Saturday, July 6, 2013

Make 'Em Laugh

When television was in its infancy, some of the most popular shows were sitcoms. Programming values were pretty sparse back then and sitcoms were relatively cheap to produce. Nearly all the actors were unknowns, the sets were as cheap as they come, and the writers were just happy to be making a living at something they loved; getting paid anything was a bonus. Also, in the days before the PC police existed, it was OK to make shows based around ethnic or racial groups. It was no surprise that shows like Amos and Andy (African-Americans), I Remember Mama (Norwegians), Luigi Bosco (Italians), and The Goldbergs (Jews), found audiences in people who took comfort in seeing others like themselves up on the small screen.

The next generation of sitcoms might be characterized as the "golden age" by baby boomers who grew up on them. My favorite, then and now, is The Honeymooners with Jackie Gleason and a perfectly chosen supporting cast. Most of these shows were built around family life with a slightly harried Dad, a pretty but sensible Mom, a couple of wisecracking kids, and of course some wacky neighbors. Some of the more popular included I Love Lucy, Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Make Room for Daddy or The Danny Thomas Show. The latter spun off another great show that is still funny today, The Andy Griffith Show which, like The Honeymooners, starred a perfect ensemble of players including the great Don Knotts.

Then came the next wave of sitcoms that offered edgier programming. Led by Norman Lear's All in the Family, these shows explored themes that up until then were considered inappropriate for television. The Jeffersons was spun off All in the Family and interestingly was one of the first shows to feature blacks in starring roles since the Amos and Andy days. Some memorable sitcoms from this genre were MASH, Maude, The Smothers Brothers, and Laugh-In. Bill Cosby deserves special mention for his show, which disdained the stereotypes that were featured in other popular black sitcoms like Good Times and What's Happening. Instead he portrayed a black family as mainstream professionals with normal family problems and in doing so, elevated the image of African Americans on television.

By the 1980s, the sitcom was in full flower. I watched Cheers, Family Ties, The Golden Girls, Married with Children, Night Court, Bosom Buddies, WKRP in Cincinnati, The Bob Newhart Show, and The Wonder Years. In 1989 the stage was set for the first episode of a new sitcom featuring a likable comedian and the indispensable supporting cast; that show was Seinfeld. It took a while for the show to find its feet, but once it did it was carried along for many years on the shoulders of its four main characters and a small army of quirky guest players. It can rarely be said that a television show never made a bad episode, but this show came close. Another mega hit series from the 1990s was Friends, a show that frankly, I could never get into.

As for today, my current favorites are Curb Your Enthusiasm with Larry David and The Big Bang Theory. Ironically, when I first saw The Big Bang, I was turned off by the Sheldon character, but luckily I gave the show a second chance because one of the writers is Anthony DelBroccolo, the son of my friend Joe. As it turns out, Sheldon is the pivotal character around whom the show revolves, and his annoying, obsessive/compulsive manner is what makes the show go. Like all great sitcoms, the show features a cast of regular players who not only support Sheldon, but who are all very funny in their own rite. The key to any good sitcom, besides likable characters, is good writing, and thanks to Anthony and his talented colleagues, this show has it in spades.

Sometimes, the world can be a scary, depressing place, and people who give  the gift of laughter help us make it through. A tip of the cap to great sitcoms and their creators for making our lives a little happier.


Children's Craniofacial Association


Joseph Del Broccolo said...


Anthony said...

Wow, thank you, Jim! I generally don't like to read people's online comments about the show because people, for the most part, don't go on the Internet to write nice things. I really appreciate the thoughtful response, the fact that you gave it a second chance and kept an open mind -- and I loved your consideration of it within the context of the history of sitcoms.

And Happy Birthday!

-Anthony Del Broccolo

seashmore said...

Good rundown of sitcoms over the years. My dad is a huge fan of All in the Family and our family referred to Married...with Children as "The Bundy's." It's amazing to see how many classic sitcoms are spun off from other sitcoms. All in the Family had a couple, and it blows my mind to think of how long Kelsey Grammar played Fraiser Crane between Cheers and Fraiser.

I find it hard to stick with sitcoms nowadays as after a few seasons, a show that started out great starts making sex and sexual relationships a major theme. They lose me at that point. Community held out pretty well in that regard.