Back in April, with my kids attending classes online through the Hamilton Township School District, I began administering my own supplemental home learning program.
After years of drawing blank stares with my occasional invocations of TV characters and situations, I decided that my children had been too long deprived in their inability to appreciate the wit of a well-timed 1970s sitcom reference. It was time to familiarize this particular subset of the YouTube generation with the shows their father grew up watching, and give new meaning to the term “pop” culture. Forget math, science and ELA—it was time for Sitcom School.
I hadn’t been a big watcher of sitcoms since my own school days, a time before cable and FIOS were the norm; for a kid, the syndicated reruns that filled two or three summer daytime TV slots were like gold compared to the alternative—soap operas. In between swimming, baseball, and other outdoor activities, I watched a dizzying array of sitcoms, usually as background noise during elaborately staged action figure battles. In the parlance of Sitcom School, this was now recast as time spent establishing the “foundation” of my “knowledge base” via “independent study.”
It wasn’t difficult to reach Sitcom School’s enrollment target (3); situation comedies are, at least in theory, humorous, and the uncertainty around COVID-19 had me and my family eager for something to laugh at. As self-appointed headmaster, laugh lecturer, and curator of comedy, I was in charge of curriculum. My mission demanded more than a mere museum of the mediocre; I would gather the best examples of the format, foster a deeper appreciation of its potential, and elicit several dozen chuckles along the way.
Sitcoms have been around for over 70 years (!)—the first sitcom in the United States was a show called Mary Kay and Johnny, in 1947; the British beat us to the sitcom punch (line) with Pinwright’s Progress in 1946. If you’ve never heard of those shows, it’s probably because, well… let’s just say there was a learning curve.
Still, that left decades of sitcoms to choose from. The options were further limited by my children’s preference for color over black and white, scuttling many a fine show—The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy will have to wait—but such restrictions proved a mercy in the time-consuming culling process. We had already watched some shows together, like The Office, What’s Happening!, and all 11 seasons of M.A.S.H., so they were off the syllabus. And as much as I respected and enjoyed All in the Family, Good Times, and other politically engaged shows of their time, they were politics and social issues of a different era, and don’t resonate as much today. In other words, I wanted extra humor, hold the drama.
No sitcom was perfect, and I was looking to introduce, not inundate. Thus, I chose three episodes of each show, aided by the Internet Movie Database and the efforts of eager fans who have not only watched and rated every episode, but also provided detailed summaries and commentary. I dared not judge those individuals’ priorities or time allocation unkindly, as I was about to commit my family to a similar extended feeding at what the late Harlan Ellison called “The Glass Teat.”
The three episodes (sometimes four, in the case of a two-parter) needed to be representative—no “very special” episodes, or series finales that would have little impact without an extended emotional investment in the characters. The choices were difficult at times: Should one showcase the “jump the shark” episode of Happy Days that gave rise to the expression indicating a once-good show crossing into decline? Or an early episode that better captures the show’s 1950s Americana theme? (My answer: the latter.)
Selections made, we embarked on a roughly chronological (and much longer than three hour) tour of Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch, Get Smart, Mary Tyler Moore, WKRP in Cincinnati, Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Taxi, Benson, Newhart, Family Ties, The Cosby Show, Cheers, Frasier, Scrubs, Everybody Loves Raymond, The King of Queens, Seinfeld, and Community.
The Cosby Show and Laverne & Shirley were favorites, along with WKRP—particularly its famous “Turkeys Away” episode. By popular demand, three episodes of Seinfeld became 10, and a sampling of Community led to an extension course viewing the entire six-season series. In many ways, these more recent entries were more risqué than their sitcom predecessors, but even under the golden halo of idealized TV families, certain disturbing elements poked through those shows from the 60s and 70s, like Mike and Carol Brady joking about their 8-year old daughter’s love life (“The Not-So-Ugly Duckling”), or Mister Cunningham asking for a kiss from a random trick or treater in exchange for candy (“Haunted”). And who could forget the Mork and Mindy episode (“Mork the Gullible”) that gave birth to a religion based on the worship of O.J. Simpson?
Some humor is timeless, but some is stamped with a clear expiration date.
Like many actual college graduates, the Sitcom School alumni emerged with no marketable skills, but a sharper and more critical eye for entertainment. We did lay some common ground between generations, and at least if my kids ever take a Media Studies/Sitcoms 101 class in college—God forbid—they’ll have a leg up. In the meantime, I’ll be busy conducting research on potential future course offerings, and tidying up a dissertation with the working title: “Knock, Knock, Who’s There? The Amusing Ascendance of the Wacky Neighbor.”
Peter Dabbene is a Hamilton-based writer. His website is peterdabbene.com.