On HBO’s Silicon Valley, the tech nerds who stumble into a startup smoke weed with no consequences. At the end of the pilot, actor and comedian T.J. Miller lights and hits a bong. Like a gangster shooting in a Hays Code era motion picture, the inhale and the exhale are shown in separate shots. None of the other characters react. They are all shown to have alcoholic beverages as their narcotic of choice.
Meanwhile, the guys on HBO’s Looking get high and casually converse. Comedy Central’s Broad City features a ganja-centric episode. Marijuana and “stoner” comedy has been making a slow comeback over the last decade. Workaholics has been on the air since 2011 and continues to produce stories about highly functional, stoned people. FX’s Wilfred ends every episode with Jason Gann and Elijah Wood hitting a homemade bubbler (although, like the bong in Silicon Valley, they never clear the chamber).
It’s 2014 and stoner TV is back.
Tristram Shapeero has directed drugs related comedy on television for over a decade. His early work includes the British series Absolutely Fabulous, Pulling, and Peep Show, all series with regularly inebriated characters and plots revolving around marijuana. “I’ve never really thought about the amount of comedy I’ve done and how much of it is marijuana related or drug related,” he tells me. “I never was a big fan of Cheech and Chong or [stoner] genre movies.” Since 2010, he has directed episodes of shows like Veep, New Girl, and Community.
With experience in both British and American network and cable television, Shapeero has a unique perspective on the shifting attitudes toward marijuana in media. “What you can get away with on British television in terms of swearing, drug use, or sex is through the roof. We never thought twice about it. On network television, we can’t show anything,” Shapeero says. “It’s all suggested. Nobody can ever sit around getting stoned. It’s really lovely going to cable where you can have a show like Bored to Death and you can have characters sitting around smoking their one hitters.”
Critics of on screen marijuana use like the Parents Television Council have maintained that normalization of drug use in media sends the wrong message and perpetuates more usage. Shapeero says television doesn’t endorse—it merely reflects changing social attitudes. “I don’t think television is doing anything to be the driving force of that. People are out there in the world [smoking weed].” Even on set, he says filming scenes with a stoned character or marijuana doesn’t require any specific direction only, “Actors will sometimes ask ‘How stoned do you want me to go?’ But I don’t give them any coaching. People bring their own experiences to the performance and marijuana affects everyone differently.”
Gillian Jacobs’s character Britta Perry on Community is one of the few open marijuana users on network television. Although, because of network restrictions as Shapeero says, “all she can do is talk about it.” The show has dealt with drugs by similar elision. “We did one episode called ‘Chicken Fingers’ where the chicken represented cocaine and we did this whole Goodfellas spoof,” he says. “Dan [Harmon] is very clever at representing the culture in another way and making everybody behave as if [the replacement] was marijuana or some other drug. Those episodes are really fun to work on because you have that sort of freedom back. You’ve replaced the illegal thing that we’re not allowed to talk about or show and now you can tell a story.”
Writing for The Atlantic in 2013, Scott Meslow examined the rehabilitation of televised marijuana usage citing mid-90s programs such as Roseanne, Home Improvement, and That ‘70s Show as proof the medium was starting to treat the issue with less “demonization” and more “new frankness.” Acceptability opened up the potential of telling marijuana stories, but criminal justice efforts made visual representations of the drug’s use confront the negative stigma surrounding cannabis. Developing tropes often allowed television writers to include pot-centric stories without any negative associations for its characters.
The 1993 Roseanne episode “Stash From the Past” is an example of the “found stash” formula in which a parent or guardian character finds a bag of pot, usually in the possession of a child or teenager but often belonging to another character. The episode shows Roseanne Barr and TV husband John Goodman finding a bag of grass in their son’s room. They are about to punish the child, only to realize it’s their own 20-year-old herb. The adults then burn one down but realize drugs are less fun with the onset of parental responsibilities.
The “found stash” did not start with Roseanne. By giving television programs a vehicle to introduce the substance without necessitating an explanation for its immediate purchase, the device was employed across a variety of programs. A 1985 episode “Theo and the Joint” of The Cosby Show featured a “found stash” in a high school textbook. Degrassi High had a “found stash” episode in 1990, as did Blossom and Saved By the Bell in 1991. Perhaps the most famous “found stash” is in the 1983 Diff’rent Strokes episode “The Reporter” featuring then first lady and anti-drug crusader, Nancy Reagan.
