The People in the Theater Next Door

The People in the Theater Next Door

It is the responsibility of television to bear constantly in mind that the audience is primarily a home audience, and consequently that television’s relationship to the viewers is that between guest and host. From Preamble to The Television Code of the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters 1

he radio comedy Easy Aces made its television debut on the DuMont network in December 1949. The episode consisted entirely of Goodman Ace and his wife Jane sitting in their living room, watching TV. The interest stemmed solely from

the couple’s witty commentary on the program they watched. Aside from that, there was no plot. This was television, pure and simple. It was just the sense of being with the Aces, of watching them watch, and of watching TV witfi them, that gave this show its peculiar appeal. 2

With its promise to transport viewers to the homes of fictional friends, this program was symptomatic of the domestic sitcoms that pro- liferated in the early 1950s.’ Like Jane and Goodman Ace, the families that populated the screen extended a hand of friendship across the border between real life and the Qarallel universe we now call “TV land.” By connecting viewers to a new electronic neighborhood, the genre encouraged audiences to perceive spatial and social relationships in new ways. In addition, it helped naturalize a strange new technology because it conveyed stories a~ tuations that took place in familiar settings. By examining the rise of the family sitcom we can ex- plore the “dialogue” between a communications medium and its wider cultural context. The genre provides us with a set of clues to the question of how television inserted i1_s.df iQl.Q_ c!9mestic life, how it rew from a

) curious new contraption to a familiar cultural form .

You Are There: Intimacy, Immediacy, and Spontaneity

Like all genres, the family sitcom is based on a set of common conven- tions, modes of production, and audience expectations. Today it can typically be expected to include a suburban home, character relation- ships based on .§m ilY-ties, a-setting_filled~ th middle-class luxuries, a story that emphasizes everY.daY-comglica tions, ano a narrative structure



based on conflicts that resolve in thirty minutes. In 1948, however, the television audience would have had a less concrete sense of what to ex- pect from such a television program . In fact, between 1948 and 1950 the family comedy was a marginal genre. Aside fro~ a few network offerings (which were often short ~lived), domestic sketches such as “Ethel and Albert” and “The Honeymooners” appeared as fifteen- minute segments _of d~ytime and prime-time variety 2rograms or else as filler on local statrons . Often produced on shoestring budgets, the local programs were particularly primitive by today’s video standards. At Our House, a fifteen-minute family comedy aired on Chicago’s WBKB, at- tempted to cut corners by minimizing talent costs. Variety objected to the f~ct that the family’s “grade school son, Junior, owing to budget restric- uons, has yet to materialize on screen, existing meanwhile via script al- lusions.”5 In such incarnations, the family sitcom was a mere shadow of its radio jlli’decessors, which by the 1940s were often slickly produced in Hollywood studios and featured during network prime-time hours . Indeed, although radio had institutionalized the family series, television did not just adapt these radio programs wholesale. Instead, television’s, family sitcom would be shaped and reshaped over the course of the early fifties un til finally it emerged as one ohh e networks’ staple pro- gram types. The development of the form and its rise to popularity has to be seen in relation to the unique problems and aesthetic concerns of the television industry in the early period, which, in turn, responded to cultural e,gJectations for the medium.

In 1948, television programming was a rare commodity. The net- works found themselves in a competitive market where stars, writers, camera operators, studio space, and other prodE_ction facilities were hard tQ find. The programs that developed during these years were therefore often drawn from other media-radio, burlesque, vaudeville,

f film, the circus, legitimate theater, and the nightclub all provided source materials for producers. In this respect , early television ‘was varied)H.

cor:ribining diff~rent aesthetic strategies and attempting to tailor e~ ~o 1~s own speofic de~ands. Production manuals acknowledged

telev1s10n s use of other media but argued for the development of its own aesthetic properties. As Edward Stasheff claimed in The Television Pro- gram, “While television derives many of its elements from the theater the movies, and radio, while it serves as a transmitting medium fa sports, ~ews and s?ec~al e~ents, it is also rapidly developing as a form of entertamment which 1s umque. That uniqueness is based on immediacy~ spontaneity~macy:” – ~

Similarly, in Television Program Production, NBC producer-director Carroll O’Meara stated, “TV’s greatest attributes are its timeliness and intimacy. By timeliness is meant TV’s immediacy, its power of delivering



theater into the home; instead, they demanded that television perfect and even surpass the theater by offering a privileged vantage point on the action. In 1949, House Beautiful compared the televised concert to its performance in the concert hall, claiming that “television not only em- bodies [the concert performance] it … adds a dimension not offered to the concert goer.” This dimension was the s ecialized view that could be had in_th.e..h q_me-the “close-up” that permitte s ectator to look at the orchestr a_anatliec onductor from every angle, to peer into the faces of the musicians, to note their p ysicalc liara ctertstics, and to watch the play of emotions on their patently exposed faces.” ,s Critics in Variety, The New York Times, Theatre Arts;-as well as other trade and popular magazines, repeatedly disapproved of programs that placed the camera in a static position to film the action on the stage. Instead, they wanted the programs to provide home audiences with a bird’s-eye view of the action so that average people sitting in their living rooms could feel as if they were witnessin g the production from the best view pos- sible. 1• According to such critics, television was meant to give the home audience not just a view but rather, a perfect view.

