Lucy. Mary. Hawkeye. Norm. Kramer. Homer. To borrow from the “Cheers” theme song, everybody knows the names of these classic situation comedy characters. In “Sitcom,” Saul Austerlitz shows how these weekly, 30-minute programs have evolved to become an American art form — from the Club Babalu to “The Office.”
The subtitle, “A History in 24 Episodes From ‘I Love Lucy’ to ‘Community,’ ” is somewhat misleading. Rather than simply focus on a single sitcom episode in each chapter, the author moves back and forth across sitcoms past, present and future to show parallels and to compare plotlines.
We see, for instance, the links between the conniving characters from the 1950s “The Phil Silvers Show,” who ended up in jail in the show’s finale, and “Seinfeld” from the 1990s, whose cast did the same. Austerlitz professes not to have written an encyclopedic book, but just pondering how many sitcoms are out there to be watched leaves one feeling like Homer Simpson in a giant doughnut store: So many choices, so little time.
Austerlitz traces the sitcom DNA back to Lucy, the red-headed screwball who always wants to be in show business like her Cuban-born bandleader husband, Ricky. That Lucille Ball played Lucy opposite her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz, made for art imitating life in a way that intrigued the public in the 1950s.
Austerlitz zeroes in on the “Lucy Does a TV Commercial” episode to demonstrate how she always teetered on the edge of chaos. Her progressively drunken mangling of the product’s name, Vitameatavegamin, elicits guffaws no matter how many times you’ve seen it.
Austerlitz also analyzes the show in relation to about 20 other programs — from precursors such as “The Goldbergs” to “The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet,” starring the real-life Nelson family. While the book often captures the joy of a given series, its mission to provide historical and artistic context makes it far less raucous than its subject matter.
“Sitcom” offers a tour of the sitcom world. In post-World War II America, the shows were nonthreatening, neighborly: “I Love Lucy,” “The Honeymooners,” “Leave it to Beaver.” TV’s adolescence in the ’60s included oddball fantasies such as “Gilligan’s Island.”
The genre began to mature with “Mary Tyler Moore,” which opened the door for single women, feminism and more issue-based shows such as “All in the Family” and “Maude.” The maturity and realism broadened with the arrival of “M*A*S*H” in 1972. A series about a mobile U.S. Army surgical hospital in Korea, “M*A*S*H” bent the genre by being sometimes shot in a documentary style and by balancing comedy with drama, as the Vietnam War still churned American viewers’ emotions.
The arrival of the animated program “The Simpsons” provided an evolutionary leap in the format as “the sitcom burst its boundaries, finding humor in the disjunction between its family-values past and the dysfunctional present,” Austerlitz writes. Flabby, beer-loving Homer; his long-suffering, blue-haired wife, Marge; his precocious daughter Lisa; perennial baby Maggie; and parental nightmare Bart peopled what creator Matt Groening called “a hallucination of a sitcom.”
It’s fascinating to consider how many TV sitcoms over the years have drawn their jokes, storylines and characters from something quite close to their heart: television. “The sitcom became, more than ever, about itself,” Austerlitz writes. This self-referential tendency stretches from “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” about a TV comedy writer, to “Seinfeld,” where Jerry and George create a “show about nothing,” to “30 Rock” with Tina Fey playing Liz Lemon, the stressed head writer of a sketch comedy show that Austerlitz calls the “triumphant showbiz farce . . . about the exhaustion of the sitcoms.”
Austerlitz also makes us wonder about several casting near-misses: how Mickey Rooney might have played Archie Bunker or how Carroll O’Connor might have navigated the Skipper on “Gilligan’s Island.”
Austerlitz is such a student of the genre that occasionally he slips into an overly professorial tone: “As its prosaic title might indicate, ‘Friends’ is a paean to the glories of companionship.” This kind of writing would be the stuff of satire on “Saturday Night Live.”
But overall, “Sitcom” will entertain and inform readers, especially those who want to learn more about a favorite series or a great show they’ve missed. With more and more sitcom reruns available on outlets such as Hulu and Netflix, there’s plenty of time to get to know a few more names.
Levingston is a freelance writer living in Bethesda.
A History in 24 Episodes From “I Love Lucy” to “Community”
By Saul Austerlitz
Chicago Review. 496 pp. Paperback, $19.95