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Laughs are key, but best sitcoms reflect times

Jan 14, 2002  •  Post A Comment

From “I Love Lucy” to “Seinfeld,” situation comedies have been a staple of the syndication market since its earliest days. While the pipeline of off-network sitcoms has slowed somewhat in recent seasons, a spate of current hits such as “Malcolm in the Middle,” “King of Queens” and “Will and Grace” insure that they will enjoy a syndication resurgence in the near future. Here’s a look back at the evolution of the genre.
In 1992, during a speech about the decline of family values in America, Vice President Dan Quayle criticized television sitcom character Murphy Brown for having a child out of wedlock. Almost 10 years later, Rachel made the same choice on “Friends,” and no one’s saying a word.
With more than 50 years of laughs under its belt, the sitcom has evolved into a complex storytelling medium. The genre has also evolved with its audience-sometimes pushing the envelope, sometimes pulling back. But the true comic touchstones, from “I Love Lucy” to “Malcolm in the Middle,” have relied on more than just “edgy” story lines to make their mark on TV history-it was a lot of talent, and a lot of luck.
“It’s this combination of elements that is impossible to predict,” said Don Reo, co-creator and co-executive producer of ABC’s “My Wife and Kids.” “You have to have the right star with the right idea, the correct writer at the right network, and then you have to get the right time slot. All of those things are essential to making it work.”
When “I Love Lucy” debuted in October 1951, no one could have imagined the show would still be popular 50 years later. Madelyn Pugh Davis, a writer on “Lucy” (she and partner Bob Carroll Jr. worked on the show for its entire run), said people associated with the show never considered themselves pioneers.
“So many things happened that we were just lucky they worked out,” Ms. Davis said. “When we started writing, we didn’t know if Desi [Arnaz] was funny, we didn’t know what the sets were going to be, we didn’t know who was going to play the Mertzes. We just plunged in because we had to have scripts. And it just came together.”
But “I Love Lucy” did break new ground with elements such as its pregnancy story line. Ms. Davis said if Lucille Ball hadn’t become pregnant, they never would have considered the story.
“The network was very skittish about it,” Ms. Davis said. “As I understand it, they had a rabbi, a priest and a minister look at the scripts so they wouldn’t be offensive. Of course there was nothing risque-it was just, `She’s pregnant.’ And we did all the pregnancy jokes: the wanting funny foods, and once she got real pregnant, not being able to get out of the chair. It gave us a lot to do scripts about.”
Sitcoms of the 1960s were characterized by fun, harmless hits like “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” “My Three Sons” and “Bewitched.” But in 1971 Norman Lear shook up the genre with “All in the Family,” a show that dared to debate social issues of the time. It took three years and two networks to get Archie Bunker and his brood on the air, but Mr. Lear said changing the script was not an option.
“We chose to write about what was really going on,” he said. “That was just a simple choice. There was some great work that preceded it-Jackie Gleason’s `The Honeymooners’ and so forth. But they made a choice to be very funny and not necessarily relevant to the times. We made the choice to wish to be as funny and also relevant to the times.”
After “All in the Family” opened the doors for socially relevant sitcoms, other Lear shows, such as “Maude” and “Good Times,” soon made their way to the air. “M*A*S*H” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” also scored high in the ratings.
Bruce Helford, co-creator and executive producer of ABC’s “The Drew Carey Show,” said he thinks some of the landmark shows of that era wouldn’t play on network television today for fear of being too controversial.
“A character having an abortion would be so damaging to that character nowadays, yet with `Maude’ it was considered groundbreaking,” Mr. Helford said. “We are still broadcasters trying to cast our net to the broadest possible audience. So you don’t want to go out of your way to offend people. There’s no gain in that.”
As America segued into the Reagan era in the early 1980s, industry pundits were proclaiming the sitcom was dead. Then in 1984, Bill Cosby revitalized the genre-and the family comedy-with “The Cosby Show.” The series, produced by Carsey-Werner-now Carsey-Werner-Mandabach-became arguably the most popular show of the decade.
“It was a surprise,” said C-W-M partner Caryn Mandabach. “We figured it would come in a distant second to `Magnum, P.I.’ When it premiered to a 42 share and stayed the No. 1 show for I don’t know how many years, it certainly wasn’t to be expected.”
C-W-M was also the driving force behind “Roseanne,” another ’80s sitcom that broke the mold. Allison Gibson, creator and executive producer of The WB’s “Reba,” said “Roseanne” is one of her biggest influences. “It broke the model of the very good and perfect mom, and [Roseanne Barr’s character] said things to her kids that weren’t very ideal and weren’t politically correct,” Ms. Gibson said. “And also being such a wonderful blue-collar sitcom, it just showed a world that hasn’t been portrayed very much.”
Mr. Helford, who was an executive producer and head writer on “Roseanne,” said working on such an acclaimed show made him push himself harder to continue the series’ success.
“I knew I had to maintain and surpass the quality level that had been established,” he said. “So I worked myself harder, my writers worked themselves harder. You don’t want to screw up something wonderful. You do put a burden on yourself to hold up what has been created and try to build on it.”
The ’90s, which tackled masturbation on “Seinfeld” and lesbianism on “Ellen,” continued to break television barriers-though some critics argued TV content was becoming more gross than groundbreaking.
“So many in Hollywood have this mind-set that if it’s not raunchy it can’t be funny,” said L. Brent Bozell, president of the Parents Television Council. “There are people pushing to do better stuff, and there are people pushing to do worse stuff-each side thinking that’s what the public wants. And in a sense they’re right. There’s a market for everything.”
And thanks to cable television, audiences interested in more risque comedies now have a place to watch them. “`Everybody Loves Raymond’ is one of the hottest sitcoms on network television,” said Ron Simon, curator of television at the Museum of Television & Radio in New York. “`Sex and the City’ is the hottest show on cable. You have two very different sitcoms, many people watching both. People can accept different types of comic universes because they’re both part of the American comic tradition on television.”
But for network television, the standards line is blurry, insiders say. For example, an abortion story line may be taboo today, yet infidelity and teen pregnancy-two issues found on “Reba”-are appropriate.
“[`Reba’] is pushing the envelope a bit it terms of what we’ve piled into one family,” Ms. Gibson said. “But what I was looking for is what have we not seen before. We certainly debate what is appropriate for our audience, what age our audience really should be. And I do think there’s a line to cross, and we’re trying to be responsible with the story we’re telling and yet still be realistic.”
As sitcoms are developed for the future, writers and producers continue to work on that magic mix of elements that guarantees the next hit show.
“[Today] there are different storytelling techniques, different editing styles and things like that,” said Linwood Boomer, “Malcolm in the Middle” creator and executive producer. “The stuff that’s groundbreaking about our show is just window dressing. It’s basically a show about a family, and they’ve been doing those since radio.”
Mr. Reo, who also created “Blossom,” “The John Larroquette Show” and “Ac
tion,” said the future of sitcoms is “whatever unique voice is able to make it through the clutter.”
“You put your head down and say, `I feel passionate about this,”’ Mr. Reo said. “That’s where the next great show will come from. It’s also, parenthetically, where the next great failure will come from. Every single factor has to fall in. But it has to start with some single person who has an idea. It’s got to have an original voice.”
But apart from that unique voice, NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker said, the most important element of the sitcom is the comedy itself. “At the end of the day, we’re looking for funny,” he said. “It’s really that simple.