A carefully curated tour through TV comedy series, this mixtape of fondly remembered shows surveys the genealogy of the form, the larger trends in its history, the best of what the genre has accomplished, and the most standard of its works. From I Love Lucy, The Phil Silvers Show, and M*A*S*H to Taxi, The Larry Sanders Show, and 30 Rock, this guide presents the sitcom as a capsule version of the 20th-century arts—realism giving way to modernism and then to postmodernism, all between the hours of 8 and 10pm on weeknights. Each chapter springs from an individual representative entity, including The Simpsons’ “22 Short Films About Springfield,” The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” Seinfeld’s “The Pitch,” and Freaks and Geeks’ “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers,” where Martin Starr’s nerdy Bill takes comfort in—what else—the pleasures of laughing at TV.
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About the Author
Saul Austerlitz is a writer and the author of Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy and Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video from the Beatles to the White Stripes. His work has been published in numerous publications, including the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and Slate. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Read an Excerpt
A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community
By Saul Austerlitz
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2014 Saul Austerlitz
All rights reserved.
I Love Lucy
"Lucy Does a TV Commercial"
May 5, 1952 * CBS
Let us begin with a definition. The sitcom, in short, is about the preservation of equilibrium. Before we begin upsetting the sitcom's equilibrium ourselves, let us take a moment to settle it in its place. The sitcom is a jumble of mixed metaphors: the repetition compulsion of eternal sameness conjoined to a desire to overturn the established order; a profound aesthetic conservatism bundled with an ingrained desire to shock.
The sitcom, emerging at the tail end of the 1940s alongside the television itself, bore witness to the conformism borne of the horrors of the Second World War. A generation forged in the fire of the war sought placidity and sameness on the home front: stable nuclear families, a nation of identically constructed Levittowns. Television was a product of the same enforced consensus. It would mirror America, not necessarily as it was, but as it should be: peaceable, middle class, eternally unchanging.
The sitcom's arrival on television screens across America was a decade and a half in the making. Television, so profoundly intertwined with postwar American life, was actually a technological outgrowth of the 1930s. David Sarnoff of RCA, an early pioneer of television, pledged $1 million in 1935 for broadcasting experiments. Actors in Studio 3H at Radio City in New York's Rockefeller Center applied green makeup and purple lipstick for tests, the better to stand out on the tiny black-and-white screen. By 1939 RCA's NBC network was broadcasting an episode of Amos 'n' Andy from the grounds of the World's Fair in Queens. RCA was putting five-inch, nine-inch, and twelve-inch TVs on sale, with prices ranging from $200 to $600 ($3,300 to $10,000 in today's dollars).
The stage was set for television to succeed radio as Americans' principal source of home entertainment, but disputes over the new form's technical specifications, and the outbreak of World War II, pushed television's emergence back by almost a decade. During this "laboratory period," as Erik Barnouw describes the era in his book Tube of Plenty, a freeze on new stations meant that some cities, like New York and Los Angeles, had multiple television options, while others, like Little Rock and Austin, had no TV whatsoever.
But once television arrived in American cities after the war's end, its impact was immediate and incontrovertible. Movie theater receipts in cities with functioning TV stations decreased by 20 to 40 percent, while those cities without TV saw no drop-off at all. Television was usurping movies' central role in entertaining America, its immediacy and accessibility threatening to doom Hollywood to irrelevance. And no sitcom caught America's eye as immediately, or as thoroughly, as I Love Lucy (CBS, 1951–57).
I Love Lucy teetered on the balance between order and chaos, only reluctantly returning to the status quo. Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball), housewife and (eventually) mother, dreams of showbiz stardom, a beautiful bauble perpetually denied her by her husband, Ricky (Desi Arnaz), a nightclub performer. "You have no talent," Ricky bluntly tells Lucy, and he undoubtedly has a point. Lucy brays in an off-key, tuneless warble, unabashedly mugs for any audience she performs in front of, and lacks the suave polish of her showman husband. And yet, her copious deficiencies notwithstanding, Lucy hungers for fame, whatever the format or forum.
