Category Archives: TV Sitcom

When Archie Met Sammy

I recently stumbled across a very entertaining and thought provoking list of 100 jokes that shaped modern comedy. The article is a fun read, and if you take the time to watch the video clips it is a good way to spend your entire weekend. As a scholar working on the intellectual history of the 1970s sitcom All in the Family, I was happy to see the show represented on the list. The joke representing the sitcom was from the classic episode Sammy’s Visit (originally aired February 19, 1972 on CBS), in which Sammy Davis Jr. forgets his briefcase in Archie Bunker’s (Carroll O’Connor) cab and comes to pick it up from his home on 704 Hauser St.

allinthefamily-20

Archie: Now, no prejudice intended, but, you know, I always check with the Bible on these here things. I think that, I mean if God had meant for us to be together, he’d-a put us together. But look what he done. He put you over in Africa, and put the rest of us in all the white countries.

Sammy Davis Jr.: Well, he must’ve told ’em where we were, because somebody came and got us.

The joke managed to not only dress down Archie, but make a direct link between slavery and the continuing bigotry in America. The issue of Archie as a “lovable bigot”, a term used by Laura Z. Hobson to criticize him six months earlier in the New York Times, was also addressed head-on in the episode. The Bunker’s black neighbor Lionel Jefferson (Mike Evans) tries to explain Archie to their guest.

Lionel: But he’s not a bad guy, Mr. Davis, I mean, like, he’d never burn a cross on your lawn.

Sammy: No, but if he saw one burning, he’s liable to toast a marshmallow on it.

The episode is widely considered one of the most memorable sitcom episodes, and was ranked 13th on TV Guide’s 1997 list of the “100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time”. Yet, the episode almost did not come to be. When Davis guested the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the spring of 1971, some months after the premiere of All in the Family, he lauded the new, controversial show and introduced the idea of himself guest starring on it. Norman Lear, the creator of the show, and John Rich, the director for the first four seasons, both agreed that wasn’t going to happen but appreciated the kind words and welcomed the promotion. Davis, however, kept pushing the idea. His manager tried to convince Lear and Rich, while Davis himself told the press a guest spot was in the works. Finally, Lear and Rich bowed to the inevitable and set about to find a way to incorporate the star into the show.

It was the writer Bill Dana who came up with the idea of Archie encountering Davis while moonlighting as a cab driver. Carroll O’Connor described the episode as a fun adventure but at the same time noted that it was atypical, being mostly “gags and jokes” and not “applicable” to anything broader the way All in the Family shows usually were. John Rich and Norman Lear, both pleased with the episode, also vowed never to do another celebrity guest episode. The show is great fun and ends with Davis kissing Archie on the cheek, as they are posing for a photograph. It is unclear whether Dana or Rich, who both claim credit, came up with that iconic television moment, which received what Rob Reiner called one of the longest laughs in history.

sammy-davis-archie-bunker-kiss-2

A final note to the story of when Archie met Sammy: Bill Dana, who wrote the show, was highly praised and perceived to be the favorite for an Emmy. As it happened, however, his agent’s secretary mistakenly sent the necessary paperwork to the Writer’s Guild instead of the Television Academy. Without even receiving a nomination, Dana watched as the show took home ten awards, including Outstanding Directing for Sammy’s Visit. There is a humorous side to such a silly mistake costing Dana, a comedy legend in his own right, an Emmy, though I doubt he saw it that way.

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The Comedy of the Black Republican

While I am currently working on political ideology on entertainment television in the 1970s, I do enjoy watching more contemporary television as well. Often, however, I am struck by how apolitical network television entertainment today is compared to the 1970s. In fact, the 1970s constitute a very peculiar period in network television. Especially comedies reveled in a new politically relevant humor, and the ratings ensured them leeway. But by the 1980s, the proliferation and weight of a wide array of interest groups had hampered the comedic freedom. Modern Family recently spent a story arch on Claire (Julie Bowen), one of the main characters, running for city council. Yet, her partisan alignment was never identified. This tactic is quite common in an industry that strives for as wide an audience as possible. There are few, if any, upsides in offending parts of your audience with partisan identification.

This is why I was so surprised to come across an episode of the ABC sitcom Black-ish revolving entirely around the idea of the Black Republican. The episode starts with Dre (Anthony Anderson) stipulating facts of life, including:

 “Black people aren’t Republicans, we just aren’t. We vote for Democrats. And it’s not just an Obama thing […] black people also overwhelmingly backed this guy [photo of Dukakis in a tank], this guy [photo of Al Gore kissing Hillary Clinton], hell 91% of black people voted for this guy [photo of Walter Mondale holding boxing gloves]. Fact: 91% of Walter Mondale’s family didn’t vote for Walter Mondale. Sure, the other side may trot out a token black face every now and again, but the fact of the matter is being a black Republican is something we just don’t do.”

