Book 33 of my 2014 Reading Challenge.
I would like to thank NetGalley, the author, and Chicago Review Press for the opportunity to read and honestly review this book.
Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community by Saul Austerlitz
Summary (via Goodreads)
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 the artificial boundary between the world and the 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.
Assuming the reader has a basic knowledge of the shows mentioned and an interest in the subject, this was an informative and entertaining read. Being able to picture the shows and characters as I read added to my enjoyment. Of all the chapters, the only show I didn't know was The Phil Silvers Show (although I did recognize the title of Sgt. Bilko, as it is apparently referred to sometimes).
The information about the early sitcoms was especially interesting. I didn't realize commericals were generally presented live, making goofs (a la Lucy's "Vitameatavegimin" commerical) a distinct possibility. Also, I didn't realize how quickly TV caught on; according to the book, the number of television sets in operation jumped from twenty thousand in 1946 to forty million just ten years later. To quote the author, "the television set displaced the piano and fireplace as the focal point and conversation piece of American living rooms".
I also found the information about Gilligan's Island and its theme song fascinating. Apparently, CBS liked the premise but didn't think it would work because it would require too much time to explain why they were on the island every single week (before VCRs and DVRs and Netflix bingewatching marathons, each episode pretty much had to stand alone because you had one shot to watch it and if you missed it, you missed it). Sherwood Schwartz's solution? Write a catchy theme song (admit it, it's now in your head) that quickly introduces the audience to the characters and the premise before going on with the show. Gilligan's Island was the first to use a theme song for this purpose, and it was very effective. Schwartz also used the same technique on The Brady Bunch (and now that song's in your head...you're welcome).
One more fun fact that was unbelievable to me: Bill Cosby has 3 'best actor' Emmys but they were all for the drama series I Spy. He was never even nominated for The Cosby Show.
Overall, the memories made me smile and occasionally sent me to Youtube and/or Netflix to relive an episode.
Quote from the Book
**Note: I read an uncorrected proof of this book and the following quote may have been altered in the final copy.
"The sitcom is a blanket we wrap ourselves in to provide us with the TV-fueled illusion of stability."