From the very outset, then, I Love Lucy winked at its audience, letting them in on the joke of the show's double identity. Lucille Ball embodied Lucy McGillicuddy Ricardo, frustrated housewife dreaming of showbiz triumph, even when viewers knew her as one of the most famous, instantly recognizable women in the world. This double sense — of a world within the television and another without — was compounded by I Love Lucy's exploration of the fragile membrane dividing television from not-television. For someone desperate to appear on television, Lucy sure was on TV a lot.
The first-season episode "Lucy Does a TV Commercial," written by Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh, and Bob Carroll Jr., is simultaneously one of Lucy Ricardo's many stabs at fame (in other episodes she replaces a baggy-pantsed comic in Ricky's act, auditions as a ballet dancer, works as a movie extra ...) and a wink in the direction of the format itself. Lucy — the protagonist's name itself bearing witness to the overlap between art and life — bubbles with excitement on hearing that Ricky must hire an actress for a sponsor's commercial spot. She is, she asserts, an old hand in the ways of television programs: "Well, maybe not," she admits, "but I've watched them a lot."
In an effort to convince Ricky of her suitability, she enlists her neighbor, landlord, and occasional ally Fred Mertz (husband of Lucy's best friend, Ethel) to assist her with a proto-advertisement of her own. Cramming her head inside the empty frame of a television set, Lucy performs an impromptu cigarette commercial for her husband. "I can't get over how clear the picture is," Ricky, clearly amused, burbles. Lucy, as klutzy as ever, drops her pack of cigarettes through the screen and onto the floor. "Well, what do you know?" Ricky exclaims. "Third-dimensional television!" Lucy is both at home and on television, a star and a housewife all at once.
Lucy ultimately finagles her way into shooting the spot and is brought to the studio for a run-through of the ad before the broadcast. She is to tout the medicinal virtues of her product while also extolling its delightful taste. "Do you poop out at parties?" Lucy asks us, perfectly capturing the mock intimacy of a television huckster. The good news, she lets us know, is that Vitameatavegamin means "you can spoon your way to health!"
The director prompts Lucy to taste the product while delivering her pitch line — "It's so tasty, too!" — and Ball brilliantly telegraphs the shock of its unpleasant aftertaste, her face crumpling in a sour grimace as she swallows it down. Lucy is a two-year-old condemned to an eternally heaping plate of broccoli; on each encounter with the elixir, her lips curl into a frozen rictus, the skeleton of a smile without its flesh. Her eyes are two dead fish, her entire body tensing for the impact of another spoonful of Vitameata-vegamin, communicating the broad sensations of discomfort and dissatisfaction. We are already in the realm of classic Ball physical comedy, but she then ratchets up the entire scene another notch. She reminds us that, as we have been told, Vitameatavegamin is 20 percent alcohol, and sets the bar for sitcom antics to come. Lucy does another run-through of the ad, brighter this time, ending with a surprise hiccup that rocks her body.
With each spoonful, Lucy gets a bit drunker, her smile more vacant, her eyes bulging slightly more, her words ever more slurred. Instead of cringing at the impact of each new dose, she eagerly anticipates it: "It's so tasty, too. Tastes like candy — honest!" The product's name undergoes a drunken reedit, now known as "Mitameatamigamin," which Lucy further informs us is chock-full of "megetables and vinerals." She spills much of the bottle on the floor and ends up swigging directly from the bottle and licking her fingers, and the spoon. She now offers a more heartfelt, if vaguer, encomium: "So everybody get a bottle of ... this stuff!"
The episode is a classic example of Ball's enduring physical gifts. She is unafraid to make herself ridiculous in the pursuit of a laugh, and Lucy leans heavily on her perpetual fondness for costumes and imitations. In other episodes, Lucy disguises herself as a hobo musician to wheedle her way into Ricky's show, as a toothless hillbilly while posing as Ricky's date to a nightclub, and as an elderly biddy to ward off an older admirer. Lucy is fond of set-designing a fully rounded scene to win a point, be it the soiled version of her apartment, complete with rubber tires on the couch and lines of wash snaking across the living room — set up to fool a visiting photographer — or the steak she sets aflame to discourage her unwanted admirer, dousing it with a bottle of seltzer and then cutting it with a mallet and chisel.
