Film, News & Commentary

Rundle: the relentless, unchanging American sitcom from Lucy to Big Bang

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On  PIX 11, George Costanza is staying with a woman he doesn’t like purely because she lets him wear all-velvet outfits. On WTNJ 31, Ross is yelling at Rachel “we were on a break!”. On Channel 64, Sheldon is making Leonard add his new girlfriend to the roommate agreement. On PATV, 81 George’s dad, Jerry Stiller, is expounding the virtues of  Festivus, “a holiday for the rest of us”, on Channel 71, he’s living in the Kings of Queens’ basement and planning a return to community college, on Channel 55, he’s 10 years younger, 40 years ago in That 70s Show.
Figuratively spinning the dial on the endless carousel of American “basic cable”, you’ll always find a sitcom, usually three or four, at any one time. Half-dozen. Sometimes, you’ll see multiple episodes of the same show on different channels. Sometimes, by judicious switching between different channels in the near-continuous ads, you can stitch together a whole new cannibalised episode from fragments of existing ones. Or you can create a bizarre multisitcom, stitched together by following the same actor, Stiller or Wendie Malick (Hot in Cleveland, Just Shoot Me,  Frasier), across different shows, a dizzying array of living rooms, all the situations coming together, telling her boss she was married to get out of a pass and having to press her best male friend into service for a dinner, except he’s secretly in love with her,  but she’s also given her best friend the impression that her boss is in love with her, but then her boss is under the impression that she and her best friend are a lesbian couple, and round and round it goes.
More than a half century old, the sitcom is as powerful and commanding as it has ever been, even among the yards and yards of reality shows, the new high-end dramas like Homeland and the nondescript cop shows where, whenever you tune in, someone is coming through a door and pistol-whipping a punk. Sitcoms occupy a relatively minor part of the prime-time TV “fall schedule” — the new wave of shows premiered in September and October, which set the pace for the next year’s TV — but they make up for it by their presence in “syndication”.
Once a sitcom has hit the mark of around 100 episodes, or about five seasons, its original network sells it on to the thousands of independent TV stations in the US. Such stations play a couple of hours local programming a day, and the rest of it is old network product.  Cop shows age fast, reality shows age in a minute, but sitcoms have a  durability to them. They’re not eternal, but Frasier and Friends are getting on for a quarter-century old now, and still stand up well. Even Cheers, with its old-style staginess and static shooting, gets a run. The durability is not difficult to explain; suspenseful dramatic moments and plots tend to imprint on the memory, jokes don’t. And funny situations can become more compelling, funnier with repeated viewings, until they too pass their use-by date.
The genre has been declared dead and buried several times in the past, and there’s been a revival of that this year, with the cancellation of two new shows weeks in — A to Z and Bad Judge –– the latter about, um, a bad judge, and the former about a low-key guy called Adam who works at a  dating site and hooks up with a client, Zelda, who is both highly strung  and wacky, and they fall for each other, their tempestuous affair exploring the A to Z of relationships, geddit geddit? The audience didn’t. Unsurprisingly, you might say, but consider this synopsis:  a struggling interior designer has to cope with an alcoholic assistant and is secretly in love with her gay best friend, and that was Will and Grace, which went for eight seasons.
Over hours and seasons, the sitcom imposes its own reality, trains people to appreciate its gags. Each time it has a lull, some new comedy that doesn’t fit the strict siitcom pattern — of which more in a moment — appears to answer that new demand. Scrubs used a dreamy, filmic style and fantasy music sequences to create a different world with different rules; Parks and Recreation andThe Office used the fake doco form. But each time, the straight sitcom has returned with greater strength and minimal formal innovation — most recently, The Big Bang Theory, the Eagles of sitcoms, enjoyed by no one you’ve ever met but by everyone else.  Everything else from a half century ago is unrecognisable, yet the three-camera main set sitcom endlessly reappears, omnipresent, inexhaustible.
Though it originated from radio comedy, with its shaggy dog anecdotal style, a la Hancock, the TV sitcom quickly acquired its own style, based around fixity — radio could change scenes with a sound effect. The sitcom stayed put because it had to, filmed in studio, with location shooting an initial impossibility. Such fixity gave it another new aspect: intensity. The sitcom is about people carving out their relationships to each other, and it got its modern form when actor/producer/bandleader Desi Arnaz, starring in a comedy with his wife, Lucille Ball, filmed the show with three cameras simultaneously, the director intercutting the shots in real time from the control room.