Home Improvement offered a variation on the “found stash” in the 1998 episode “What a Drag” when parents Tim and Jill find a bag hidden in their gazebo. Whereas in previous incarnations, with the weed belonging to a friend, teenage son Brad, who hid the pot, admitted ownership when called out. Jill also admitted to her past indulgence in the substance at a Led Zeppelin concert. The episode ends with her explaining how it put her in the emergency room (another pernicious myth about marijuana on television is that the drug is often laced with other, more powerful narcotics—in real life, this costs extra). Neither mother, or son’s, drug use is ever shown on screen, only referenced.
That '70s Show premiered and made marijuana usage a central part of its narrative in the same year as Home Improvement’s pot episode. While the shows varied in style and attitude, they had a similar approach to drugs. One of the show’s central devices had teenage characters gathering in a basement and sitting in a circle to get high. But the words "marijuana," "weed," and "pot" were rarely spoken and no one was ever seen smoking. Toking up was implied by smoky backgrounds and non sequiturial banter. The few times pot ever appeared onscreen, it played much the same role as on any other show. In the twin episodes “Moon Over Point Place” and “Reefer Madness,” not only does the character purchase marijuana off screen and to fit in, but it is contained in a nondescript paper bag like a truck stop porno mag and a police officer appears almost immediately. The show transforms its main cast into variations on stereotypical stoned characters, but the habit producing the behavior is ellipsed in all but situations that reaffirm traditional social attitudes and swift punishment.
Like the lovable drunk, a stoned character is a recognizable stereotype, dating all the way back to Bob Denver's portrayal of Maynard G. Krebs on the late ‘50s sitcom The Many Loves of Doby Gillis, another character whose drug usage was implied. By means of backward philosophy and a reluctance to work, Denver’s role synthesized an emerging white beatnik identity and the minstrel tradition, which was already almost extinct. In a 1993 interview with Susan King for The LA Times, Denver said: “Max Schulman loved to put words in [Maynard’s] mouth. They made me say every cliché backward. To this day I don't know what the right one is. ‘Starve a cold, feed a fever?” By virtue of their inebriated state, the stoned character is allowed to circumvent social conventions and customary wisdom, but often only for a laugh.
Today, Broad City addresses and deconstructs the stoned character trope, and some of the racial implications, in its second episode “Pu$$y Weed.” The episode featured series creators, and stars, Abby Jacobson and Ilana Glazer not only having a character actively smoke on screen, but also highlighting the effort involved in buying an illegal product and the risks associated with its possession. Abby strolls through the park casually asking for marijuana until a man who is black approaches thinking she is selling, but she thinks he is trying to sell to her. When Abby finally finds someone with grass, it’s a white, preteen boy who not only mocks her choice of inebriant but offers her something stronger from his personal stash—obtained via his doctor father’s prescription pad. The police finally appear on the scene at the end of the third act when Abby and Ilana stumble into a random subway bag check, but they conceal the incriminating substance in a way that explains the episode’s title.
That '70s Show simultaneously engaged in two kinds of marijuana related television tropes: the taboo object is never explicitly seen, only implied; and the characters accidentally ingest marijuana by consuming a baked good. The tradition for accidental consumption of marijuana is one of the oldest tropes surrounding on screen usage because nonconsenting dosage absolves the inebriated party (and the writers) of moral culpability while also allowing for the comedic situations a stoned character introduces. The trope appeared on 1970s television screens in Barney Miller’s “You Dirty Rat” and Sanford & Son’s “Fred’s Treasure Garden.” The 1980s saw the trope appear in the Laverne and Shirley episode “I Do, I Do,” the 1982 episode of Taxi “The Road Not Taken,” and even as recently as the 2009 episode of Everybody Hates Chris, “Everybody Hates Lasagna.” In 2012, the trope appeared on the 2 Broke Girls episode “...And the High Holidays” when a bag of weed accidentally falls into a batch of cupcakes.
