CNN The History of the Sitcom special

CNN history of the sitcom

CNN The History of the Sitcom – Tim Allen, star of his own hit 1990s sitcom “Home Improvement”, referred to the genre that made him a TV star as “23 minutes of magic”. No matter what type of device you watched them on, what decade, or if your favourites ranged from “I Love Lucy” to “The Beverly Hillbillies” to “All in the Family” to “Cheers” to “Friends” to “Seinfeld” to “Modern Family”, the sitcom has been practically the backbone of commercial television for over seven decades. In fact, its many characters, episodes, lines, catchphrases and even their theme songs have become much remembered parts of our popular culture.

CNN The History of the Sitcom

CNN, along with Toronto-based Cream Productions, has put together a marvelous tribute to 70 years of those 23 minutes of magic with “The History of the Sitcom”, an original series of eight hour-long episodes that started airing on CNN on July 11, and continues airing every Sunday night at 9 p.m. for the next six weeks.

CNN The History of the Sitcom

“With the sitcom, it’s like art imitating life. It represents the history of America,” said Marshall Jay Kaplan of Cream Productions, who was one of the executive producers of the series. “Without ‘The Odd Couple’, you wouldn’t have shows like ‘Friends’, because by the 70s, the idea of the nuclear family was falling apart, and people started to regard their friends as their family. And take ‘Gilligan’s Island’. Many people thought it was a stupid sitcom, but it really wasn’t. It was more like a response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Basically, what would happen if the world had been blown up with nuclear weapons; would seven people from seven different walks of life be able to survive on a deserted island after a nuclear war? The seven castaways from that sitcom represented a microcosm of American society at that time,” said Kaplan during a recent phone interview.

CNN The History of the Sitcom
Gilligan’s Island

The idea for “The History of the Sitcom” germinated from the CNN Original Series “The Story of Late Night”, which was also produced by Cream Productions and aired on CNN this past spring. “It was a partnership that worked out very well. When CNN asked us if we had another idea, we decided to tackle sitcoms, and this improved the partnership exponentially,” he said. Work on the series began in December of 2019, and Kaplan credits the hard work and dedication of the team, especially show runner John Ealer and the crew of archivists, for putting together such a quality series.

“We had an amazing archive team. They managed to find a lot of rare clips, including the long-lost first two pilots of ‘All in the Family’ that were taped for ABC in the late 60s. They managed to find those clips, get the rights to use them, and thanks to the editors’ diligent work of sifting through them, manage to have those clips reinforce the statements and arguments that the interviewees (i.e. former All in the Family cast member Sally Struthers) were stating, thereby adding a more visual aspect to them,” he added.

As well, the series couldn’t use a chronological approach to it, because of the overwhelming number of sitcoms that were produced since the 1950s. Instead, they chose a more thematic approach to the series, using a chronological format that utilized clips from the earliest to the more current examples of how they portrayed the theme in question. “There was no way in God’s green earth that we could have used a chronological structure for the series; it would have exploded in our faces,” said Kaplan. “That’s why we decided to use the thematic approach. It was the only way the series could properly cover such an overwhelming subject matter.” Some of the themes that are covered in “The History of the Sitcom” include family, sex, friendship, class, race and diversity, and the workplace.

One of the main strengths of the series is the impressive roll call of 183 people, such as past and current sitcom stars, producers, creators, scholars, experts, journalists and authors who were interviewed for the series. Thanks to Kaplan’s voluminous rolodex that dates back to his days as a newspaper columnist, he managed to wrangle many of those interviewees, such as Judd Hirsch, Jimmy Walker, the late Dawn Wells, Ed Asner, Marion Ross, Norman Lear, Lloyd Schwartz, Judd Apatow, Eve Plumb, Tim Allen, Paul Reiser, Helen Hunt, Alan Alda and the late Gavin MacLeod, to name a few. However, Kaplan points out that the outbreak of the COVID pandemic in early 2020 put a wrench in the plans when it came to interviewing some of the older past sitcom stars.

“Before the pandemic hit, we lined up interviews with such people as Barbara Feldon (Agent 99 from “Get Smart”), Robert Clary (a French Holocaust survivor who played the POW LeBeau on “Hogan’s Heroes”), and Joyce Randolph (the last surviving member of the original cast of “The Honeymooners”),” he said. “And then COVID came and we thought it wouldn’t be fair to force them to do the interviews. Our approach was to wait it out until they said they were ready to be interviewed. It was a shame, but it’s a problem that could happen in any type of job. However, whoever we managed to get as interview subjects were amazing.”

“The History of the Sitcom” is an excellent salute to an entertainment genre that was tailor-made for the electronic medium, which transcended radio and television. And no matter when you watched your favourite sitcoms, they felt like an old friend or member of the family that you could visit every week in the comfort of your living room, and could – and did – have the power to make you laugh and make you think at the same time. For more information about the series, go to www.cnn.com.

Stuart Nulman
By: Stuart Nulman – [email protected]

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