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Books

February 28, 2014

From Sgt. Bilko to Liz Lemon

Saul Austerlitz's new book analyzes the evolution of the modern sitcom.

David Goldenberg

Upon first cracking open Saul Austerlitz’s new book Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community, it’s tempting to skip past the older shows straight to the modern cultural touchstones like "Seinfeld." But if you skim over the proto-sitcoms from the 50s and 60s like “The Phil Silvers Show” to get straight to the sponge-worthy stuff, you’ll miss a lot.

Saul Austerlitz
"The laugh-track shows have an audience, sure, but how much will people be talking about '2 Broke Girls' in ten years' time?"

Saul Austerlitz

You’ll miss the evolution of common tropes like theme songs, the growing symbiosis of misanthropy and humor, and some hints as to why some spin-offs work well (see: “Frasier”) and others bomb (see: “Joey”). Many of the old shows were just as subversive as—and often even weirder than—whatever Michael Schur cooks up these days. (Next time an older relative starts talking wistfully about Archie Bunker, you can chuckle along to the thought of a primetime network playing overt racism for laughs.) In the following interview, edited for clarity, Austerlitz explains to Gelf why modern dirtbag comedies like “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” have their roots in old school shows like “All in the Family”, why comedy shows are no longer as popular as they once were, and why CBS’s current slate of shows is so bad.

Gelf Magazine: In your previous book Money for Nothing, you wrote about music videos. Are there any similarities to the way in which the two art forms have changed?

Saul Austerlitz: I guess if I was trying to create a through-line between my various book subjects, it would be an interest in critically maligned art forms that are worthy of a more careful look. We are still wrestling with notions of the highbrow and lowbrow that have become unpopular in theory, but remain our default means of categorization in practice. TV isn’t embarrassing anymore like it was when I was a kid, but there’s still a lingering stench to the sitcom, that perhaps we shouldn’t be wasting our time with such frivolity. I’m a believer that good work appears anywhere there’s the creative space for it and an interested audience, and that talented artists working within a medium will often express themselves in response to what has come before them. So in the same way that artists like Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze enriched the music video by overturning some of its self-imposed limitations, I think the flourishing of the sitcom in the past twenty or so years has come about in part because people like Larry David and Garry Shandling and Judd Apatow were really intent on creating something that was not disposable.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think that so many famous TV sitcoms are about TV because that’s what great writers know about and want to write about? Or because that’s what TV execs are willing to green light?


Saul Austerlitz: I think there’s probably some truth to that. Carl Reiner created “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” in its first incarnation, as a vehicle for himself, playing a character much like himself—a family man and television comedy writer. (It was terrible; thank God for Dick Van Dyke, who eventually got cast in the Reiner role in the revamped version.) But from the outset, television has enjoyed telling stories about itself, poking fun at its foibles and mocking its excesses. You see that as far back as “I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners,” which both feature their characters appearing on TV, with disastrous results. At first, it was a self-protective kind of comedy—“we know TV is bad, also, and we’re making fun of it.” But over time, TV about TV becomes a way of underscoring that the sitcom was a genuine artform in its own right, not just the movies’ shrimpy little brother, or drama’s sadsack relative. The sitcom had a tradition, and forefathers, and self-referential TV-about-TV series of more recent years, like “The Larry Sanders Show” and “30 Rock,” are still mocking TV, but do so from within a context of an acknowledged tradition of their own, not indebted to the movies or cringing apologetically for their very existence.

Gelf Magazine: You essentially say that TV shows like “Leave It to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” are bland and unfunny and reinforce the social mores of the day. And you say something similar about CBS’s current lineup. Do they all derive from similar circumstances?

Saul Austerlitz: I would say that I have more patience for “Leave It to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” than much of what CBS is up to now. Those 1950s shows were, by our standards, predictable and overwhelmingly repetitive, but they also helped to create the platonic ideal of the sitcom—the thirty-minute length, the laugh track, the domestic setting, the goofy but well-meaning kids and harried but loving parents. They made something. From our perch today, we can readily see all the ways their version of normalcy left a good deal of American life out of the equation. (Although, interestingly, there was a similar tradition of comedy series about immigrant life, from the malaprop-spouting Jews of “The Goldbergs” to the Scandinavians of “I Remember Mama,” so it’s not like the early sitcom was a WASP-only zone.)
My quibble with CBS in general is how slavishly devoted it is to styles that were created decades ago. I mean, they still use a laugh track! Shows like “How I Met Your Mother” and “The Big Bang Theory” aren’t awful, and have funny performers. They’re just fatally predictable. I feel like I got my fill of these shows when I was ten years old, and don’t really need to refill the tank.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think that viewers will eventually tire of the laugh track and predictability of these shows? Because right now they seem to be winning.

