Great Moments in Sitcom History: A Eulogy – Part 4
Part One: “We Gather Together” — The Cosby Show
Part Two: “The 20 Year Callback” — The Newhart Finale
Part Three: “Delightful Accidents and Fortuitous Blunders” – Friends, The Jack Benny Program, Seinfeld
Lucy, Gervais, Silvers, AbFab, SCTV, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show Ensemble
In a pretty bleak scene at the top of Moneyball, Billy Beane looks on as the stadium crew dismantles a trio of 10-story-high banners featuring Jason Giambi, Jason Isringhausen, and Johnny Damon: the team’s marquee players who’d fled Oakland for more money and more wins in more exciting markets. Once the final banner falls to the ground, Beane is left staring at a nondescript, cement façade — fractured and ordinary.
At about the same time, the sitcom genre was losing three of its own banners…
Seinfeld had, in its fans’ opinions, prematurely abandoned them in 1998. By 2005, Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond, the two remaining pillars of a once-magnificent sitcom Parthenon, were also gone. Risk-averse networks filled the voids with a litany of copycat spinoffs featuring unremarkable characters in formulaic, stakes-less scenarios.
“We, the networks, drove comedy into the ground by being derivative,” said Stephen McPherson, the president of entertainment for ABC. It’s unclear which element crashed first, the “sit” or the “com” – but a sitcom without both may as well be the cement facade of a banner-less baseball stadium in Oakland, California.
In the final two segments of this series, we present our remaining panelists’ favorite sitcom moments in two categories: “The Hams” and “The Heart.” In spite of the Jewish holiday, we begin today with “The Hams” – six masterful, once-in-a-generation comedic performances, the likes of which we may never experience the same way again.
Claudia Lonow (Writer/Creator: Rude Awakening, Accidentally on Purpose): Of all of the brilliant I Love Lucy episodes — stomping grapes, the scary one when she has a vase stuck on her head, the one where she proves she can’t even handle working at a chocolate factory — “Lucy Gets In Pictures” stands out as my favorite. Because finally, Lucy gets in pictures! She actually does, which is so satisfying after she’s tried so hard, for so long, with so many obstacles.
In this episode, Lucy lands her dream gig: Not only is she playing a glamorous showgirl, but the script calls for a dramatic death scene after she is shot in the middle of a performance. All Lucy needs to do is walk down a staircase with a gigantic head dress on. But the head dress is absurdly tall and heavy, and she can’t even keep her head upright, let alone gracefully prance down a set of stairs.
Each take is worse than the one before. Finally, the director gives her part to another girl and puts Lucy in a smaller head dress. Lucy’s devastated – she still wants to be the one who gets shot. During the next take, even though she’s wearing the smaller head dress, even though the director has taken her part away, when the gun goes off, Lucy does a dramatic death scene down the staircase. When the director asks her why she reacted this way — she’s not the one who’s supposed to be shot — Lucy answers: “He missed.”
There’s one obstacle Lucy can’t do anything about: She doesn’t know what she’s doing. She’s not actually that talented, and she’s certainly not experienced. Lucille Ball was a brilliant performer, but Lucy Ricardo was just a charming, ambitious person who sings off key and can’t take direction. But she can’t see that, and she never gives up. Most real musicians will tell you the hardest thing to do is sing out of tune – and Lucy did it to perfection.
Merrill Markoe (Writer, Co-Creator – Late Night with David Letterman): I had lost interest in sitcoms for a long time until the British version of The Office turned up. From episode one, I was completely bowled over by Mr. Gervais’ brilliant dead on vision of unctuous, jokey smarm in the person of David Brent. I was riveted by the way this show pulled off having an awful person as its central character.
I think it was the first utterly repellent/totally fascinating character I’d seen someone pull off in an ongoing series: all the winking, the nervous giggling, the hand gestures that belie the content of the words, the delusions about his role in the world and the way others see him.
In the very first episode, the way he shows a temp around what is designed to look like a truly boring soul-killing dreary workplace, stopping to point out every cartoon tacked up on the wall as proof of the hilarious ribald no holds barred atmosphere of non-stop fun that the staff is having is just brilliant. I’d never seen a sit com so accurately deliver the stench of failed jokes. Gervais’ demeanor and body language made my jaw drop.
