Sunday, June 19, 2005

Sitcoms and the Sublime.

Middlebrow's recent posting which discussed WKRP in Cincinnati got me thinking about sitcoms. Friends and family have no doubt heard me opine (more than once--very sorry, friends and fam!) that there is little in life as rewarding as a good sitcom. For one, it's a reliable source of laughter in a world where laughter is necessary for survival. For another, it comes around every week! What a gift from the media gods.

As it turns out, WKRP was once a favorite of mine. There are bits from that show that I still fondly recall. I'm tempted to try to theorize what makes a great sitcom, but perhaps instead I will, in the tradition of Burke, Schiller, and Longinus, try to define what makes a sitcom of high spiritual, moral, or intellectual worth, not to be excelled, supreme:
  • a verbal virtuoso (which WKRP had--two times: Dr. Johnny Fever, in the manic vein, and Venus Flytrap, in the smooth vein. Add also the tightass Les Nessman performance, and you've got a triple threat going.)
  • a pompous blowhard (viz., Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or Diane Chambers on Cheers, or, in the Alien Blowhard category, Dr. Dick Solomon on Third Rock from the Sun)
  • an amoral pleasure hound (extra points if it's a woman, like Karen on Will and Grace or Nina Van Horn on Just Shoot Me--which also featured a pretty consistently hilarious David Spade as Dennis Finch, who also belongs in this category)
  • sparkling repartee (Frasier, Cheers, Mary Tyler Moore)

There are other things that don't fit systematically, at least not for me. For instance, most family sitcoms leave me cold--but Malcolm in the Middle has been unbelievably funny sometimes, and some episodes are indelible. Ditto Everybody Loves Raymond. I will acknowledge the conceptual greatness of Seinfeld, and also confess that it largely left me cold. I found Friends absorbing, but I felt it undid its contract with the viewer in the last two seasons, so much so that I somehow failed to watch it during that period (exception: the always great Lisa Kudrow, esp. the episode wherein she channelled Kathryn Hepburn, apparently involuntarily, to her boyfriend's snooty folks).

Lastly, a shout-out to The Simpsons, and, more recently, Family Guy, both of which I watch only in the company of teenagers, a strategy which vastly enhances the aura of their greatness.


  1. Don't forget the wise/nice/generous but somewhat clueless boss:

    MASH's Henry Blake
    Mary Tyler Moore's Mr. Grant
    WKRP's Gordon Jump (I don't remember that show well enough to know his name)

    Seinfeld left you cold? I can see that. In many ways it is a discection of many of the sit com motifs and that alone makes it funny some times. In one of the last season, for example, George had a clueless boss who went around saying things like "oh whatever" or "ah lets just close and go home." Larry David has a wicked sense of pushing people's buttons, I think.

  2. Oh and Gordon Jump was actually one of George's boss in the episodes where George was faking being handicapped.

  3. Seinfeld is too nihilistic to really fit into the traditional sitcom mould.

    I always liked genre-bending sitcoms like Taxi--which could simulataneously be incredibly funny and melancholy (capably evoked by the musical theme.)

    And let us not forget the laugh track. Ha, ha, ha.

  4. I loved Taxi! The Reverend Jim. But really, every character was critical, even the more stock types, like Tony Danza's character.

    I remember an episode where Danny deVito is pretending to be a sensitive guy, and makes up a poem, complete with expansive gestures. It starts, "Clouds./ Lots of them!" Whew. Sitcom heaven.

  5. And don't forget the mythic underpinnings of some sitcoms, such as Frazier, that render them truly sublime:

    Niles, as in the river Nile
    Daphne Moon, yeah, the goddess herself
    Crane, sacred bird of Egypt
    Frazier, as in The Golden Bough
    Lilith . . . need I say more?



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