Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Sitcom

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Sitcom

Article excerpt

Kaufman and Hart's You Can't Take It With You has often been cited as the first sitcom, even though it premiered on Broadway in 1936, long before there was commercial television comedy, or even much television whatsoever. All the characteristics of sitcom that we have come to know and sometimes even love are there: a single, contemporary, interior setting; zany characters who speak, dress, and generally behave like real people of the time except in their lack of inhibition; a focus on their personal relationships rather than politics (wars, revolutions, environmental crisis, economic disaster, and political change all seem to have passed them by) ; wise older characters who keep the zanies from getting too far out of line. Whether televised or live onstage, it is meant to be a pleasant, reassuring dramatic genre, but it can easily become frustrating in the way it is capable of ignoring serious issues. Indeed, You Can't Take It With You raises such head-in-thesand ignorance to the level of a moral principle.

Actually, situation comedy is both old and new. It can be traced back to Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew and the Beatrice-Benedick plot in his Much Ado about Nothing, and long before Shakespeare to the Roman comic playwrights Terence and Plautus, and before them to Menander, the fourth-century BC Greek playwright whose comedies avoided the political satire characteristic of his predecessors like Aristophanes, which was no longer possible once the Macedonians had conquered Athens and taken over its governance. Instead of ridiculing the leaders of the city-state, the "New Comedy" of Menander and his fellow Greek dramatists focused on the middle classes, with their eternal problems of love, money, and the pursuit of domestic harmony. New Comedy was all in the family. This has put its stamp on what we now call "situation comedy" ever since. Thus sitcom can be defined as more than just a genre of television performance to include any domestic comedy in any medium with ongoing contemporary characters and story lines.

Thus, although it has been around for ages, like domestic life itself, sitcom is constantly being renewed. Our sitcoms seem brand new not only because they depict modern characters and events, but also because of the way they do so. With both stage and TV sitcom, there are always one or two basic settings depicting realistic interiors, which are usually living rooms but have also included a television newsroom ( The Mary Tyler Moore Show), a bar {Cheers), and a taxi fleet garage {Taxi). In other words, our sitcoms, despite sometimes showing forays into the outside world, are based indoors as a refuge from the harsh realities of modern life. Even when politics intrude, as in the eternal bickering between right-wing Archie Bunker and his left-liberal son-in-law, they seem relatively unimportant, mere viewpoints in a private debate rather than issues and events that affect the characters' lives. All in the Family was not quite all in the family, as with Menander, but the home, not the workplace or the marketplace, and certainly not the palace, was where the heart was.

In the rare instances in which the basic setting is a place of work, the focus in a sitcom remains on the relationships among the characters rather than on the job itself. Thus in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary worked in a television newsroom; her politics seemed vaguely liberal, but what were her views on the Vietnam War? Watergate? Civil Rights? Nixon's resignation? Space exploration? The show ran from 1970 to 1977, when these political topics were hody discussed everywhere and presented on news programs in every TV station in the country- except, apparently, the one in Minneapolis. Mary certainly knew all about Ted, Murray, Sue Ann, and Lou but did not even mention the fall of Saigon.

In contrast to modern sitcom, ancient Greek and Roman comedies were always set outdoors, usually on a street where all the major incidents took place. …

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