The emphasis on the perfect view had previously been a central in- terest in critical commentary on the cinema, which similarly expected film to surpass the theatrical experience by offering ideal angles of sight. However, for a new generation of television critics, this perfect view had

r specific meanings within the context of broadcasting and home recep-tion. Television was better than the theater because it could give people bot l:La_wide view of the actiona mhrsense-of Tiffimacy through the close-up-all within the space of one’s private hvmg-room theater. In his 194 7 book, The Future of Television, Orrin E. Dunlap, Jr., wrote that television was “Utopia for the Audience.” Appraising an early NBC drama, he claimed, “The view was perfect-no latecomers to disturb the continuity; no heads or bonnets to dodge …. In television every seat is in the front row.” 11 Perhaps, in this regard, television was meant to de- mocratize what had traditionally been an aristocratic, box-seat view of theatrical spectacle. ~

In this context of theatrical presentation, ~ ng became the preferred form. 18 NBC’s Pat Weaver was most outspoken about his preference for live origination, claiming, “It is this ability to surpass all expectations in a live performance that will always bring a high degree of excitement to the panoply of forces arrayed when a curtain goes up in the theatre or in television …. The unexpected, the spontaneous are always there-the t pica!, the t~ ent and most talked about-these too, are there in live television.” 10 East coast television critics such as Gilbert Seldes and Jack Gould also championed live television, particularly the hour-long dramatic series and news pro-


gramming such as See it Now. Even as independent syndicators and Hollywood producers encroached upon the medium with their more economical “telefilm” products, these critics held down the fort for liv formats. But by 1955, their critical preferences had little to do with re- ality; live television was becoming a dinosaur of a bygone “Golden Age” as the networks ·oined forces with Hollywood film comfillnies to produce the more economicall adva ancLhighly_P.OP.ular half- hour series. When I Love Lucy came to the CBS network in 1951, it was a huge popular success, soaring to number one in the Nielsen ratings. CB aggressively dev~ ed the genre over the course of the early 1950s, and its successes did not go unnoticed by the other networks, whicli also in- creasingly turned to sitcoms and other filmed formats. By 1960, there were about t~ e as man y sitcoms as there were variety shows, and the anthology drama (which was now typically shot on film) had almost entirely disappeared. 20

Given the preference for live television, the half-hour family edy, which was typically produced on film, would seem to be the black

c sheep of early television. Indeed, David Swift, a critic for Variety, spoke for many when he described the sitcom as the “tasteless pap of trivi- ality.” 21 However, other critics (and, ironically, sometimes the same ones that argued for the superiority of live television) often gave these pro- grams good reviews, and many of the shows became widely popular with audiences. Part of the appeal of the shows most certainly had to do with the fact that they assimilated the aesthetics established for live for- mats. By 1950, the sense of presence that live television was · ought to capture had also become part of the critical expectations for the fledgling family comedy form.

Between 1948 and 1950, Variety expressed disdain for family come- dies that seemed too much like radio or film, searching instead for a more “televisual” aesthetic. ABC’s Wren’s Nest, a fifteen-minute program that depicted the home life..Qf a suburban family, met with critical dis- favor because of its “strange combination ofradio ‘s soapoperas [sic] and Mr. and Mrs. shows.” In addition, Variety continued, the premier show “took place entirely in one small corner of the couple’s living room and for the most part on a couch …. For all the difference it made to view- ers, the two could have been standing just as easily around a radio mike.” Similarly, when reviewing Growing Pay nes (a family comedy on DuMont’s New York station, WABDj: -Variety said the program was “sewed together into an original design from shreds and patches of fa- miliar radio and screen situations.” 22 By 1953, Variety was so exasper- ated with the situation that a front-page story derided the long list of situation comedies imported from radio, claiming that “the basic prop irr ties groWirrg-om-of–‘.f.Vitsef~ m distinct and apart from radio ,


are few and far between.” z1 Thus, no less than the live formats, the domestic situation comedy was supposed to be tailored to the unique ‘capabilities of the television medium-particularly its ability to convey a sense of presence, to make audiences feel as if they were on the scene of a theatrical performance.

Addressing the Family Audience

Although early television embraced the theater as a model for represen- tation, the suitability of theatrical entertainment for a family environ- ment was often questioned by industry executives, critics, regulators, government officials, and audience members. As J. R. Poppele, president of the Television Broadcasters Association, warned his colleagues, “The theatre has achieved a license which harks back to the middle ages and not a few of the things there to be seen and heard would be difficult to reconcile in a medium which finds its way into the ordinary American home, where standards of purity and decency are still anything but ex- tinct.” 24 Some critics even expressed distaste for the use of studio audi- ences, suggesting that it disrupted the wholesome family environment in which television was received. According to one columnist in Variety, “The studio visitors are a motley collection of people on a night out; the audience at home is a family, a group of friends, who are spending a quiet evening by the fireside fiddling around with the television dials in the hopes of being entertained …. We’re their invited guests, and by golly, they didn’t ask us to bring a whole conglomeration of studio guests to interrupt our social visit with laughter.” 25 Here, the more gen- eral fascination with antiseptic electrical space pervaded ideas about program content as people insisted that the home be kept safe from un- desirable elements imported from the public sphere.

The development of family comedy can be seen as a solution to such roblems. By merging traditions of live entertainment with stories about

wholesome American families, the genre tamed the unrefined elements f the theater, while still maintaining the aesthetics of presence so im- ortant in the early period. It did so by integrating two types of theatri- al traditions that early television embraced. On the one hand, it drew

its conventions from the legitimate stage, incorporating principles of theatrical realism that emphasized story construction and character relationships. On the other hand, it tapped into the culture’s renewed interest in vaudeville, a theatrical aesthetic that pulled it toward physical humor that emphasized the immediate impact of performance over and above story development and characterization.

