Thursday, July 21, 2016


I finished Sitcom: A History In 24 Episodes by Saul Austerlitz.  Feels like I've been working on it forever.  It took so long not because it was bad, but because each chapter covers a show, and I'd read it, something would come up, then I wouldn't get back to the book for another week or so.  I think it took as long as a full TV season, which these days tends to be 24 episode, thus the 24 shows the book investigates.

What are the shows?  The books lays them out chronologically:

I Love Lucy
The Honeymooners
The Phil Silvers Show
Leave It To Beaver
The Dick Van Dyke Show
Gilligan's Island
The Mary Tyler Moore Show
All In The Family
The Cosby Show
The Simpsons
The Larry Sanders Show
Sex And The City
Freaks And Geeks
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Arrested Development
The Office
30 Rock

Each chapter is built around a specific episode, but also looks at the show as a whole, and, indeed, at other sitcoms that followed in the original's footsteps.

It's a solid list.  Most of the shows are classics, or at least pretty good, but they also show the development of the form.

For instance, many sitcoms to this day still follow the basic rules I Love Lucy set up in the 1950s (especially all those hit shows done live on CBS).  Then you get to The Dick Van Dyke Show in the 60s and The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 70s, and the form becomes more sophisticated--the themes are more adult and the big laughs not just from farcical situations. You also get titles like All In The Family, which shows that sitcoms can deal with controversial subjects, and M*A*S*H, where it takes on war in a serious way (unlike service comedies such as The Phil Silvers Show).

The form further develops in the 1980s with Cheers, where there's an arc shared by the leads--whole seasons are devoted to their up-and-down romance, whereas on previous shows, each episode would essentially be a reset.

Then in the 90s The Simpsons stretches the sitcom so that it can go anywhere and do anything (it helped that the show was animated), while Seinfeld looks at the minutiae of everyday life, but also shows us that lead characters don't have to be lovable. Also there's The Larry Sanders Show, which is a self-aware sitcom--show business as a product.

By the 21st century, the form had been around so long that it was in its post-modern era.  The Office is (allegedly) a documentary, where the cameras are (supposedly) just trying to catch the action, and the actors speak directly the camera.  And 30 Rock--another show about a show--is fully aware of the history of sitcoms, and plays off it. Finally, you get to Community, which is full meta, often playing with different formats, while showing that even with these alienation effects the audience can still care about the characters.

So, all in all, a pretty good book.  Austerlitz knows his material, and is also willing to say when it's less than great.  But you better love the subject, or it might come across as too much.


Anonymous Denver Guy said...

I think I'll be interested to read it! I wouldn't take anything off the list, but shouldn't "Love & Marriage" be in there to discuss the breakthrough in raunchy sitcoms?

I remember being amazed (and because I was younger, entertained) by the taboos L&M broke. I remember encouraging my parents to watch an episode, and they just didn't get it. It led no doubt to shows like "2 and 1/2 Men" and "Sex in the City."

The other major, ground-breaking show that seems to be missing is "Happy Days." But maybe HD wasn't so much groundbreaking as clever in using the existing sit-com templates and back-dating them? This would be true then for "That 70's Show" and today's "The Goldbergs."

9:38 AM, July 21, 2016  
Blogger LAGuy said...

"Love And Marriage"? Could you be referring to "Married With Children"?

I think the author is mostly picking shows he thinks are original and good. Gilligan's Island may be a bit of a stretch, but the 60s were pretty barren. Anyway, he tends to end his chapters with discussions of related shows, and I believe "Married With Children" comes up in the chapter on "The Simpsons."

10:48 AM, July 21, 2016  
Blogger ColumbusGuy said...

Horse and Carriage, baby.

I would have said, "The show where the Chairman of the Board has Joe Pesci kill people," but that probably would have been inscrutable.

9:26 AM, July 22, 2016  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

Whoops - of course I meant Married With Children - can't stop humming the tune when I think of the show.

I assume you would agree the show was original, if only in it's willingness to push boundaries, like All in the Family.

As far as being good, it was pretty funny, even if it didn't establish likable characters. I would at least tie it with Gilligan's Island, and put it ahead of Leave it to Beaver and Phil Silvers (which was a one joke show). If nothing else, along with the Simpsons, it made Fox a real network, I think.

What about Happy Days? Original and Good, at least in its first few seasons?

7:31 PM, July 24, 2016  
Blogger LAGuy said...

Married With Children was inspired by The Cosby Show. The creators wanted to make a family that was awful rather than wonderful. The new Fox network put on some classy shows, so of course this was the one that lasted.

I don't rate it great, though I have a TV writer friend who thinks it's one of the best sitcoms ever.

Happy Days was fun, though it used mostly tried and true comedy techniques. And (as I've blogged about before--I looked it up, in fact, when Garry Marshall died), I'm not impressed with its early seasons, when it was allegedly original. Before it went live and pushed Fonzie to the front, it was a fairly dull and slow-moving exercise in nostalgia. The people who say it got worse after that probably don't remember those old episodes too well.

7:54 PM, July 24, 2016  
Blogger LAGuy said...

And if The Phil Silvers Show is a one-joke show (I don't think it is), it's a great joke--a lot better than whatever joke Married With Children is about.

5:01 AM, July 25, 2016  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

Okay, I'll admit I haven't watched a lot of Phil Silvers. I was more of a McHail's Navy guy. I suppose Married With Children was also a one joke sit-com - but it was a new joke - a thoroughly dislikeable family getting at war with each other, but then united against the judgement of a world of "normals" around them

2:35 PM, July 26, 2016  

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