Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’ve got another Q&A entry, where I answer questions submitted by readers. Thanks to everyone who sent in something — if you don’t see your “Q” here, I just may “A” it next time. (And keep them coming — any related topic on which you want my opinion and/or a little research? Just let me know!)
Frederick asks… What do you think is the greatest revue of the 1930s? The most common answers I have heard are “The Band Wagon” and “As Thousands Cheer”.
Those are great answers — they both have terrific scores, funny sketches, and big stars. In that same vein, I’d also call the 1936 edition of The Ziegfeld Follies a favorite — it’s been immortalized by a cast recording of the snappy Encores! production, and it makes a compelling case for that showcase being one of the most entertaining and melodic revues of the era.
Charles wants to know… Have you ever thought about covering more radio sitcoms from the 1930’s and 1940’s?
Yes, in addition to completing The Jack Benny Program, I have also thought about giving full coverage to other radio comedies, like The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show (which one of my readers has been reliably requesting in every annual survey) and My Favorite Husband, the significant and influential precursor to I Love Lucy. However, the problem with devoting a lot of study to radio sitcoms is that they’re very time-consuming — they have large seasonal episode orders that require more of a commitment than even a normal Sitcom Tuesday. Also, while I know I have a handful of vocal lovers of this era in sitcommery, it’s a little earlier than most subscribers prefer — the 1960s through the 1990s is the prime period of interest — meaning I have less of an incentive to make a huge effort for posts that would be less popular. So, it’s probably unlikely that you’ll ever see regular discussion of a radio sitcom here again… But, hey, you never know — I definitely find them relevant and still listen recreationally when I can!
TheBayAreaGuy commented on a post with a probably popular question, and I wanted to make sure my answer was more widely seen, so here’s what he said… Maybe I missed it somewhere else, but I was wondering what is your reasoning in declining to cover MAS*H?
Stefan writes in with… I just wanted to say I really enjoy reading your thoughts on tv-shows and I feel like I can trust your opinion. Question, which sitcom would you most recommend to someone looking for ‘another’ Seinfeld, in terms of style and quality?
Thanks for the compliment! No other sitcom is exactly analogous to Seinfeld, but I can recommend a few that I believe are similar, aesthetically and in terms of consistency. For starters, the first great idea-driven sitcom, The Phil Silvers Show, was a major admitted influence for Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, and you can see similarities between their style and creator Nat Hiken’s, not with regard to any premised trappings, but via the prioritization of funny trivial notions and the creative ways those get expressed narratively. By that same token, Hiken’s next series, Car 54, Where Are You? is worthwhile as well. Coming up to the late 1980s and the era of self-aware, winking metatheatricality where Seinfeld was percolating, I think you might enjoy the fourth-wall-defying It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (for which Larry David actually wrote), and Shandling’s more dramatically earnest single-camera follow-up, the incredibly consistent The Larry Sanders Show (one of the best sitcoms of the 1990s), on which Jerry Seinfeld guested. Also, it’s not temperamentally compatible, but if you appreciate the initial low-concept rebellion of Seinfeld‘s first few seasons, I would recommend another Seinfeld contemporary from NBC, Mad About You, which also relished in deliberate casualness and narrative minutia. Lastly, we’re not there yet in our study, but Curb Your Enthusiasm is created by, and of course starring, Larry David. If you’re a Seinfeld fan, that definitely has to be on your radar!
Jon B. has a request… One sitcom that I would love to see you take a look at in a pot pourri piece is “If Not For You” with Hank Azaria and Elizabeth McGovern. I thought it had a strange but memorable premise.
There’s no room for it in any future potpourri piece I have planned, so will you take it here?
IF NOT FOR YOU (Sept 1995 – Oct 1995, CBS)
Premise: Two people fall in love – the problem is they’re both already engaged to others.
Cast: Elizabeth McGovern, Hank Azaria, Debra Jo Rupp, Jim Turner, Reno Wilson, Peter Krause, Jane Sibbett
Writers: Larry Levin, Dennis Klein, Leslie Caveny, Wil Calhoun, Maria Semple
Thoughts: Although a basic rom-com, If Not For You is fairly high-concept, at least in the premiere, as this show looks to be about a possible coupling for whom we are supposed to root, even though they’re staying entangled in other relationships. Naturally, we expect this “situation” to evolve — we expect them to leave these wrong partners and officially get together at some point, which means the premise will change. Accordingly, the pilot’s presentation does not confidently seem to suggest what the show will be in 13 episodes, a season, two seasons. Yes, we presume it’ll follow the ups and downs of the core romance, but that initial hook of them both being trapped in unideal pairings… well, that isn’t worth our investment. What’s more, spending so much real estate on elements that likely won’t matter for long takes time away from the central pair and makes it hard to invest in anything from the few episodes — couple included. And with the rest of the surrounding regulars also feeling underbaked and not promising for future story (which instead is arc-driven and totally focused on the mechanics of cliffhanger rom-com bait), this just doesn’t appear to be a well-designed example of sitcommery.
Episode Count: Seven produced; four broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All broadcast episodes except “The Kiss.”
Key Episode (of Seen): #1: “Detour Ahead” (09/18/95)
Why: The pilot establishes the premise and therefore displays all the issues discussed above. We’re asked to root for the two leads right away, but everything around them seems trivial, and this in turn makes investing in them seem trivial as well. Thus, it’s not promising.
Have a question for me? Submit it at the “Ask Jackson (Q&A)” link.
Come back next week for another Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more Ellen!
I think M*A*S*H too often eschews, intentionally, the sitcom genre’s implied comedic objective, and it would be tough for me to spend eleven weeks pretending that I enjoy it — or can truly consider it — alongside other shows that more sincerely attempt to honor this form (by not indulging a stale bias for drama, both in premised and episodic terms).