Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community

Overview

The form is so elemental, so basic, that we have difficulty imagining a time before it existed: a single set, fixed cameras, canned laughter, zany sidekicks, quirky family antics. Obsessively watched and critically ignored, sitcoms were a distraction, a gentle lullaby of a kinder, gentler America—until suddenly the artificial boundary between the world and television entertainment collapsed.

            In this book we can ...

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Overview

The form is so elemental, so basic, that we have difficulty imagining a time before it existed: a single set, fixed cameras, canned laughter, zany sidekicks, quirky family antics. Obsessively watched and critically ignored, sitcoms were a distraction, a gentle lullaby of a kinder, gentler America—until suddenly the artificial boundary between the world and television entertainment collapsed.

            In this book we can watch the growth of the sitcom, following the path that leads from Lucy to The Phil Silvers Show; from The Dick Van Dyke Show to The Mary Tyler Moore Show; from M*A*S*H to Taxi; from Cheers to Roseanne; from Seinfeld to Curb Your Enthusiasm; and from The Larry Sanders Show to 30 Rock.

            In twenty-four episodes, Sitcom surveys the history of the form, and functions as both a TV mixtape of fondly remembered shows that will guide us to notable series and larger trends, and a carefully curated guided tour through the history of one of our most treasured art forms. 

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Astute and bursting with information—an entertaining treat for sitcom fans and a valuable contribution to TV history.” —Kirkus Reviews

"A compulsively readable and often laugh-out-loud funny study of the American sitcom." —Starred review, Library Journal

“[...] Austerlitz ingeniously and persuasively uses the genre of situation comedy as an American Rosetta stone, showing it to be capable of decoding itself (thanks to its endless self-references) and of making intelligible an entire social archaeology, [...]  Bottomless in its depth of research but as light in touch as the best of its subjects, Sitcom belongs in any home that has a sofa and a TV set.” —Stuart Klawans, the Nation

"[Austerliz] is capable of delightfully mischievous prose." —The New Republic

"[A] smart new book" —The New Yorker

“Austerlitz writes with a direct and punchy style… that makes for compelling reading.” —Paste

Library Journal
★ 02/15/2014
Early in this book, Austerlitz (Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy) says, "Watch enough television, and sitcoms begin to talk to one another." This serves as the book's thesis, and the author is at his best when he's facilitating the conversation. Father Knows Best recalls The Honeymooners, Moe's Tavern is Springfield's answer to Cheers, and Curb Your Enthusiasm couldn't exist without Seinfeld. Extending beyond the facile comparisons, Austerlitz's chapter on Sex in the City opens with a look at The Golden Girls and leads into Entourage, while his section on Taxi reads like an introduction to TV sidekicks, spanning from The Mary Tyler Moore Show to Community. Austerlitz adheres to his history of sitcoms in 24 episodes, but isn't shackled by it, easily covering an entire run of a sitcom while drawing comparisons to a dozen other shows within a single chapter. VERDICT A compulsively readable and often laugh-out-loud funny study of the American sitcom. While it lacks the detailed episode and cast listings scholars might desire, it's perfect for armchair readers—and is a must if that armchair resembles Archie Bunker's.—Terry Bosky, Madison, WI
Kirkus Reviews
2013-11-18
Sitcoms reveal America's changing reality, writes the author in this enthusiastic overview of an enduring genre. Movie and TV critic Austerlitz (Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy, 2010, etc.) brings his keen analysis of American culture to sitcoms, long the staple of prime time. Each chapter focuses on a single episode of a popular show, which launches the author's investigation into the evolution of comedy; the talents of stars, producers and writers; and the changing expectations of viewers. As the author sees it, sitcoms emerged in the 1950s as "field guides to the new postwar consensus, an effort to simultaneously reflect the lives of their audiences and subtly steer their behavior." The shows celebrated family life and domesticity, even when their subjects were sparring, childless couples, such as Ralph and Alice Kramden in The Honeymooners. Most early sitcoms featured middle-class white families with stay-at-home mothers, children who invariably got into and out of mischief in half an hour, and fathers who did not always know best. Those sitcoms, writes the author, "promised comfort and familiarity, the certainty of an eternal present free of all but the most fleeting concerns." In evaluating the genre, Austerlitz sets the bar high: I Love Lucy was brilliant, while Leave it to Beaver was repetitive and only occasionally funny. Some of his discoveries may surprise readers: The long-running, award-winning The Dick Van Dyke Show and Cheers were almost cancelled after their first seasons; Carl Reiner envisioned Johnny Carson for Van Dyke's role; the creator of the racist Archie Bunker was "a card-carrying liberal humanist." Roseanne, writes the author, disrupted the idea of sitcom as middle-class comfort zone; Friends offered viewers "a replacement family" in the form of a group of confidants; Seinfeld began a trend in which sitcoms spoofed television itself, "undercutting its medium, ridiculing its traditions and its unspoken assumptions." Astute and bursting with information--an entertaining treat for sitcom fans and a valuable contribution to TV history.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781613743843
  • Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 3/1/2014
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 414,568
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author


Saul Austerlitz is the author of Another Fine Mess: A History of the American Film Comedy, named by Booklist as one of the ten best arts books of 2010, and Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video from the Beatles to the White Stripes. His work has been published in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, Slate, and elsewhere.
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