‘Sitcom’ offers deep reflection and outlook on TV staple

By A Contributor

Sometimes it’s important to read about television.

‘Sitcom’  reviews the history of the situation comedy in 24 chapters, each focusing on a particular sitcom, in roughly chronological order from “I Love Lucy “ to modern shows like “Community.”

Many of the chapters are fairly obvious choices (“I Love Lucy,” “M*A*S*H,” “The Cosby Show,” “The Simpsons,” “Friends”), though some choices of less popular shows seem odder (“The Phil Silvers Show, “ “Freaks and Geeks, “ “Curb Your Enthusiasm”). 

Individual readers will of course be offended when their favorites were not selected.  Fear not, however, as many shows not headlining chapters are in fact mentioned nonetheless, usually late in a chapter concluding with that show’s influence on other programs.

Although this book is easy to read and, of course, totally about pop culture, it is still a somewhat scholarly book with lots of detail and background. Readers will learn how particular shows came into being (and sometimes almost didn’t) and how they moved the development of the sitcom along.  Many shows evolved in interesting ways, some becoming far better in their later years and some losing their cutting edge as time went on. 

Most sitcoms fall either into the category of family or workplace sitcoms.  In cases of the latter, the workplace group (think “Cheers,”  “The Office,” “ The Mary Tyler Moore Show”) is the de facto family for the characters.

The arrival of the animated sitcom. “The Simpsons”  in 1989, opened new possibilities for plots and material.  Still going after 25 years, this show has lasted over twice as long as the longest-running live-action classics like “Friends” or “M*A*S*H.” 

In addition, it has spawned other animated shows like “Family Guy,” “ South Park,” “ Beavis and Butthead,”  and “Futurama.”

Clearly the sitcom has come a long way from “I Love Lucy” to contemporary cable shows. 

For TV’s first 40 years or so, the sitcom was a staple genre of show on all the networks.  “Friends”  was really the last truly mass-market sitcom. 

By the end of “Friends’” run,  (1994-2004), cable had fractured the market so totally that there would never again be a television show with the ratings dominance of “M*A*S*H” or ‘Cosby.’

Some of the most critically acclaimed contemporary sitcoms like “Parks and Recreation,” “Modern Family, “ or “Arrested Development “ sometimes have had trouble attracting a large enough audience to continue. 

When 100 channels, plus the internet, are available, no single outlet will ever attract anything close to the majority of viewers once enjoyed.  This is the new niche-market reality.

Austerlitz frequently discusses cross-fertilization across sitcoms and referential comments on one show mentioning another. 

Increasingly over the years sitcom characters refer to classic characters like Lucy Ricardo, Ralph Kramden, or Mary Richards.

Sometimes the cross-referencing becomes almost a parody of itself, as when “Curb Your Enthusiasm” does a whole show with the “Seinfeld” cast (in character) or “Community’s” dialogue involving guest star Malcolm-Jamal Warner where someone compliments his 80s-style sweater and the character says “My dad gave it to me.”  This reference to the famous sweaters on the ‘Cosby Show’ by the actor who played his son Theo is not lost on viewers.

Of course sitcom writers are necessarily enamored with television as an institution, and Austerlitz notes than one of the favorite activities of sitcom characters is to watch TV or aspire to be on it. 

This goes back to the early days of Lucy Ricardo continually trying to break into TV acting to “30 Rock’s” whole premise of producing a comedy show on NBC about characters producing a comedy show on NBC.

Yet somehow with all its growing pains and difficulties competing with reality shows and multiple cable channels, the sitcom has survived and probably will continue to be with us in some form for a long time.

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