Community and Brooklyn Nine-Nine form two points of a kind of holy trinity of quirky, well-meaning American sitcom (the other being Parks and Recreation of course) and I noticed something they have in common that in retrospect I particularly enjoy: although they both first appear to be props and motivating forces for the series’ respective male heroes to bounce off and aspire to, both shows’ leading ladies soon come into their own not only as heroines but as ridiculous, hilarious goofballs. And that, it turns out, is something of a rarity.
We meet Amy Santiago in Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s pilot episode as the disgruntled, straight-laced partner of Our Hero Jake Peralta, who is without a doubt the sillier and funnier of the two as well as, to her great irritation, often the better detective. To hone this point, a bet has been set up—seemingly as a major plot point—over who can catch the most criminals and solve the most cases. The stakes are that if Amy loses, she has to go on a date with Jake, and he apparently “guarantees it will end in sex”. So Amy is not just the straight man to Jake’s comic character, filling the traditional role of the uptight serious intellectual girl beside the rambunctious fun-loving boy (so prevalent in the cartoons of everyone’s childhoods that Gravity Falls made a conscious effort to gender-swap it), but she’s a prize for him to win too.
Except that over the course of the next few episodes it becomes apparent that Amy is just as much of a comedic character as Jake and is far from the infallible straight-faced gorgeous tutting love-interest-slash-rival she was initially set up as. For one thing, she’s an overachiever and aspiring captain’s pet, and her endless bubbly false confidence hitting the blank composed wall that is Captain Holt is genuinely entertaining instead of coming off as pathetic. Amy and her personality are the centre of jokes rather than the butt of jokes, as with all the characters in the show, and she is just genuinely allowed to be funny in a slapstick sense as well as having her (increasingly dorky) verbal sparring matches with Jake.
For another, the bet disappears from the plot for a good long time, and when it resurfaces the writers have tweaked the stakes (either that or Gina was lying about them originally, which… well, I wouldn’t put it past her to stir the pot) and Jake’s winning date with Amy is not at all an attempt to romance and sleep with her, in fact it’s the complete opposite: Jake is on a mission to embarrass her as much as he possibly can by taking her on the most elaborate worst date ever. It’s only in that episode he’s forced to realise that maybe the reason he’s putting all this effort into teasing his co-worker is because he kind of likes her.
So, having ditched the starting point that had Amy as a perfect poised love interest and prize for Jake, the show instead let Amy be fallible in human and hilarious ways and let her relationship with Jake grow organically as an entertaining bantery mess between two co-detectives who both love their jobs but go about it in slightly different ways sometimes, and also two mutual friends who throw peanuts into each other’s’ mouths. Amy is a person in her own right who Jake admires, but who is not a prize or a complimenting piece of his character’s comedic set-up.
Britta Perry of Community, too, begins as the motivating force behind its protagonist’s movements and effectively the whole reason the core cast is formed is because he wanted to sleep with her. She’s also perfect and gorgeous and smart and wonderful and a prize for him to weasel his way into winning… but as the series goes on Britta rises to become one of the most goofy, hapless and ridiculous characters in the cast. She’s a wannabe activist, a hipster photographer, pseudo psychologist, and says “bagel” wrong. She is a funny character in her own right and can hold her own in a comedy show without having to be the straight-man perfect surface that Jeff is bouncing off.
Not to mention that by two seasons in Britta and Jeff have been almost entirely discarded as a main couple, and both have other love interests that form a core part of their character stories arcing over the episodes (in fact, the initial potential couples of Jeff-and-Britta and Annie-and-Troy have been swapped, with Jeff-and-Annie and Britta-and-Troy at the forefront). So what happened to the original set-up that propelled the show into action in its pilot episode?
I think the writers of both these shows just realised that it’s actually more enjoyable for everyone if you let your women be funny and don’t just have them stand around observing the humour that’s whirlwinding about them, being the tutting wife to the comedic male lead, or the serious girl half of the boy-and-girl team, or the annoying older sister who only kind of exists to have her obviously petty personal plans foiled by her little brothers who are indisputably the stars of the show.
Women can be silly, women can make hilarious slapstick mistakes, women can even get involved in the kind of gross-out humour that’s usually relegated to the men and boys, despite how they usually watch horrified from the sidelines shaking their head or end up as the butt of a joke. Because often the joke is “oh no, that girl got something gross on her! That doesn’t usually happen to girls because girls are clean and perfect!”
I appreciate too that Amy and Britta are also both likeable, interesting, fun characters in their own right, and are multi-faceted thus avoiding having their entire character be the joke. The jokes Amy generates are that she is a pedantic overachiever, but it’s not the only part of her character or the only problem she faces, because that would get repetitive. She learns and grows over the course of the series and has meaningful relationships with other members of the cast, and although Jake realises he likes her, her being the object of his affection is not the only thing she’s there for.
The girl as straight man and prize was what I’d come to expect from comedy, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that both Amy and Britta evolved from their simple beginnings into goofballs in their own right. They’re surrounded by other funny female characters too, in both study group and police team, meaning they also avoid being the token Funny Girl who has some magic other quality to make her good enough to play among the boys.
Showing flawed and wonderful characters of both genders creates an important representative spectrum, and also, you know, ensures your show is funny, and will more likely hook a larger audience when you’re not sitting an entire demographic on the sidelines for the sake of preserving an old and boring archetype.