The three-camera style radically opened out the space, made possible a whole range of physical character comedy. It allowed Lucille Ball to create a unique persona,  a style of subdued panic that wasn’t as “big” as a stage performance but was farcical nevertheless. At its height, her show was being watched by a third of the American population each week every week. That’s a mass culture. The ’60s kept the three-camera setup, and the situation, but quickly departed from the reality, with the “high concept”, i.e. highly specific, situation, such as Bewitched, and the fish-out-of-water version such as The Beverley Hillbillies.
In the early ’70s, content shifted with the times, when Norman Lear created All In The Family, set in a working-class family, with bigoted patriarch Archie Bunker. All In The Family  explored every pressing social issue of ’70s America and was followed by an avalanche of such shows, more realist and unsparing, and all with a sparer, sharper dialogue style, taken from the New York Jewish dialogue style that had until then been confined to comedy variety shows. The style made the shows funnier, but deformed the characters, turning them into joke machines and foils. Sarcasm became — well, could the sitcom be any more sarcastic? Like that was never going to happen — even if, by the ’90s, it had been retitled “irony”.
It’s that joke compression that separates the current sitcom period from the immediate past. Friends? Still watchable. Cheers? Mmm, not so much. Laverne and Shirley, a period piece. The sitcom has changed pace as the mode of discourse has changed pace — a social world dominated by media white noise moves faster — but it has also fed back into and transformed the culture. The rebarbative New York Jewish style that took it over was once the humour of the cities, of the ghettos, places you could master only by verbal fireworks. But it has spread to the whole of the country and the world as a way of being in it. It has changed the idiomatic structure of English, and that is not an exaggeration.
In that respect the genre reached its apogee with Seinfeld, which incorporated pretty much the entire formal history of the sitcom. The setting was the real close quarters similar to The Honeymooners, the first real sitcom. Jerry was an everyman type, Elaine reprises the Lucille Ball manic female, and Kramer and George are a sort of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza duo, the noble aspirant and the venal belly. What made the show perdurable was Larry David’s sudden insight that you could include the most surreal plots, as long as they all intersected and came back to zero  — as in “The Puffy Shirt”,  which involves a “low-talking” fashion designer, Goerge’s career as a hand model and Jerry’s inadvertent agreement to appear on The Tonight Show in a pirate shirt, each moment in each plot rendered inevitable by the effect of all the other plot lines.
The Seinfeld plot that has become the default setting for a certain type of sitcom — yet by the time Seinfeld came along, sitcoms were dividing along class lines. Those catering for a college-educated crowd — like New Girl and Modern Family –– took on the Seinfeld approach, while mainstream sitcoms like Two and a Half Men kept it simpler. The Big Bang Theory is a sort of reverse Seinfeld, a simple sitcom, with arch-humour about the people who are increasingly running the world. As these two great cultural classes diverge, the ironic knowingness of high-brow sitcoms ascends to the stratosphere, especially those that have broken out of the three-camera format, back into filmed scenes. Happy Endings, centred around three sleek high-income couples, moves so fast as to be culturally incomprehensible to those who haven’t read Slate that week. Meanwhile, mainstream sitcoms have not only got slower but fatter — and with Mike and Molly, there is now a sitcom not merely especially for the obese, but especially for the morbidly obese. That is perhaps inevitable when the genre is not so much an occasional entertainment, but a sort of parallel zone in life.
There is so much sitcom on US TV, so much of the time, most of it set in a living room similar to the one you’re watching it from, that it turns the screen into a weird mirror/portal. The plot structure of the sitcom — that each episode is a zero point to which the character relationships return — suggests that reality is untransformable, except by the finesse of language. The genre has been for some time, but it will go on until the last freestanding TV is taken to the dump. Until that day, it is eternal, a Borgesian library effect, endless other rooms opening off the one portal in yours, giving an air of the infinite to the most slightest gestures.