In merging these two theatrical traditions, the family sitcom was in many ways a hybrid of the networks’ big-budget, prime-time formats- the live anthology drama and the variety show. While both genres

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based their appeal on intimacy, immediacy, and spontaneity, they each stressed different aesthetic means to achieve this end. Anthology_dramas used conventions of theatrical realism, conventions that had also be- come the basis for visual representation in the classical Hollywood film. Based on verisimilitude, the anthology drama favored classical story construction, character development, and -acting styles that minimized artifice so that audiences might better suspend disbelief and enter into the world of t story. The turn to method acting in early television brought emotional intensity to the small screen as James Dean, Paul Newman, and other actors gave their characters a strong psychological dimension that helped create an aura of authenticity. 2• In addition, like other forms of theatrical realism, tlie anthology drama erected a wall be- tween audience and actor so that the players never acknowledged the presence of the audience, at least until the curtain ca!U7 This “aesthetic distance” was meant to create an illusion of reality so that the story seemed like a world unto itself. In his television production manual, Stasheff likened the anthology drama to cinematic realism, observing that “the motion picture drama must have a certain formality which is necessary even in the theater to maintain ‘aesthetic distance’ between actor and audience in the interest of successful illusion. An actor never looks into the film camera lens (except in the particular case of subjec- tive shooting) because to do so would make the audience conscious of the camera. This is also true of television drama.” The same author noted, however, that, “in all other types of television production … the performer most often does look directly into the lens, because that is his connection with the audience at home.” 2•

In fact, the early variety show was a perfect example of the “other” kinds of programs to which Stasheff referred. Favoring a vaudeville aes- thetic over_theatrical realism, the variety comics directly adctress’fd the audie~both the studio and the home audience), highlighting the pre- sentational nature of the show. In the late 1940s, when Milton Berle was “Mr. Television,” he was famous for running off the stage into the studio audience, making a mockery out of the “aesthetic distance” so impor- tant to theatrical realism. Additionally, the vaudeville aesthetic privi- leged performance over story, featuring the zany antics of comics and using simple narrative situations-or sketches-primarily as a pretense for gags.

Importantly, the differences between theatrical realism and the vaudeville aesthetic were not just stylistic, but cultural as well. The le- gitimate theater promised genteel respectability with a polite, quiet audience who sat in sublime contemplation of the story. While twen- tieth-century vaudeville also presented itself as respectable family enter- tainment and, in fact, attracted a predominantly middle-class audience,


Texaco Star Theater featured a stagy vaudeville aesthetic and an outlandish host, Milton Berle (here dressed in drag). (Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.)


the theaters were attended by all rungs on the social ladder-including working-class people, immigrants, and social elites who enjoyed “slum- ming with commoners.” Although twentieth-century vaudeville incor- porated elements of the legitimate theater into its form (numerous stage stars, for example, crossed over to vaudeville palaces), it still retained elements of-pQp_ular entertainment, often rousing the audience to ex- citement and directly engaging their participation in the events on stage.2• ~

Moreover, as they were developed on television, the two kinds of theater were separated by what television critics perceived as their suit- ability for the family audience. The anthology drama was the darling of prominent east coast critics who praised the format for its approxima- tion of legitimate theater and its attempt to deal with sophisticated, so- cially relevant subjects . At times, as broadcast historian Erik Barnouw has observed, the relevancy of these programs deeply grieved sponsors and network executives. Jo Threatened by theCM_cCarth~ sentiments of the period ( especially the blacklisting tactics of the anticommunist pres- sure group Aware, Inc.), and more generally concerned about appealing to the various regional tastes of its broad national audience, the industry

often shied away from the controversial subjects that some anthology dramas contained . Less attention has been paid to the variety show, which was also controversial, but for different reasons. Critics, audi- ences,

regulators, and government officials lashed out at the genre’s sex-

ual innuendos and wild physical humor, seeking programs that they considered more suitable for a domestic medium. The development of

\ the situation comedy can be seen in part as a compromise between the two.,JJpes of theatrical aesthetics th~ r!._ e.!!!Q_face~ y the earl~ tele- vjsiao industry. In merging vaudeville with tfieatncal tea’l_!311, tne sitcom created a middle-ground afstfieuc that satisfied television’s overall aim in reaching a fa!!!!ly au ience. Blending the wild spontaneity of vaude- ville pe ormance with the more..genteel-and decidedly noncontrover- sial-aspects of theatrical realism, this genre became the networks’ preferred form for reaching a family audience.

Vaudeville’s influence on the situation comedy was particularly pro- nounced in the early period . In the late 1940s, when television variety shows became extremely popular, critics and industry spokespeople continually referred to the rebirth of vaudeville. Shortly after television’s introduction, New York’s Palace Theater, the key exhibition space for vaudeville shows in the early twentieth century, reopened its doors to the public. In the late 1940s, Variety even began to reissue its Palace re- view columns from the 1920s, claiming that “as vaudeville and video programming . .. have more than a little in common, the tele men find that these reviews often are a key on how bills were booked, why acts



were balanced against each other …. It’s a twist when 25 years after it was written a review of a vaudeville bill is found to be of use to a new branch of show business .” JI Granted, such declarations had con- veniently erased the memory of vaudeville’s strong presence on radio variety shows (especially in the 1930s) and in numerous anarchistic comedies, revue films, and film shorts. Still, to television producers and critics of the time, it was important to think of themselves as reviving a venerable tradition. n

While the television variety shows often contained domestic sketches, their formats dependeo more on stand-up comedy and sight gags than on storytelling humor. n These shows featured the “olio” orga- nization of the vaudeville theater in which a series of separate acts did fifteen-minute sketches that had little relation to the others. So much like vaudeville were these programs that Variety continually referred to them as “vaudeo .”

