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Gracie Allen and Amy Poehler: Illogical Winners

While Ball and Fey got laughs in their failures, Gracie Allen and Amy Poehler were comic in their ironic victories. Like Ball, both Allen and Poehler portrayed characters that were somewhat illogical, especially compared to their male costars. But while Ball was dominated, Allen and Poehler shocked their costars and audience by using illogic to outsmart the male voices of reason in their programs.

 

Gracie Allen was certainly the heart of The Burns and Allen Show, and her husband George Burns was the voice of reason counterbalancing her ditzy illogic. George’s reason, however, was usually ignored, and Gracie’s foolish reasoning ended up “winning” and outsmarting him by the end of each episode. When the couple began working in vaudeville, George made Gracie the “straight man,” the sensible character that sets up the other, often nonsensical character for their punch lines. But George quickly noticed that Gracie was getting more laughs with her straight lines than he was with funny lines, and he promptly switched roles.[1] Gracie became famous for her somewhat-stereotypical “Dumb Dora” role opposite George’ no-nonsense straight man. Gracie’s character was illogical, silly, and even unintelligent. But Gracie gained a national following by being more than just an old vaudevillian stereotype; her character was still charming, lovable, and, somehow, capable of outsmarting all the sensible men on the program, especially George.

 

Gracie always ended up a winner somehow. While Ball and Fey got laughs through self-deprecating humor, Gracie always presented herself as confident and independent. Her femininity allowed her to be respected while at the same time not highly regarded intellectually. It granted her a level of vulnerability, protecting her from aggressive criticism from more logical characters, and also implied her inferiority, which made her challenges to logic non-threatening. The most important part of her femininity, and in a sense the stupidity of her character, was her high voice, which George remembered as “an unusual voice for a little girl... actually, an unusual voice for a living person.”[2] George makes another important point about what distinguished Gracie compared to countless other comediennes: “sincerity.”[3] She was not telling jokes and begging the audience for laughter, but honestly answering questions that George asked her. This honesty made Gracie unique, likable, and trustworthy.

 

Even though her husband George Burns wrote most of their gags, his character often mentions the knowledge that he would be nowhere without Gracie.  In an interview during Gracie’s faux political campaign, George claimed to support his wife because “she’s been supporting me all these years!”[4] In several episodes during Gracie’s presidential run, various other characters ask George what he would do with himself if Gracie happened to win the election. George is always at a loss for words, highlighting his own dependence on Gracie as the star of his show. In fact, he really only became successful after meeting Gracie and writing for her. His pre-Gracie vaudeville days were just countless failed attempts at stardom. Everyone understood that Burns and Allen were a team with Gracie contributing equally to their success, which was a serious twist on traditional gender relations of the 1940’s.

 

Gracie’s complex character and the character’s relationship to various men on the show overturned traditional gender stereotypes of the time period. The relationship between George and Gracie was unique, with Gracie both playing the stereotypical part of a loving and supporting wife but still taking control by the end of every episode. Her comedy was purely linguistic; in every episode, Gracie “used puns, malapropisms, and a willful misunderstanding of language to turn male logic on its head.” Susan Douglas sees this as an act of resistance, as Gracie “refused to be contained by the conventions of male language that seemed to leave women no position from which to speak honestly about their lives.”[5] Gracie’s character accomplishes a form of twisted female empowerment in nearly every episode, stealing the show and leaving all the male characters (and the audience) stunned and wanting more.

 

Gracie’s linguistic foibles somehow always turn out to be true, leaving George and other “rational” men stunned. In an early episode of their television series, Gracie comes home with a repairman who has just fixed up her damaged car. When the repairman asks how Gracie will explain the situation to her husband, she responds, “I’ll just tell him what happened. I went shopping and bought a blouse and on my way home I stopped to watch them put up the circus tents and this elephant came along and sat on my fender and smashed it.” This explanation, first presented as if it was Gracie’s horrible attempt to cover up her own mistake, turns out to be true. No one believes Gracie when she tells the truth, and she does not help the situation by showing her new blouse as proof of her story. George tries to bribe Gracie by offering her a mink coat for the true story – which happens to be, of course, the elephant story that she has already told him. George questions everyone that Gracie has told, and finally believes her when the repairman vouches for Gracie, as he “saw it with his own eyes.” The furrier enters the scene with Gracie’s new mink coat, telling George “I always watch your show. I knew you were going to lose.”[6] Though Gracie’s victory has to be validated by, as Mellencamp wrote, “the truth of male vision,” her illogic still wins in the end, as the show’s audience had come to expect.[7]

 

["Gracie and the Elephant" can be viewed below]

[Part two and part three of this episode are also available on YouTube] 

 

 

In Parks and Recreation, Amy Poehler’s character Leslie Knope embodies a modern conception of Gracie Allen. She’s illogical, but in a heartwarming way that makes the viewer really care about her. In addition, much like Gracie, Leslie still seems to beat out her seemingly more logical male coworkers. Like Gracie, Leslie’s comedy occurs in the shock of her foolishness somehow outsmarting more logical voices of reason. Both “win” at the end of each episode, but their characters and their foolishness make this a surprise; they seem to be Ball-like “losers” at first glance, but turn those expectations upside-down each episode.

