Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Comedy of the Situation

One thing most don't know about me is that I am a fan of sitcoms. This tends to surprise everyone who learns this since the form has a stigma as being completely worthless and lowly in the grand scheme of better television out there. Over the years sitcoms have been deconstructed, spat on, left for dead, and openly mocked, even as the televised landscape has degraded even further.

Now I'm not even certain anyone remembers them. But that's not the point.

So how can one like such a trashy thing as a sitcom? Well, I'll tell you, and maybe it will offer an additional perspective on why someone might enjoy this form that lasted half a century despite being hated more than pulp magazines, metal music, and violent video games combined. No, they weren't hated by the same people, but by those who considered themselves edgy or counter-cultural: they detested the medium. That's no exaggeration. They were that disliked. Most of the reason you hate sitcoms is because you were told to by television itself.

The reason I like sitcoms is because they are the only form of comedy on television that doesn't pretend to be high art, because it promises fluffy entertainment and delivers, and because it is the pure distillation of comedy in as tight a package as can be offered by the medium. In other words, there's a reason the form lasted so long besides the old canard of audiences being stupid spread by those who replaced them with worse shows.

Above all, sitcoms in their original intent were meant to attract the entire family from little Billy to Mom and Dad, and the family dog. They brought the family together.

Green Acres
They were made to unite and bring people together. This s why the "safe and soft comedy" insult thrown their way has never made any sense. Situation comedies were made to relate to everyone in the family at once which necessarily means it can't have explicit raunchy comedy or controversial topics. It's not a mystery why they did this, nor is it a limitation. They contain family friendly "light" writing to broaden appeal to the widest possible audience. They were made that way by design.

And yes, I am aware that sometimes they were not filmed before a live studio audience and had laugh tracks superimposed over them. I am also aware that many find the multi-camera format (which makes the show look like a stage-play) outdated. I understand the criticisms.

I am aware that sitcoms are not perfect, as are most of us who enjoy them. We know. Despite this they were successful for a reason and were the programs of choice on television for many years before the subversives declared them outdated and out of touch.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

So let us discuss when they lost their way. It was a long journey to tear down this genre from its family roots in exchange for lonely urbanites and split demographics, but it was a very successful one despite the failure. To this day the major networks consider lower ratings, smaller cultural impact, and divisive social messages their bread and butter. It was a long fall But at what point did it become like it is now?

The Andy Griffith Show
The most obvious reason for the death of the sitcom and family programming was the Rural Purge. Just like how ACT ended up killing the animation industry in the west the subversive nature of the Rural Purge was the first blow in attempting to shape a narrative that ended up fracturing audiences, demographics, and eventually the televised landscape itself. It was more sabotage by those who supposedly knew better, but clearly didn't.

For those who don't know, the title of the movement says it all. The Rural Purge was a move by rich city-dwelling television executives to create propaganda about the city and how great it is to attract more young people and get their advertising bucks. It didn't even roll out slowly like ACT or the PMRC did. It happened overnight.

In the early '70s all the highest rated shows were cancelled because of their setting and family friendly nature, in order to cobble together the image the networks preferred. It was deliberately aimed at deconstructing the past, degrading older viewers, and courting a higher quality of audience. They were going to shape the future.

And it was an abject failure.

Here is the supposed summary of why it was done via wikipedia:
"By the late 1960s, … many viewers, especially young ones, were rejecting [rural-themed] shows as irrelevant to modern times. Mayberry's total isolation from contemporary problems was part of its appeal, but more than a decade of media coverage of the civil rights movement had brought about a change in the popular image of the small Southern town. Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., was set on a U.S. Marine base between 1964 and 1969, but neither Gomer nor any of his fellow marines ever mentioned the war in Vietnam. CBS executives, afraid of losing the lucrative youth demographic, purged their schedule of hit shows that were drawing huge but older-skewing audiences."
But if this was true then why did ratings only decrease from the '70s on? Why were the highest rated shows (NOT critically acclaimed, the highest rated) up until the '00s still family centered shows? Why, when this project led to lack of success, did the networks never in 50 years ever have an Urban Purge?