Between 1948 and 1950, for example, Milton Berle’s Texaco Star


Theater was a series of discrete vaudeville turns, including Berle’s mono- logue, short sketches, one or two musical numbers –· (that often drew on nightclub talent), stand-up comedy performances, and such novelties as impersonators, acrobats, and animal acts. Although Berle was initially an enormous ratings success, the critics were less than pleased with his program. In particular, they disliked the narrative organization of the format, objecting to the lack of continuity between performances. As early as July of l 940arz ety cl”aiined that’ “when broken down into its component parts,” Texaco Star Theater “came up with some qualitative programming,” but lacked “show-wise continuity.” Critics reacted in similar ways to other variety formats, calling for better scripting that linked separate acts into a more coherent narrative. DuMont’s School House lacked a “suit ript” and had “no coherent pattern in the treatment o acts and commercials.” Conversely, when Martha Raye hosted NBC’s All Star Revue, one Variety critic liked the “thread of conti- nuity” that made it possible to reduce the number of disparate vaude- ville acts. 34

· · In other words, what the critics want was a stor . They wanted ili e vaudeville format to be more like theatrica r · , with its promise of unity, harmony, and continuous action. As Jack Gould claimed in his

favorable review of Ed Wynn’s variety format, “The transition from one scene to another … is done with the smoothness of the Hollywood films.” 35 By the 1952 season, narrative continuity was becoming a con – ventionalized element of the variety show, which increasingly merged vaudeville performances with the story-centered approach of theatrical realism. After its enormous success with I Love Lucy in 1951, the CBS network turned to the filmed half-hour comedy format as a way to com – pete with NBC’s glitzy variety shows. At the same time, the vaudeo pro-

rams tried to imitate the sitcom formula, tying together individual acts with a more coherent storyline and eme. In September of that year, Variety claimed:

The Berle craze has subsided as the Lucille Balls and the rival CBS-TV situation comedy formula took hold. NBC-TV sta- tions, even in single station markets such as Pittsburgh, Kansas and Indianapolis, served notice that they weren’t picking up the Berle show this season. So for the new Berlf they dras- tically altered the format to embrace situation comedy, in- stalled a whole new set of writers, topped by Goodman Ace [who was famous for his work on radio’s domestic comedy Easy Aces].

By December 1951, Variety reported that the “situation comedy formula has parlayed the Texaco hour into one of the major pleasantries of the season, with Berle becoming the ‘new find’ of ’52.” 1•


To be sure, Berle’s new look was a product of numerous forces. By the early 1950s, the pressure of producing live television had taken its toll on Berle’an o oth er liosts who were check!!!& ~hospitals for stress-relat~nts. Berle collapsed from overwork; Eddie Cantor suffered a heart attack; Fred Allen fell ill and missed a full season; Ed Sullivan checked into the hospital for ulcers; Red Buttons collapsed from nervous exhaustion; Red Skelton had an operation; Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, and Donald O’Connor were all told by their doctors to take a break from The Colgate Comedy Hour; and Jackie Gleason was “prac- tically … making the hospital his ‘between shows’ home on medic’s instructions to keep in trim to offset the hazards of a gruelling assign- ment.” 37 The comics’ problems weren’t helped by the fact that critics re- peatedly disaR_2roved of the dated g~at they recycled in order to meet the schedule demands of hve television. Speaking about his trade, Bob Hope told Variety, “Milton Berle, Mr. Television himself, has used up so much material he’s stealing from himself.” 38 Added to this, the ex- tremely high price of variety formats and the problems of finding guest star talent made the shows very difficult to produce. 1• As a remedy to ~Ji ~\ these problems, some shows cu.t.._back to a half-hour format or else ap- Y”‘ I/ peared on a rotatin ·monthly schedule. In aailltion, 6etween 1952_,)I v and 1954, comics began emigrating to Ho ywood where film tech- -~) niques and sunny skies promisecl to reducethesiramso f”livetelevision. Finally, the programs increasingly corned to stotytellin¥, character-cen- 21 tered comedy that mitigated against repetifious jokes and also helped al- 7 J leviate the problem of finding big name talent.

Beyond these practical considerations, however, the change in for- mat was also intended to refine television humor for the nationwide family audience. As suggested by the Variety article cited above, Berle’s tra’fisiffim-to situation comedy was in large part related to the fact that his vaudeo humor did not appeal to midwestern audiences_ whQ, by 1949, were receiving the show over the coaxial cable. As broadcast his- torian Arthur Frank Wertheim has shown, Berle’s loss of popularity was greatly influenced by the fact that his New York, Yiddish-vaudevillian 1, t / humor did not appeal to rural midwesterners. 40 More generally, the era- jl>’ I sure of ethn·c_urban..roots became an indust rY. prescription for success. Irwin Shane, the publisher of the trade journal Televiser and the execu- tive director of New York’s Television Workshop, told fellow producers that “a comedy show built entirely upon Broadway humor (or frequent references to the borscht circuit, the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Palace The- atre, or even famous New York Nightclubs) will find an indifferent audi- ence in Kokomo, Indiana, and in the hundreds of Kokomos around the country. To assure an out-of-town audience, the show’s content must be broad in its appeal.” 41



