Let’s get one thing out of the way: this book about the history of the sitcom ain’t just a trip down memory lane. Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community author Saul Austerlitz argues that the TV sitcom’s sixty-odd year history (they began as radio shows, awkwardly transferred to the new, visual medium) is in fact “a capsule version of the twentieth-century arts – realism giving way to modernism, and then to postmodernism.”
Where the sitcom was once a vehicle for sponsors to sell products to a mass audience, it’s now a vehicle to poke critical fun at its own tropes, but to a dwindling audience of critics and hipsters.
CBS, which dominated the sitcom from the 1950s through the 1970s, laid the groundwork for television comedy as we know it: the wacky family (I LOVE LUCY, THE HONEYMOONERS, LEAVE IT TO BEAVER), the fantasy show (GILLIGAN’S ISLAND), the wisecracking critique of gender and race politics (THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, ALL IN THE FAMILY), and the one-of-a-kind, anti-war comedy, M*A*S*H. The network apparently hasn’t had a sitcom worth watching since M*A*S*H ended in 1983; turn on any recent or ongoing CBS sitcom and it’s like taking a time machine back to 1990, three-camera setup, laugh track, wooden characters, relentless mediocrity and all.
From the 1980s on, the sitcom belonged to NBC, ABC, and Fox, where black neoconservatives (THE COSBY SHOW), neurotic New York Jews (SEINFELD), and shouting, overweight representatives of what would come to be called the 99% (ROSEANNE) somehow spoke for all of us. CHEERS and FRIENDS mixed soap-opera romance with jokes, and THE SIMPSONS proved over and over again that it could do anything it wanted to do.
The postmodern sitcom – arch, cerebral, self-reflexive, comfortable with mining uncomfortable emotional territory for viewers – plays to a shrinking pool of viewers who are in on the joke ( I mean you, ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, 30 ROCK, CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, THE OFFICE, and COMMUNITY). If the price of the sitcom’s newfound freedom to be self-aware and intellectually demanding is to go unwatched, where does that leave television comedy? “What happens when you sum up the history of television,” muses Austerlitz, “and no one bothers to tune in?”
The sitcom was never more than one aspect of TV comedy, and Austerlitz (wisely) chooses to narrow the focus of his book to the American sitcom: no British shows (his close viewing of THE OFFICE only covers the American version), no sketch comedy or variety shows, no late night talk shows with comedian-hosts. The only animated cartoons discussed apart from THE SIMPSONS are the lesser sitcoms SOUTH PARK and FAMILY GUY; THE FLINTSTONES, which was merely THE HONEYMOONERS in caveman drag, barely rates a mention.
It’s his critical observations about the meanings of these shows that’s valuable; each of them was a game changer for the comedies that followed, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. The anarchist heart of I LOVE LUCY (1951-57) beats beneath a rigid facade of 1950s conformism. The self-referential sitcoms of the early 21st century begin with THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW’s window into the writers’ room of a TV comedy show (1961-66). TAXI (1978-83) was a workplace comedy that all but dispensed with its ostensible star in favor of a world ruled by the goofy sidekicks surrounding him. SEX AND THE CITY (1998-2004), summed up on FAMILY GUY as a show “about three hookers and their mom” is a feminist fairy tale inspiring a chapter on sexual and gender politics from THE ODD COUPLE to THE GOLDEN GIRLS to Lena Dunham’s GIRLS.
If today’s sitcoms go largely unwatched, individual shows may come and go, but the sitcom itself is probably no more in danger of extinction than contemporary fiction, which goes largely unread. Broadcast TV is an increasingly outmoded delivery system anyway, more efficient for advertisers than anyone else. If there’ll never again be a sitcom that pulls most Americans together, so what? Entertainment for former or occasional TV viewers is now a matter of instant access to content and near-infinite choices, and TV comedy is too diverse to be molded to the demands of an old-fashioned business model. The heroic age of sitcoms is over. Where we go to get our laughs now is up to us.