Common network wisdom, as I had come to know it in my sitcom writing attempts, in OUR country, was that this could never be. I had always longed to write an awful person at the center of a show. It was never a possibility. Network guys all felt the center of a sitcom had to be lovable. So I was riveted, from episode one on, by everything about David Brent.
I have always admired and flat out envied the BBC’s system of only doing six episodes of a series per year. If only they would allow that to happen here, what a brighter TV world it would be.
Nell Scovell (Creator/Writer: Sabrina, The Teenage Witch; The Simpsons): For overall brilliance, nothing beats “Absolutely Fabulous.” It has everything: brilliant characters, brilliant situations, brilliant sight gags, brilliant lines, Jennifer Saunders is an absolute genius. And if I had to pick ONE moment above all, I’d go with a scene where Edina greets Saffy on the morning of her wedding day. Edina tiptoes into the room and sweetly hugs her daughter…only to hold her down so Patsy can rush in with a wax strip and remove the facial hair from Saffy’s upper lip. It’s perfect.
Nell Scovell: You really believe for a moment that Edina’s maternal instincts are kicking in, and then, in her own twisted way, they do. She waxes Saffy upper lip because she cares.
Stephen Root (Actor: King of the Hill, News Radio, Office Space): The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended with a perfect ensemble moment from the perfect ensemble cast – people I admired then and now. They’re all hugging and crying in one big group. When Mary says she needs a tissue, the entire group hug shuffle-walks over to the desk to grab her one. It’s certainly not the funniest moment of the series, but it speaks to how much of a unit that exceptional group of actors was.
Stephen Root: For me it resonated because it was the same type of farce I was doing on stage every night but in the original form, a Shakespeare comedy. The second paying gig I’d had as a “real” actor was with the National Shakespeare Company. We spent nine months of the year on the road playing at military bases and colleges all over the country. I must have watched the finale of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in some dumpy Motel 6 in anywhere USA.
As a character guy then, I remember wanting a chance to be an “Ed Asner” type. That kind of came true for me as Jimmy James on NewsRadio: I got to play some of the same varied emotions: explosive frustration, throw-away asides and the father’s joy of his “children”, his team, his friends. Encapsulated, I think, in one phrase, “I cherish you people.”
Jim Vallely (Writer: Arrested Development, The Golden Girls): I was sick when I was a kid and got to stay home for a year, which is the first time I saw Bilko in reruns. It was also the first time I laughed at an “adult” show. (Actually, it was the first time I laughed at any show except for Bugs Bunny).
There’s an episode where Bilko accidently inducts a monkey into the army. After they’ve learned they’ve inducted a monkey, they decide that the only way to get the monkey out of the army is to court martial him. Bilko defends the monkey (because even a monkey needs a lawyer at a court martial) and of course, the monkey (not the best trained one) goes off his mark and the brilliant Phil Silvers does some of the best ad-libbing in television history.
It’s almost sixty years old, and I saw it recently and it made me laugh just as hard as it did forty or so years ago, which makes me either a very mature 12 year old or a very immature 56 year old.
Laraine Newman (Actor, Saturday Night Live): Although I suppose SCTV can’t be classified as a sitcom, this sketch absolutely blew me away. I Cry Each Day I Die was a soap opera setting that kept changing reality with a consistent cast of characters. You thought you were seeing a screen test at first but then the ingénue who seems to have gotten the part (Kathrine O’Hara) stands up, goes over to her director and has an argument with him as if she’s been doing the show for years. They yell “cut’ as if that were a scene, then another scene commences and so on and so on. A show within a show within a show. The thru line is Andrea Martin as the alcoholic actress saying the last line of each scene. So if the last line was “Wasn’t she good?” Andrea would say “Sure…I was good once” Then she throws back her flask and sucks on it. IF the line were, “Wasn’t that funny?” She’d say “Yeah… I was funny once.” Flask.
Laraine Newman: I was on Saturday Night Live at the time and with all due respect to our brilliant writers I felt that we never really touched the edginess of SCTV’s style. What was exceptional about that moment for me was understanding the tone being set by Canadian sensibilities. The entire cast wasn’t Canadian but the show was idiosyncratic and personal — so different from anything that could be seen in America. It’s no wonder it was assimilated so quickly.
- — C. Brian Smith