America's sitcom soul

Monday Book Review

May 04, 1992|By Neil A. Grauer

HONEY, I'M HOME! SELLING SITCOMS, BUYING THE AMERICAN DREAM. By Gerard Jones. Grove Weidenfeld. 278 pages. $18.95. NO MATTER how perceptively and persuasively Gerard Jones contends that situation comedies "inevitably contain comments on their times," he concedes that "seeking any sort of social meaning in 'The Beverly Hillbillies' seems like something of a conceit."

Undaunted, Mr. Jones nevertheless presses on in search of the sociological import behind the antics of Granny Clampett and her clan -- and while he doesn't exactly discern any, his deft analysis of this and dozens of other sitcoms makes "Honey, I'm Home!" an intelligent, thought-provoking history of what he calls "the most responsive product of the corporate entertainment factory" and television's "most dependably popular genre for 40 years."

Mr. Jones, who has written for such iconoclastic publications as the National Lampoon and the Realist, seems to stretch a bit on occasion in his effort to uncover the corporate and commercial motives behind the creation, success or failure of the situation comedies he dissects, beginning with those on early radio. He is careful, however, not to overdo it. While he wonders, for example, whether the apparently unwarranted cancellation of Phil Silver's wonderfully cynical "Sgt. Bilko" series in 1959 was because it "may have cut a little close to the heart" of the "great government-corporate coalition" of which CBS was a part, he backs off from such a conspiratorial conclusion a few paragraphs later. "There was surely no conscious conspiracy to suppress Ernie Bilko as a threat to the cold war establishment -- not even network programmers have ever taken sitcoms that seriously . . .," he writes.

Mr. Jones does take sitcoms seriously. "The promises of bureaucratic democracy, managerial capitalism, secular humanism and mass consumption are miniaturized, tested and found true in the funny travails of TV families," he writes. Despite the surface variations in sitcoms, they have always been "a corporate product . . . designed like a sedan, to be constructed decade after decade on the same safe, reliable pattern." The principal message of almost all of these shows: "With proper communications all people would see that they . . . [are] only co-workers in one great organization."

The sitcoms of the 1950s, such as "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" ("the perfect postwar couple"), began "to mythologize the nuclear family in ways that still haunt us," Mr. Jones says. He calls these programs "strangely seductive horrors, which deny reality as they pretend to engage it, which offer an image of secular paradise that could just as easily be viewed as hell."

Mr. Jones notes, with a touch of irony, that Jackie Gleason's now-legendary sitcom, "The Honeymooners," originally "was a ratings disappointment," perhaps because it offered "the bleakest picture ever of working-class life in American television." In the tumultuous 1960s, TV's sitcom programmers preferred "a centrist world view" without references to such disturbing subjects as the civil rights movement. Andy Griffith's small Southern town of Mayberry had no black residents. "The only way prime-time entertainment had of dealing with an issue that divisive in the new America was [by] ignoring it," Mr. Jones contends. Even such a clever 1970s show as "Taxi" featured "no blacks, Latinos, Asians or Arabs," he notes. "One wonders how long it had been since any of the creators [of the show] had ridden in a New York cab," he observes pointedly.

Mr. Jones appears to expect sitcoms to do something more than merely be funny. He complains, for example, that while "Murphy Brown" is "a witty show," its "social viewpoint seems frozen, like the rest of the women's comedies, in the sex conflicts of the '70s." He could very well be right, but give us a break: "Murphy Brown" is a sitcom, not a manifesto.

Mr. Jones also criticizes some other extremely popular sitcoms of the past for taking themselves too seriously, pretending to be more than they were. Norman Lear takes his lumps, Archie Bunker gets debunked a bit and "M*A*S*H" is knocked down a few notches.

Mr. Jones believes that Americans today can "no longer define who we are or what life we want," and that most modern sitcoms reflect this national indecision. The one that does so most brilliantly, he concludes, is "The Simpsons," "one of the great oddities of the form," which is "a bitter, self-conscious, self-dissecting satire" with a "deep, queasy ambivalence . . . about the value of television, the impoverishment of life, the effectiveness of social action and the nature of childhood in America."

Curiously, the publisher's jacket blurb on Mr., Jones begins by noting that he was born in 1957. It also is impressive. He is a child of television whose knowledge of its history and the origins of sitcoms comes more from scholarship than experience. The hours he acknowledges spending in the Museum of Broadcasting in New York and the film archives of the University of California in Los Angeles were put to good use, and his resulting chronicle of the sitcom's evolution is an engaging, entertaining piece of popular history well worth turning off the tube to read.

Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore writer and caricaturist.

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