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27 Jan 1979 --- Original caption: TV Show Mork and Mindy.  Actor Robin Williams and actress Pam Dawber shown in scenes from TV show. 27 Jan 1979 --- Original caption: TV Show Mork and Mindy. Actor Robin Williams and actress Pam Dawber shown in scenes from TV show.

extraterrestrial life

A Brief Overview of Sitcom Aliens and What They Say About America

Realism in comedy has been the trend for the last several years, thanks in part to the rise of the single-camera mockumentary format. But it's not the only way to go. The Neighbors, which premieres tonight on ABC (read our critic's review here), attempts to buck the trend by setting itself in a posh cul-de-sac populated by aliens who disguise themselves as humans. It's not the first show to use that format, though — aliens have been the stars of sitcoms for ages. Alien shows aren't just about the weird quirks of their alien characters, though that's definitely a substantial part of where their humor comes from. The point of an alien show is to identify and ridicule the strange, confusing, or hypocritical aspects of American culture; alien characters typically force their earthling companions to explain customs (especially kissing) and rituals, and these explanations force us to confront the innate absurdity of the human condition. Fire up your UFO!

My Favorite Martian, 1963
A martian finds himself stranded on earth, so he adopts an earthling identity (Uncle Martin) while trying to rebuild his spaceship.
Alien traits: Retractable antennae, telepathy, can control time, can communicate with animals.
But what does it mean? That America was in the throes of the space race, and everything made out of brushed aluminum seemed exciting.

Mork and Mindy, 1978
Mork, from the planet Ork, lands on earth in an information-gathering mission to observe and chronicle human behavior.
Alien traits: Mork is Robin Williams.
But what does it mean? That in the late seventies, people were establishing new ideas and norms for sexual politics. Mork and Mindy do eventually marry each other, but they live together platonically (and scandalously) at first, and most of the episodes revolve around teaching Mork — and the audience! — about love, romance, sex, feminism, earth-bound courtship customs, and eventually parenting.

ALF, 1986
ALF, an alien life form from the planet Melmac, finds himself living with with a family in suburban California.
Alien traits: Appetite for cats, furriness, sardonic sense of humor.
But what does it mean? America had weird taste in the eighties. ALF is sort of a refugee from a nuclear war, so one could make the argument that the show is a commentary on the Cold War, but … well, have you ever seen an episode of ALF?

Out of This World, 1987
A 13-year-old girl finds out that she is half alien.
Alien traits: She can freeze time.
But what does it mean? Like we said, America had weird taste in the eighties.

3rd Rock from the Sun, 1996
Four aliens adopt human forms and live on earth, disguised as a family.
Alien traits: They communicate with the Big Giant Head and are largely unfamiliar with the normal biological functions of having a human body.
But what does it mean? More than its fellow alien shows, 3rd Rock is extremely and overtly political, especially in the ways it ridiculed misogyny and the gender norms presented in most pop culture. "Why do I have to be the woman?" "Because you lost."

Photo: Bettmann/Corbis