The Sitcom Needs Saving

by Marc Tracy | March 11, 2014

photo credit: Warner Bros.

The sitcom is an endangered species. Nielsen reported that just one sitcom was among the top ten regularly scheduled programs last year—and even this was unusual. And unlike in the past, when popular sitcoms could also be great—“I Love Lucy,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “M*A*S*H*,” “Cheers,” “Seinfeld,” “Friends”—the most watched sitcoms today strive for the lowest common denominator. Exciting work is niche, able to thrive only in controlled habitats like HBO, basic cable, and Thursday nights on NBC.

Saul Austerlitz’s new book Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community thus comes at the right time. Because it is structured chronologically, it cannot help but narrate the seismic break between what the sitcom was and what it has become. His thirteenth and fourteenth shows, “The Simpsons” and “Seinfeld,” best represent the breaking point. When Austerlitz tackles them, his book subtly swerves from discussing one type of show to discussing a different type of show altogether—one remarkably far from the sitcom’s origins.

The swerve is too subtle, in my opinion. Austerlitz’s book is a laissez-faire survey; he doesn’t even, for example, declare where he would demarcate the sitcom’s various eras. And yet he gives us much to chew over. What happened to the sitcom, and what about it is worth saving? The form ascended during the confident American postwar period, peaked in its traditional form about 40 years ago, and has since splintered. It is still with us, and by certain lights may never have been better; but it is no longer the cultural force it once was. The evidence from Austerlitz’s book suggests one answer for its increasing marginality: Inequality killed the sitcom.

The closest thing Austerlitz has to a larger animating idea is that the sitcom is obsessed with itself. Each chapter is devoted to one exemplary sitcom (the definition flexible enough to include “Sex and the City” and the hour-long “Freaks and Geeks”), and homes in on a representative episode. His first sitcom is “I Love Lucy” and the episode “Lucy Does a TV Commercial.” Lucy, always trying to be a star, auditions for a commercial advertising a disgusting and surprisingly potent potable called “Vitameatavegemin.” (Yes, you’ve seen this one.) “The episode,” Austerlitz argues, “is a reminder that television was self-absorbed from practically the very beginning.” Not for nothing is Sitcom’s cover image a still from the “Friends” episode in which they quiz each other about the minutiae of each other’s lives.


CBS/Photofest

Austerlitz is definitely onto something. He notes that most sitcoms feature television prominently: the first full “Honeymooners” was about whether the Kramdens should buy a television; the family in “Father Knows Best” watches a sitcom called “Father Is A Dope”; “The Itchy and Scratchy Show” is the id of “The Simpsons.” And several sitcoms are about the making of TV shows—“The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Mary Tyler Moore,” “30 Rock.”

But many sitcoms are neither explicitly nor implicitly about television, and so when Austerlitz goes out of his way to convince us otherwise, the reader feels the strain. Is “The Pilot”—in which Jerry and George re-enact Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David’s pitch to NBC—really the most representative “Seinfeld”? Is “S.O.B.s,” a forgettable installment from the forgettable third season of “Arrested Development,” really where we should spend time when it comes to that otherwise brilliant show? No, but they both fit Austerlitz’ thesis, so in they go. Austerlitz is persuasive on the more modest point that when television wished to talk about television, it turned to the sitcom. He is less convincing that talking about television is what defines the sitcom.

Saddled by the 24-episode structure, the book largely becomes a collection of facts. Fortunately, Austerlitz did excellent research. In the acknowledgements, he says he watched every episode of “Gilligan’s Island,” for which he probably deserves hazard royalties. From Sitcom I learned that Larry Gelbart, who adopted the Robert Altman film M*A*S*H* to the small screen, went on a reporting trip to Korea, to his show’s immense benefit; that Elaine Stritch—a stage star whose greatest claim to sitcom fame was her recurring stint as Jack Donaghy’s mother—tried out for the role of Trixie Norton of “The Honeymooners” (better known to most as the inspiration for Betty Rubble); and that “Father Knows Best” was set, in the sort of telling and autistic detail that Comic Book Guy would enjoy, in a town called Springfield.

And when Austerlitz is freed of the need to summarize, he is capable of delightfully mischievous prose. For example, there’s this passage comparing “Leave It To Beaver” to Mad Libs:

Beaver (Jerry Mathers) gets himself into hot water by [fill in the blank]; big brother Wally (Tony Dow) and best friend Eddie Haskell (Ken Osmond) gamely assist by [fill in the blank]; dad Ward (Hugh Beaumont) fulminates; mom June (Barbara Billingsley) coos encouragingly; and the misunderstanding is settled by [fill in the blank].”

Or there is Austerlitz communicating eight seasons (and counting, hopefully) of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in just eight words: “Judaism is the cross,” he writes, “that Larry must bear.” 

