Parks and Recreation is celebrated as a relentlessly optimistic, kindness-centered show, but that’s not how it treats one of its main characters: poor Jerry Gergich. Though he’s a dedicated member of the parks department gang, Jerry is constantly mistreated, bullied and disrespected by the other characters, even called by the wrong name all the way up to his death. It may seem like he’s just a stock “sitcom punching bag” and there’s not a lot of meaning in this joke, but looking back, it’s strangely nasty bullying from characters who otherwise come across as so well-meaning, sweet and idealistic. Arguably over the course of Parks and Rec, Jerry even becomes a stand-in for the ordinary people of Pawnee: someone that the narrative claims to respect, but frequently condescends to, while ignoring their positive qualities. Here’s our take on why the persecution of Jerry is one thing that hasn’t aged so well about Parks and Recreation, and if it secretly revealed a flaw in the show’s attitude.
The Butt Of The Joke
It’s not unusual for sitcoms to have a character who frequently becomes the target of other characters’ jokes. The Office’s Michael never misses an opportunity to mock his punching bag HR rep Toby. On Arrested Development, Michael is constantly belittling and literally forgetting about George-Michael’s girlfriend Ann. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s gang saves their most hurtful burns for the only woman in their group, Sweet Dee.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with sitcoms making fun of their characters, especially when they’re shows that pride themselves on being cutting and sarcastic. Characters being mean can be one of the best things about the genre. But Parks and Rec often positions itself as (and feels like) a different kind of comedy, one that relies on kindness and optimistic resolutions for its whole community of characters – so why does that rule apply for everyone but Jerry? The harassment of Jerry, and the humor around making this good person feel bad, is out of place in a series where the characters’ lives are normally taken very seriously. Even a major scary event for Jerry—a heart attack—is treated as a big joke. Not only do Leslie and Ann provoke Jerry’s heart attack by scaring him, but their attempts to raise money for him still treat the episode as fundamentally comedic. And even after Leslie fails to raise enough money to pay for Jerry’s crippling hospital bills, his health problems become a roundabout way to teach her a lesson about coping with her own problems.
To underline just how extreme Parks and Rec’s treatment of Jerry was, let’s compare it to an example from a show with an overlapping creative team, The Office. Both Jerry and Toby are punching bags who are completely unassuming, often friendly and inoffensive personalities. Michael irrationally hates Toby in much the same way the Pawnee parks department hates Jerry. But whereas Parks and Rec treats Jerry’s bullying as something we’re on side with, The Office somewhat mocks the absurdity of Michael’s reaction to Toby. It also offers some logic to the hatred: Michael dislikes Toby because he’s the HR rep – i.e., the voice of reason who gets in the way of Michael’s signature chaos and fun. It’s a lot harder to understand why the Parks & Rec gang is so mean to Jerry. Significantly, most of the other Dunder Mifflin employees don’t join in on bullying Toby in an extreme way, even if he subtly manages to influence their view of Toby over time. Jerry, however, continues to be criticized by the most likable and kind-hearted characters on the show.
Toby is a pretty sad character over the years. But the other joke Parks and Rec makes about Punching Bag Jerry is that, outside of this workplace bubble, maybe he’s not a loser at all. His wife Gayle is played by supermodel Christie Brinkley, and they have three beautiful daughters. It becomes a running joke that no one else seems to understand what Gayle sees in Jerry.
The joke is, of course, that we’re supposed to identify with Leslie in being confused by this relationship; we’re not supposed to think he deserves to be happy. And the series goes out of its way to suggest he is gifted in… other ways, because that’s the only way that a beautiful woman could possibly be interested in him. But if we step back, what exactly is so objectionable about Jerry? What if Gayle’s right, and the Parks department employees are wrong – and in the process, revealing a sort of ugly bias in their mindset?
The Ultimate Public Servant
Perhaps the most frustrating and baffling thing about Parks and Rec’s treatment of Jerry is that he’s the character who most frequently acts as a stand-in for the ordinary people of Pawnee. In theory, Parks and Rec is about highlighting the potential of local government to help people. Yet while the characters claim to care about these regular people, in daily life, they generally mock and condescend to them – much as they do Jerry.
Humble, hard-working Jerry is eager to be a productive and helpful public servant. However, his contributions never seem to matter to his co-workers, who overlook his obvious, sometimes remarkable creative talents. In addition to his painting skills, he’s a brilliant pianist and an amazing engineer. Of course, part of the joke about everyone dismissing Jerry is that he’s actually extremely gifted.
But the team’s focus on his shortcomings and willingness to ignore his strengths is indicative of the show’s broader approach to government. Parks and Rec valorizes the idea of public service, and the hope that dedicated government work can actually improve the lives of citizens. But in practice, the characters are rewarded for their vague good intentions and the effort they put into being elected rather than their abilities to actually help people. Leslie idealizes the concept of powerful women in government, without getting into the details of what particular women do with their power. She groups together figures like Michelle Obama and Condoleezza Rice as mythical superheroes, rather than evaluating their own individual strengths or faults with nuance.