The show often deals with perceived cultural differences between black Americans and white Americans, Continue reading →

Thanks to Obama You’re Paying for It: The Politics of Sitcoms

The scene is a hospital room where Luke Dunphy, at age 14 the youngest of the Dunphy children, is being treated for an allergic reaction. His young cousin looks at the IV drop hanging by his bed and asks what it does. Without missing a beat Luke replies: ”I don’t know but thanks to Obama you’re paying for it”. This scene from an episode of the popular sitcom Modern Family, which aired the day after Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term in the White House in 2012, was greeted with cheer among conservatives. Several conservative bloggers and news outlets commented on how Modern Family ”mocked” the president’s signature health care reform, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act from 2010. The conservative website RedAlertPolitics expanded, writing: “even liberal Hollywood writers can’t escape the reality that is the expensive repercussions from Obamacare”. Others took to social media, within days several clips of the scene had been uploaded to YouTube and comments written on Twitter.

Commentators connected the joke to earlier reports of advertising plans in connection with the roll out of the online marketplace for the medical coverage in California. The New York Times had reported that suggestions from the Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide agency included having prime-time television shows, explicitly naming Modern Family and Grey’s Anatomy, incorporate the health care law into their storylines. The news of the plan was initially met with skepticism among conservative news outlets, criticizing viewers being “force-fed pro-Obamacare propaganda”. Following the Modern Family episode with the comment on the health care law these same voices gleefully saw it as a backlash towards the attempted marketing campaign.

Nolan Gould, who plays Luke Dunphy on Modern Family

Nolan Gould, who plays Luke Dunphy on Modern Family

Continue reading →

Teaching American Humor: What Should Be Taught?

Teaching American Humor: What Should Be Taught?

Here is your challenge: come up with a syllabus of material for a course on American Humor. Good luck with that.

First, count yourself lucky. In a parallel universe you could be asked to teach a course on American poetry before 1800 (here’s a hint as to how unpleasant that could be: “Day of Doom”). Unlike the poor soul who is stuck with Michael Wigglesworth and a handful of other dour Puritans, you have choices. In this universe, at least, you have the good fortune to teach humor. But you still have the formidable task of choosing from myriad possibilities. To even begin narrowing them down to a manageable body of work to fit into a course seems rather maddening in and of itself—Doom.

Where to begin? What to include? Why a duck?

I would like to take this forum to put together a working list of humorists, etc., and works that could be deemed essential. What I propose is an American Humor ……(wait for it)… Canon. If you are opposed to the rigid, standard-bearing, pomposity of the word, I understand. If you couldn’t care less and figure any guidance at all that may help you put together a class (or many classes) would be useful, then I greet you as a kindred soul.

This may start a fight. That is not what I am seeking, but I figure a discussion on anything but presidential politics may be welcome. I hope to stir interest and ultimately move toward building a broad and annotated database of sorts that could serve teachers and students alike. And serve American Humor. But there is no getting around the fact that such an enterprise forces limitations. I always tell students (in all courses) that I could easily put together multiple sections of the course without duplicating anything. That is not to intimidate them with the frightful power of my brain (that comes later); it is merely to confess up front that I am playing a bit of a shell game. Generally, they don’t mind. They embrace my “less is more” philosophy and often suggest an even more streamlined syllabus. Great kids, all around.

So, what should be taught?

I will serve up my neck with a few suggestions and wait for others to respond. I currently teach a course called “American Popular Humor,” and I am quite fond of it. I added the “popular” to be able to focus on works that have enduring and widespread appeal because, first, that interested me; second, it gave me some cover for leaving out works that I had never heard of. That statement has all the marks of a sound decision. I do not offer this as an ideal or even finished course; rather, I include it here simply to provide a reference point.

I divide the course into thirds: 1) prose and performance; 2) film comedy; and 3) situation comedy. Now, you can start being appalled at how much I have already left out simply by stating three general categories. It gets worse.

Here is my list of required material for prose and performance:

Continue reading →

Andy Griffith: The Music of Mayberry and Beyond

Had Andy Griffith lived one day longer, he would have died on the 4th of July. This seems fitting for a man as American as apple pie, yet his simple modesty would never have allowed it. Thus, Andy Griffith passed away last week on July 3, one month into his 86th year, leaving a monumental contribution to American culture behind him.