This is the question nobody asks. Over 50 years and not a single book on the topic has ever been written. No articles online, either. Just like the ACT we lost something else due to busybodies and no one questions the reasons for it.

And now it's gone. Again.

Petticoat Junction
All those edgy sitcoms such as All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show you hear about as revolutionary never had the ratings of Green Acres or Petticoat Junction even at their best. And yet which ones do you hear about incessantly to this day? You never even see them in reruns because they don't get ratings now. There has never been a sitcom as popular as they were before the subversives took over, and that is simply reality.

But time marches on, perspectives get skewed, and the truth is lost. Even then, however, there was light shining in the cracks of this situation. Family shows stayed alive through it all.

My generation might have been the first since the rejection of those rural roots to actually get some of what the form was originally meant for. We were also the last.

I, like everyone in Generation Y, grew up with a sitcom block known as TGIF. In many ways this block both emphasizes the appeal of the form and shows why it eventually ended up dying by the next decade. It ran from 1989 to 2000, the twilight years of the sitcom and through Disney buying the network and tinkering with the project. In many ways it is the forebear for what is happening in the entertainment world now.

Perfect Strangers
TGIF began with an ABC executive named Jim Janicek back in the '80s. He remembered sitting around with his family watching The Wonderful World of Disney as a child and wanted to create a block like that for families again. Because there really weren't any. He worked through 1988 gaining support for his idea and eventually it led to TGIF ("Thank Goodness It's Funny") a play on the old saying of Thank God It's Friday.

Before then there really were no Friday blocks for television, and most shows left on that night were afterthoughts. But Janicek believed there was a family audience who just wanted to watch something together without having to compromise their ideals and beliefs for raunchier fair and just wanted to relax after a long week. Because believe it or not, that's what TV shows used to be for: unwinding.

It turns out that he was right. That audience was there waiting for just this moment. They'd probably been waiting since the Rural Purge, but nobody asked them what they wanted.

There were popular family shows before TGIF, such as Benson, Growing Pains, Diff'rent Strokes, Family Ties, Mr. Belvedere, Alf, and such, but they were all floating around without any sort of link to keep them grounded and were tossed in amidst adult fare. This was the first time they had all been brought to one concentrated space and allowed the audience to settle in for the long haul. And it was a huge success.

Depending on your age you might not remember this time period or know exactly why the block got popular when it did. I can tell you that the very first lineup is the perfect example as to why it was a hit with families.

When TGIF started it began with Full House, a show that has been on television in reruns for nearly 30 years, Family Matters, the one with Steve Urkel, Perfect Strangers, a show about a mismatched pair of cousins living in the city, and Just the Ten of Us, a spin off of Growing Pains about a large family. This first season was the base of the block and it would soon morph into an even bigger success as the '90s came in.

By 1993 the block solidified into what I think is the most well known and emphatic success of its original concept. Anchored by Family Matters, the modern day Brady Bunch update Step By Step, the distillation of youthful Gen Y with Boy Meets World, and hip urban comedy with Hanging with Mr. Cooper, it managed to hit every demographic and audience member you could think of, and this block lineup lasted until late 1996 when they began to fuss with it.

Nonetheless TGIF remained a Friday staple in the '90s.

During these years it was something to be able to talk with my parents, friends, acquaintances, church attendees, and grandparents and other family members about the same block even if just in passing. Everyone watched at least something from it and it made for some fun conversation pieces. It was a small thing, but it was still a connection to share.

In other words, the block did exactly what it had set out to do. It was a definite success by its own terms.

Family Matters
However, it was also at this point that the block began to lose its way. Starting with the addition of the Clueless TV series and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, the block began to aim away from general audiences towards fads. This was in the '90s when the "Extreme teen" demographic was being relentlessly pursued and where the quirky individual triumphed over the family. TGIF tried a bunch of one off shows about hip teens as genies and angels as well as bringing over shows from other blocks that were flailing. They did anything other than put out more shows for the entire family.

By 2000 and the end of the block there was really nothing left of what made TGIF popular to begin with. Its cancellation was inevitable, especially considering the arising trends in the sitcom world.

