Ask Jackson: September 2021

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday… on a Tuesday! Look for the first half of my essay on Garry Marshall’s sitcom style tomorrow. (Finally!) And in the meantime, 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!

 

Charles H. asks… Are you watching the CNN documentary series on the sitcom and if so, what do you think of it?

Yes, it was awful. Dividing the sitcom into categories based on premise is a fundamentally idea-driven way of viewing the genre, and it accordingly ignores what every good situation comedy needs in order to be successful on its shared aesthetic terms: comic characters. This faulty organization naturally primed the documentary to lack both an understanding of its topic and a cohesive thesis about why the sitcom is even worth studying as an enjoyable, durable form with over eighty years of history (including on radio). Additionally, while the sociological frameworks it presented were inherently confining, the show couldn’t even justify its coverage of the sitcom through this lens, lacking a focused explanation as to why this should be the structure. This essentially rendered it a mere highlight reel of popular sitcoms (and some ill-fitting non-sitcoms like The Love Boat and Eight Is Enough), with corresponding discourse about how they fare under 2021’s social microscope. So, none of this really felt like a genuine celebration of the sitcom, and in failing to comprehend it, it certainly wasn’t a history of it either.

 

Smitty says… So many American shows seem to have their roots from British shows. Are you a fan of British comedies? 

Outside of a few exceptions, not really. The British template for the situation comedy involves far smaller episode orders, which requires less story, and in turn, less support from character in churning out story. From what I’ve seen, this then allows a lot of British sitcoms to not only be less character-driven, but also to pivot the comedic emphasis away from well-defined characters onto the most immediately gratifying, funniest ideas, like any sketch comedy or anthology comedy would theoretically boast. And since the situation comedy, by definition, is special because it pursues comedy through the use of a pre-established situation and the relatively fixed elements that suggest it — people, places, and things — anything that shifts the burden from those relatively fixed elements, and particularly character (which is the most malleable for story and ripe for emotional investment, taking advantage of the medium’s inherent continuity), is less likely to be an ideal sample of the genre… at least, not in comparison to the best American contributions. Again, there are exceptions, and I’m sure I’d find more to enjoy if I examined British sitcoms in depth. But in broad and conceptual strokes, I think there’s an ingrained excuse for “Britcoms” to not be as well-made, so I avoid studying them alongside American shows that (typically) play by different — and more difficult — rules.

 

India_Monroe writes in with… I saw someone asked you to do this for 1963. I was born in 1972. What do you think are the ten best sitcom episodes from that year?

Going only on what we’ve studied here, this is what I’d currently select as my ten favorites…

 

Marcus Lindsay asks… How would you rank the five scores that Cole Porter wrote for Ethel Merman from best to worst? 

This is based on the scores as a whole (not just Merman’s numbers)…

  1. Anything Goes (1934) — a deservedly recognized classic, every song is a gem
  2. Du Barry Was A Lady (1939) — it’s tonally uneven, but every song is enjoyable
  3. Something For The Boys (1943) — the most thematically consistent after Anything
  4. Panama Hattie (1940) — it’s got higher highs than Something, but lower lows too
  5. Red, Hot, And Blue! (1936) — there are a few indelible gems, but far too many duds

 

BradleyBingo wants to know… What do you think of the new series “Schmigadoon?” It reminded me of “WandaVision” which I didn’t like and I know you didn’t like either. But I enjoyed this one and it seems right up your alley.

As a sitcom connoisseur, I found Schmigadoon to be an idea-driven parody of Golden Age musicals that operated as essentially an extended SNL sketch, with an emotional through line shoehorned in around easy laughs that were being mined externally from satire as opposed to internally, from well-built characters pushing story and yuks. And even at six episodes, I think this one-joke notion was stretched thin, for even if we’re allowing shows these days to be brief, the novelty of the premise was already dwindling and needed more support from character (which wasn’t there), making this an unideal example of a situation comedy on this blog’s terms… That said, I actually appreciate it as a musical theatre lover, for despite echoing some of the condescension that we discussed with regard to WandaVision — that is, the modern impulse to indicate intelligence by contrasting a new piece as self-aware against an older subgenre/style whose artifice it heightens in the process — I think it nevertheless comes out with more of a validation of its form as an art. That is, WandaVision’s thesis about the sitcom seemed to be that it was a comforting escape; not that it was artistically rich. But Schmigadoon more obviously reveres the musical as a uniquely wondrous endeavor, utilizing song and dance as a vessel for expressing emotion and exploring human truths that might otherwise be hard to reach. This is probably the result of boasting a cast and crew well-versed in, and who also adore, musical theatre, while WandaVision, as you’ll recall, was helmed by Marvel scripters with little to no experience in the format they were trying to engage. Accordingly, Schmigadoon’s entire conception of itself is more in touch with its chosen genre, and even if its lyrics, again, exhibit a lot of that condescending knowingness mentioned above, and they therefore were neither authentic nor immune from easy jokes (see: the “Do-Re-Mi” take-off), the music sounded like the scores from the era being lampooned. That’s more than I can say for WandaVision, which was deliberately off-pitch — a bad sitcom. And while Schmigadoon was also a bad sitcom, it was a decent musical comedy (parody). I think the show would count that as a victory.

 

Have a question for me? Submit it at the “Ask Jackson (Q&A)” link.

 

 

Come back next week for more sitcom fun and another new Wildcard Wednesday!