In addition to using this nationwide standard, critics found the out- iandish behavior, ris~ue jokes, and ~brasive. personal!ties of numerous {variety clowns unswtable for a family medmm. Agam, Berle was the biggest offender. As Jack Gould wrote, “His tricks of whistling, exces- sively effusive introductions, interruption of other acts and preoccupa- tion with the revival of vaudeville are just tiring and repetitious. A couple of the scenes in the show, what is more, were coarse and unnec- essary.”• ! Berle’s habit of cross-dressing (in one show, for example, he appeared as Carmen Miranda and kissed singer Tony Martin) certainly did not help his image with the critics. Moreover, his personification of a dirty-minded flirt, who regularly chased after glamor girls, clashed with his simultaneous attempts to woo the child audience in the guise of the ultimate family man, “Uncle Miltie.” In a survey conducted by the Na- tional Council of Catholic Women, one parent expressed disapproval of Berle’s “Uncle Miltie” persona, while others called him “valueless,” “at time[s] objectionable,” “loud,” “vulgar,” “too insincere,” and even “in- sane.”4} Aware of the negative reactions to Berle, NBC kept close tabs on the program. In 1948, one internal company report claimed, “The Texaco Milton Berle program has included not only slapstick but Berle’s very typical humor. On the t?lapstic e have always checked- double-checked in dress rehearsal s\i<= · eatures as the tearing off of a comedian’s shirt front, falling pants, etc. As to the gags … we are …

44 reviewing a confidential advance outline of jokes proposed for use.” By the early 1950s, these censorship tactics no longer seemed sufficient to the sponsor and network, who were now concerned with reaching a large nationwide family audience.

When Berle came back in the 1952 seasoq, the vaudeville compo- nents of the show were inco~ into a storylin-e that considerably tamed his brand of humor ‘:-Except f&spoi’a d~ ic asides, Berle no longer addressed the audience directly, and his outrageous parlay with the studio audience was gone. While ethnic Yiddish humor still played a role in the show, it was(.now incorporated into a story that presented ethnicity, not as a mode of address between a speaker and his constitu- ency, but rather as a running gag that people in the home audience could laugh at) In other words, ethnicity was no longer presented as a s~J.t:ural experience,_but rather as the butt of a jol<e.””When, for examp 1~Gert rua eBNg1’51.11r of-Yne Gold!Jergs) appeared on Berle’s re- vamped format, the program spliced together The Goldbergs’ family com- edy format with Berle’s variety show humor. In the first scene, Molly and daughter Rosalie sit in their Bronxville apartment, watching Berle on television, and decide to invite him over to their home. The humor revolves around Yiddish stereotypes, allowing audiences to laugh at the overweight, domineering Jewish mother who plays a matchmaker try –


ing to marry Berle off to his secretary, all the while pushing platters of food in front of him. So popular was this merger of variety humor and situation comedy that NBC even considered making The Goldbergs a

4regular spot on Berle. ‘ By the fall of 1953, when the Texaco company withdrew its sponsorship, the network contemplated a new format that would cut the show into two half-hour segments sold to separate r sponsors-in other words, the show would be more like a situation

46 comedy. , Berle’s repackaging was just one example of a larger industry trend.

Starting in the late forties, and especially between 1950 and 1952, watchdog groups and government officials cried out against the “blue” humor of television comics. In 1948, in his capacity as the president of ‘ the Television Broadcasters Association, J. R. Poppele (the same man who worried about the importation of theater into the home), claimed that “no form of entertainment lends itself to looseness and question- able material so much as comedy. The point of balance between the clean and the questionable in comedy is so narrow that where any might exist, a blue pencil should be set to work-and quickly.” 47

In 1951, Boston’s Archbishop Richard R. Cushing objected to com- ics who “permit themselves a momentary weakness to cater to the laughter gales of individuals with a perverted sense of humor.” One month later, Variety reported that “the campaign against below-the-belt humor … is gaining momentum on a nationwide scale” and that net- works and stations had been told to “~,ltcfi]hcrutep?”•d In that same year, The New York Times published letters from concerned parents who also found variety humor less than wholesome. As one man claimed, “With night c u performers serving as master of ceremonies on as many variety shows, it will be difficult for them to realize that the things which gain approval in a night club are not the same things which make a ‘hit’ in the living room.” Another letter writer argued, “A good bawdy joke in the right circumstances is swell; in the home with the children and a mother-in-law it is something else again.” 49 Similarly, in the 1952 survey conducted by the National Council of Catholic Women, parents voiced their disapproval of the “offcolor” and “vulgar” jokes in such programs as Your Show of Shows, Toast of the Town, This is Show Business, and The Ed Wynn Show. They also objected to “gbscene and suggestive dancing” and particularly disliked displays of female sexuality such as the chorus girls on Ed Wynn who “parade under near pneumonia conditions.” ‘ 0

Such sentiments reverberated in the nation’s capital as government officials became concerned with television content in general, and comedy in particular. Spurred by mounting complaints, FCC chairman Wayne Coy spoke publicly in 1950 about indecency on the airwaves. He

