Letter from an Illinois church

In defense of the American Sitcom

Let’s face it, folks: the sitcom is a uniquely American creation, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, and it is not exactly the pinnacle of entertainment’s potential. However, America and our lives would not be the same without the presence of these formulaic, poorly-constructed, wholly unrealistic half hour jaunts. Think back to the salad days of your youth, and what do you remember from that lovely glowing box? I, being a barely surviving refugee of the days of Zubaz and Bryan Adams, have wonderful, romantic, even downright fuzzy memories of Mondays spent plunked down in front of a black and white Sears solid state or a color Zenith screen watching Blossom and the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. As time marched on, I entertained the likes of Frasier, Seinfeld, and yes…occasionally the odd episode of Friends. For some of my older readers, perhaps you remember the Brady Bunch, or Punky Brewster, or even (going a bit farther back) the likes of I Love Lucy and the Honeymooners. Don’t lie. Everyone did it. We all watched sitcoms. And we all loved them.
So why, in this postmodern, ironic culture based on painfully prepared “random” observations and $300 flannel shirts has the sitcom, that most American of television icons, come under such unbelievable scrutiny? You would think that sitcoms, which at their heart are sending up the “establishment” that you Modest Mouse listening angry youths seem to believe need a good sending up Knobbly Stick Road. And yet, I hear nothing but ire for our beloved sitcoms, calling them “offensive,” “unrealistic,” and, often, just plain “bad.” Well, I’m here to stand up for sitcoms, because no one else will, and I’ll take each of your barbs in turn. Someone’s got to do it, before we completely lose our rich televised heritage of scripted comedy to the utter scum and rotten chum-bucket that is laughingly called “Reality” Television. So, without further ado, I take up arms against your sea of troubles. Come wind, blow wrack, at least I’ll die with Ross and Rachel off my back.
First off, the idea of modern sitcoms being “Offensive” and other nasty words like it, whilst subsequently championing the bygone days when scripted shows were wholesome, pure, and good old-timey entertainment.
Pardon my French, but I’m going to have to call a good old-timey “Bullshit.”
While it’s true that the modern scripted shows have become crude, almost unbelievably so, it’s the same old story that our grandparents were saying to our parents’ programming in the 1960s, and it probably has happened since the very dawn of entertainment. You know, the birthday of Dick Clark. I can just see it now.

Patercles: Son of mine, truly I cannot believe that you will be taking in the new Sophocles epic tonight!
Sonnycus: Father, I find it entertaining so!
Patercles: Zeus’ Beard! You call that entertainment? All that filth of copulating with one’s mother and gouging your eyes out? If you ask me, things were better back when they had good writers. Why Aeschylus…now HE could weave a tapestry and create a story worth painting an urn about, not this hack…and don’t get me started on his choice of venue for all of this smut. Thebes! You know what they say about girls from Thebes…
Sonnycus: Father, my girlfriend is from Thebes…
Patercles: Oh, don’t get me started on THAT harlot! She might as well call herself an oracle and move to Lesbos!

Man, I could keep going.
But yes, such shows like Family Guy, South Park, and The Show Where All Family Guy’s Semblance of Plot Went, AKA American Dad have definitely ramped up the sex, violence, and all that other stuff that makes Watchdog groups scratch giddily at their fleas. However, the argument loses a little steam when you remember shows like All in the Family, which was considered horribly controversial at its time, and is now considered a classic (Archie Bunker’s chair is in the Smithsonian, for crying out loud). I believe Hill Street Blues killed a character in the first episode, something that was considered a big deal in the 70s, and let’s not forget the struggle the world’s greatest science fiction serial Doctor Who has had over the years for its portrayals of scary aliens and violence, all of which now make Ray Harryhausen look like the WETA workshop. Have we all forgotten the stir Murphy Brown caused in the 1980s with its scandalous scripts, or even the worries about letting Fred and Wilma Flinstone share a bed? It’s all a matter of perspective, and as long as people, particularly young people, are going to be entertained by the gross and outlandish (and they always will, as Shakespeare’s copious fart jokes will show), there is going to be a spot for people to push the envelope in the sphere of entertainment…although a spherical envelope would be awfully impractical.
Secondly, the idea that sitcoms are absolutely unrealistic, as a form of criticism, is, well…absolutely unrealistic in its own right. I know it’s hard to believe sometimes, but the second part of “sitcom” is “comedy.”

