IN THE SUMMER after my sophomore year in college, I’d often drive to Blockbuster, where my best friend worked and would slip me contraband DVDs, free of charge. Then I would head back to my mom’s house in suburban Toronto and spend glorious nights eating grilled cheese sandwiches in the glare of my laptop, which doubled as a TV set. One such night, my friend handed me the first disc of Freaks and Geeks, the beloved, yet cancelled, NBC series that aired its single season on NBC from 1999–2000. I couldn’t believe I had never seen this bittersweet love–hate note to high school.
When I got to episode 14, “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers,” I did a double take. Martin Starr’s Bill Haverchuck cooks up a grilled cheese sandwich after school and sits down in front of the TV, laughing with his mouth wide open, totally un-self-conscious. After all, he’s by himself — almost. Gary Shandling’s there in the TV, trying hard to make an unseen audience laugh, and Bill keeps up his end of the bargain. And I’m there, watching Bill watch Gary, all of us satisfying the requirements laid out in television’s invisible rulebook.
As Saul Austerlitz elegantly argues in Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community, “TV, more than film, belongs to its audiences, and they determine the ultimate value — the ultimate meaning — of the shows they watch.” That’s the beauty of TV: if you sit close enough, you can see a faint outline of your reflection in the screen.
Sitcom is both a celebration and a defense of its titular genre. It can almost be read as a sequel to Austerlitz’s previous book, Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy (2010). Comedy, Austerlitz notes, is an underdog art form, and the members of this cultural underclass have banded together to insist their endeavors are deserving of serious critical attention. Part of what makes Sitcom such a lively read is its insistence that comedy be taken seriously, but never too seriously. Gilligan’s Island “is, by nearly all measures, mediocre television.” (Austerlitz writes in his acknowledgments, “I am grateful to my son Nathaniel for arriving in this world during the writing of this book, and for having unwittingly sat through all 98 episodes of Gilligan’s Island. Life will only get better from here, I promise.”)
The story of the sitcom is in a way the story of television itself — it emerged with the arrival of television in the late 1940s and reflected the postwar desire for stability in the family home. Austerlitz moves nimbly from a micro-discussion of specific episodes to the larger picture of shows during their original runs: in the I Love Lucy chapter, for example, he pauses in his analysis of the episode “Lucy Does a TV Commercial” to explain how TV ad billings increased from $68 million to $688 million between 1949 and 1953 — around the time brands began hiring actors to shill their products.
There’s also plenty of tasty backstage gossip here, like the time Lucille Ball once ripped off her I Love Lucy co-star Vivian Vance’s fake eyelashes, declaring, “nobody wears false eyelashes on this show but me.” Or when Ball “visited the set of The Dick Van Dyke Show, walked past [Mary Tyler] Moore, then turned, looked her in the eye, and told her, ‘You’re very good.’ Moore never forgot it.” Austerlitz also slips in fun facts: Did you know in the early, black-and-white days of television, meat was shown raw and often covered in petroleum jelly, and cakes were dyed green to make them appear white? Or that Ken Kwapis, who directed The Office’s early episodes (and its finale), hired camera operators who had worked on reality TV series? Or that Tina Fey’s original idea for what became 30 Rock was pretty much The Newsroom — an odd-couple pairing of a beleaguered news producer and a right-wing anchor?
Most effectively, Austerlitz takes a birds-eye view of the sitcom, flying high above the individual programs to call attention to the ways in which TV comedies haven’t changed as much as we might think. Many words have been spilled on the staggering amount of highly paid film actors slumming it on TV — Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright on House of Cards, Don Cheadle on House of Lies, Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey on True Detective. But Austerlitz points to a glut of movie stars who appeared in leading roles on 1950s sitcoms, like Donna Reed on The Donna Reed Show and Walter Brennan on The Real McCoys.
He writes that female actors in the 1950s found more success on TV than in film; likewise, in 2013, the highest paid actor on television, male or female, was Sofia Vergara, and the highest paid female actor in Hollywood — Angelina Jolie — made a staggering $42 million less than the highest paid man, Robert Downey Jr. And before Kickstarter helped resurrect Veronica Mars, or Netflix brought Arrested Development back from the dead, letter-writing campaigns provided a lifeline for flailing sitcoms.
So how is it that some 60 years after the form was invented, not a whole lot has changed? How does something that has changed so little continue to hold our attention, week after week? The answer is in the episodes Austerlitz chooses to illustrate each series. From I Love Lucy’s “Lucy Does a TV Commercial” to Seinfeld’s “The Pitch” to Arrested Development’s “S.O.B.s,” the examples are invariably self-reflexive. The chapter on M*A*S*H, for example, zooms in on “Yankee Doodle Doctor,” an episode in which a documentary film crew visits the surgical hospital in Korea where the show is set.
