TV’s Portrayal of Alcoholics: From Comedy to Empathy

Television drunks were once mined for laughs; now characters like Don Draper make us feel compassion for their struggles with drinking.


Television saw the comedy in drunkenness long before it saw the tragedy. From Shakespeare’s Falstaff to Mark Twain’s Pap Finn, the “town drunk” has been a source of amuse, ridicule, and scorn for centuries—and the small screen was once no different. Television’s greatest early example is The Andy Griffith Show‘s Otis Campbell—a man described by Barney Fife as “smashed, buzzed, tiddly, gassed, off the wagon and back on the sauce, or just plain drunk.” Otis’ drunkenness was the one-note source of a thousand jokes over the series’ 249-episode, seven-year run, until its finale in 1967.


But as The Andy Griffith Show was ending, public perception of alcoholism was beginning to change. In 1973, Alcoholics Anonymous referred to alcoholism as a “disease” in its official literature for the first time. The American Psychiatric Association followed suit in 1980, dividing what was formerly called “alcoholism” into two categories: alcohol abuse (“repeated use despite recurrent adverse consequences”) and alcohol dependence (alcohol abuse “combined with tolerance, withdrawal, and an uncontrollable drive to drink”). As the American public got used to the idea that alcoholism was an actual disease, alcoholics gained widespread sympathy and support. Cultural attitudes about alcohol abuse had changed enough that by the release of 1986’s TV movie sequel toThe Andy Griffith ShowReturn to Mayberry, Otis had sobered up and taken a steady job as town’s ice cream man.


America’s internal conflict about alcohol use is best summed up, appropriately enough, by Homer Simpson, who once called beer “the cause of—and solution to—all of life’s problems.” As both doctors and the American public as a whole have begun to take alcoholism more seriously, TV has walked an uneasy line, alternately playing up the comedy of alcohol use and the tragedy of alcohol abuse. Critiques continue today; in a 2010 article for the New York Times, critic Alessandra Stanley argued that “television has a drinking problem,” saying that contemporary depictions of alcohol use on TV create “a conflicted, all-or-nothing portrait that isn’t realistic” but is rather an example of “the American love-hate relationship with liquor—all or Prohibition.”


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