2012 Fox Broadcasting

‘Bob’s Burgers’ animates a struggling mom-and-pop shop

Not since ‘Roseanne’ has TV had a better portrait of the working-class family

With a few weeks to go before the season premieres, Entertainment Weekly took a nonscientific, high-stakes Internet poll. “Who’s the best character on TV right now?” it asked in August, eliciting 75,000 votes.

The winner was Tina Belcher, the gawky 13-year-old known for her endearing naivete and hormone-fueled fantasies on the Fox cartoon series “Bob’s Burgers.” It was quite the feat for a two-dimensional girl — beating Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes and Arya Stark from “Game of Thrones.”

The best-character poll proved the admiration of Tina's fans, including this author, but critics love her show just as much. Just three days after the Entertainment Weekly announcement, “Bob’s Burgers,” leading with the bat mitzvah-inspired episode, “Mazel-Tina,” won an Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program.  

In its four seasons to date — the fifth begins Sunday night — this comedy about an offbeat nuclear family and its unprofitable, small-town burger shop has charmed millions of viewers and garnered high praise. Fans love the show’s brisk wit and clean animation (big eyes, bright colors, minimal shadow) and, in thousands of Tweets and online comments, celebrate its wordplay: Each episode includes at least one pun-ny burger special (e.g., the “Chorizo your own adventure burger”) and an ever-changing marquee on the storefront next door  — from the Scroto Rooter vasectomy clinic to the Cane You Dig It? candy cane outlet.

Yet the accolades to date have missed a central truth: “Bob’s Burgers,” for all its animated silliness, is the most astute portrait of a working-class household since “Roseanne” and the first to show the complexities of running a small family business. For Bob (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin), his wife, Linda (John Roberts), and their kids, Tina (Dan Mintz), Gene (Eugene Mirman) and Louise (Kristen Schaal), there is no division between work at the burger shop and life upstairs in their one-bathroom rental. It’s a funny take on the mom-and-pop store — the kind of business that small-town whites and new immigrants have banked on since the early 20th century — and the unpaid family labor that makes it possible. 

The Belcher family consists of Bob, Linda and their kids, from left, Tina, Gene and Louise.
2012 Fox Broadcasting

Anyone who’s worked in a family store should be watching this show. For me, “Bob’s Burgers” evokes all the nostalgia and terror my Korean immigrant parents and brother and I felt running a short-lived café in Tacoma, Washington. It was a masochistic brand of family bonding: Smooshed behind the pastry case, we endured the morning latte rush, the lunchtime sandwich panic and the late-afternoon queue of sweet tooths and coffee seekers. Every night, we’d cash out the register, scrub and mop, take inventory and shop wholesale for whatever supplies we weren’t too tired to remember. Our bedtime ritual was to dissect the day’s transactions.

The majority of my immigrant friends grew up in a small business. As young kids, they stocked grocery shelves, hung dry cleaning, chopped cabbage in teriyaki joints and checked people into motel rooms. Their play hours depended on when they could escape “the store.”

The Belchers are not immigrants, but “we liked so much this idea that they are essentially living a life that many, many immigrant families live,” says Loren Bouchard, creator and executive director of “Bob’s Burgers.” “Them all having black hair was us somewhat intentionally, somewhat unconsciously going toward that, too.” (Bouchard adds, to my delight: “Many, many, many Korean people work on this show. We have the Lims, Boohwan and Kyounghee, directing; several of our board artists; and we actually ship all of the animation to Korea. So we’re all Koreans!”)

Bob is a second-generation entrepreneur with early memories of his stern, semi-alcoholic dad yelling, “Get back to work, Bob!” in their family diner. Fearing he has deprived his own children of their childhood, he tries to terminate their employment in the episode “Bob Fires the Kids:”

Bob: (smiling) Kids, you’re all fired!

Tina: (looking hurt) I deserve this. I’ve been coasting.

Bob: This isn’t a punishment. It’s a gift. My dad made me work all the time …  I never had any fun. So I want you to go out and have the summer and the childhood I never had.

Tina: But what are we supposed to do?

[and later]

Bob: You guys are just our kids now, not our employees.

Gene: Is that all we are to you, Dad — your children?!

‘You’re my children, and I love you. But you’re all terrible at what you do here. And I feel like I should tell you, I’d fire all of you if I could.’

