Navigate to News section

Laugh Tracks: A Film Critic Takes on the Sitcom

The Friday Review of Books

Liel Leibovitz
January 31, 2014

One of the central tragedies of our lives is that there are more books out there than we’d ever have time to read. But we’re not going gently into that good night: Each Friday, Liel Leibovitz will be reviewing a title lost in the never-ending book pile, robbed of well-merited attention, or deserving of a second look.

“One day,” Nicholson Baker wrote in a recent novel, “the English language is going to perish. The easy spokenness of it will perish and go black and crumbly—maybe—and it will become a language like Latin that learned people learn. And scholars will write studies of Larry Sanders and Friends and Will & Grace and Ellen and Designing Women and Mary Tyler Moore, and everyone will see that the sitcom is the great American art form. American poetry will perish with the language; the sitcoms, on the other hand, are new to human evolution and therefore will be less perishable.”

It’s the perfect quote with which to begin a study of that peculiarly American art form, a genre that, like the nation that spawned it, is allergic to history—dramatic progress interferes with the sacred duty of delivering carefully crafted laughs. It also captures the task facing film critic Saul Austerlitz in his delightful new study, Sitcom, namely how to write about comical works without subject them to academia’s grim kiss and robbing them of their vitality and their mirth.

Austerlitz meets his challenge brilliantly by choosing to view the genre through 24 representative shows, from I Love Lucy to Community, analyzing each through the prism of one particular episode. With a keen eye for detail—detractors, Austerlitz informs us when discussing Lucille Ball’s Here’s Lucy, a late-career, female-heavy effort, called the new sitcom the “Dyke Sans Dick Show”—and impressive erudition, Austerlitz performs the same inspired trick as the sterling shows he is writing about, namely taking a string of silly jokes and injecting them with context and with meaning. His book is a vivid history of a genre, but also of the nation that produced it, from the anxieties Ball both embodied and resolved in the 1950s—about gender, class, and all the other social constructs that would soon undergo a radical reexamination—to the delights 30 Rock took in “gleefully looting” the “desiccated corpse” of American popular culture six decades later. And it is as entertaining to read as the creations it deftly depicts, which, as attempts to take popular culture seriously go, is—to borrow a phrase from one of the book’s protagonists, Larry David—pretty, pretty, pretty good.

Check out the rest of the reviews here.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.