For those unaware, in the late '90s a sitcom named Friends came out. At the same time reality TV hit big with a show named Survivor and the two ended up being the idols of the networks for years. In many ways they still are. What they did was choke the air out of the television landscape so that everything either became a reality show (or game show for a bit) or became a Friends clone with the same setup and pandering approach. What they successfully did was kill network television in the long run, and the family sitcom dead.

Friends was the epitome of the original subversive ideal of those who initiated the Rural Purge decades before. It's a show entirely about selfish young urbanites obsessed with sex and money aimed at a young audience who cared more about soap opera drama that propagandized for city life and the "new" over the old. Some people say Seinfeld was this, but it wasn't: Seinfeld was a parody of city life that never once endorsed it but regularly skewered the urban world and made fun of such a selfish and shallow existence. Friends endorsed the destruction, wholly, unironically, and unashamedly, and it ended up destroying the entire form.

Because it was so popular, every sitcom began to abandon families, kids, the elderly, and adults, for the gold ring of disposable adolescent money. They're still pandering to the same audience now. The television landscape in the late '90s on is a wasteland due to this.

Step By Step
After Friends salted the earth, sitcoms began their descent to irrelevance. The execs from back in the day achieved their goal and had no idea where to go next and it shows. Just think: what was the last traditional sitcom that you can think of after Friends went off the air?

There isn't any, is there? No, sitcoms were abandoned after their use had run out.

Then Arrested Development arrived with the now beyond tired single camera setup and the networks have been chasing that dragon of imaginary success ever since. Remember, Arrested Development was never a hit, and yet everyone has still tried to copy it incessantly for nearly two decades. Why would you deliberately chase something that never hit on with larger audiences when that is supposed to be your job? This is how much the medium had lost its way.

And reruns appear to bear this out. Friends reruns have never done that great compared to everything else. In comparison Full House, of all shows, has never been off the air since it started running in 1987. There is an audience gap here that has never fully been addressed.

Now, am I arguing sitcoms are on the level of high art that have been usurped by pretenders looking for its glorious crown? Hardly. What I'm arguing is that it's another medium that was usurped and replaced by those who wanted to use it as a weapon, and then destroyed.

I'm not going to pretend sitcoms have ever been a popular subject: I'm one of the few people I know that like them, for example. But they existed for a reason, until that reason was taken away. Now like so many other forms it has been left in tatters and worse for wear.

The Final Blow
ABC attempted to bring back TGIF multiple times in the years since but it has never stuck. The family audience left and fractured as shows became made for hyper focused demographics and even more channels popped up to fill in the void. Not to mention that in the age of streaming blocks are a dying breed when no one has to watch what everyone else is.

At the same time, post-2000 sitcoms are now entirely about what the subversives wanted in being hyper-political and "true to life" by ejecting escapism for social messaging and being divisive instead of trying to unite. Their quest for relevance has made them irrelevant. As I said there have been no post-Friends sitcoms that have reached success, and there never will be.

At least, not out from Hollywood.

But that doesn't mean we can't try. Just as those in the writing world have attempted to fill the void, so too can those who want to see a return of more pro-social family oriented programming do their part. With the decline of the old guard there are going to be people looking for replacements, and TV shows are going to eventually need it after backing themselves into a corner. Sooner of later someone will figure out how to crowdfund a decent family sitcom.

It's just a matter of time.

Reminder: This has never been off the air once in over 30 years.
Until then I suppose I can share with you that sitcoms are silly, lighthearted, and frothy, and that is why they worked. There is nothing wrong with that. You can find no shortage of old advertisements up to the '90s for the networks that all focused on people coming home from a hard day at work desperate to laugh and feel better for a few moments before they had to wake up and do it again. They were made this way for those people and they did their job.

There are whole subcultures on the internet devoted to the medium and many of them are normal people who enjoy having a good time after having a tough day. You can find no shortage of those into sitcoms. This is how they managed to last so long despite the ire of "serious" critics and the attempt at subversion. The most talked about ones aren't even the ones you might figure. Hint: the family sitcoms still get the bulk of discussion even today.