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especially denounced the “livery stable humor” on television, singling out one “comedian” (generally considered to be Arthur Godfrey) who “gets so big that his network cannot handle him.” In 1951, when Repre- sentative Thomas J. Lane called for the establishment of a Federal Cen- sorship Board, he alluded to the criticisms of Archbishop Cushing and others concerning “raw jokes” and “poor taste.” 51 Even after the indus- try adopted the NARTB Code on March 1, 1952, watchdog groups and government officials continued to be on the lookout for sordid program- ming content. As discussed in chapter 4, the debates on censorship at the 1952 House hearings focused on variety show comedy as a special concern. Introduced as a patriot joined in “the fight against Commu- nism and subversive activites,” ABC broadcaster Paul Harvey indicted New York comics who were “steeped in Broadway and the bawdy night life of Manhattan.” •2 Similarly, when testifying to the Committee, Mrs. Winfield D. Smart of the National Council of Catholic Women claimed that even while there was no popular consensus on the relative worth of television comedians, “we feel that they should abide by a standard of

~- If they overstep that, we feel that, no matter how entertaining \ ~~:· they should not be allowed to broadcast.” 3 s In addition to ob- jections concerning blue humor, the gov~nment officials and wi~sses disapproved of overly ~xualized program content, and variety shows in particular. When describing You As1<edFor it (a half-hour variety format premised on viewers’ requests to see various acts), Ezekiel Gathings, representative from Arkansas, claimed that while most of the program was “wholesome .. . something like a vaudeville show,” he could not abide one act that featured “a grass-skirted youn~dy and a thinly clad gentleman da!!Q!!g_J e hoo_chi.e=-Coochie. They danced o a very lively tune and shook the shimmy …. My children saw that, and I could not get it turned off to save my life.” 54 With similar sentiments in mind, Gathings praised the 1952 code for its uplifting influence on the plung- ing necklines of women’s dresses.”

The exact influence that these censorship debates had on program development at the networks is difficult to discern. However, as the case of Berle and other variety comics suggests, they did have a chilling effect on the vaudeo format, contributing to its marginalization in the prime- time schedule. By 1953, a front page story in Variety cited Dick Powell, president of the Television Writers of America, who claimed that the “death of video comedy stars is being caused by censorship …. The comedy writer is under much closer line-by-line censorship from agen- cies and sponsors …. If Will Rogers were alive today, he would proba- bly go back to rope-twirling.” 56

In the context of television’s growth as a national medium and the increasing climate, of censorship , the sitcom format, with its preplanned



storylines that mitigated against the comic’s spontaneous displays of “adult” humor and ethnic injokes, was a particularly apt vehicle for television. Not surprisingly in this regard, the Texaco Star Theater’s “sit- comization” in the 1952 season was followed by numerous other such transformations. In 1953, faced with mounting criticism from reviewers and declining ratings, Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca’s Your Show o Shows revised its variety format, switching from “the dozen or so revue- type spots p~oo~resented to fewer and longer numbers,” includ- ing a dome~w.> As in the cSe of Berle, the change was largely intend~mesticate the stars’ humor by “imbu[ing] their work with a low~, which has a greater longevity on television .” 57 In 1953, Danny Thomas left his variety format on Saturday Night Revue for a situation comedy formula that integrated his stand-up shtick and musi- cal numbers . One year later, The Jackie Gleason Show extended the length of its situation comedy sketch “The Honeymooners,” and in the 1955- 56 season entirely dispensed with the live hour-long variety format. producing instead a filmed half-hour version of the comedy sketch. 58 Al- though the variety show did rtot-entrrely fade away (Gleason, for ex- ample, returned to the variety format), it had taken a back seat to storytelling comedy. According to a first page story in a 1954 issue of Variety, “Today it’s the vehicle, not the star that counts.” ‘”

As the variety show became more like the sitcom, domestic come- dies drew on traditions of vaudeville humor. replicating its sense of liveness and spontaneit , but downplaying what was seen as its un – savory cont n , particularly its exp 1c1 y n1c 1 1s umor and overly sugg5 tive adult” content. the family comedy merged elements ofvaude\’.’iHe~alism, integrating the spontaneity and im- mediacy of live performances-the sense of being at a theater-with seamless storylines. This merger can be seen not only as an aesthetic compromise, but also as a compromise with television’s family audi- ences . These programs allowed people to enjoy the rowdy, ethnic. and often sexually suggestive antics of variety show clowns by packaging their outlandishness in middle-class codes of respectability.

Qne importa nt difference between variety shows and situation come- £ties was rbe fact that the clowns were no longer primarily men. In place of thcil a.dd10¥-8.erles … .and sQdc!.;1,q_ui.rling..SkcltQns, situation comedies usually put the spotli1\~.f~male comics such as Lucille Ball, Joan- Davis, and Gracie ~.!1..!1,.Q!ike the male variety show coirucs:tfiesff:- com comediennes were not typically criticized for being abrasive, and they were never called rude or licentious. Even if, like the male clo.wns, they cross-dressed Lucy Ricardo disguised as Gary Cooper and ~lark Gable in “Harpo Marx” ( 1955)-and got into compromising positions with the ~ -Lucy giving a bare-backed Jottn-Wayne·a mas-

1 1

Lucy and Ethel disguise their femininity in this 1952 episode of I Love Lucy. (Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.)


sage in “Lucy and John Wayne” ( 1955) or Ronald Colman chasing Joan Davis around his apartment in “Joan Sees Stars” (1954)-their antics were ot deemed threatening to social mores . This, however, was

not because of their “ess~ · · ature, but rather due to a long history of conventions formed for portraying female comics in ways that did not upset middle-class codes of femininity.

