Watch any comedy movie or TV show over about five years old, and it becomes abundantly clear just how hard it is to make a comedy that lasts. With humorous tastes changing so quickly, it’s a wonder any comedy can be made and not be out of fashion by the time it’s released. Everyone has a history of revisiting the comedies they loved when they were younger, only to wince and cringe at a lot of jokes in hindsight. Dramas are much safer in this regard. Going back to classics like The Godfatheror even something more modern like Moonlight, and they still hold. Sitcoms, however, are a much tighter balancing act. This is why it is so impressive that by revisiting the Fran Drescher-directed tv show The nanny, he still plays as well as he did 30 years ago. Binging the show, currently available to stream on HBO Max, will slowly reveal how Fran was able to wield humor as a weapon.
The show centers on Fran Fine (played by Drescher herself), a woman in her 30s who is down on her luck. After being dumped by her fiancé and fired from her job, she ends up charming and working for wealthy Broadway producer Maxwell Sheffield (Charles Shaughnessy). As the theme song goes, that’s how she became the nanny. This already goes to show a reason why the show has aged so well.
The premise is classic, sounding familiar to pretty much anyone who’s read Jane Eyre or whatever by Jane Austen. The idea of someone from a lower class falling in love with someone else who is more upscale is literally a story as old as time. With such a solid foundation and a clear hook of a will they/won’t romanticize that usually serves as the main gimmick of most sitcoms, the show already puts a good foot forward to be timeless.
The show’s next step in creating that unflinching sense of humor is that it combines the two basic types of sitcoms. Both of these styles being the workplace sitcom, like Office and Parks and Recreationand the sitcom based on family and friends, like Friends and Full house. In the show, everyone except the Maxwell children that Fran watches over are all co-workers, but most of them still live under the same roof. This allows the plot devices of both styles to be used and reversed giving a new perspective. Fran is an employee of Maxwell, but as a nanny she also becomes a mother figure to her children. Eventually, she even becomes (spoilers) his wife, blurring the line between family and work sitcom. But the mixture does not stop at them, it even extends to the secondary characters of the series, the enemies of the Niles lovers (Daniel Davis) and CC Babcock (Laura Lane). These two have, at a glance, what appears to be intense animosity while serving as Mr. Sheffield’s sassy butler and producing partner, respectively.
At first glance, the rivalry between CC and Niles seems to be the basis of many comedian jokes: insult comedy. The two are constantly hitting each other which only gets harder each time. It even affects their personal life, Niles’ constant jokes at CC’s expense seem to be a contributing factor to the character’s depression. CC often makes comments about her lonely life and how much she spends on therapy, which serves as a foil to Fran. Niles, meanwhile, becomes sadistically happy when playing with her. But what becomes clear very early on is that everyone is in on it. The only reason CC rolls with the punches and throws insults at herself is because she really finds it funny. It’s kind of his darkly humorous love language. Her steely demeanor breaks multiple times throughout the show, slowly revealing that she is actually in love with Niles and they (again, spoilers) end up getting married. Outside of her odd romance with Niles, she even drops the act of insulting early on in episodes where she admits that Fran is one of her closest friends, though they remain rivals. While Fran is less successful financially, CC is at a very similar place in life. Both are not where they want to be, both are very passionate about their work but constantly make mistakes, and both care deeply about others. Even if they don’t always have the best way to show it. That’s why comedy works so well, these co-workers are legitimate family. None of the slurs or crude humor ever come across as grumpy or malicious because it’s so clear everyone is in on the joke.
But that only covers the characters and format of the series. The show also excels in its comedic style and distinctive sense of humor. Not to sound too hyperbolic, but in the 90s, Fran Drescher was the modern Lucille Ball. Frankly, no one has embodied her energy quite like Fran Drescher, even though it’s been decades since the show aired. Fran channels Ball not only with her quick wit, but also with her dedication to the craft. Each episode is written like a well-oiled machine, every bit specifically timed to land every punchline. While feeling a little more mechanical, it retains its style and grace while remaining natural. This clashes directly with other popular sitcoms at the time, where the humor was more conversational than specific jokes. This distinction may seem minor, but it makes the world The nanny stand out above the crowd.
Much like Lucille Ball, Fran Drescher has never been shy about coming across as an idiot either. Much of the show can be attributed to classic slapstick gags akin to The Three Stooges. So many actors back then, especially female leads in sitcoms, were always meant to be eye candy in one way or another, they were very rarely allowed to get dirty in the mud of the slap stick. Yet Fran did it, and did it better than anyone. Whether it’s the classic Valentine’s Day episode where she gets stuck on a billboard or a food fight during Maggie’s (Nicholle Tom) sweet 16, his comedic timing was always so right that it felt like more than just a visual gag to entertain young viewers.
Fran Drescher has managed to create a show that not only holds up to this day, but draws inspiration from all eras of comedy. In a weird way, the show is like a prototype for more modern pastiches of sitcoms like Wanda Vision. Whether you fondly remember this show, just discovered it now, or find the show just not your cup of tea, it’s very clear why people still watch it. It’s endearing, wholesome and much funnier than it has a right to be. The nanny will always have a place in the pantheon of sitcoms.