He was best known as an actor, playing the straight-man, small-town Sheriff Andy Taylor in the eponymous television show he helped create – and with it an entire world. His childhood was rich with storytelling and, especially, music. The eccentric residents of the fictional Mayberry were inspired by the colorful characters that peppered his childhood in Mount Airy, North Carolina. While it is true he grew up dirt poor in the small southern town, even reduced to sleeping in dresser drawers as an infant, Andy Griffith was no bumpkin. In 1949, the ambitious and multifaceted Griffith graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a Bachelor of Music, where he served as the Men’s Glee Club President.

Music played a key role in the original “Andy Griffith Show,” which ran from 1960-1968. The Sheriff could often be found pickin’ a guitar on the front porch of a summer evening, but things really started to cook when the Darlings came to town. Continue reading →

Teaching American Sitcoms: Ode to The Beverly Hillbillies

Editor’s Note:  This piece is the first piece in a planned series on teaching humor and television sitcoms.  Jeffrey Melton will be spearheading this feature, but he invites you to contribute to the series, as do I.  Do you have a sitcom that you teach that you would like to write about?  Please contact the editor.  Thanks.

I made my ten-year-old daughter watch the first episode of The Beverly Hillbillies. It was going to be a bonding experience for us. At the end as the credits rolled and the Clampetts waved, she said, “That was dumb.” A rift came between us at that moment, a deep realization of disappointment for both of us. We had expected more from one another. But I couldn’t argue against her basic assertion. So I simply said, “Well, you’re dumb, too,” and sent her to her room. No, I didn’t really say that, but I wanted to. I actually said, “Yes, it is dumb, but not as dumb as it seems.” And that’s the moment when “Dad” shifted to “Academic.” She left the room on her own.

The Beverly HIllbillies in their car

There goes the neighborhood: the Clampetts enter Beverly Hills

Why was The Beverly Hillbillies so popular, as corny as it is?

Janet Staiger, in her Blockbuster TV (New York: New York UP, 2000), notes that the early reviews were brutal. Staiger goes on to point out, however, that over a third of all TV households were tuning in by the close of the first season. It was the top show for the 1962/63 and 63/64 seasons by a substantive margin and remained in the top twenty for six more years after its highpoint. According to Staiger, it was THE blockbuster sitcom of the decade.

Continue reading →

Happy Halloween!

While watching scary movies this weekend, I noticed the similarities between horror and humor: suspense released through an emotional response, expectations build up and often end in surprise, and lots and lots of blood…

*Seven Graveyard Smashes…our own music editor, Matt Powell, on Halloween music.

*Michael Collier’s “All Souls”

*Will Rogers in “The Headless Horsemen

*Halloween on Parks & Rec

*Comic Pumpkins

*Vincent Price and Muppets!

*Halloween music, via Nine Kinds of Pie

*the origin of Halloween traditions

*Werewolf Bar Mitzvah, spooky scary….

*A great version of Poe’s “The Raven” mixing humor and horror.

*Congratulations to the St. Louis Cardinals San Francisco Giants …via funny baseball quotes.

*Finally, some political cartoons  from the past few years, as Halloween tropes are recycled to address new fears and old.

2014

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2011

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Happy Birthday…Lucille Ball!

the managing editor.

Born August 6, 1911.  (d. 1989)

Museum of Broadcast Communications Website

The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnez Center for Comedy

Opening this week: a new exhibition at the Hollywood Museum, “Lucille Ball at 100 & ‘I Love Lucy’ at 60,” which will be on display from Aug. 3 to Nov. 30, showcasing memorabilia saluting the careers and romance of Hollywood’s most famous lovebirds.

For photos of the exhibits:http://www.yousendit.com/download/YTYvRE9saTFBNkZjR0E9PQ

If anyone visits either the Hollywood Museum exhibit or the Center for Comedy and would like to write a review, please let me know: wustert@gmail.com.

Happy Birthday…Estelle Getty!

Born July 25, 1923 (d. 2008).

While spending a week in a city outside of Detroit helping my wife’s grandma transition from a rehab hospital to home, we rediscovered the comedy gold of The Golden Girls, which was one of my favorite shows as a child and remains incredibly funny.  Getty’s character of Sophia Petrillo is a gem.  A reminder of how few older women (and men, for that matter) are represented in TV comedy now (apart from Betty White).