“Battle of The Sexes”: A staple of classic television comedy.
There are many staples to a successful sitcom old or new: 1. Fantastic writing that’s funny and relatable. 2. A perfect cast that are made for their roles and have the best chemistry with each other. 3. Just plain good luck. But there’s also an unspoken element that plays into making a sitcom truly hilarious and memorable for years and years and that is a trope that has been popular for most of television history: The classic man\woman enemies aka the battle of the sexes as they say, where a man and a woman on a sitcom go at it fist and mouth and it’s hilarious:
- Fred Sanford and Esther Anderson aka Aunt Esther “Sanford and Son”.
The classic exchanges between Fred G. Sanford, Junk dealer and co founder of Sanford and Son with his only son Lamont Sanford and his super religious and sharp tongued sister in law Esther Anderson became a huge staple for the show and one of its most surefire ways to get huge laughs from the audience and viewers at home. They never fully explain why these two hate each other so much but you can easily see when you watch the show and their dynamic that Fred hates Esther because she’s “ugly”, judgmental when it comes to religion and… well, again that she’s ugly or that he could stick her face in some dough and make Gorilla cookies. With Esther, she sees Fred as beneath her and her family and despises that her dearly departed sister Elizabeth married a “heathen” like Fred.
Despite the numerous insults they throw at each other and always being an inch away from physically assaulting each other, Fred and Esther actually are alike when it matters most and that is their genuine love for Lamont and their take no prisoners attitude when it comes to family. When Fred’s old buddy Grip comes to town and claims to be Lamont’s real father it is in the scene where Esther meets Grip and he tells her that Lamont is his son, her reaction is similar to Fred’s initial one and the two are finally in allegiance against a common enemy.
Fred and Esther’s feud took the classic sitcom enemies trope to a level so high that it has been borrowed from or has inspired many, many other sitcoms over the years. It was the crazy chemistry between offscreen best friends Red Foxx and Lawanda Page that made the exchanges between Fred and Esther a huge part of television comedy history.
2. Martin Payne and Pamela “Pam” James “Martin”.
Many could say (and a lot do say) that Martin Payne’s verbal sparring matches with his girlfriend Gina’s best friend Pam are the Fred and Esther of the 90’s and let’s be honest they’d be pretty much right. You could tell that the Martin writers were inspired by the Fred and Esther dynamic but Martin Lawrence and Tichina Arnold’s offscreen friendship played a huge part in what developed between Martin and Pam. Tichina Arnold has mentioned in a lot of interviews that she and Martin would cut on each other in rehearsals a lot, playing the dozens etc. and the writers just took that and put it into the show. Their chemistry and fiery banter added so much to the show’s comedy that it’s become one of the most memorable aspects of Martin and like Fred and Esther has been copied by sitcom after sitcom years after Martin went off the air.
My theory for why Martin and Pam hate each other is quite the opposite of why Fred and Esther despised each other so much: While Fred and Esther’s animosity came from their being so different, Martin and Pam fight all the time because they’re too much alike. They’re essentially the male\female versions of each other and sometimes when you know someone that’s just like you, especially when you’re as strong, aggressive and wickedly sharp witted like Martin and Pam are that person drives you up the wall. But unlike Fred and Esther, Martin and Pam actually were friends at the end of the day. All their bickering and cracking on each other was just their own way of relating to each other and they have actually had each other’s backs on quite a few occasions. The most prominent being when Gina’s snooty, sophisticated sorority sister turned famed talk show host Monique comes to town and mistakenly takes a few shots at Pam behind her back to Martin. He immediately defends Pam and lets Monique know that nobody cracks on Pam but him. Eventually Martin and Pam team up to take Monique down and prove to Gina how phony her friend was. Martin and Pam would team up quite a few times later like against a “Puppy” at a vacation resort and on a cruise when a beautiful crazy woman has Martin handcuffed to the bed trying to seduce him and Pam walks in and nearly snatches her wig. But no other episode was as blatant in showing that Martin and Pam really cared about each other than the Monique episode (“Girlfriend”).
3. George Jefferson and Florence Johnston “The Jeffersons”.
George Jefferson and his maid Florence Johnston are perhaps showed the most love for each other on occasion than the other enemies on the list. They may have traded insults constantly and argued with each other on the regular:
But these two managed to develop a genuine friendship as the show progressed and have even admitted to their close friendship on occasion but they never lost their bickering and snapping on each other and in my humble opinion never get the same attention and props that the other enemies on the list get but are just as classic and just as hilarious with exchanges as any other pairing. George constantly berated Florence’s housekeeping skills,cooking and lack of education while Florence would nail George’s short stature and baldness. The magic between them was only helped by the offscreen camaraderie between Sherman Hemsley and Marla Gibbs.
4. Al Bundy and Marcy Darcy “Married…with Children”.
If any two people were born to be nemeses you can’t get two more perfect foes than Al Bundy and Marcy Rhodes\Darcy. In my humble opinion these two were the true successors to Fred and Esther in terms of two polar opposites that truly despised each other and couldn’t be more diametrically opposed: The male chauvinist king of the insults Al Bundy and man hating, self righteous and loud super feminist Marcy Darcy. In many ways these two are the 1990’s white versions of Fred Sanford and Aunt Esther. If any pairing were a true metaphor for the conflict between men and women it was these two because they’re literally what men and women don’t like about each other and what most of both sides always complain about the other.
What’s really interesting is that unlike the other enemies on the list though, Ed O’Neill and Amanda Bearse actually didn’t care for each other offscreen as they didn’t onscreen. The other actors on my list were actually the best of friends and were just acting as if they couldn’t stand each other, but, with O’Neill and Bearse there was genuine tension between the two on the set.
But what’s miraculous is that the offscreen tension actually helped their chemistry onscreen tremendously. The interplay between Al and Marcy only helped make the show funnier and the episodes that focused on their feuds like when Marcy and her feminist group got Al’s favorite Tv show Psycho Dad cancelled or the one where The Bundys and The Darcys fought over an apple tree on the property line were some of the funniest and strongest episodes of the show. It helps that Al and Marcy were supposed to hate each other so it was easy for O’Neill and Bearse to play that as opposed to had they’d been playing husband and wife or best friends etc. If these two not getting along offscreen created one of the all time best sitcom enemies of all time I’m all for it. Despite the tension, though, they both were still very professional, mind you. It never seemed to get in the way of the show and that’s what matters.
Now, this article is specifically about the battle of the sexes so it’s focused on the man\woman dynamic of these shows but there were plenty of great same sex enemies on sitcoms too like Will and Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Jamie King and Braxton P. Hartnabrig from The Jamie Foxx Show, Fran Fine and CC Babcock from The Nanny etc. There are even man\woman enemies that I didn’t even get to cover in this such as Drew Carey and Mimi Bobeck from The Drew Carey Show, Niles the butler and CC Babcock on The Nanny, Maxine Shaw and Kyle Barker from Living Single, Benson Dubois and Gretchen Kraus from Benson etc. But that’s another article for another day.
In conclusion, sitcoms are supposed to make us laugh and you can’t have laughs without conflict so when a show has two comedy characters that have a lot of conflict with each other it seems to always make that show much funnier rather than if they didn’t have them. In plainer words: Conflict + Comedy = Tv classic.