Situation + Comedy = Sitcom.

See?
Anyway, the very core of a sitcom is comedy, and for almost fifty years, it has been very, very, very simplistic and easily scripted comedy. There’s a reason why Tom Wolfe never wrote for Happy Days, or why John Updike never penned an episode of Cheers. Sitcoms are meant to be simple, easy to understand comedy, and in that way they are a descendant of the glorious traditions of vaudeville…you know, without all the blackface and the child abuse. Still, within today’s good taste (which is a window about the size a mouse can fit half its nose through these days, blimey…) the comedy has been pared down to the safe and traditionally less than subtle.
For those of you who didn’t spend a frightening amount of money to study tragedy and comedy, let me explain what comedy is all about in the snootiest possible way.
Snifter of brandy? Check.
Meerschaum pipe? Check.
Elbow patches? Check.
And now, to jam my nose into the air…done!
You see, the very essence of comedy, of all things comedic and funny, is to take something normal and twist it. Why do we find it funny when a man falls down? Because we usually stand up. Why do we laugh when someone gets hit with a pie? Because pies are for eating, silly. Why is funny… funny? Because it’s taking our admittedly rather unfunny lives and throwing in a Gaylord Perry spitball that makes up turn into down, black turn into white, and boring turn into humorous. The secret to comedy is to take the mundane and turn it on its ear, all while remaining serious and faithful to whatever ridiculous thing it is you’re doing, and that is why Jimmy Fallon is not funny.
But speaking of black and white… forgive me for letting my conservatism show, but over the past forty years the field of comedy has been winnowed such that the only thing left to turn on its ear is the situation of, you guessed it, the privileged white male. Now, I’m not about to go and say that me and my saltine Cracka brothers have it hard, no siree, but the society and current climate is such that the privileged white male is about the only thing you can make fun of anymore. Enter Homer Simpson, Ray Romano, Peter Griffin, Jim Belushi, and pretty much any TV father or older, successful white guy you can think of. In such a society that you can get sued for even implying that your black co-worker slept in when he shows up to work two hours late (because, you know, that means you’re calling the entire African-American race a bunch of lazy good-for-nothings…or something) the only thing you can get away with making funny are those evil, domineering, oppressive WHITE GUYS. So time rolls on, and the men get stupider, and more outrageous, because you have to keep delivering the funny and you’ve got nothing else to make fun of.
Mom? No way, unless you want NOW claiming you’re holding women to a lower standard.
Kids? Heck no, that’s abuse! Even implying a kid, who are by their nature less educated, by somehow less smart than their parents will damage their little psyches and turn them all into some kind of cross between Ed Gein and Heinrich Himmler.
How about rhe main character’s sassy ethnic co-worker, which every show is told to have by law, it seems? Wrong! Unless, of course, you want to be called Grand Wizard and given a Nazi salute as you go to work in the morning by idiot graduate students in sweaters and patchy beards.
It’s not that sitcoms are getting unrealistic. It’s the fact that they never were realistic, and now they are so hog-tied with who they can and can’t look to for humor that the pool of funny has reduced to a dried-up puddle. The TV try their best and keep dredging up the same muddy swill to feed you, but things are getting awfully shallow, and sometimes you have to resort to having the dog piddle into the puddle to keep things interesting. Not necessarily good or prudent, but… interesting, which brings us nicely to…
The claim that “shows these days” are just plain bad. Well, I won’t argue with you there. Got some real stinkers in the prime time lineup…but that always happens! There are hundreds, possibly thousands of shows that never made it, and we don’t talk about them in the good old days because they didn’t, and therefore passed through public memory. It’s impossible to measure the halcyon memories of landmark shows against the glut of dross that will eventually be sieved out of the mass consciousness of this country…except for that one idiot who still keeps up and Angelfire page about how “Herman’s Head is a highly underrated program.” But that’s a rant for another day.
