The Literary Club: Read a Script from one of TV’s First Sitcoms (THE LAYTONS)!

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! 70 years ago this month, The Laytons — one of the first television programs that scholars call a “situation comedy” — concluded its 16-episode run. Known today for featuring Amanda Randolph as the family’s housekeeper, Martha, who was likely the first regular African-American character on network TV, The Laytons is sadly presumed lost for the ages. In fact, so little is known about the series that a complete cast list can’t even be compiled beyond Randolph and Vera Tatum (who played Mrs. Layton).

But here are the facts. The Laytons was a domestic sitcom about a family with a maid. Episodes were a half-hour in length and broadcast live on Wednesday nights at 8:30 from DuMont’s flagship station in New York City, WABD. The show premiered on May 23, 1948 and ran until the end of June (for a total of six showings). After a month-long hiatus, the series returned on August 04 and went on for nine additional weeks until October 06. These last nine episodes, starting on August 11, were shown on what historians label the “DuMont network” — which, at that time, only reliably meant New York’s WABD, New Haven’s WNHC, and D.C.’s WTTG. (Although, by the end of the run, broadcasts seem to have been carried on stations originating in Baltimore and Philadelphia, as well.) Following these 16 episodes, the show was replaced on DuMont’s schedule with another domestic sitcom called The Growing Paynes (episodes of which can be seen at UCLA and the Paley Center), also from WABD.

While no footage of The Laytons is available, I have the next best thing… a script for the eighth episode, which was titled “Uncle Charlie’s Visit” or “The Moose Hangs High,” written by creator Barbara Boothe, and broadcast on August 11, 1948 — the first night the show was carried on more than one station. Where does this come from? Well, a 1952 book entitled The TV Writer’s Guide (written by Margaret R. Weiss), which includes scripts from early television shows as examples for scribes interested in writing for the new medium. The Laytons was chosen to represent the “half hour original: situation comedy” genre… which, if you’ve never seen a ’40s sitcom, essentially means a show (somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes) with sustaining characters and emotional stakes that aren’t as high as those found in so-called “dramas.”

In other words, these comedies are more like “warmedies” — charming and human and sometimes amusing, but, unlike the actual radio sitcoms of the era, seldom laugh-out-loud funny. In reading this script, about an annoying house guest that won’t leave, I believe you’ll see what I mean… Additionally, I think you’ll be intrigued to read the author’s introduction of the show — below — which includes some interesting tidbits about production: there were only two cameras, two sets, and no more than four actors (Martha + a rotation of two of the five regular family members + one guest) per episode. With these limitations, you can see just how much the medium — and the genre — had developed by the time I Love Lucy came around in 1951 and redefined what it meant to be an American television sitcom.

So, here are scans of that script — included here for your scholarly enjoyment!




Come back next week for another Wildcard post! And stay tuned Tuesday for Drew Carey!