So the next time you catch a rerun of Family Matters and roll your eyes, just stop for a second and realize that the goofy, frothy, silliness you're watching brightened someone's day for at least half an hour. It has its purpose, and it succeeded at it. At one time that was the goal of all entertainment.

And that is enough for me.

Boy Meets World 


  1. I've heard of the Rural Purge, though I mostly just associate it with CBS. As you said, they were going for a younger demographic. For CBS that's kind of ironic as their biggest star today is a silver haired Mark Harmon.

    Modern sitcoms are rather harsh viewing. Mostly just a bunch of nasty people being nasty to each other. Seinfeld made fun of the idea, but the rest of television takes it seriously.

    An interesting example of what you're talking occurs with Big Bang Theory and Young Sheldon. BBT is your basic insult comedy. Sheldon is much more family oriented and takes place before the main character becomes a total anal orifice. Of the 2, Sheldon is more watchable.

    1. I think what put me off network sitcoms was that show Two Broke Girls. Attempting to be relevant for Millennials it featured two obnoxious selfish single girls as they stumbled their way through a miserable urban existence. Full of R-rated humor and crass jokes, of course.

      For a style of show that existed to make people feel good it sure loved to revel in disgusting sludge.

      Much like how crime shows made the same degradation, there have been many studies that said people are better off going to bed after seeing something that makes them feel better about themselves. What these networks are doing is the exact opposite of what they should be.

      And that's probably why they keep hemorrhaging viewers.

    2. There are certain shows I call "anti-funny". They're "comedies" that are so un-funny they actually suck humor out of the room when they're on and make the world feel a little colder.

      "Two Broke Girls" is on the list, along with "Two and a Half Men".

      You probably expect me to say "Big Bang Theory", but I won't. I'm ashamed to say it makes me laugh.

      I know the issues with it. I know, objectively, it's terrible. I know it's an insult to the average human's intelligence.

      But dammit, I laugh anyway, so help me.

    3. I don't care for the show, but I don't think it's one of the worst. The critics detested it when it came out, too, so it can't be too terrible.

  2. Excellent post.

    No show before or since is as funny as "I Love Lucy".

    One thing I've never seen talked about is how modern sitcoms are literally the exact inversion of the infamously criticized dynamic of "Lucy". In "Lucy" Ricky Ricardo was a competent professional, a successful business owner and entertainer (a job that could realistically support a New York apartment, I might add). He was handsome, too.

    Lucy was basically a screw-up, a perpetual schemer looking for ways to either make a quick buck or get a shot in the limelight, but always failing in some dramatically goofy way. Ethel would join her while Ricky and occasionally Fred would call her out on her lunatic schemes, argue with her over it, and, famously, spank her if she did something especially dumb.

    Now take "King of Queens". I picked it because I liked the show, so it's not a particularly easy target. In this show, Doug is dumb and a constant screw-up who's perpetually trying crazy schemes (like handling "three wives" at once). At one point in the show's run he makes less than his wife, who is shown to be both smarter and more attractive than he is, if meaner.

    A running gag throughout the show is that when she's pissed she'll twist Doug's nipples. Ha ha! Funny!

    Spanking Lucy though? Terrible. Misogynistic. Outdated, Offensive.

    Despite the fact that Lucy is if anything shown to be in *less* pain than Doug ever is.

    Sitcom humor hasn't changed. It's just reversed - and it isn't nearly as funny.

    1. Yes, the "Dumb dad/Hot mom" dynamic came in hard by the end of the '90s and took over most of the '00s. Even Home Improvement in the 90s where Tim's obliviousness is played as a joke still allows the rest of the characters to be the butts of the jokes.

      But because its about ideology now there are things you simply are not allowed to do, which limits writing and creativity. And the rules get stricter by the minute.

      I guess there was a reason I spent most of my Netflix time when I had it watching sitcom reruns. It was a refresher on what you were allowed to do not so long ago.

    2. Not too long ago I put on an episode of Home Improvement. In the episode,Tim is dragged by Peggy to a sort of group couples therapy.

