The Laughter of Millions: Finding your Material in the “Vast Wasteland”

In the introduction to The Sitcom Reader: America Viewed and Skewed (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005: 12) Mary M. Dalton and Laura R. Linder conclude that while entertaining, “[sitcoms] are never just entertainment”, but rather a fascinating window into the conventions, structures, and discourses of American culture. Given the genres popularity, longevity, and consistent formula from the early days of television onwards, American sitcoms form a highly interesting source material for historians. Needless to point out, sitcoms feature discourses often consumed by tens of millions of people. The main problem for historians, usually taking on television material qualitatively rather than quantitatively, is the “vast wasteland” this archival treasure amounts to. Thus, to use the immense material television sitcoms constitute the historian must find a way to select the shows that represent the culture, or find himself buried in one-liners, laugh-tracks, and opening themes.

Edith (Jean Stapleton) and Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor)

Edith (Jean Stapleton) and Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor)

The strengths of sitcoms as historical source material lies in their ability to on the one hand reflect the culture they are a product of and on the other hand shape the culture they are consumed in. That is to say, sitcoms are never produced nor enjoyed in a vacuum.


While the effects sitcoms have on audiences attitudes and believes hardly can be empirically proven it remains clear that, as John Fiske puts it in Television Culture (London: Routledge, 2010), “Social change does occur, ideological values do shift, and television is a part of this movement”. So, as historians we must find the shows that best captures the zeitgeist of a specific period in time.

This part is rather clear, what is harder is locating a methodologically sound way to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. Depending on your research question material selection can of course sort itself out, if you’re looking for say Asian-American families in the lead you are pretty much left with All-American Girl (ABC 1994) and the upcoming Fresh off the Boat (ABC 2015).

If, however, there are no content requirements on the show beyond them being sitcoms (I will not venture into debates of any authoritarian definition of sitcoms here) you will need clear selection methods to find the canon of sitcoms that most saturated the specific times.

The most common clash in this search for selection criteria that can reveal the zeitgeist shows is between popularity and critical acclaim. While scholars tend to appreciate and analyze what constitutes the highbrow of the lowbrow, to travesty Lawrence Levine’s concepts, the cultural power will not necessarily be found in, say, 30 Rock (NBC 2006-2013). Some criticize the contemporary ratings favorites as “the lowest common denominator” and turn their gaze with nostalgia towards the past; still popularity and critical acclaim seldom meet in one show, even historically. Certainly, Seinfeld (NBC 1989-1998) ruled the ratings in the mid-90s, but not everybody remembers that the show couldn’t even break the top 30 until its fourth season; not unlike contemporary The Big Bang Theory (CBS 2007-). Similarly, M*A*S*H (CBS 1972-1983) was firmly behind Laverne & Shirley (ABC 1976-1983) in the late 1970s, regardless of critics preferences. Before the 1970s, and the hits The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS 1970-1977) and All in the Family (CBS 1971-1979), the most popular sitcoms where the so called “hick-coms” The Beverly Hillbillies (CBS 1962-1971), Petticoat Junction (CBS 1963-1970), and Green Acres (CBS 1965-1971). Indeed, it is rather in the rating juggernauts than the critical darling’s that historians will find the cultural attitudes. It is important to note that these rating leaders constituted discourses enjoyed weekly by tens of millions of people. Still, chasing the Nielsen ratings will only lead you down the rabbit-hole. Disregarding clear-cut smash hits like All in the Family and The Cosby Show (NBC 1984-1992), which held the number one spot for longer streaks of time, the ratings tend to fluctuate, rapidly. Between 1978 and 1982 the highest rated sitcom changed every year.

Shirley Feeney (Cindy Williams) and Laverne De Fazio (Penny Marshall)

Shirley Feeney (Cindy Williams) and Laverne De Fazio (Penny Marshall)

To find what she terms “blockbuster TV”, that is break-away television hits, Janet Staiger looks not only at the highest ratings but at the differential between the highest rated shows and the ones occupying the following spots in her book Blockbuster TV: Must-See Sitcoms in the Network Era (New York: New York University Press, 2000). Using this method Staiger is able to identify what could be the four most important sitcoms between 1960 and the 1990s; The Beverly Hillbillies, All in the Family, Laverne & Shirley, and The Cosby Show. Staiger’s novel approach avoids the traps of the “least objectionable programming” theory, the idea that viewers are essentially passive in their watching habits and thus satisfied to avoid what they term objectionable rather than to actively search for their favorites among the offering, and illustrates which shows enjoyed clear cultural importance. My own research is on conservative discourses in sitcom entertainment and as such selecting only the break-away hits can be problematic, no show is an island but as historical material a single show from each period would certainly seem like an island. Staiger is of course acutely aware of the production and distribution contexts and in fact treats Laverne & Shirley as a duo with Happy Days (ABC 1974-1984), of which the former is a spin-off, as not only their content but popularity intermingled. Looking over the charts of television ratings from the 1970s onward it is far easier to consistently identify pairs of important sitcoms than individual hits. This way you can team up the hit All in the Family with Sanford and Son (NBC 1972-1977), also a brainchild of Norman Lear and strong in the ratings department, or The Cosby Show with Family Ties (NBC 1982-1989), which between 1984 and 1987 followed it on Thursdays at 8.30 pm on NBC as well as in the Nielsen ratings.

In the field of sitcoms, any material selection criteria should of course be the source of lively debate if purely as a result of the debaters own perceptions of quality sitcoms, but it seems clear that in a study where the discourses of television entertainment is of interest the ratings should be the first map to the material. At the same time the ratings are deceptive and Staiger certainly shows how multilayered they can be, while reminding everybody never to discount the production and distributive realities.

2 responses

  1. Some of the greatest, and most innovative, sitcoms almost died before they gained any real traction. But once they did, they changed the face of television forever.

    I remember a series from the early 80s called ‘Buffalo Bill” starring Dabney Coleman. That was a fantastically well-written series, that some critics still hold up as one of the greatest shows to ever land on TV. Unfortunately, it didn’t last past its first season. I’d hate to imagine “Seinfeld” having met that fate (which it almost did).

  2. Frederick Wasser | Reply

    The critical versus the popular is a tough choice in television. I feel that even the critically acclaimed never is a truly individual expression but also reflects the industrial collective of television and (in the US) advertisers. Winberg’s reading of Staiger is interesting and inspires us to think about the goal of academic analysis of television. It is to illuminate when and how television intervenes in the zeitgeist and in this spirit it is always good to remember how The Beverly Hillbillies questioned the supposed “rewards’ of being rich.

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