The central set piece of "Lucy Does a TV Commercial," by imagining Lucy Ricardo / Lucille Ball as the impromptu star of a television commercial, was referencing an already familiar pattern of TV stars shilling for products on the air. Gertrude Berg, star of The Goldbergs, had plumped for Sanka as early as 1949, pledging that its decaf brand was safe any time of day, because "the sleep is left in." Television was in the business of entertainment, but that was paid for by the sponsorship of major corporations, meaning that television was ultimately in the business of providing eyeballs for commercials. The Depression and the war years had established a pattern of thrift and economizing that postwar advertisers needed to undo in order to sell their products. The first wave of TV commercials was dedicated to a kind of breathless hucksterism, boosting not only the product in question but the very notion of consumerism as the solution. It was, as Shellaby Jackson put it in a 1954 New Republic article, "a kind of frenzy. Sell, sell, sell — dozens of men with white teeth, pushing packages of cigarettes at you, dozens of well-groomed women batting their eyes and pushing packages of soap at you."
Between 1949 and 1953, television ad billings increased tenfold, from $68 million to $688 million. In that time, advertisers hired stars like Henry Fonda, Milton Berle, and Steve Allen as pitchmen. Ads were integrated into shows, with Alfred Hitchcock sardonically commenting on his commercial sponsors (with dialogue written by a copywriter) on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Jack Paar snapping photos of his guests with Polaroid Land Cameras. Berle and Dinah Shore would sing their sponsors' jingles on their shows. The early 1950s were a time of unconscious "advertainment" meant to escape the notice of viewers, when Jerry Lewis would shill for Colgate on the Comedy Hour sponsored by the brand, and Art Carney of The Honey-mooners would pop in to The Jackie Gleason Show during an ad for Nescafé.
There was huge money to be made in television comedy, with CBS selling sponsorship of The Jackie Gleason Show at $90,000 a week in 1952. Phil Silvers smoked Camel cigarettes during episodes of The Phil Silvers Show, and the company was prominently featured in the show's opening credits. Even Ball made a habit of squeezing her sponsor into her shows, smoking Philip Morris cigarettes on I Love Lucy and doing ads in character as Lucy Ricardo; she would later do Westinghouse spots with Arnaz and pitch-woman extraordinaire Betty Furness on The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show.
As a new medium, television required adjustments to the very products being sold so that they could look as appealing as possible. Swiss cheese required the efforts of carpenters, who would make larger holes that would show up better on viewers' small television screens. Meat was always shown raw, and usually coated with petroleum jelly. The color white wreaked havoc on TV screens' contrast, leading to the strange spectacle of white cakes being dyed green in order to better show up as white.
But television ads, in this early era, were also generally presented live (although not on Lucy, which was shot on film, about which more momentarily), which led inevitably to mishaps and goofs. Live performers would shill for Lipton Tea while holding up a competitor's package, break into racking coughs after touting a cigarette's smoothness, get caught on camera dumping beer into a pail at their feet, or find themselves unable to turn off the electric shaver they were touting. They would open refrigerators and yank off the doors. They would, in short, act much like Lucy does in her Vitameata-vegamin commercial. "Lucy Does a TV Commercial," then, perhaps is also a documentary of sorts, depicting the worst indignities of the early television advertisement.
Thus, the episode is a reminder that television was self-absorbed from practically the very beginning. "Television isn't going to last. It's just a fad," Lucy tells Ricky, but the joke was already self-evident, for TV was, by the early 1950s, an established fact of American life. In another notable episode of Lucy, Ricky is approached by a television executive, who solicits suggestions for a TV program with him as the star. "How about one of those husband-and-wife TV shows?" he offers. Which is precisely what we are already watching, of course. I Love Lucy, and the sitcom at large, demands that we simultaneously believe and not believe, trust in the efficacy of the fiction and also stand outside it, marveling at its verisimilitude. Celebrating its own domesticity, the sitcom was at home in our living rooms, making itself comfortable in a way the larger, more expensive, and more stolid movies never could. We did not have to go to television; television came to us.