 

 

Like Liz Lemon in 30 Rock, Leslie leads her own team of needy employees at Pawnee, Indiana’s Department of Parks and Recreation, where she is the Deputy Director. While in charge of that office, however, Leslie still answers to male higher-ups – her immediate boss and Parks Department director Ron Swanson, and state auditors Chris Traeger (who eventually becomes city manager) and Ben Wyatt (eventually Leslie’s love interest). These various male counterparts control her irrationality, but Leslie serves as the voice of reason for her own subordinates at the office. She also manages to inspire her seemingly more reasonable higher-ups to go along on her crazy adventures. While they often shoot down her ambitious ideas at first, Leslie’s steadfast perseverance usually ends with her getting her way and proving to her male superiors that she is not as ridiculous as they make her out to be. Indeed, she is the hidden voice of reason in an otherwise jaded office, but her success is couched deeply in her illogical delusions of grandeur and almost childlike enthusiasm for government projects. Though intelligent, the program frames her as foolish but lovable, the heart of the show, making her ultimate victory both shocking and satisfying for the audience.

 

The characters of Chris and Ben, the state auditors, make their first appearances near the end of season two, when they are sent to Pawnee, Indiana to shut down the government (and thus Leslie’s beloved Parks department) due to a statewide budget crisis. Leslie’s relationship with Chris and Ben starts off as antagonistic. Leslie begs Chris and Ben for approval to continue with planned government events, but her proposal is promptly dismissed. In response, she purposely ignores their demand to shut down operations and holds technically legal events funded through donations as opposed to tax funds.[8] The stage is set for an ongoing tension between Leslie and the auditors, as she cannot accept the idea of the Parks department being shut down. Though framed as illogical, Leslie is unrelenting and seems to understand her ability to triumph over her naysaying male counterparts.

 

["Freddy Spaghetti" can be purchased on YouTube below, or seen on Netflix Watch Instantly]

 

Season three begins with the Parks department reopening after a three-month shutdown but, as Leslie laments, only “on a shoestring budget.” Ben tells the entire Parks department that their “only work for the time being will be existing park maintenance.” Leslie refuses to accept this; she has been brainstorming new ideas for the last three months and presents stacks of color-coded “idea binders” to Ben. Leslie will do anything to get her department back in action, including making her best friend Ann go out with Chris to try to convince him to give the Parks department a larger budget. Ann, though usually Leslie’s own personal voice of reason, still goes along with Leslie’s illogical plan. The plan inevitably falls apart, and Leslie is at a loss.

 

Amid Leslie’s budget problems, another employee, Andy, is having personal issues: April, the girl he likes, is mad at him and has started dating someone else. Desperate, he seeks Leslie’s advice, as she is the voice of reason within the office. Reflecting on her own struggle as well, Leslie makes an important assertion: “Well, when your back’s against the wall and odds are stacked against you, you just – you – you swing the hardest, damn it. You go big or you go home. And you don’t seem like the kind of guy who goes home.” She takes her own advice, and creates a grand scheme to get her budget back. She makes a proposition to bring back the Annual Pawnee harvest festival, which had been cancelled years before in a previous round of budget cuts. She asks for money to bring the festival back, promising that through “ticket sales and corporate sponsorship, we’ll earn all that money back.” When Ben asks what happens if it fails, Leslie offers the elimination of the Parks department – to which all her employees willingly agree. Chris and Ben agree to the deal – as usual, Leslie’s crazy idea works – and the department begins planning the harvest festival.[9]

 

["Go Big or Go Home" can be purchased on YouTube below, or seen on Netflix Watch Instantly]

 

The harvest festival planning is plagued by countless problems. The festival is being held on sacred Native American burial grounds, and the Native American community threatens the department with a fake curse. The day before the festival, a news reporter arrives to report on the festival and begins searching for a scandal. Leslie and crew survive those two problems, however, the Parks employees somehow lose the main attraction of the festival: Li’l Sebastian, a mini-horse that has become somewhat of a Pawnee obsession. The reporter gets wind of this scandal as well as the curse, and a negative media blitz ensues. The festival seems doomed. Leslie holds a press conference to try to temper the negative reports, but reporters simply keep making up new rumors.

 

 In the end, Leslie saves the day despite her incompetent employees; she finds Li’l Sebastian, makes a deal with the Native American tribe leader to publicly “lift the curse” (which he never summoned in the first place), and the harvest festival turns out to be a huge success. Leslie wins again; though she has to constantly prove herself to her male higher-ups, she makes up for her employees’ incompetence and succeeds with her initially illogical plans.[10]

 

["Harvest Festival" can be purchased on YouTube below, or seen on Netflix Watch Instantly]


While Gracie and Leslie both get laughed at in their shows and have male counterparts taking care of them, neither make self-deprecating remarks. Secure in their power, both get their way by the end of each episode as their seeming illogic becomes reality. They “win” every time, but do so in a gentle, non-threatening way; they are the heart of the show but not overbearing victors and certainly not voices of reason. They purposely rebel against the (often incorrect) reasoning of their supposed male superiors, and the audience comes to expect that they will end up on top.


[1] George Burns, Gracie, A Love Story (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1988), 45.

[2] Ibid., 27.

[3] Ibid., 46.

[4] Gracie Allen, “If I Were President,” Daily Boston Globe (1928-1960), May 26, 1940. http://search.proquest.com/docview/839359333?accountid=9758.

[5] Susan Douglas, Where The Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media (New York: Times Books, 1994), 50.

[6] “Gracie and the Elephant,” as found in Mellencamp, “Discourses of Gracie,” 45.

[7] Mellencamp, “Discourses of Gracie,” 46.

[8] Parks and Recreation, “Freddy Spaghetti,” season 2, episode 24, aired May 20, 2010 (NBC), as seen on Netflix, http://www.netflix.com.

[9] Parks and Recreation, “Go Big or Go Home,” season 3, episode 1, aired January 20, 2011 (NBC), as seen on Netflix, http://www.netflix.com.

[10] Parks and Recreation, “Harvest Festival,” season 3, episode 7, aired March 17, 2011 (NBC), as seen on Netflix, http://www.netflix.com.

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.