As Shirley Staples has shown in her study of vaudeville, the devel- opment of male -female corned teams rovided one way to get women -in on the act without causing tension in the au 1ence. 60 In the 1870s, when variety entrepreneurs such as Tony Pastor attempted to attract women into their theaters, the introduction of female comics tempered the rowdy humor of what had previously been a male-dominated amuse- ment venue . By the early decades of the twentieth century, male-female teams, often performing domestic sketches, were regularly featured on

\ vaudevill s bills and were among the most popular attractions. But even !if vaudeville had introduced women in order to appeal to family audi- ences, the re~tation of the female comic was accompanied by a se- ries of t~os tha0 turn, developed into a set of conventions by which women’s humor was deemed more respectable. It was permissible for

‘\women who were considered unattractive to tell bawdy tales and play !hrews who browbeat their henpecked husbands, but the humor was c’onstructed in such a way that they were-rhe “butt ‘ ohhe )o . While audiences and critics enJoye aug mg a ayer y-,eggr_essive “man – nish ” women, they were offended when pretty, more dainty women took these roles. To ease this situation, conventionally attractive women adopted grotesque disguises, or else played unthreatening characters such as little children (known as “kid” acts) and “Dumb Dora” roles in which an attractive woman’s humor is tempered by her exaggerated lack of wits. In the 1930s, these roles for female comics were incorporated into radio comedy and also featured in numerous films and film shorts that based thefr_plots arouno -domestic situations . 6 1

In the postwar period~the situation comedy drew on and developed these stock characterizations for comediennes. As in the case of vaude- ville, the introduction offemale stars into domestic sketches was thought to ap12eal to telev~ n’s fa.rnily-audience, par.tLcularly_the housewife. Jack Gouldcl a1mea: “Women comics, however brilliant, have always been outnumbered by the male of the species on the stage and screen. One of television’s accomplishments has been to bring the distaff clowns into virtually equatP-rominence with the males. The rise of the comedi- enne in TV may be ~ e nature of the medium itself~ e he TV audience is the ,family at home, the domestic corned ;volving

e the house, is a natural formula.” 6 2 Slill, as with their vaudeville predecessors, tlie representation of the female comic






had to be carefully controlled. The few variety show comediennes that existed were either the conventionally unattractive type such as “big mouth” Martha Raye or else the more waifish Imogene Coca, who used excessive mugging and grotesque costuming to distort her femininity. Situation comedycomecf 1ennes Allen and Jane Ace played Dumb Dora roles, while Lucille Ball, Joan Davis, and Gale Storm distorted their femininit y with grotesque disguises. The list of

as somethin g a woman is in fact almost long including episodes in which she appeared as a

Is Envious,” 1954), a and even Superman (“Lucy and Superman,” 1957).

The situation comedy smoothed the female comics’ abrasive edges by embedding their wild physical humor in domestic scenarios . comediennes ‘ zany antics were always tamed by the fact were also depicted as loving daughters (My Little Margie’s Gale Storm); cfiarm- \ ing Ifousewives ( I Love Lucy’s Lucille Ball, Burns and Allen’s Gracie Allen, : My Favorite Husband’s Joan Caulfield, I Married Joan’s Joan Davis); in the working-girl formula, devoted teachers ( Our Miss Brooks’ Eve Arden)


and faithful secretaries (My Friend Irma’s Marie Wilson and Private Secre- tary’s Ann Sothern). Thus, even while the female comics mugged for the camera, donned unfeminine disguises, and generally created havoc, this was always recuperated by stories and characterizations that. assured viewers of their essentia_Weroale nature. Jack Gould encapsulated the situation perfectly in an article on female comics that described Lucille Ball as a “vastly amusing exaggeration of a wife’s most needed quality- patience,” and Joan Caulfield as “appropriately kittenish and skittinish, and yet always becomingly female.”•} Importantly, however, the come- dienne’s femininity was not erotically charged. Instead, the domestic 7 comedies featured z~ :JS Lucy RICardo; perfectly groomed, straight-laced, middle-aged housewives such as Margaret Anderson and Harriet Nelson; or else, in the ethnic comedies, matronly types such as the Jewish mother Molly Goldberg and the careworn Katherine Hansen (Mama). 64 For those who found the plunging necklines and suggestive sexuality of female stars inappropriate for a family medium, such char- acters must have seemed like a welcome alternative.

In addition to enting nonthreatening women, the situation comedy also do~ticated en. Like the new toned-down Berle and

” low-key Caesar, male stars were fashioned as family types. Good- • natured-if sometimes short-tempered-hus bands populated the early series with characters like Ricky Ricardo, Danny Williams (Make Room For Daddy), Ozzie Nelson, Charlie Ruggles (The Ruggles), and George Burns, all putting their faith in marriage. The domestic narrative thus worked to contain the_ verly aggressive, and often adolescent,_mas- culinity of the ~riet y show, while a so p ac h as Cuban Desi

C Arnaz and Lebanese Danny Thomas into saf~ly middle-class settings here their ethnicity was just one more running gag. Even iT critics railed against the “emasculation” of the”Ji:merican utan, these bumbling fathers were ultimately less controversial~ the overindulgent clowns. The situation comedy, with its domesticated humor and broad-based ap- peal, would become one of television’s preferred modes for addressing the nation’s families.

Livening Things Up: Vaudeville or Folksy Realism?

While the domestic sitcom worked to defuse the more threatening ele- ments of variety comedy, it nevertheless maintained elements of kinetic vaudeville humor, evoking the sense of presence so important in early television. By emphasizing the immediacy of performance, the programs created an aura of th.t_atricalit~o feel as if they were on the scene of presentation, watc mg ~how.

