The Evolution of Comedy

In the aftermath of the improbable, yet somehow completely predictable, Oscar victory of a black-and-white silent film, The AV Club’s Erik Adams wrote a piece asking whether television is “a medium without a past.” It’s difficult for the average TV viewer — or even the obsessive one — to watch many classic shows like I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners and All In the Family, even in the era of the DVD boxed set. Syndication space is occupied by Seinfeld and The Simpsons; Nick at Nite, where I soaked up TV history and learned all the lyrics to the Gilligan’s Island theme song, is now running Friends and That 70s Show.

Adams blames the amnesiac syndication outlets for audiences who think that “the four decades of TV that was produced before the heyday of TGIF begins to look (shudder) dated.” But this ignores a particularly important fact: classic television, like any other classic art, is dated. TV, like any other medium, is constantly evolving, and moments that were shocking and revolutionary at one time look commonplace after twenty years, and clichéd after forty. Film purists will jump all over me for this one, but it’s hard to appreciate the unorthodoxy of Citizen Kane’s flashback-driven narrative in 2012, when everything from Highlander to Lost takes advantage of the form.

This conundrum is especially prevalent for comedy. Adams’ piece may be about television in general, but almost all of his examples are sitcoms; in addition to the shows mentioned above, we get The Andy Griffith Show, Get Smart, Cheers and Taxi, and that’s far from an exhaustive list. For many years, comedies, not dramas, ruled the TV landscape, and comedy is all about pushing boundaries: of subject matter, of taste, of narrative.

In a different AV Club piece, Todd VanDerWerff, writing about St. Elsewhere, described the “curse of the innovative TV drama.” He said that dramas can’t be just entertaining, but must also be “tuned in to the concerns of the time,” which results in a series that, to future viewers, looks “rusty and hackneyed.” Oddly enough, VanDerWerff doesn’t say the same about sitcoms, basing his argument on the assumption that comedies don’t have to engage with the outside world, they just have to be funny.

One of VanDerWerff’s examples is I Love Lucy’s Lucy and Ethel struggling to keep up with a chocolate conveyor belt, a scene that is still incredibly funny today. However, when you broaden the scope just a little and include the entire episode, “Job Switching,” the argument that exempts comedy from the effects of time starts to fall apart. The premise revolves around the girls switching roles with Ricky and Fred in an attempt to prove that housework is harder than earning money, while the boys stay home to prove that cooking and cleaning is easy.

In the era before The Feminine Mystique and women’s lib, the episode’s outcome — the boys come away with a new appreciation for the difficulties of being a homemaker, while Lucy and Ethel are summarily fired from the candy factory and understand how hard it is to be a breadwinner — was probably fairly cutting-edge. In comparison to June Cleaver’s pearls and starched dresses, Ricky and Fred’s appreciation of their wives’ work looks pretty damn progressive.

To anyone who grew up in the post-Gloria Steinem landscape, however, the gender roles in “Job Switching” are hopelessly outdated at best. That’s not to say that I Love Lucy isn’t a classic, or that Lucille Ball isn’t one of the world’s greatest comedians — it is, and she is. But to a viewer who grew up watching Mary Tyler Moore, Murphy Brown or Liz Lemon conquer the workplace, “Job Switching” is very much a product of its time.

It’s not just the subject matter of sitcoms that’s changed. 30 Rock and Arrested Development reformatted the sitcom, switching to a single-camera setup and bombarding the audience with nonstop jokes, pop-culture references and visual gags. Once you’ve spent hours re-watching Arrested Development and picking out new jokes on each viewing, the setup/punchline structure of Cheers, Friends and even Seinfeld starts to feel predictable. Audience tastes are growing more sophisticated, and older shows, even those that were revolutionary in their own time, are getting left behind.

The comedic bias towards the new and exciting can be seen in the results of Splitsider’s own Best Sitcom Episode Ever tourney. The winning episode, Community’s “Remedial Chaos Theory,” aired a mere six months ago, and was both the newest and most structurally innovative competitor. The freshness of “Chaos Theory”’s jaw-dropping multiple timelines, as opposed to the (relative) age of its competitor in the final smackdown, The Simpsons’ “Marge Vs. The Monorail,” gave the ultimate victor a huge advantage. Josh Kurp, in his argument for “Chaos Theory,” summed up the reason that its victory was a foregone conclusion:

I am going to ask you to remember seeing “Remedial” for the first time, and how enthralled you were when Jeff threw the Yahtzee dice into the air, leading you into a series of alternate timelines.

The remembering is the important part. “Remedial Chaos Theory” was so recent, and so unlike anything that anyone had ever seen before, that it comes to mind almost instantly. None of the other episodes could compete.

I love “Remedial Chaos Theory.” I’ve watched it more times than I can count. I adore its audacity, its fiendishly clever narrative structure, and its heart. But I can’t guarantee that a viewer twenty years from now will have the same reaction that I did. That theoretical viewer might look at “Chaos Theory” the way I looked at “Job Switching”; as an effective, funny half-hour of television that is nonetheless a relic of its time.

Alex Israel is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. In her limited free time, she writes about television on her blog, Pencils Down, Pass the Remote.

The Evolution of Comedy