Exploring Whether Bob's Burgers Is Based Off My Hometown of Ocean City, New Jersey
If Bob’s Burgers is truly inspired by my Jersey Shore hometown, they’re missing out on all the eclectic alcohol-free pseudo-holidays to write episodes about.
This essay was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Television is not possible without the writers and actors currently on strike. Learn more about the strike demands of WGA here and demands of SAG-AFTRA here.
Sometime this past summer, a friend sent me a TikTok video.
“Do you know him?” They asked.
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In the video, the user—Joey Sacco—makes the case that the television show Bob’s Burgers is based on his family and their restaurant in Ocean City, New Jersey.
While I lived on the mainland about twenty minutes from Ocean City, I usually say I’m from Ocean City. I briefly lived on the island for barely a year, but my street cred is from being an Ocean City High School graduate and spending summers working seasonal jobs on the boardwalk. Plus, no one from outside of Cape May County knows where Upper Township (my actual hometown) is.
While I don’t know Joey personally, I do know his family’s restaurant, Sack O’ Subs. When my aunt took me to the beach during the summer, she also took me to Sack O’ Subs where I ordered a “plain hamburger with just the ketchup, patty, and the bun” each time. In that restaurant every summer of my youth, I fidgeted on those faux leather seat cushions from the discomfort of my sunburnt skin rubbing against the back of the chair.
If you skipped the video, I’ll summarize it. Joey’s family structure mimics the Belcher family of a married mother and father with two girls and a boy; Joey is the middle child, born in between his two sisters, just like Gene Belcher. The Sacco family lives in an apartment above their family business, similar to the Belchers. I thought this all was just a silly, goofy coincidence until Joey drew the comparison between Mr. Fishoeder, Bob’s wealthy landlord who owns the Wonder Wharf amusement park on the boardwalk, and Mr. Gillian, the third-generation owner of Gillian’s Wonderland Pier on the Ocean City boardwalk. To paraphrase Joey: “Gill, fish… fish have gills!” He continued to point out the odd similarities of his family members' personality traits to the Belchers.
Ocean City—not to be confused with its pseudo-rival town of the same name in Maryland—has a strange personality, much like the Belcher family and their coastal hometown. One distinct characteristic of the real OCNJ, though, is its strong Christian influence, which I didn't recognize until years after moving away from it.
Although I went to public school, there were after-school buses that transported students to the local Catholic church for catechism classes. Once a week after school, my Catholic classmates and I lined up in the elementary school auditorium specifically for the CCD bus, a different line from our non-Catholic peers. However, because of how homogenous and white our hometown was, it was difficult to see outside the Catholic bus line.
“Why aren’t you taking the CCD bus?” I asked my peer one afternoon before the final class bell rang.
“I’m Jewish,” he replied. He turned his attention back to playing Bugdom1 on our classroom’s desktop Macintosh computer.
Looking back at the town’s history, I’m validated in feeling that my town felt especially Christian. With its slogan of “America’s Greatest Family Resort,” Ocean City was “founded” (colonized) by Methodist missionaries looking for an alternative resort town suitable for good Christian boys and girls, unlike the nearby Atlantic City. The first establishment built on the island was the Tabernacle, a Methodist church still in service today. The church even stands off Wesley Avenue, a street named after the father of Methodism, Reverend John Wesley.
In 1881, the Ocean City Association passed a set of blue laws, which enforced religious standards. Most notably, it banned “non-charitable” commerce on Sundays. It was only in 1986 when the blue law was lifted. However, the town’s alcohol ban—initially enacted in 1909—still lives on today. Because of the ban, the Ocean City boardwalk isn’t home to any businesses that serve alcohol, contrary to the climate of the Seaside Heights boardwalk on the Jersey Shore reality show. However, drinking absolutely happens. Over the 34th Street and 9th Street bridges on the town’s border are two large liquor stores. According to a USA Today report, 18.3 percent of adults in Ocean City’s statistical area, which includes all of Cape May County, drink alcohol heavily or binge drink, the highest percentage of any “metro” area in the state. Because of its heavy percentage, the publication named the town as the drunkest city in the entire state of New Jersey.
To be clear, the Belchers aren’t an explicitly Christian family, nor does their town have a strong Christian influence. However, explaining Ocean City’s Christian roots is critical for understanding its alcohol ban, which plays into the island’s calendar of annual eclectic events.
Without alcohol, it can be difficult to market an alcohol-free town as a destination, considering the typical American vacation centers around alcohol. Ocean City public relations director, Mark Soifer, invited this challenge. Before being promoted to Director, he worked for the city on a freelance basis in the 60s. He garnered national attention for the several gimmicky events he created, which are still held annually to this day. If Bob’s Burgers were truly inspired by Ocean City, I’m shocked at how a character based on Soifer has yet to debut on the show.
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There’s the Doo Dah Parade, which other quirky towns in the U.S. hold adjacent to July 4th Independence Day celebrations, but for some unbeknownst reason, Ocean City holds it in mid-April and there’s always a bunch of Basset Hounds in the parade. No other dog breed, just Basset Hounds. As a band kid, I was forced to perform in the Doo Dah Parade; my first time there, I insistently asked what was up with the Basset Hound thing. I then nearly stepped in a pile of green-ish, yellow Basset Hound diarrhea, so that killed any curiosity I had.
There’s also Martin Z. Mollusk Day that feels like it should be depicted in Bob’s Burgers. While Martin is actually a hermit crab, not a mollusk, he plays a similar role as Punxsutawney Phil on Groundhog’s Day. In early May, attendees observe whether Martin can see his shadow or not; if he does, summer will arrive a week early. Similar to the Doo Dah Parade, I was also forced to perform at this “holiday” every year. There was always a woman dressed up as a mermaid who was awful at singing. I got the gist that she didn’t know she was bad at singing and everyone else was too afraid to tell her she was bad. I also vaguely recall a Polar Bear Plunge-esque portion of the festivities where people wearing business formal attire, complete with briefcases, ran into the ocean.
Bob’s Burgers has plenty of untouched wacky “holidays” to base future episodes off of. At the very least, Soifer deserves his own character. Loren Bouchard, are you looking for another writer once this writer’s strike is over?