Famous for thirty minutes
For his latest trick Tom Lappin proposes to sum up the history of American TV comedy in one page. tracing its development from the sitcom. through ‘litcom‘ and ‘zitcom’ to its latest manifestation in the shape ofChannel 4‘s raunchy Dream On.
A few of my favourite things: Mary Tyler Moore. Taxi. Barney Miller. Rhoda. MASH. Soap. WKRPln (.‘t'neinatti. Welcome Back Kotter. . . these and more were the comedies I grew up on. OK. so maybe I missed a lot of the American in-jokes. the occasional lapses into Yiddish. and it took me a while to suss out what diapers and aluminum were. but British sitcoms paled into insignificance by comparison. It‘s a superiority that has continued into the 90s. where series like Roseanne. The Golden (iirls and ('heers have enjoyed enduring success.
Maybe it’s a small way ofatoning for their foreign policy. but the Americans have consistently made and exported the sharpest half-hour format sitcoms since the genre‘s birth in the 50s. A seemingly infinite capacity to dream up novel situations. and a ruthless team approach to scriptwriting. combined with the attitude that TV
comedy is a far-from—shameful medium in which to
work. seem likely to keep them way ahead of the opposition.
Starting with the homely 50s an ()US domestic shows of which I Love Lucy is the archetype. the American sitcom has experienced more upheavals than her beleaguered husband Ricky Ricardo ever had to endure. invariably an indirect reﬂection of
changing audience lifestyles. In the mid~b()s. hippydom was transmitted for 'l'\' consumption into magic powers. and the American public embraced a weltcr of ‘magicoms‘ from Bewitched and I Dream ()_/’Jeannie to the long-forgotten The Flying Nan starring Sally Field.
The genre really came of age with the ‘litcoms‘ of the late 605 and early 7tls. encompassing clever and witty scripts with references to the social changes ofthe previous decade. The .llary Tyler Moore .S'how‘s single career-woman heroine. and willingness to tackle issues head-on created an opening for shows like .llxlS/l to take the sitcom into new. and invariably liberal territory. The litcom had its heirs in the drama series Hill Street Blues and St [ilsewhere and the comedies The (iolden Girls and ('heers but at the time it created its own backlash in the form ofescapist throwaway shows of the Laverne zilld Shirley or Happy Days type. After all. middle America could only stomach so much of this (‘ommie stuff before it cried out for something a little more apple-pie.
In the 80s the sitcom in America reflected the breakdown in ‘audience network loyalty". with a diversity of themes and treatments. The contrast can be seen in the conflicts between the ('oshy style of show. where the first twenty minutes are packed with gags and the last ten minutes devoted to the sickly payoff. extolling the virtues of family. decency. lurrrve. and the American way. and a show like Roseanne that wholeheartedly rejects any misty-eyed romanticism. and is less than complimentary about blue-collar America.
The search for new formula continues apace. all the satne. A hit series of Doogie llowser MD spawned a host of teenage comedies targeting an audience group that spent more time than most
.slutnped in front of the box. A new genre. the
‘zitcom‘ was born. with a predominance of routine adolescence gags. but looks likely to be shortlived. for basic fiscal reasons. 'l‘hirtysomethings are still the ones with the bulging wagepackets. and the latest hit comedy Dream ()n is aimed squarely at them. lt's doubtful if Lucy would recognise Dream On. devised by successful cinema comedy director John Landis. as her natural successor. 'l‘he saga of a middle-aged. slightly neurotic. divorced guy Martin (Brian Benben). several sequences are devoted to his sexual misadventures and fantasies. The series' explicitness has caused a storm in the States. where it has been dubbed the first ‘titcom‘. The first episode features a sequence where Martin licks whipped cream off a naked girlfriend. but the raunch is not the most interesting or innovative aspect of the the show. In a similar concept to the Dead Men Don't ll'ear l’laid llolsten l’ils idea whereby clips from old films are intercut with the action. Martin‘s thoughts and fantasies are depicted by snippets from old black and white comedies and drama series from the 50s. It‘s a tentative modernist flirtation with the form and tradition ofsituation comedy. pulping and recycling the stars of yesteryear to provide background material. In this way. the American sitcom seems to have come full circle. turning into a self—referential tale of a 50s 'I’V kid turned mid-life crisis ()(ls hero with the chorus supplied by the black—and-white images of Shelley Winters. (ieorge Burns. Ronald Reagan or (iroucho Marx. Bilko was never this complicated.
Dream ()2: starts on (’hannel4 at Ill/m1 on Friday 9 A agast
Eight American sitcoms that changed the world as we know it. I I Love Lucy ( 1951-4961 ) Didn't we all'.’
She married a ('uban. who eschew-ed the revolutionary struggle to sing with a mariachi band. Daft tales ofa dizzy blonde shouldn‘t have been this funny. but they were. and still are. come to that.
I The Phil Silvers Show ( 1955—1959) Billet) organises a card game. ('olonel llall getsa whiffof the scam. Bilko charmsthe (‘olonel's wife. and gets [)obermann to
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dress up in drag. Bilko wins some money and loses it all again. This is the plot of every show. each of which is 35 minutesol geniUs made on a budget of about $36.
I MASH ( 1972- 1983 ) The voice oflibcral dissent was splashed all over the networks at prime-time. while the war was still raging in Vietnam. MASH wasnever equalled in its ability to make serious points without letting up on the one-liner
I Soap ( 1977— 1981 ) Sttsan llarris created this as a pastiche ofglossy daytime soap-opera. but it rapidly turned intoa cult comedy hit. It began to hit the skids once Bert convinced himself he was an
the other dav . . .'
w riter. In America.
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alien. I knew that wasa mistake . ..
I Taxi ( HHS-4983) Seriously weeeird. 'l‘he taxi-rank was populated with some of the craziest oddballs this side of the Tory Cabinet. and none of them ever said ‘I had that Michael J. Fox in the back of mycab l
I Cheers ( 1982-») ‘What‘s happenin'
.\lr l’etersort'.” ‘You're pouring the a beer. Woody? A minimalist. but sublime. dialogue-driven show that revolves around the central human condition of sitting in a bar. drinkingbeer andtalking rubbish. The sitcom (‘hekhov would have written if he‘d been alive. And a sitcom
l The Golden Girls ( 198!)— i Susan l larris was back with this smash bit. about four getting-on-a-bit lilorida women. who talk filth day and night. A welcome leader in the backlash against overbearing niceness , in sitcom land. I Roseanne t 1987— l l’orget Roseanne Barr. the real star ot this show is sharp-tongued teenage daughter Darlene.
I a kind of Bartette Simpson. with better
| dialogue. Roseanne did the world a great
l service byshowing that Americanfamilies l
were not all Waltons clones. and thatJohn (ioodman was the tiniest Living American.