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.
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.
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.
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.
May may just be the month of Marc Maron. The stand-up comedian is not new to the scene, having begun his forays into show business alongside the likes of David Cross, Sarah Silverman, and Louis C.K. in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but it is only in the last few years that he has garnered considerable attention due to the success of his podcast interview show WTF. In early 2011, the New York Times featured Maron’s podcast as a “must-hear” for comedians, and of course he has come up on Humor in America, most recently as “a revelation.”
This May, Maron is popping up in the mainstream as never before, issuing a new book entitled Attempting Normal, getting interviewed by Terry Gross, Howard Stern, and Jay Leno — and debuting his own television show on IFC, simply titled Maron.
One of the main reasons that stand-up comedians continue to have television shows built around their personalities is that the stand-up trade requires the creation of a detailed-yet-instantly-recognizable persona. It’s easily transposed to television, but Maron frequently refers to himself as an acquired taste, not for everyone. Indeed, the plot of the premiere episode makes much of that, as Maron cajoles a woeful Dave Foley into accompanying him on a hunt for someone who’s been pseudonymously insulting the podcaster via Twitter.
(By the way, I highly recommend Dave Foley’s real-life appearance on WTF for a discussion of the Kids in the Hall star’s ups and downs in Hollywood, including patented WTF-glimpses into Foley’s tangled personal life.)
For example, Dragonmaster tweets Marc Maron: “I would say don’t quit your day job, but you don’t have one, and it’s too late to get one.” Maron fans will recognize that as an external manifestation of Maron’s internal self-judgment. The dude is a volcano of self-judgment.
Episode One does a decent job setting up some of the Maron essentials. This includes his Twitter addiction, of course. His first ex-wife. His cats. The tension between his exhausting self-involvement and his deep self-awareness. The podcast set-up in his garage.
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.
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.