The pilot for Workaholics subverts accidental consumption by making the drug’s administration a conscious decision with the timing causing the negative outcome. When series creator Anders Holm’s character is humiliated by the distribution of a nude photo, he turns to marijuana in an effort to cope with the embarrassment only to discover that his company is instituting drug tests the next day. While recognizing marijuana’s potential negative economic consequences reaffirms pot’s status as outside social conventions, Workaholics’ attitudes toward, and use of, the drug establishes its protagonists likeability in opposition to the rigid formality of a corporate “drug free” environment.
Network television continues to evolve around the same tropes. Two recent episodes of Raising Hope and Growing Up Fisher featured marijuana usage. In both, there are no legal consequences for the characters who smoke, but the episodes end with everyone deciding it’s still uncool to do pot. Tommy Chong guest starred, as Cloris Leachman’s boyfriend, on the Raising Hope marijuana episode and Leachman uses her age to legitimize her right to smoke. Meanwhile, the purchase of marijuana in Growing Up Fisher is rationalized by a recent divorcee (Jenna Elfman) who wants to try something new and her ex-husband (J.K. Simmons), a man who is blind. The show even points to the blindness as permission when two police officers show up are about to make an arrest, when the character’s guide dog appears.
It’s a progressive stance for a show to take in 2014, but, like everything on TV, and as South Park has expertly pointed out, The Simpsons already did it. Even the blind thing. In the 1997 episode “The Canine Mutiny,” marijuana is discovered on a blind character in front of the police. Unlike Growing Up Fisher, the police stick around to party and Bob Marley’s “Jammin’” plays over the credits. A more realistic scenario with a much colder twist, given that police asset seizures in drug busts have played a crucial role in supplementing the tax revenue of cash strapped American municipalities.
It is taken as bit of fluff to nowadays think of former President and first Lady, George and Barbara Bush, criticizing The Simpsons in the early ‘90s, but in the same year that Matt Groening introduced Otto Mann, the perpetually stoned school bus driver, Operation Green Sweep sent black hawk helicopters and U.S. army forces to northern California in an effort to combat the green menace. The Simpsons premiered in 1989, in the same year, and on the same network, as Cops. Both shows are still on the air (although Cops has since been sold to the Spike Network).
By virtue of their ubiquity, most of the negative associations with marijuana use come from reality television programming like Cops. Other marijuana coverage in reality television has also focused on law enforcement efforts. Shows like NatGeo’s American Weed and Discovery Channel’s Weed Wars, Weed Country, and Pot Cops continue to highlight law enforcement efforts to fight against growers and dispensaries in California.
Cartoons like The Simpsons and South Park have been a safe haven for frank discussions of drug use in part because cartoon worlds create safe spaces without realistic consequences. Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks, which returns to Cartoon Network April 21(sans Aaron McGruder), has featured weed in several episodes, including one in its last season where John Witherspoon’s Robert Freeman gets a joint from his UPS delivery driver, local Woodcrest rapper Thugnificent, and is soon “hooked” because of how good it makes the flavorless healthy food he eats to control his diabetes and cholesterol. All the grass procured on the show, including Thugnificent’s joint, comes from a suburban white dealer, whose arrest causes Robert, a former civil rights activist, to protest. The police arrive and Robert stands proud, only to discover his dealer is already free on bail and he is charged with possession.
When Robert Freeman goes before a judge for the crime of marijuana possession, his legal defense is that Thugnificent told him Obama had legalized pot. The Judge points out it is still against the law in much of the United States. In Maryland, where the fictional town of Woodcrest is presumed to be and where The Boondocks takes place, since 2003 a defendant who can prove a medical necessity is subject to a fine of no more than $100, but is still subject to arrest. However, half of all states currently have medical exemptions for marijuana usage and in two, Washington and Colorado, recreational cannabis usage is legal, but not legally protected from discrimination.
When asked if legalization would affect cannabis in television, Tristram Shapeero says, “Just because it becomes legal, they won’t ever replace what marijuana does when we’re trying to use it in comedy. Alcohol is legal, but we still use it to great effect because it alters the mind.” Shapeero does point out that, “it may not have the rebellious edge it does now.”
Even though Silicon Valley is more focused on the unfortunately named tech start up, Pied Piper, than the politics of cannabis, T.J. Miller's portrayal of the perpetually stoned Erlich Bachman is a worthy entry in the halls of TV's greatest potheads. Even if he can't seem to clear a bong.