiny baby in exactly the least comforting way you can imagine. He dangles from her hands, as far from her body as she can manage, and Murphy’s discomfort and fear are crazily palpable. It’s a remarkable moment, and it comes out of a narrative that’s grounded in Murphy’s sudden confrontation with her baby as a real, unavoidably frail and needy human infant.

It’s likely not a coincidence that some of television’s best comedies about babydom are rooted in a fundamental discomfort — or at the very least, ambivalence — with the whole prospect of parenthood. Some of the best, and funniest, depictions of parenthood are the ones that begin from the premise that the entire endeavor is slightly questionable — these are the comedies that begin with the baby not as a prop, but as a bomb. From that opening stance, the realization that babies are also gloriously fun, and joyful, and inherently hilarious, feels exactly the way it does in real parenthood. It is a happy and truly unexpected surprise. And so there’s every reason to look forward to this second season of Catastrophe, a series whose first season was a deliciously ambivalent, skeptical, and hopeful take on the human project of making a family. Let’s just cross our fingers no babies get glued to a bad wig, or left on a bus, or forgotten altogether.