I wake up to sitcoms. I go to sleep to sitcoms. I’m a sitcom guy. Always have been. Since we got a TV when I was ten.
Imagine my joy, then, when during the early stages of COVID-19 social-distancing and isolation, I discovered how many networks featuring old comedy shows my streaming service provides. I’ve added four to my favorites list; Antenna, COZI, Logo, and TV Land. I check on them frequently.
These networks claim to air classic comedy shows. But what constitutes “classic?” By my standards, classic implies a certain level of quality and a unique place in the American psyche. Well, according to the Oxford American Dictionary, it does mean “having a high quality that is recognized and unquestioned.” But, contrarily, it also means “typical, as in a classic case of malnutrition.” Therefore, the networks are not misleading viewers by describing their programming as classic. Some are of “a high quality” while others are “typical.” But I prefer the first definition.
I begin the day with the hilarious, unique, and original The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. I watch two episodes at 7:00 a.m. That is before I get out of bed. That is before I have my three breakfast margaritas. Not only did this show successfully transform George and Gracie’s vaudeville act into a totally different medium, but it introduced them to a larger audience, endearing them to many more Americans. Both Burns and Allen contributed to the act, and then sitcom, in a unique way. Gracie reimagined the stereotypical young, dumb blonde as a middle-aged brunette. She gave ditzy an entirely new meaning, misinterpreting the simplest statements and creating convoluted situations that defy logic. Of course, she did this with dialog. But her body language and the use of her eyes also were tools used to demonstrate her comedy genius. George Burns, on the other hand, playing the quintessential straight-man, asked questions and reacted with deadpan expressions. But he brilliantly broadened and adapted that character to television and became a national treasure, living to 100.
When I go to bed, I watch an episode of The Nanny, hardly a classic, before I turn off the light. It is just another variation of the traditional family sitcom. Roseanne depicted the lower-middle class family. The Brady Bunch followed a hybrid family. My Three Sons told the tale of a family without women. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was about a wealthy Black family. Will & Grace showed how “family” can be created by friends.
As a gay man, I watch The Nanny for the outlandish clothes. As a West Coast Jew and a first-generation American, I watch to experience the cast’s three generations of New York Jewish American Princesses. Fran Drescher’s nanny, Renée Taylor as her mother, and Ann Morgan Guilbert as her grandmother are brilliant creations, over-the-top creations, but funnier than a yarmulke made of gefilte fish nonetheless.
Countless other comedies air throughout the day. But, for the most part, they are, in my opinion, typical sitcoms. Nothing really sets them apart from other comedies. There are Dennis the Menace, McHale’s Navy, Hazel, It’s a Living, The Facts of Life, Silver Spoons, 227, The King of Queens, Father Knows Best, and That Girl among so many more. Certainly, each has a quality that is its own. Dennis the Menace,for example, has a childlike innocence. But I wouldn’t consider it classic. Hazel, while it has a wonderful performance by star Shirley Booth, has little else to make it memorable. That Girl may have given us a charming, yet irritating, lead character, but little else to enjoy. Ann Marie’s father was unbearable, her boyfriend bland, and the scripts unremarkable. McHale’s Navy may have introduced us to Tim Conway, but it was more silly than classic.
On the other hand, many of the shows aired on these networks were Emmy winners, honored with numerous writing, directing, and acting awards. They featured sharp, sophisticated dialog, original concepts, and indelible characters. Maude, Barney Miller, Soap, Designing Women, Roseanne, Everybody Loves Raymond, and The Office are a few.
But why can’t I find reruns of more quality shows like Cheers, The Bob Newhart Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Taxi, Mad About You, Malcolm in the Middle, Our Miss Brooks, Mary Tyler Moore, Leave it to Beaver, The Wonder Years, Night Court, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman? What? You say they are available? I just haven’t looked in the right places? But finding them requires, as Maynard G. Krebbs of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis would say in a horrified squeak, “Work!?!?”
Then, there are those programs that fall in the middle, neither great, nor mindless fluff, like … oh, a Webster marathon is about to begin. I have to watch it. I gotta experience once more the marginal comedy skills of former pro-footballer Alex Karras and limited talents of cute but cloying Emanuel Lewis. Gotta go.
Say Goodnight, Gracie.