And ultimately, Leslie—and by extension, the rest of the cast—are treated as superior to the people they “serve.” The citizens of Pawnee are, like Jerry, constantly mocked for their incompetence, their inability to appreciate Leslie, and their health or size. While a show like Veep works to satirize government officials, Parks and Rec frames constituents as annoying overgrown children, and government workers as their educated saviors. As critic Grace Robertson puts it, “In many ways, Jerry’s contentedness with his middling life in Pawnee made him the face of the ordinary townspeople in the office, and the show just couldn’t resist humiliating that.” In fact, Leslie herself makes this comparison while expressing her judgment over the townspeople.
This disdain ignores the fact that Jerry is often the only person willing to do the work that actually keeps things running: he’s an ace at filling out paperwork, stuffing envelopes, and generally doing the clerical tasks that aren’t glamorous. By the end of the series, everyone is rewarded for their work by having their wildest dreams come true, even those with questionable job performances. While some characters are given eventful futures, becoming things like a successful children’s entertainer or the President of the United States, Jerry’s goals remain more local.
Many of the jokes at Jerry’s expense revolve around the seemingly “small” scope of his life, like the fact that he goes on vacation in the state of Indiana. But the “joke” here is confusing given that the show purports to be celebrating a small town that is forever overlooked. Isn’t Jerry the embodiment of that core value, someone who wants to spend time in Indiana even when he doesn’t have to?
Jerry Gergich and the Sitcom “Family”
The core of most TV sitcoms is either a family, a group of friends that become a family, or a workplace that, you guessed it, eventually becomes a family. The series starts pairing off characters—April and Andy, Ben and Leslie, etc.—and puts a lot of work into ensuring that they’ll be part of each other’s lives forever.
And what about Jerry? Despite how much he’s abused, he certainly wants to be a part of this chosen office family. Occasionally, the bullying will go so far that some characters will briefly extend a small gesture of kindness to Jerry that suggests, in his way, he is part of this family. But most of the time, his role in that family is dark. After retirement, Jerry comes back to the office at his former co-workers’ request. Not because they miss him as a person but because Tom hates being the new target of office jokes. They ask Jerry back just so they can continue to mistreat him, and he selflessly agrees, showing how dedicated he is to those around him.
It’s a reminder that the role you get placed in within your particular “family” or team can stick, for better and worse.
And we can see how that erodes Jerry’s confidence, as he, too, sees himself as someone who doesn’t need to be treated with respect. He’s bought into everyone else’s idea of him, and is too beaten down to stick up for himself. While other characters’ concerns are taken seriously, when Jerry expresses the exact same sentiment, it becomes a joke. And this kind of treatment does damage to our minds and self-image.
It’s true that often Jerry makes mistakes, whether it’s mixing up words or dropping a burrito in a creek. But that doesn’t make him worthy of ridicule. After all, his co-workers also make frequent mistakes, and Tom, Ron, and April all go out of their way to do as little work as possible. Maybe the real issue that the parks and rec team have with Jerry is that, unlike the rest of them, he never needed an office family at all. Instead, Jerry has a much healthier attitude toward his work: that it’s ultimately just work.
While it’s easy to dismiss the Jerry humor as just a joke, it ultimately doesn’t reflect all that well on the Parks and Rec family; it suggests that, even in communities like this that are supposedly about lifting people up, people crave a distinct hierarchy, including someone on the bottom rung they can punch down on.
Other shows have more successfully managed to escape this trap in a thoughtful way.
Frasier Crane was introduced as a punching bag on Cheers, an egghead intellectual the Cheers regulars can rag on constantly. But eventually, Frasier becomes an interesting enough character to be the center of his own show – a series that keeps his annoying, unlikable traits, and still shows him getting grief from friends and family, yet does justice to his good and complex qualities. So it ultimately underlines that being well-liked by everyone isn’t the most important criteria for being a character we want to follow.
It’s also possible to create feel-good comedy driven by character quirks without resorting to mean-spirited mockery. Just look at hyper-positive Ted Lasso. Most of the show’s laughs come from protagonist Ted embracing his unconventional personality, while jokes made about other characters never frame them as “losers” or suggest that belittling them is ok. The show also looks at how being treated dismissively affects people in a toxic way through assistant coach Nate in season two. Before Ted becomes the team’s manager, Nate was bullied by team members, and even after Nate’s star rapidly rises under Ted’s leadership, Ted and the others still sometimes subconsciously view him as not on their level. The hurt Ted and others inflict is unintentional, but Nate’s feeling neglected and overlooked fuels his unhealthy emotional habits and contributes to him turning on his former friends. So, the underlying message is any form of bullying or belittling is not harmless fun.
As a low-key average guy who has a handle on his priorities, Jerry contrasts with the heightened emotions and wacky antics that initially made us love Parks and Rec. Yet his ending is perhaps the one that most encapsulates the heart of the show —Leslie might go on to be President, but Jerry is the one who’s truly most committed to their hometown: he becomes the beloved mayor of Pawnee, serving 10 times, and a symbol of everything good about their little sect of Indiana. Sometimes there’s something even more admirable about a person who doesn’t seek global greatness and acclaim, but is content with their relatively small place in the world and does everything they can to lift that place up. Contrary to the belief of the characters, and the show itself, this virtue is what everyone should have seen in Jerry all along.
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