Saul Austerlitz: I would say that popularity and lasting appeal are not necessarily the same thing. The top-rated series of 1988-89 was "The Cosby Show," but also in the top 20 were "Anything But Love" and "Alf." Not everything people watch lasts. The laugh-track shows have an audience, sure, but how much will people be talking about "2 Broke Girls" in ten years' time?

Gelf Magazine: You write a little bit about the theme song as an almost Pavlovian noise to get people ready for the show. How has that evolved over the last 60 years?

Saul Austerlitz: Sherwood Schwartz’s sitcoms, like “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Brady Bunch,” were essentially delivery mechanisms for their theme songs, which I think most sentient Americans could still sing in their entirety today. And the networks demanded, at least in some cases, these sorts of painfully explanatory here’s-the-setup songs, out of fear that audiences would be confused: remind me why are these people all stuck on this island? In recent years, the theme song has fallen out of favor, which is a shame. “30 Rock” poked fun at this in its pilot, introducing Liz Lemon with what seems to be a peppy number all about this successful Manhattan woman on the go, and what turns out to be a number from her TV show about Pam, the Overly-Confident Morbidly Obese Woman. Some more recent sitcoms have managed to cleverly reintegrate the theme song, like “Louie’s,” which walks the line between serious and completely farcical.

Gelf Magazine: I was surprised you didn’t write more about “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”, which seems to take the Sgt. Bilko unpleasantness to its logical extreme. Is there a way for protagonists to get any more unlikeable?

Saul Austerlitz: You’re not the first one to mention “It’s Always Sunny” to me. I really like what I’ve seen of the show, and think it’s very cleverly done. Emily Nussbaum wrote a piece for The New Yorker a while back in which she described “It’s Always Sunny” and other shows like “The League” as being examples of “dirtbag sitcoms,” which I think is a really apt phrase. It struck me that the show emerges from that same desire to unnerve viewers as “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which is also intent on making us cringe, and so I decided to include it in the same chapter, along with “Louie,” which often operates on similar principles. I would say that it’s hard for me to imagine TV protagonists getting more unlikable, but that it seems to often be the job of artists, and comedians in particular, to figure out fresh ways to make us uncomfortable. Look at how good Lena Dunham is at it!

Gelf Magazine: Will a comedy ever again be the top ranked show on TV?

Saul Austerlitz: That is a really good question. It’s an intriguing paradox that, at the same time as television has become the most creative cultural form in American life, and the one people are most passionate about, its ability to bring mass audiences together for anything other than football has atrophied. In part, that’s a product of the abundance of choice. You may be watching the “Breaking Bad” finale, but as many or more people are checking out “The Voice” or “Duck Dynasty” or “The Following.” I would be the first to argue that television comedy is as fresh and vibrant as it ever has been, but its energies seem to be directed toward more experimental work that will never attract that kind of mass audience. “Louie” and “Girls” and “Community” are all brilliant, but none of them will ever motivate 40 million Americans to sit down on their couches and tune in. That said, “Seinfeld” somehow did it, so who the hell knows? And Bill Cosby is coming back to NBC, so never say never!

Gelf Magazine: Is it possible that the future of sitcoms has migrated to movies along with many of its writers? Or am I focusing too much on Judd Apatow-type stuff?

Saul Austerlitz: I think you could probably make the opposing argument just as strongly—that the energy in contemporary comedy is found on television more than in the movies. There has definitely been a migration of sitcom vets to the movies, from Apatow to Jason Segel to Jason Bateman. But it’s hard for me to think of too many film comedies of the past five or so years that match the inventiveness of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” or “Louie.” I’ve written about film comedy also, and am glad to see there’s still a big audience out there for the likes of “Anchorman 2,” but what was the last feature comedy that really blew your mind? I’d have to go back to “Knocked Up,” I think, and that was already quite a few years ago. (Michael Winterbottom’s “The Trip” is an incredible piece of work, but not American.)

Gelf Magazine: If you could create a spinoff based on a sidekick character from one of your favorite current sitcoms, what would it be about?

Saul Austerlitz: Oh, man! Too many great possibilities. I think it would have to be a show about Abed’s life after leaving Greendale Community College. Given his proclivities for obsessive discussion of “Inspector Spacetime” and “Who’s the Boss?”, I think he would pretty much have to become a television critic.

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.







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Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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