      Tim wants no part of it and doesn't take it seriously, which annoys Peggy. Then she tells her story about how annoyed she was when she was on a date with Tim and he annoyed her by not paying attention.

      Tim points out that this isn't the full story - his favorite sporting event was on that weekend but he agreed to go with her anyway, despite making it clear he didn't want to. Suddenly the tenor of the group changes: They are on Tim's side, and Peggy is forced to admit she's overly domineering and controlling.

      It's pretty funny.

      The really amazing part is the ending. Peggy apologizes to Tim - but it gets better. *Tim never apologizes to her*. He just accepts the apology outright. He never cops to doing anything wrong. But he forgives her, and all is well.

      And that's the episode.

      Can you imagine that in a modern sitcom? I can't. At BEST the husband will at least have to admit wrongdoing, but to show a husband entirely in the right is practically unthinkable.

      Remember King of Queens? One episode is literally about how Doug is so stupid and weak Carrie has to be the one who makes all the decisions for the family. All of them. All the time. Because Doug is that huge a moron.

      It's incredibly how much has changed. Again, we see basically this dynamic in Lucy, except far less mean-spirited. It's just how it is, but the love between Lucy and Ricky is palpable. While Carrie and Doug had decent enough chemistry, you can't fake the genuine love between Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball. It makes a huge difference in regards to the tone of the show, and it hasn't been replicated since.

    3. That could never happen now. I think there were genuine moments in something like The Middle, probably because Patricia Heaton was in it, but since that ended actual husband and wife relationships are dead on TV.

      Now everything has to be edgy, race-based, or subversive. Not into any of that. I watch sitcoms to unwind, not to be talked down to or at.

  3. BTW, glad to see that you nailed "Seinfeld". Owen Benjamin is right and wrong about it - yes, they're all awful people, but the show was upfront about that from the start. It was the point. You're supposed to laugh at them as they stumble through the petty banalities of daily with exaggerated stupidity.

    To look at it as propaganda is to miss the point of the show. None of the characters are supposed to be likable, nor is their life supposed to be presented as desirable - in fact, they're constantly miserable BECAUSE of how enormously self-absorbed they are.

    It's satire. And it's funny.

    1. It's like those who use Married With Children as support for the anti-family movement in sitcoms. It was a satire and not remotely meant to be anything other than cartoonish ridiculousness.

      Friends was 100% straight with no curve to it at all. That show is what it says it is on the tin. They even indulge in shipping wars and end the series on it.

      Seinfeld ends the series in the courtroom convicting the main characters of jail-time for being horrible people. It ends with them in prison.

      The difference is obvious.

  4. Sabrina the Teenage Witch premiered in the 1996-1997 season.

    Every. Single. Time.

    1. They pushed it hard, but looking at the ratings it never beat any of the heavy hitters at their peak.

      But still they chased it, and here we are.

      Oh well.

  5. Great post!

    The rural purge is a fascinating look at the depths of the ruling elite's hatred of everyday Americans. Nowhere do you see any positive example of non-city life in American pop culture. It's all "muh rednecks!" and "muh Christian bigots!" and all of that, which is a complete and utter joke.

    TGIF had a little of the poz in it from what I remember--Step by Step was full of "Girls Rule! Boys drool!" moments. But on the whole it wasn't actively and relentlessly insulting.

    Sitcoms can be very entertaining and enjoyable slices of life that poke gentle fun at family life without being too cloying OR overly edgy and winkingly self-referential as they are now. For example, Modern Family pisses me off to no end despite its talented cast.

    I find a lot of TV procedurals kinda sorta fill this same niche of entertainment without being political or insulting. For whatever reason, I was watching that show Person of Interest recently. All it does is tell self-contained action/thriller stories that end with the good guys triumphing over the bad guys. It's like a sitcom with fewer laughs and more guns.

    Awesome post, and truly something to think about. Every aspect of mainstream American culture is poisoned. Every single one.

    1. Person of Interest gets some cracks in it by the end, but the overall story is really good especially the two male leads.