8 responses to “Rundle: the relentless, unchanging American sitcom from Lucy to Big Bang

  1. Well done Guy. The sitcom, like that other, US staple the late night talk show, is a format that somehow endures and, surprisingly, can reinvent itself. A similar assessment of David Letterman, Craig Ferguson and Jimmy Fallon would be most welcome!

  2. Norman Lear didn’t really “create” All in the Family” – it was a remake of Johnny Speight’s “Til Death do us Part”. What Lear did was turn a savage, uncompromising, weekly satirical attack on … well… everything, into a remarkably safe and sanitised sitcom. The Americans do it to themselves too. Look at the bowdlerised pap the television version of MASH became.

  3. I can’t remember the last time I laughed at an American sitcom. Times have changed but even old favourites like MASH aren’t funny anymore. Oddly enough I watched Fawlty Towers and Father Jack back-to-back the other night. Hilarious. Same with Allo Allo.Same old jokes and same old situations but still funny as hell. Do they count as sitcoms?

  4. For future reference:
    Actors of fully Jewish background: -Logan Lerman, Natalie Portman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mila Kunis, Bar Refaeli, James Wolk, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Julian Morris, Adam Brody, Esti Ginzburg, Kat Dennings, Gabriel Macht, Erin Heatherton, Odeya Rush, Anton Yelchin, Paul Rudd, Scott Mechlowicz, Lisa Kudrow, Lizzy Caplan, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Gal Gadot, Debra Messing, Robert Kazinsky, Melanie Laurent, Shiri Appleby, Justin Bartha, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Margarita Levieva, Elizabeth Berkley, Halston Sage, Seth Gabel, Mia Kirshner, Alden Ehrenreich.
    Actors with Jewish mothers and non-Jewish fathers -Jake Gyllenhaal, Dave Franco, James Franco, Scarlett Johansson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Daniel Radcliffe, Alison Brie, Eva Green, Emmy Rossum, Rashida Jones, Jennifer Connelly, Nora Arnezeder, Goldie Hawn, Ginnifer Goodwin, Amanda Peet, Eric Dane, Jeremy Jordan, Joel Kinnaman, Ben Barnes, Patricia Arquette, Kyra Sedgwick.
    Actors with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, who themselves were either raised as Jews and/or identify as Jews: -Andrew Garfield, Ezra Miller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Alexa Davalos, Nat Wolff, Nicola Peltz, James Maslow, Josh Bowman, Winona Ryder, Ben Foster, Nikki Reed, Zac Efron, Jonathan Keltz.
    Oh, and Ansel Elgort’s father is Jewish, though I don’t know how Ansel was raised.
    Actors with one Jewish-born parent and one parent who converted to Judaism -Dianna Agron, Sara Paxton (whose father converted, not her mother), Alicia Silverstone, Jamie-Lynn Sigler.

  5. A similar assessment of David Letterman, Craig Ferguson and Jimmy Fallon may be;
    Noisy unfunny men who mug to the camera, all in exactly the same way, in a show that shares exactly the same format, band, wingman & jokes.
    Look what happens when you remove them from their habitat & get them to host an awards night, less funny (and original), than a fart in an elevator.
    Along with American obsession with violence on TV, the late night talk show is a phenomenon lost on me I’m afraid. I guess it’s like McDonalds.

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