Clearly Saul Austerlitz’s new book, Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community is right up my alley. However, I tend to be overly critical of things in my alley, what with them being in my alley. I have standards for my alley. I have disliked many, many books written about TV in general, and sitcoms specifically. Most of them are either too boringly detailed or too fannish for my tastes. I say this all just so you believe me when I tell you: Sitcom is great.
At the outset, Austerlitz quotes 30 Rock‘s page Kenneth Parcell, who sums up the thesis of the book: “More than jazz or musical theater or morbid obesity, television is the true American art form.” From there, Austerlitz proves that point again and again while walking us through this peculiar form’s history. What makes TV history special is the way shows can mutate almost in real time, making them commentaries on both the present and the past; Austerlitz shows us here just how meta sitcoms were from the outset, something that I sort-of knew, but I hadn’t realized the strength of this through-line. Perhaps TV’s biggest contribution to culture is its ability to comment on itself, which is something I’ve always loved about it: “See how Roseanne offers itself as a Talmudic commentary to the holy sitcom text of Leave It to Beaver, or Curb Your Enthusiasm functions as an extended gloss on Seinfeld,” Austerlitz writes.
Sitcom also allows for another of my favorite pop-culture-analysis pastimes, looking back at old stuff and marveling at how it’s more progressive than we remember it. (This goes hand-in-hand with its opposite, looking at old stuff and marveling at how stupidly regressive people used to be.) Case in point: I Love Lucy, the first major, classic sitcom, featured an interracial couple and starred a strong woman who would’ve stolen the show if it weren’t named for her to begin with. Compared with much that came later — say, Leave It to Beaver — this was mind-boggling. A predecessor of Lucy‘s, meanwhile, featured an entire Jewish family, The Goldbergs, with another strong woman at its center. This from a medium where executives would balk at Rhoda’s Jewishness on The Mary Tyler Moore Show 20 years later, and even the “too Jewish”-ness of Seinfeld 40 years later.
I also loved the little facts I learned for the first time or finally saw in the context of history: I never gave much credit to Lucy’s husband, Desi Arnaz, for his work as Ricky Ricardo, but the man did basically invent the multi-camera method for shooting sitcoms that would be standard for decades and that some shows still use to this day. The Honeymooners was barely a stand-alone show, appearing mostly as segments during Cavalcade of Stars and The Jackie Gleason Show. And The Honeymooners had something of an activist bent; most of its plotlines were dedicated to the ignominy of barely scraping by in blue-collar life, with occasional breaks to acknowledge that the only person who had it worse than Ralph Kramden was his wife, Alice. Like Good Times a few decades later, The Honeymooners was both ironically named and thoroughly depressing. Sitcoms are generally about keeping their “situations” the same, which means that anything about a poor family’s struggles can end no place except with chronic failure.
Sitcom helpfully and entertainingly fills in the gaps if your TV history knowledge is less than 100 percent. Even though I write books about TV for a living, I missed some good stuff, like Sgt. Bilko, which gets a chapter here (under its alias The Phil Silvers Show). Leave It to Beaver is helpfully contextualized here — there’s more to say about the world’s most boring, basic family sitcom than you might think. (There was also loads of strife behind the scenes! Dad Hugh Beaumont had suffered the death of his mother in a car accident just before joining the show; star Jerry Mathers was dyslexic. During the Bel Air fires of the 1960s, the co-creator, Joe Connelly, broke through police barricades to spray his own house down with a fire hose, then, according to Mathers, “fended off the evacuation teams with a .45 from his extensive gun collection.) And did you know that Ken Osmond — who played Eddie Haskell — went on to become a Los Angeles Police Department officer?
Don’t worry, there’s plenty of more modern fare here, too, showing how sitcoms grow ever more meta, twisted, and twisty: Seinfeld, Sex and the City, Arrested Development, 30 Rock, Community, and others all get their due. You won’t want to miss one episode.