America Needs Historical Comedies Now

February 4, 2011
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One day this January, ABC picked up four new TV pilots: a crime procedural set in the nineteenth century with Edgar Allan Poe as detective-protagonist; a “sexy soap” set at iconic airline Pan Am in the 1960s; and two multicamera comedies. The post reporting the pick-ups on Deadline Hollywood said that one of the comedies, Work It, had a “Bosom Buddies vibe to it.” The description of the other, Lost and Found, said it was about a party girl whose life is “turned upside down when the conservative 18 year old son she gave up for adoption shows up on her doorstep,” suggesting another early-80s sitcom icon, Alex Keaton. In both cases, the comedies intertextually reference the TV past, but they don’t go so far as actually setting themselves in it. While I am all for multicamera comedies, the juxtaposition of the period dramas and contemporary comedies is worth thinking about.

Why don’t we have more period comedies on American television? True, there was That 70s Show, and Freaks and Geeks was a period show, but it was really a drama with lots of funny moments. I first started wondering about this after spending a week in bed with the flu, a stint I survived with help from the first season of Blackadder, the BBC historical sitcom starring Rowan Atkinson. I did this at the behest of an Antenna call to watch something canonic we hadn’t ever seen. Blackadder was laugh-outloud, silly-funny. Its most lasting effect on me, though, was wondering why Americans haven’t mined their history as a comic setting as effectively as the British. Granted the UK has got a thousand-year or so start on us (I was an English major, not an English history major, so I can’t be sure, exactly.). I also wonder if this lack of depth works in combination with our tendency to label any comedy that references the world outside of TV “satire,” and thus socially meaningful. In other words, we can’t set a comedy far enough in the past that it not be considered comic commentary on the present. Maybe I’m missing some veiled jabs, but Blackadder didn’t seem preoccupied with commenting upon Margaret Thatcher or the House of Windsor circa 1983.

I suspect that the execs at ABC picking up pilots in 2011 believe that the TV audience is primed for period dramas. Pan Am sounds pretty much like Mad Men on a plane, after all. The program is from Sony Pictures TV and ER veteran Jack Orman. I suppose this means we can expect more edge-of-your-couch moments than Mad Men, mini-skirted stewardesses racing to serve scotch and sodas in the nick of time before customers decide to switch to Braniff. Poe seems a savvy pick up on the heels of the success of Seth Grahame-Smith’s recent literary/horror novels Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (coming to theatres in June 2012!) and you can be sure a reference to House made its way into the pitch as well. Programs featuring brooding, damaged-but-brilliant protagonists demand one-word eponymous titles, after all. Still, those zombie/literary novels are all about comic juxtaposition.

Of course, getting back to TV, I’m really talking about two different kinds of programs here: those simply set in a period and those with historical subject matter. Recently, cable network after cable network chickened out on airing The Kennedys, a historical drama about the family often described as the closest thing to a royal family America has ever had. Personally, I think that whatever behind-the-scenes Shriver/Kennedy arm-twisting went on to stop the show from airing only underscored gut-feelings of programming execs that the Kennedys have already received their TV-soap-due a hundred times over.

Now, a sitcom about the Kennedys, that’s something America could go nuts over. The liberals could laugh with the Kennedys and the conservatives could laugh at them, an inversion of All in the Family, with much more appealing mise-en-scene. Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis…the scripts would write themselves. And imagine the stunt-casting possibilities! I think Paul Giamatti would make a hilarious Fidel Castro. And Marilyn Monroe, anyone? If Quentin Tarantino can rewrite WW2 with a spectacular murder of Adolph Hitler, surely the producers could put off the JFK assassination to 1965 at least.

Maybe America is too uptight when it comes to the Kennedys. Trey Parker and Matt Stone did a pretty good job with a first family sitcom in 2000’s That’s My Bush!, and since ten years have passed, it now feels like a historical comedy. Still, there’s no need to venture from the 1960s of Mad Men and Pan Am for a new show. How about a historical comedy about the Lyndon B. Johnson administration? Lyndon Baines, Lady Bird, Lynda Bird, Luci Baines—sounds like a sitcom family to me. Hell, Jim Belushi even looks like LBJ.


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3 Responses to “ America Needs Historical Comedies Now ”

  1. Billy Vermillion on February 4, 2011 at 9:32 AM

    The few historical comedies we have had in the U.S. have often been really, really horrible. “Thanks” and “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer” come to mind.


  2. Derek Kompare on February 4, 2011 at 10:57 AM

    Two words: F Troop.

    That said, you raise a great point about how we choose to represent our past. Series like F Troop and Hogan’s Heroes were rapidly banished from consideration post 1970, and attempts to revisit this concept since have been incredibly few and far between (e.g., Best of the West, The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer). Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley and That 70s Show were arguably mostly successful in how they put their histories in the background.

    Hopefully this current rash of period dramas will loosen up these restrictions a bit. That said, we’ll never get something that nails the past like Blackadder.

  3. Eleanor Seitz on February 4, 2011 at 2:23 PM

    Great post! You raise a great point about U.S. television’s more solemn attitude toward historical period pieces, and the recent controversy surrounding THC Kennedys debacle highlights this. I wonder too, if the mini-series format of these shows influences the lack of comedic period pieces? We tend to associate mini-series here in the U.S. with dramatic content (or dramatic British imports).The Black Adder mini-series is so fun because it is contained so well in six short episodes, and does not get stuck or loose steam with its historical premise. In fact, each short successive mini-series is set in a different era, which provides a new setting and history to lampoon, (i.e. more funny material). I could see a Kennedys sitcom or historical comedy show running out of material or getting tired after a season or two. Even Mad Men skipped a year or two to change things up. Although, I totally agree that it is high time we took our own history less serious – perhaps a colonial comedy piece with Paul Giamatti reprising his John Adams role, and this time I wouldn’t feel bad about laughing at his performance.