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Everybody Writes Raymond: Huge sitcom writing team comes up with hilarious new "naughty nurse" joke for series finale

May 16, 2005 -- Tonight's series finale of CBS' "Everybody Loves Raymond" included a couple questionable nurse-related elements, including a nurse-as-sex-object joke so tired that it's hard to describe without falling asleep. The 10 writers credited with the episode are Philip Rosenthal, Ray Romano, Tucker Cawley, Lew Schneider, Steve Skrovan, Jeremy Stevens, Mike Royce, Aaron Shure, Tom Caltabiano, and Leslie Caveny. The long-running sitcom is now out of production, but the finale was reportedly seen by more than 32 million people.

The episode centers on lead character Ray Barone's concern about a pending operation to have his adenoids removed. Ray fears the brief, fairly routine surgery, but his wife Debra convinces him to have it done. Later, while Ray is having the operation performed at an outpatient clinic, we see his family in the waiting room. Debra, describing Ray's irrational concern about the procedure, says: "Last night he woke me up: 'What if the nurse's top is unbuttoned and the surgeon gets distracted?'" (Laugh track.) A short time later, a middle-aged female nurse character appears, appropriately attired in blue scrubs. Very seriously, and without any introductory explanation, she asks Debra whether she knows of "any allergies or conditions" Ray might have "neglected" to mention. Only after the alarmed Debra asks why does the nurse explain that they are "having difficulty bringing him out of anesthesia. He should have been out by now, but he's not responding. His blood pressure dropped below a certain level." Naturally, the sitcom family quickly starts to fall apart. But perhaps 30 seconds later, a male physician appears and reassures them that Ray is "fine now," as "his blood pressure is returning to normal and he's coming out of it. This happens sometimes. It's a form of hypertension, but he's perfectly all right." Debra thanks the physician (only), and the physician and nurse silently leave the room, their plot function achieved. (Never mind that hypertension means a rise in blood pressure; that's not our concern here.) A short time later, Ray's sister-in-law remarks: "I noticed the nurse was still buttoned." (Laugh track.)

We see two basic problems. The nurse joke presents nurses as physician sex toys, and as people who are not serious enough to dress appropriately during an operation involving general anesthesia. Yes, it's just a sitcom joke, and the show might argue that it isn't really saying it finds the joke funny anyway--we're laughing at Ray for having such a silly concern. And the nurse who actually appears is dressed professionally, as Ray's sister-in-law notes. She is not a sex object. Of course a person like Ray Barone might have said this, and his family might have registered no obvious disapproval, beyond the implied sense that he was worried over nothing, i.e., the surgeon would probably not be distracted. But these are likable characters who have had a significant cultural impact. Every time such an influential product has positive characters reinforce these stereotypes without significant comment, it offends practicing nurses and at some level reinforces the disrespect for nursing that is a key factor in the current nursing shortage. It sends the message that nurses are not really serious professionals, that they at least sometimes are physician eye candy (or worse), and of course, that they are not men. The joke in this incarnation also sends the message that only what the surgeon is doing matters. Viewers are wrongly left to think that it would affect patient care if the surgeon was distracted, but presumably not if the nurse was too unprofessional to dress properly, since she isn't doing anything crucial.

The way the show presents the anesthesia problem arguably reinforces this impression. The show commendably has no character suggest that the physician is correcting the nurse when he appears. All concerned treat his news as an update, and no one says or does anything to suggest that the nurse character has made any error or is not credible. Indeed, it's possible the show would argue that this "serious" nurse counters any stereotyping that might flow from the above joke. However, when the nurse appears, she is notably abrupt--even rude--in asking about whether Ray has "neglected" to tell them anything. And at first she does not say why she wants to know, or offer a calming introduction. When Debra forces the nurse to explain, she does not give the reassuring message that the physician does moments later about how this "sometimes" happens. Instead, she practically suggests that Ray is in a coma. The most obvious explanations for the nurse's conduct are that she is insensitive, that she lacks basic knowledge, or both. Yes, we know that the plot demanded that the family freak out. But experienced sitcom writers don't actually have to put this all on the nurse's back, any more than they have to rely on naughty nurse jokes that were cliches decades ago. Finally, "his blood pressure dropped below a certain level?" Even if you figured the family would not need to hear the specifics, couldn't the nurse character say, "below the level we expect" or "below the level we'd like to see?" Having her say "below a certain level" makes it sound like she doesn't really know what a good level is. Of course, real nurses are typically knowledgeable about their practice areas, expert in monitoring blood pressure, and skilled in handling interactions with patients' families.

The problems in the episode are hardly the most serious we've seen, especially since the show seemed to take care not to push them too far, by avoiding overt suggestions that nurses really are brainless bimbos. No, they're just the kind of slights to nursing that issue every day from countless sources, from Hollywood stars to your impressionable kindergartner, and they will keep coming until nurses make them stop.

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