The book contains skeletons of about five long critical essays. One such essay would, indeed, show the sitcom as a means of furthering mainstream acceptance of Jews. Over the years, Jews brought Jews into Gentiles’ living rooms through the radio show “The Goldbergs,” which became a sitcom at the early date of 1949; the star of Dick Van Dyke’s show-within-the-show was a Sid Caesar stand-in played by Carl Reiner; and so on. Then the sitcom ditched the project of assimilating Jews into American culture and started assimilating Americans into Jewish culture. This phase commenced with the famously “too New York, too Jewish” “Seinfeld”; was shorn of its rough edges with the happy melodrama of “Friends” (you know Rachel Green is from Long Island, right?); turned into unmentioned joke in Mitch Hurwitz’ Bluth family; and reached something like Götterdämmerung as Larry David disrupted a baptism, had sex with a Palestinian woman while she shouted anti-Semitic slurs at him, and, indeed, whistled Wagner

Similarly, Austerlitz points in the direction of a book someone should write about the sitcom as a female medium—a light entertainment that the dudes eagerly took credit for only once they deemed it possible of greatness. As Elaine Blair noted last year, the sitcom’s structure, episodic and of indeterminate length, lends itself to a protracted kind of marriage plot that, in the correct hands, can invest women with more agency than most types of narrative art. For this reason, from “New Girl” to “Friends” to “Cheers” all the way back to “Mary Tyler Moore,” an astonishing number of sitcom pilots begin with a woman in an urban setting breaking up with her long-term boyfriend. 


CBS

The essay that’s most missing from this book is one about CBS. Austerlitz hates CBS—home to many of the earlier classics in his canon—and its “ferociously conservative” offerings, like “How I Met Your Mother,” “2 Broke Girls,” and the Chuck Lorre oeuvre, including “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory.” But there is no chapter on either of Lorre’s hits—the only sitcoms to crack Nielsen’s top ten since 2007. This absence can’t be because they are bad: After all, “Gilligan’s Island” gets a chapter! Rather, Austerlitz’s refusal to engage contemporary CBS at length suggests a desire to escape into the niche cocoon. His final 11 shows are post-sitcom sitcoms: an animated series, three HBO shows, one Fox show that should have been on cable, an hour-long dramedy, and five NBC Thursday night programs. Of them, only “Friends” feels like anything closer than a distant relation of “Mary Tyler Moore.”

Stepping back from Austerlitz’ canon, one finds a coherent narrative related to class. The sitcom is getting smaller and smaller in scale and scope. Austerlitz, who closes his book with an ode to the difficult, hyperlinked “Community,” prefers it this way. He is not being ahistorical. The first sitcom audiences, he reports, were “urban first adopters, living along the Eastern Seaboard, who made stars of the sophisticated likes of Milton Berle and Sid Caesar”—in other words, they are the equivalent of the people who read recaps today. It is not difficult to connect that moment to this one, when several showrunners, knowing their shows need only be enjoyed by an obsessive few, have altered the ordinary means of production to create intensely personal visions—think of Louis C.K.’s total creative control over his avant-garde “Louie,” or Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s six-day production schedule for each “South Park” episode. “Arrested Development” made a huge mistake with its dreadful Netflix season, but the first great streaming-only sitcom is probably already in production. 

As for everyone else—let them eat Ashton Kutcher? Do we give up on the Great American Sitcom? Write it off as a bygone artifact of the Baby Boomers’ idiosyncratic taste and unusual purchasing power, like rock ‘n’ roll and Bill Clinton? We may not have a choice. 

The sitcom’s great subject is the things in life that are optional. Unlike the kings of ancient tragedies, the women of ninteeenth-century novels, and the cops and criminals of TV dramas, sitcoms are populated by ordinary folks who grasp for stardom, launch get-rich-quick schemes, and—most of all—look for love in a context not of biological or cultural imperative but of personal choice. Sitcom characters would get by just fine if they spent the 22 minutes we watch them each week doing nothing—which, of course, is exactly what Jerry and company do, although they go out of their way to point out that this, too, is their choice.


Joseph Del Valle/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Another way of saying this is that the sitcom is about the middle class. The postwar boom—with its shared wealth, upward mobility, and sense of possibility—set the conditions for the sitcom: It gave people options with expansive constraints. Lucy could have a baby—she was pregnant on-air, though they couldn’t use the word—and still dream of showbiz success. Dick Van Dyke could have a great career and a loving wife. His loving wife, played by Mary Tyler Moore, could in a different show move to a new city, have her own career, and (as she obliquely mentions in one episode) be on the Pill. 

Do we still have options like these today? Well, yes, but there are fewer options and for fewer people. Television pressed on with the classic sitcom after the 1970s reversed trends toward equality—Austerlitz identifies the thoroughly ‘80s “Cheers” as the last great classical sitcom, after which “the style became defensive, an expression of aesthetic conservatism rather than a default point of view.” Finally, at the close of the Wall Street decade, TV deposited on our screens an all-American (if atypically yellow) lower-middle-class family with a fat dad and a latchkey kid, along with four unfriendly Manhattan narcissists. The new era had begun. 

The best sitcoms today deal with inequality and how the middle class experiences it in angular ways. They depict the diminished white-collar workforce combating increased stratification with the rebellions of joy, family, and pranks: “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation,” sometimes “Louie.” Or they satirize the decadent and depraved rich who are screwing everyone over: “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Sex and the City” (inadvertently), “Arrested Development,” the current season of “Girls.” What they don’t do anymore is genuinely reflect the hopes and dreams of the American middle class. Maybe because that topic isn’t so funny anymore. 

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