In the old days of television, before on demand and remote controls, the theme song announced the next show. It was designed to catch or keep your attention. Between the birth of television and the end of the 20th Century, 42 television theme songs charted on the Billboard top 60, four of which made it to No. 1. In the 21st Century not one television theme song has hit the pop charts.
Reasons for this include changing public taste and the fragmentation of popular culture but also the simple fact that many modern shows have no theme, and most that do use a short instrumental motif in lieu of a full fledged song.
Like all television programming, the sitcom has its origins in radio shows that were adapted for the new medium. Two pioneering shows – The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy – set the template that would remain virtually intact for the rest of the millennium.
The Honeymooners theme keeps with the radio tradition of an orchestral bed beneath the announcer.
I Love Lucy was a pioneering show in many ways, including its theme song. The I Love Lucy theme, written by Eliot Daniel, is the first sitcom theme that works almost as a commercial jingle. It is an infectious, easily identifiable tune that serves to brand the show.
Interestingly, these two iconic 1950’s sitcoms featured childless couples living in apartments – one blue collar realism, the other showbiz glamour – in an era that would be defined by the quintessential suburban nuclear family: a large house with a yard and a dog, a father who works, a mother who keeps the home and the 2.5 kids who learn and grow from their problems each week: Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.
As the 50s morphed into the 60s, sitcoms began to focus on less traditional families, from the broken to the fantastic.
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.
Good families have a proper evening meal, all members gathered around the dinner table. No television.
Good parents reserve dinnertime for wholesome conversation about the day. It is a forum to work toward solving problems and to reaffirm the grace and power of the family unit. A celebration of middle America, the family mealtime is a profound expression of togetherness.
I know this from watching American sitcoms.
Few actual families perform this revered ritual with any level of success, confidence, or consistency. I know this from experience and a good dose of common sense. But most believe in the ritual nonetheless. I am no exception. My wife and I think that we are good parents, but deep down we fear being exposed as frauds because we rarely sit down as a family for dinner. Mostly, we feed the kids (two of them) as they sit at the table and watch a television, or we set up trays for them in the den so they can watch a bigger television. As they eat, we go about making dinner for ourselves—something defined by ingredients rather than shapes. At no time do we all four sit down together, almost never.
If you want an image of what’s wrong with America, my house at dinnertime may be useful. An anthropologist could easily conclude that there is nothing cohesive or unifying about this “family” time at all. I’m inclined to agree.
As a teacher, one of my standard bits is to ask students to think about the normalizing influence of the sitcom and its role in shaping American culture. I usually ask them to talk about their own family dinners and relate them to many scenes from popular situation comedies that reenact that iconic moment with regularity. It is a valuable way to get students to recognize formulas within the art form. This is not to say that the sitcom dinner table is always defined as a bastion of family accord. Quite the contrary, the dinner table is often raucous. Even if the family discussion is contentious, however, the location of the dinner table has a calming influence. It perpetually gives the impression that at any moment everyone at the table could spontaneously hold hands and say “grace.”
Of the many tropes of sitcoms, the use of the dinner table (or kitchen table, etc.) as a gathering place is both logical and convenient, on one hand, and symbolically resonant and thematically useful, on the other. A family-based sitcom could hardly avoid using the eating table as a major setting. The convenience, however, also allows for sitcom writers to create an enduring statement of normalcy for the American viewing families, one whose features steadily blur distinctions between real American families and our models on television.
Implicit in asking students to discuss their own family dinner memories is the prodding goal of getting them to assess how well their families stack up to television families, and, moreover, how they feel about the spaces in between their reality and the created normalcy of the sitcom. For those interested in the study of the American sitcom as a cultural production, paying some attention to the family dinner table can be valuable. In this space, I would like to suggest that focusing on such scenes and imagery across a range of programs over time could be a productive exercise for students (for everyone). We will take just a short glimpse in this post. Perhaps others will add to the images in subsequent posts.
Few sitcoms resonate in our culture as deeply as Ozzie and Harriet, which ran on ABC from 1952 to 1966. Although it was not a blockbuster hit, it earned a steady and large following and has since become the preferred shorthand reference—from supporters and detracters—for the mainstream family ideals. My favorite reference is in the Coen Brothers film, Raising Arizona, as the aspiring father, H.I., in acknowledging his failures as a proper head of household, states, “Well, it’s not Ozzie and Harriet.” The image below captures the ideals represented by the show as symbolized by the family around the table. We should note, of course, that Harriet is firmly frozen in her role as housewife and mother, standing and serving the family. Likewise, all eyes are on the father as the source of the pleasant family moment. Gee, how does he do it (while wearing a sweater vest and white socks, to boot)?
Ozzie and Harriet, Defining the American Dinner Table
The show establishes a useful pattern that many sitcoms would follow over the years. If the scene around the table is breakfast, a conflict is introduced as the family shares a meal and either some plan or action is initiated to drive the episode; if the scene is around dinner, just as often the conflict is resolved. There are many variations of this theme. Even Ozzie and Harriet would allow the family eating routine to be punctuated by conflict, usually squabbles between the two brothers—enough conflict to set up the modest humor without introducing anything with deeper social tensions. An especially useful episode, “Separate Rooms,” aired February 6, 1953. Here is a YouTube link to the first part of the episode: http://www.youtube.com/watchNR=1&feature=endscreen&v=OCy0TF_z7a8