Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community

by Saul Austerlitz

(Chicago Review Press, $19.95, 416 pages)

Who is this author?

Saul Austerlitz, who lives in Brooklyn, is an author and pop culture critic who has been widely published in print and online in such venues as the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Boston Globe, Slate, the Village Voice, The National, the San Francisco Chronicle, Spin, Rolling Stone and others. Booklist named his 2010 book, “Another Fine Mess: A History of the American Film Comedy,” as one of the year’s 10 best arts books. He wrote about the intersection of TV and music in “Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video from the Beatles to the White Stripes,” which is being adapted as a documentary film.

What is this book about?

Who among us has not enjoyed laughing along with a favorite situation comedy on TV? The sitcom, for short, whether set in a workplace or grounded in family life or among friends, is a bedrock form of TV entertainment, and this book shows how it has grown and developed, with attention to such hit shows as I Love Lucy, The Phil Silvers Show; The Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore shows; M*A*S*H; Taxi;  Cheers, Roseanne; Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Larry Sanders Show, 30 Rock and more. Canned laughter, quirky characters, familiar sets, broad humor or sharp satire: sitcoms have all that and more, and Americans love them. Challenged by the popularity of so-called “reality” shows, which are in fact often scripted, sitcoms are entertainment but also a reflection on current trends and enduring truths, and in this book, Austerlitz provides a thorough and thoughtful look at their history.

Why you’ll like it:

This book will take you down TV’s memory lane, one hilarious episode of one of 24 hilarious shows at a time, but it is more than a light exercise in nostalgia. Sitcoms are by definition funny, and sometimes even wise, and they have provided a great window on how Americans feel about themselves and their times, not to mention relatable characters and catchphrases that enter the language. And they helped expose – and change – such hitherto verboten subjects as racial prejudice and gay life. Austerlitz is a smart and funny guide to these smart and funny shows that are so firmly entwined in our culture and our hearts.

What others are saying:

Says Library Journal in a starred review: “. . . “Watch enough television, and sitcoms begin to talk to one another.” This serves as the book’s thesis, and the author is at his best when he’s facilitating the conversation. Father Knows Best recalls The Honeymooners, Moe’s Tavern is Springfield’s answer to Cheers, and Curb Your Enthusiasm couldn’t exist without Seinfeld. Extending beyond the facile comparisons, Austerlitz’s chapter on Sex in the City opens with a look at The Golden Girls and leads into Entourage, while his section on Taxi reads like an introduction to TV sidekicks, from The Mary Tyler Moore Show to Community. Austerlitz adheres to his history of sitcoms in 24 episodes, but isn’t shackled by it, easily covering an entire run of a sitcom while drawing comparisons to a dozen other shows within a single chapter. VERDICT A compulsively readable and often laugh-out-loud funny study of the American sitcom. While it lacks the detailed episode and cast listings scholars might desire, it’s perfect for armchair readers—and is a must if that armchair resembles Archie Bunker’s.

Kirkus Reviews says: “Sitcoms reveal America’s changing reality, writes the author in this enthusiastic overview of an enduring genre. Movie and TV critic Austerlitz brings his keen analysis of American culture to sitcoms, long the staple of prime time. Each chapter focuses on a single episode of a popular show, which launches the author’s investigation into the evolution of comedy; the talents of stars, producers and writers; and the changing expectations of viewers. As the author sees it, sitcoms emerged in the 1950s as “field guides to the new postwar consensus, an effort to simultaneously reflect the lives of their audiences and subtly steer their behavior.” The shows celebrated family life and domesticity, even when their subjects were sparring, childless couples, such as Ralph and Alice Kramden in The Honeymooners. Most early sitcoms featured middle-class white families with stay-at-home mothers, children who invariably got into and out of mischief in half an hour, and fathers who did not always know best. Those sitcoms, writes the author, “promised comfort and familiarity, the certainty of an eternal present free of all but the most fleeting concerns.” In evaluating the genre, Austerlitz sets the bar high: I Love Lucy was brilliant, while Leave it to Beaver was repetitive and only occasionally funny. Some of his discoveries may surprise readers: The long-running, award-winning The Dick Van Dyke Show and Cheers were almost cancelled after their first seasons; Carl Reiner envisioned Johnny Carson for Van Dyke’s role; the creator of the racist Archie Bunker was “a card-carrying liberal humanist.” Roseanne, writes the author, disrupted the idea of sitcom as middle-class comfort zone; Friends offered viewers “a replacement family” in the form of a group of confidants; Seinfeld began a trend in which sitcoms spoofed television itself, “undercutting its medium, ridiculing its traditions and its unspoken assumptions.” Astute and bursting with information–an entertaining treat for sitcom fans and a valuable contribution to TV history.”

“[...] Austerlitz ingeniously and persuasively uses the genre of situation comedy as an American Rosetta stone, showing it to be capable of decoding itself (thanks to its endless self-references) and of making intelligible an entire social archaeology, [...]  Bottomless in its depth of research but as light in touch as the best of its subjects, Sitcom belongs in any home that has a sofa and a TV set,” says The Nation.

James Napoli, writing in Paste magazine, says “. . .All great comedy represents, for certain, finely honed craft. And when we combine expertly crafted jokes with perfectly realized characters, we get the iconic shows that Austerlitz profiles here. His descriptions of hilarious moments and plotlines from such groundbreaking work as The Honeymooners, The Dick Van Dyke Show, All in the Family, The Cosby Show, Seinfeld and 30 Rock effortlessly carry you along on a wave of grins-while-reading and goodwill for the programs, even if you weren’t around when they originally broadcast.

“. . . In the end, though, let’s not argue about whether the TV sitcom is an art form. Let’s just say some shows aspire to be, and might, on a subjective basis, get there at times. Once we establish this, we can review the sitcom’s place in the landscape of our lives with nostalgia, affection and a good portion of insightful (and not unfounded) sociological analysis.

“Austerlitz delivers exactly this in his pleasantly satisfying, quite informative book. We do not need to ask any more of it.”

When is it available?

“Sitcom” awaits you at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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