A History of the Sitcom in 7 Episodes

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January might be the saddest time—that is, the SAD-est time—of the year. But comedy is always here to help, and even clinically proven to improve mental health. So why not queue up some sitcoms—and learn a bit about TV comedy history along the way?

Here, a brief history of the sitcom in seven key episodes.

I Love Lucy: ‘Lucy Does a Commercial’ (season 1, episode 30)

In this 1952 episode, Lucy talks her way into a job pitching a product on husband Ricky’s TV special. The product: Vitameatavegamin, a supplement that supposedly contains vitamins, meat, vegetables, and minerals, but also, unbeknownst to Lucy, 23 percent alcohol. This episode puts Lucille Ball‘s genius for physical comedy at center stage as Lucy gets progressively drunker on camera with multiple takes, showing exactly why this unlikely series—starring and produced by a powerful woman, Ball, and her Cuban-American husband, Desi Arnaz—became TV’s first blockbuster classic. (Learn more about their backstage story in the Peabody-nominated documentary Lucy and Desi.) The self-referential nature of the episode, showing how ads were integrated into programming at the time, only adds to the history lesson.

Where to Watch: Paramount+

Bewitched, ‘Samantha Meets the Folks’ (season 1, episode 14)

The 1960s marked a low point for American television, with programming overall getting dumber while current events grew more serious. Assassinations, war, and protest roiled on the news while the shows surrounding it depicted goofy castaways engaging in absurd hijinks on an island, a rich couple giving up the city for the country, and an astronaut cohabiting with a female genie who calls him “master.” Bewitched, which followed a newly married witch named Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) and her mortal husband Darrin (Dick York), was something of a bright spot, mimicking the silly, fantastical format that had become prevalent while sneaking a bit of subversion. Particularly in its first season, it served as an allegory for a mixed marriage, which is on display in this 1964 episode in which Samantha meets Darrin’s parents, who don’t know about the whole witch thing, while juggling a visit from her Aunt Clara (Marion Lorne), a fellow witch.

Where to Watch: Amazon Prime

All in the Family, ‘Sammy’s Visit’ (season 2, episode 21)

All in the Family changed the direction of television in the 1970s and made a name for creator Norman Lear (a Peabody winner who died last month and was remembered as a TV legend). Along with The Mary Tyler Moore Show, it ushered in a new era that elevated the medium to a socially conscious art form. The series deliberately provoked debate about race, class, progressive ideals, gender, and sexuality, and several episodes were downright incendiary. But if you have to boil All in the Family down to one memorable image, it’s that of Black entertainer Sammy Davis Jr., playing himself, planting a kiss right on white curmudgeon Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) in a 1972 episode. Archie became a symbol of retrograde ideas—a bigot, a sexist, a man who embodied the theme song’s “those were the days” ethos—who was a joke to some Americans and a hero to others. This image came down clearly on the side of Archie as a buffoon getting his lighthearted comeuppance.

Where to Watch: Apple TV+

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse’ (season 4, episode 24)

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air came at the crest of the wave of ’80s and ’90s Black family comedies prompted by the phenomenal success of The Cosby Show. And it had its share of plots built on wacky sitcom hijinks. But this 1994 episode takes another standard sitcom trope of the time—the “very special” dramatic episode—and transcends it, thanks to good writing and excellent acting from guest star Ben Vereen and future Oscar-winning star, Will Smith. The episode is also one of the few to acknowledge the strife inherent in the show’s fish-out-of-water premise as explained by its indelible theme song: Will has moved from West Philadelphia to live with his auntie and uncle in Bel-Air because his mom was worried about violence in their neighborhood, and his dad was absent. Here, his father returns to his life, only to ultimately prove a disappointment. This is the pinnacle of sitcommy sitcoms getting real for an episode, and turning in a genuine tearjerker.

Where to Watch: Hulu

Seinfeld, ‘The Contest’ (season 4, episode 11)

Seinfeld changed the sitcom game so much that it remained under the radar its first few seasons, known only to a small cult following that loved its outrageous, interlocking plots and its hilariously amoral characters, the hapless George (Jason Alexander), the fastidious Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld), the loose cannon Kramer (Michael Richards), and the preening Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). But by its fourth season, in 1992, this Peabody winner was catching on with mainstream audiences in a major way and hitting its stride artistically. That’s when co-creators Larry David and Seinfeld, along with writer Peter Mehlman, gave us this masterpiece of a script in which the four main characters make a bet as who can go the longest without … pleasing themselves. It works because of its careful skirting of network censors, subbing in far funnier phrases like “master of my domain” for the actual term and giving each of the four characters a gloriously bizarre obstacle to overcome. (The best one is Elaine’s; she finds herself unexpectedly in an aerobics class with the hunky John F. Kennedy Jr., who takes a romantic interest in her.) And it brings all of the characters’ stories together in unexpected ways for a perfect, comedically acrobatic ending. This is the platonic ideal of the sitcom that defined the ’90s.

Where to Watch: Netflix

The Office, ‘The Dinner Party’ (season 4, episode 13)

Peabody winner The Office started out as a direct American version of the hit British mockumentary of the same name, with the world’s worst boss—in this version, Michael Scott (Steve Carrell)—at the center of a very typical office. It soon morphed into its own creation, a strange-but-effective combination of riveting rom-com (Jim and Pam 4-ever) and cuddly underdog tale (how did we all start rooting for Michael?) that still, somehow, also maintained its cringe comedy flair. “The Dinner Party,” which first aired in 2008, exemplifies this perfectly, turning the cringe way up as Michael and his girlfriend Jan (the brilliant Melora Hardin) host a nightmare dinner party that will have you cry-laughing, but also crushed at Michael’s devastating powerlessness in the relationship. The Office inspired dozens more mockumentary sitcoms and cringe-coms in the 2000s, and this is one of its best outings.

Where to Watch: Peacock

Schitt’s Creek, ‘Open Mic’ (season 4, episode 6)

Schitt’s Creek represents the perfect culmination of everything that came before it. Without breaking much from the traditional sitcom format, it freshens up the form in subtle ways, incorporating the serious, the sweet, the wacky, and the cringe to make something modern. It centers on a formerly rich family, the Roses, who lose their fortune and end up living in a small town they once bought as a joke. The fish-out-of-water premise soon turns into a journey of self-actualization for former actress Moira (Catherine O’Hara), former tycoon Johnny (co-creator Eugene Levy), and their adult children Alexis (Annie Murphy) and David (co-creator Dan Levy). They find themselves, in the end, by embracing the surprisingly accepting and utopian community they once so harshly judged, making this one of the major series that ushered in an era of feel-good comedy along with Ted Lasso and The Good Place. This 2018 episode shows off Schitt’s Creek‘s rom-com acumen, delivering one of the most beautiful musical grand gestures of all time as Patrick and David’s budding relationship hits a new level at an open mic night. Their swooning romance is a milestone for gay representation on television; it’s also simply one of the best relationships ever depicted.

Where to Watch: Hulu

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