Review: Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community by Saul Austerlitz

Saturday, March 1, 2014
Title: Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community
Author: Saul Austerlitz
Genre: nonfiction, critique
Series: N/A
Pages: 416
Publication: Expected March 1, 2014
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 3.5/5

The form is so elemental, so basic, that we have difficulty imagining a time before it existed: a single set, fixed cameras, canned laughter, zany sidekicks, quirky family antics. Obsessively watched and critically ignored, sitcoms were a distraction, a gentle lullaby of a kinder, gentler America—until suddenly the artificial boundary between the world and television entertainment collapsed.

In this book we can watch the growth of the sitcom, following the path that leads from Lucy to The Phil Silvers Show; from The Dick Van Dyke Show to The Mary Tyler Moore Show; from M*A*S*H to Taxi; from Cheers to Roseanne; from Seinfeld to Curb Your Enthusiasm; and from The Larry Sanders Show to 30 Rock.

In twenty-four episodes, Sitcom surveys the history of the form, and functions as both a TV mixtape of fondly remembered shows that will guide us to notable series and larger trends, and a carefully curated guided tour through the history of one of our most treasured art forms.

Reviewed by Danielle

Cultural studies fascinate me, particularly the way television, movies, and books act as a lens to view the landscape of the times. Sitcom takes 24 snapshots of television through history, via some of the most famous or poignant episodes, and uses them to break down not just the represented shows, but the genre. Austerlitz has chosen episodes that mostly revolve around television, giving the whole thing a very meta quality. We see not only how Lucille Ball influenced a long line of female comediennes, (of whom television has always been more accepting than movies,) but through episodes like “Lucy Does a TV Commercial”, we also glimpse tv pulling back the curtain on itself.

He also uses each episode as a jumping off point for a larger look at first the featured show, then the era as a whole. The aforementioned chapter “Lucy Does a TV Commercial,” features another Lucy episode with TV as the centerpiece, as Ricky suggests creating “one of those husband-and-wife TV shows” in a pitch. (The joke being, of course, that we’re already watching one.) This allows us to segue into a look at other husband-and wife shows of the time, like Mama and The Goldbergs. In the end, he brings it back to Lucy and Ricky through the use of The Goldbergs to launch a very thought provoking section on race in early television. A later chapter on The Phil Silvers Show allows a look at the brief, and mostly forgettable, subgenre of military sitcoms, like Hogan’s Heroes, McHale’s Navy, and obviously, M*A*S*H. (M*A*S*H, of course, warrants its own chapter later in the book which is the jumping off point for a discussion on mixing drama with comedy, further continued in the Freaks and Geeks chapter which delves into where exactly the line between sitcom and drama is when the genres have become so muddled. Television is cyclical and not just a bit incestuous.)

The first two thirds of the book are the most successful as the author deftly weaves together the best known sitcoms of the 1950s - 1990s, along with a few lesser known, but important stepping stones like The Phil Silvers Show and The Larry Sanders Show. (Not that these are obscure shows, just that they don’t stand up to the other titans of TV mentioned, [half of the most watched finales in American history are represented].) I particularly enjoyed the looks at feminism on tv as an indicator of the greater cultural changes in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and All in the Family.

In trying to address race and tv, it goes a bit more poorly. For one, there are slurs. While a particular Bill Cosby quote does use the n-word in a powerful and appropriate way, the author uses it again, outside of the context of the quote, (and also uses an anti-gay slur whilst discussing Louie.) The All in the Family chapter seems to find a lot of humor in Archie’s continued bigotry and at one point seems to be indicating that this is equal to George Jefferson’s “racism” regarding interracial marriage on their eponymous spinoff. (Television does not exist in a vacuum, Jefferson’s hatred and fear of whitey are not the same as as Bunker’s prejudices.) Fortunately, the chapter is rescued by the last paragraphs that finally condemn Archie as a relic whose humor has “curdled”. The Cosby Show, the chapter and the actual product, handle the situation with far more sensitivity, as you’d imagine.

Unfortunately, the later years are where I found the book to struggle. Extremely big shows, like Everybody Loves Raymond, which repopularized domestic sitcoms after the Friends-like ensembles of the early 90s, and The Big Bang Theory, which is currently doing unprecedented numbers, are completely glossed over. A lot of time was devoted to feminism and racism, but there’s little mention of Will and Grace, (except as a Friends knock-off,) or Modern Family and their influence on gay issues. Even Ellen’s infamous coming out is dismissed as “supposedly groundbreaking”. There is some discussion of gay characters, mostly in the Sex and the City chapter, but I wish more time had been devoted to the normalization of homosexuality through television. It feels very superficial in comparison to earlier themes.

You can clearly see the author’s biases in these chapters, as he dismisses the contributions or importance of shows he finds banal. Arrested Development’s greatest lament isn’t that it was canceled, but that Two and a Half Men wasn’t. While I certainly won’t argue that TBBT or Raymond are high art, it’s clear the author favors quirky, embarrassment-led sitcoms in the vein of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and that’s what he really wants to talk about. Unfortunately, I don’t, and often find the shows and the chapters mean spirited. Your enjoyment will probably depend on where you stand in the “should Arrested Development have been canceled?” debate.

There also seems to be some confusion as to what constitutes a sitcom and where the line exists as genres have become increasingly blurred. It’s an interesting argument, and while I can see justification for Sex and the City, even if I disagree, I can’t come to terms with Freaks and Geeks being included. Between the hour long runtime and, the author may not like the term but it is apropos, dramedy, it doesn’t fit the sitcom mold. It becomes obvious how shoehorned in it is, when the chapter segues into discussions of cop shows and M*A*S*H’s black humor. It seems like a personal favorite that the author believes was canceled too soon, again, and, again, wanted an excuse to talk about.

Despite some reservations, Sitcom is a fantastic jumping off point. It is a book that requires a fair understanding of the subject matter. In reading it, I watched many of the episodes to (re)familiarize myself with the characters and plots and to better follow along. This added a lot of depth and things to think about to shows I know well, as well as a newfound love for some I’d previously dismissed. The sitcom may be a derided genre, but once researched, there’s no denying that it is both incredibly important as a historical marker and a window into the more progressive future.


  1. Love this. I love that you discuss things so clearly. This isn't something I would normally be interested in (except maybe the MASH chapter) but your review is a nice dissection.

    1. The MASH chapter is excellent. You know, Jamie Farr is from Toledo and if you come visit you can eat at Tony Packo's and see the signed buns... ;)


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