And so while the sitcom, in its early years, sought shelter under the awning of domestic serenity and unchanging order, it also persistently drew attention to its newness, even as it pretended otherwise. Ricky successfully kept Lucy from stardom; and yet, in almost every episode, she sought escape from her comfortable domestic prison into the magical realm of celebrity. I Love Lucy pays obeisance to order while preferring the company of chaos. A pattern was established that would keep sitcoms busily active for the next half- century.
Lucy, though far and away the cleverest of its ilk, was not the first television series to exploit this sense of domesticity. Early TV was much more feminine than the macho bluster of the movies. The cinematic genre known as "the women's picture" had once catered to these audiences, with pictures starring Joan Crawford or Bette Davis, devoted to stories of downtrodden women emerging triumphant. By the early 1950s this brand of filmmaking was on its way to extinction, and television picked up the baton, turning over much of its early programming — especially its comic series — to women.
Many of these series leaned on a familiar brand of urban, ethnic humor, with raucous families anchored by a loving maternal figure. The antic Norwegians of Mama (CBS, 1949–57) and the eccentric Jews of The Goldbergs (CBS/NBC, 1949–56) were essentially the same family in different garb. Television took over where radio left off, with series like The Goldbergs and The Life of Riley making the transition from one form to the next, and others, like I Love Lucy, adapted from radio forebears.
The only real competition for Ball as a comic icon in this earliest era of TV was a pudgy Jewish matron with a similar itch to upend a stable but fragile domestic order. Echoing the journeys of so many other Jewish families in the aftermath of World War II, Molly Goldberg (series creator Gertrude Berg) and her family left the big city — in their case, East Tremont Avenue, the Bronx — and departed for the wide-open spaces of the suburbs, mingling with a Gentile world mostly unfamiliar to them. Having begun life as a highly popular radio serial, The Goldbergs made the transition to television in 1949, with the medium still in its infancy.
The Goldbergs is a remarkable document of early television, and a series that truthfully and humorously depicts the lives of American Jews. At a time when the (mostly Jewish) Hollywood moguls, deathly afraid of telling overtly Jewish stories, were taking their first tentative steps toward Jewish content with films like Crossfire (1947) and Gentleman's Agreement (1947), The Goldbergs was unashamedly Jewish. This is clearest in the immigrant malapropisms of Molly and her family, which often result in unintentional hilarity. "Should I boil you or fry you?" Uncle David (the brilliant Eli Mintz) asks at the breakfast table, and Molly tells her daughter "go and hang yourself in your closet" when she purchases a new dress.
Excerpted from Sitcom by Saul Austerlitz. Copyright © 2014 Saul Austerlitz. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
1 I Love Lucy: "Lucy Does a TV Commercial",
2 The Honeymooners: "Better Living Through TV",
3 The Phil Silvers Show: "Doberman's Sister",
4 Leave It to Beaver: "Beaver Gets 'Spelled",
5 The Dick Van Dyke Show: "Forty-Four Tickets",
6 Gilligan's Island: "St. Gilligan and the Dragon",
7 The Mary Tyler Moore Show: "Chuckles Bites the Dust",
8 All in the Family: "The First and Last Supper",
9 M*A*S*H: "Yankee Doodle Doctor",
10 Taxi: "Latka the Playboy",
11 Cheers: "Strange Bedfellows, Pt. 2",
12 The Cosby Show: "Pilot",
13 Roseanne: "Terms of Estrangement, Part 1",
14 The Simpsons: "22 Short Films About Springfield",
15 Seinfeld: "The Pitch",
16 The Larry Sanders Show: "The Mr. Sharon Stone Show",
17 Friends: "The One with the Embryos",
18 Sex and the City: "My Motherboard, My Self",
19 Freaks and Geeks: "Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers",
20 Curb Your Enthusiasm: "Seinfeld",
21 Arrested Development: "S.O.B.s",
22 The Office: "Casino Night",
23 30 Rock: "Rosemary's Baby",
24 Community: "Modern Warfare",