Yes, a lot of shows are bad. That’s entertainment. I’m shrugging a lot as I type as if I’m trying to will my fingers to type with a “what can you say?” kind of attitude. Showbiz is full of the corpses of ideas, products, and even human beings that just didn’t cut the mustard. Add to it the fact that we’re not really allowed to make any cutting, funny jokes anymore for fear of the ACLU, the NAACP, or some other acronym coming and bludgeoning us into a Dora the Explorer-like coma with their mighty initials. As a result, people are simply giving up on the genre, a truly American genre and switching over to some dreck like American Idol, Extreme Makeover, or FOX’s newest hit, We Don’t Have to Pay Writers Anymore So We’re So Damned Rich. Also, let me note that most of our Reality Programs (and that includes to an extent the eight billion forensic shows that litter the TV landscape like the aftermath of a claymore mine) are actually taken from other countries’ ideas and concepts, so what good is that flag pin now, eh?
Don’t run away from sitcoms. They’re good. Yes they’re simple, yes they’re telegraphed so hard that Samuel Morse would say “steady on,” and they’re quite possibly the lowest form of scripted entertainment…below soap operas…but they’re still funny, people! At least, they can be again if you follow three simple steps to combat the three problems we saw before:
To combat offensiveness, don’t watch the swill. Start putting your efforts into shows that don’t constantly reference such, drugs, alcohol, and the like. If need be, actually STOP WATCHING for a while. If enough people stick to their guns and, I don’t know, dust off that copy of Balderdash that’s been propping up the sofa leg, you might find things getting a little better!
To combat unreality, well…get the stick out of your arse. Comedy is supposed to be taking a ribbing on our established way of life, so get over it and giggle at a Black joke, or a Polish joke, or even a Japanese joke involving a comical misspeaking with l’s and r’s. Just take it easy and laugh when you want to laugh. I mean, after all, the Comedian’s dead, right?
Finally, to combat badness. Support other types of entertainment. Like I said earlier, don’t watch. Grab a board game. Catch a stage show. Go walk next to a tree or something. Spend time with your family, with your kids, with your brothers and sisters, I promise they’re not nearly as bad as you think. The only way things change in showbiz is if it doesn’t sell, and the only way it doesn’t sell is if people don’t watch. For example: Originally, Coca-Cola pulled its sponsorship of Family Guy, calling it too offensive. A few years later, we’ve got a baby Stewie Macy’s Day Balloon. What sells will get the money, and will encourage more. On top of being full of crap, the showbiz world is full of copycats. If you don’t like what you see, just don’t watch. The internet has provided a wonderful alternative on this front, as you can suddenly see a glut of good (mostly not-so-good, but that’s what happens when every Joe Idiot has a DV Cam and a Messiah Complex), enjoyable entertainment for any taste on the internet if you look hard enough. Give it a shot.
Really, I can’t say this enough. There’s nothing wrong with the sitcom. It’s a form of entertainment with a rich legacy and proven results. However, thanks to the various factors mentioned above, the genre is getting bastardized into extinction. Don’t let this happen. Don’t let so many of our guilty pleasures and plain and simple fun get buried under bad “Reality” programming and even worse attempts by modern scriptwriters to compete with the nose-picking, self centered Stupids that make up said programming. Sitcoms can be good again, TV can be good again, all of entertainment can be good again…but we’re going to have to stop just complaining and actually do something about it.
…but that’s a story for another Wednesday. Until tomorrow, I tenderly remain,
Eric.

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