Bob Belcher

star of “Bob’s Burgers”

The Belcher kids need the store, and the store needs them. It’s an uneasy relationship best described by sociologist Lisa Sun-Hee Park in her book "Consuming Citizenship:" “While they each had dreamt or wished, at one time or another, that they did not have a business in their family, they were sobered by thoughts of what their life would be without it.” Tina, Gene and Louise, like so many children of struggling entrepreneurs, have an “altered childhood” in which they “function as both ‘worker’ (i.e., adult) and family member (i.e., child).”

Bob’s Burgers is a place of work, play and child care, and the children’s “work” activities run the gamut: from mostly leisure (Gene composing songs on his synthesizer) to mostly work (Louise taking orders, albeit with her customary scorn). While Bouchard did not work in food service until his teenage years, he ate many childhood meals at a local pizza-and-sub shop manned by “kids behind the counter.”

“I’ve always wanted to do something related to a restaurant, and what’s great about ['Bob’s Burgers'] was that it could be a workplace comedy and a family comedy at the same time,” he says. With child labor laws being what they are, a family business is “one of the last places you still accept kids working … busing tables and interacting with each other as coworkers but also being in a family.”

Federal law exempts the children of self-employed adults from child labor restrictions, a holdover from the agricultural economy. Nationwide, one in nine working Americans is categorized as “self-employed,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (PDF). Native-born whites, Greeks, Koreans and Iranians, among others, report high rates of self-employment and, for those with small stores, the BLS observes (PDF), “unpaid family work is not a marginal form of employment but rather a significant contribution to family businesses.” 

In this scene from the fourth-season episode “Easy Com-mercial, Easy Go-mercial,” the family and regular customer Uncle Teddy act in a Super Bowl advertisement.
2014 Fox Broadcasting

Children aren’t the best workers, but they’re family and they’re free — a point made in the first episode of “Bob’s Burgers.” It’s Labor Day weekend, and the shop is celebrating its re-re-re-opening with free samples and the $5.95 “New Bacon-ings” burger of the day. Bob gathers Linda and the kids, each of whom have been given a specific task, for a pep talk:

Bob: You’re my children, and I love you. But you’re all terrible at what you do here. And I feel like I should tell you, I’d fire all of you if I could.

What Bob saves in labor costs, he puts toward fresh, organic ingredients. His constant effort to make a better, tastier burger is a creative act, Bouchard says, and finds echoes in his family’s diverse artistic passions: dinner theater for Linda, “erotic friend fiction” for Tina (short stories about her classmates’ butts), pop music for Gene and imaginative scheming for Louise.

The antithesis of Bob's Burgers is the large pizzeria across the street, owned by the savvy Jimmy Pesto, “the shadow Bob — a guy with his own restaurant but no values about the quality of the food, chainlike without it being a chain,” Bouchard says. “The mom-and-pop aspect of Bob’s is really important. They succeed in spite of the corporate giants that are all around us.”

In the episode “Easy Com-mercial, Easy Go-mercial” from season four, the Belchers are chastened when they spend an unaffordable $3,000 on a Super Bowl commercial in an attempt to out-advertise Jimmy Pesto. Bob starts out by filming a homemade family commercial but, seduced by potential profits, opts at the last minute for a celebrity endorsement. When game day arrives, the shop remains empty, and his family feels betrayed by the slick final product. To make things worse, Pesto has used the same celebrity, a former pro football star, in his own ad.

Bob tromps over to Jimmy Pesto’s and yells at his rival, making a scene in front of the Super Bowl crowd. He has lost once again to the pizzeria but is mainly sorry that he capitulated to capital and disappointed Linda and the kids. Climbing on top of the bar, he delivers a contrite, slightly deranged speech to Pesto’s customers and earns his family’s forgiveness.

Meanwhile, Gene uses Jimmy Pesto’s bathroom to release his “super bowel” and unintentionally floods the entire restaurant. Bob and his family run back to their shop, just in time to witness the resulting exodus across the street:

Bob: Oh, my God, they’re all leaving Pesto’s. They’ll have to come to us. We’ll be packed!

[cut to the interior of Bob’s Burgers, decorated with Super Bowl balloons but still largely empty]

Well, three people …

HA! THREE people, Jimmy! YEAAHHH!

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