From the beginning, “television had been aware of itself, like an infant regarding its reflection in a mirror.” As the sitcom matured — Gillian’s Island “perfectly represents television during its awkward adolescence, caught between its adorable early years and a more sophisticated adulthood” — it began to push back against the immutable truth that its characters couldn’t develop in any meaningful way. If The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s Lou Grant (Ed Asner) is having problems in his marriage, he can simply get divorced. Problem solved.
But things really start to get interesting in the late 1980s and 1990s, around the time The Simpsons debuted, when “the sitcom burst its boundaries, finding humor in the disjunction between its family-values past and the dysfunctional present.” The story of the sitcom is in many ways the story of America’s shifting morals and ideals: Sex and the City, Austerlitz writes, “was more than a sitcom; it was a symbol of the rapidly shifting landscape of American culture, which had made room for these profane, sensual, assertive women.”
Unlike film or literature, Austerlitz observes, TV needs the active participation of an audience in order to keep showing up on our screens every week. There’s a reason it reflects our lives (Roseanne) or a fantasy of them (Leave it to Beaver). The sitcom’s cozy relationship with its audience verges on unhealthy codependence. Its basic structure may have varied little over the course of its history, but sitcoms have to be flexible in order to suit the desires and responses of the viewers: When All in the Family’s racist, bigoted Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) received the surprising and overwhelming admiration of TV audiences, the show had to dance on the line between “approval and condemnation of its prime instigator.” Not every show’s reaction to audience response yielded topnotch comedy: according to Austerlitz, Good Times and What’s Happening!! — 1970s sitcoms centered on working-class African American families — pushed their popular but idiotic sidekick characters to the forefront at the expense of the shows’ quality.
This observation, which appears in the chapter on All in the Family, is a good example of Sitcom’s seamless integration of auxiliary programs into each chapter. These detours provide a sense of context, capturing the television landscape during the era of each of the 24 series that Austerlitz deems so exceptional (though not always in terms of quality; see Island, Gilligan’s) as to warrant a chapter.
The diversions often yield surprising yet persuasive comparisons: Austerlitz likens Arrested Development’s Buster Bluth (Tony Hale) to The Andy Griffith Show’s simpleton mechanic Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors), and elsewhere notes that Glee owes a debt to Freaks and Geeks, speculating, “couldn’t Sam, Neal, and Bill have easily been on the business end of a Slushying, if only their dull tormenters had had the creativity to have thought of it?” And then there’s this gem: “Modern Family is a deeply conservative reimaging of the classical sitcom decorated with contemporary touches: Family Ties with gay people.” You have to sit through an unhealthy amount of television to generate such fresh, thoughtful assessments.
Equally fresh and thoughtful is Sitcom’s prose. Plotlines on the 1950s sitcom Our Miss Brooks are “stretched like stale taffy into a half-hour episode”; Private Duane Doberman of The Phil Silvers Show, played by Maurice Gosfield, “is slovenly, portly, permanently unkempt, his chin dribbling into his neck like a melted puddle of ice cream”; William Frawley, who played the landlord on I Love Lucy, was not frequently drunk but “sozzled” — a term my word processor doesn’t even recognize.
Part of what makes Sitcom an important critical study is its ability to defamiliarize the familiar. Austerlitz’s resistance to cliché helps immensely on this score, as does his long view of the genre. Sitcom sketches a strong lineage over its 24 chapters — the number mirrors that of a typical sitcom season — which don’t simply function as standalone case studies but build towards a larger sense of the form’s history, and its possible future. By the time we reach the penultimate chapter on 30 Rock, there’s a feeling of imminent unrest with the rise of original programming from streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. “The sitcom,” Austerlitz writes, “is a blanket we wrap ourselves in to provide us with the TV-fueled illusion of stability.” The rise of competitors to TV’s traditional system of distribution has already begun to shatter that illusion.
I’ve always felt like TV belonged to me in a way that other art forms didn’t. Sitcom demonstrates that that feeling of intimacy is about more than TV’s sneaky ability to insinuate itself into our living rooms while we have our guard down; it’s not just the comfort of the couch that makes us feel like the characters we faithfully follow through hours and even years of shenanigans are speaking directly to us. At times it’s uncanny: how could the writers on Freaks and Geeks know about my midnight Blockbuster-and-grilled-cheese routine? And how did they know that I, like that show’s central “geek” Sam Weir (John Francis Daley), had foreseen a relationship’s inevitable demise when my significant other confessed he didn’t like The Jerk?
By the time 30 Rock and Community reached our screens, however, the sitcom was no longer content to reflect our lives back at us: it mostly wanted to talk about itself. Then again, maybe the sitcom’s explicit preoccupation with itself speaks to something more than a desire to interrogate the strange appeal of such a blatantly artificial form of entertainment. Early programs like The Dick Van Dyke Show, centered on a TV writer and his perky wife, may have set the stage for later introspective comedies like The Larry Sanders Show and 30 Rock. But the sitcom’s march toward total self-absorption really is about its viewers. An art form hell bent on self-examination and totally obsessed with itself: What could be more American than that?