As was typical in radio, some early family comedies used studio au- diences in order to provide the sense of spontaneity that spectators enjoy



at the theater. “We put on the show as if we were putting on a theatrical show,” recalls director Ralph Levy about the first two seasons of The Burns and Allen Show, which were shot live in the studio.•5 By 1952, Burns and Allen and other comedies like it were increasingly shot on film, a method that allowed producers to edit out mistakes, consolidate production schedules, and, most importantly, reap additional profits in

~ ven as the networks turned to filmed formats, however, the programs themselves retained their theatrical sensibility as producers found ways to replicate the sense of presence that had been so important in live shows. Desilu,.Jhe_.~ction company that created I love Lucy, developed a m~stem that allowed the program to be shot in continuous takes in front of a live studio audience. The retention of the studio audience, Desilu assumed, wou loma:’ke the comedy appear ~man~ to home viewers.”” Although many of Lucy’s suc- Eessmt-dTspensed with studio audiences in order to cut production costs, they still created a sense…oLtb_eatrical presence and spontaneous group reaction by usi(!~nned laugh~ –

Early situation comedies also produced an aura of liveness by inte- grating the performance principles of the var~~rmat into do- mestic narratives. Much like previous radio programs such as The Burns and All~ and The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, television series merged comic and musical performances with character comedy. Pro- grams such as I Married Joan and Heavens to Betsy were typically com- prised of two or three domestic sketches (only loosely joined by narrative thread) that highlighted the comic performances of the stars. Love Lucy was also originally premised on the idea of merging vaudeville acts with stories about family life. In 1949, singing star Desi Arna planned to pr~uce a variety show featuring his Cuban band, and one year later he and wife Lucille Ball took to the road where they per- formed a vaudevillian variety show together. That show provided the impetus for the I love Lucy pilot, which was based on the premise of in- tegrating Desi’s nightclub performances and guest stars into a domestic husband and wife show.

Perhaps the most extreme case was Burns and Allen. In its 1940s ra- dio format, the program integrated vaudevillian domestic sketches with guest star performances. When it made the transition to television in 1950, the series created an even stronger sense of theatricality by includ- ing variety ensembles that performed song and dance numbers between acts of the sitcom story. Midway into the premier episode, for example, the domestic plot was interrupted as if for an intermission when George Burns introduced viewers to the Skylarks, a singing group that per- formed on a stage in front of the domestic setting.

The merger of performance with storytelling elements is clearly evi-



dent in a 1950 episode ( “Tax Auditor”) when George utters the ultimate metacriticism of his program’s narrative strategy. After the first act of the night’s episode, the curtains close on the domestic setting and George introduces us to singer Helen Hanley. Following the song, George di- rectly addresses the audience, saying, “Well now I think it’s time to put a little plot in the show. And we try to strike a happy medium. We have more plot than a variety show and not as much as a wrestling match.” The curtains then rise to reveal the Bums’s living room where Gracie confesses she has dented the car fender (a plot device that was repeated in many of the episodes). The camera cuts back to the stage where George admits to the audience, “Yeah, that’s it. That’s the plot. What’d you expect, Shakespeare? I’ll tell you somethin a t lot, but don’t tell this to Ed Sullivan or Eddie Cantor. It’s c a er than gues ars.” Indeed, as the industry would learn throughout the ear -<)5-6~ corns

‘were more economica J to produce than the hour-long variety shows. One of tlle reasons for this was already known to radio comedians of the thirties and forties who found that comedy series such as Amos ‘n’ Andy saved money by ~h-eira · on continuin · – :nara~s rather

“than on high-pricect-srar properties. George Bums aiicrc’;racie Allen applied this rule to television at an early stage in television produc- tion when the star-studded variety comedies seemed to be the popular choice . ~

Aside from the economic factor, however, George’s monologue re- veals significant assumptions about the nanue of storytelling comedy for television . According to the logic of his monologue, it was necessary to strike a hap~tween variety corned and_£omedy structured arouod–a-story. In the early episodes of the series, this na ppy medium wa( achieved through presenting a kind of comedy that was the inverse of the variety shows . By organizing its episodes around lo~s / that were interspersed with variety acts on the stage, the early episodes of Burns and Allen presented the flip side of the variety show’s narrative structure. This, however, was a primitive strategy, for as the sitcom de- veloped it would smooth over the discontinuous breaks between story and performance . The history of the sitcom can be seen precisely as movement toward narrative equilibrium between the “situation” and the “comedy.”

In fact, the programs were continually judged on their ability to merge the two. Just as the critics were wary of variety shows that lacked proper continuity and integration, they also disliked family comedies that emphasized broad_Q!!_ysical humor over story development and characterintegration. This was particularly true of cntica l commentary in Variety, whicn consistently called for more of a balance between well- cripted,_ realistic plots and the stars’ performances. When reviewing




Heavens to Betsy, a sustaining program on NBC, Variety claimed : “The plot, if you could call it that, is highly familiar; the enactment has a bur- lesque air, unreal and artificial. And the Q ener was not enhanced by the insertion of a clown act. If more rea ·t c Id be injected into the story, the stanza would be immeasurably better.” Similarly, when re- viewing the premier episode of the ABC comedy The Ruggles, one Variety critic claimed that the show had “only the sketchiest of plots,” and relied too much on “slapsticky” situations. 08 While generally approving of some of the traditions associated with vaudeville-particularly spon- taneous, kinetic performances that gave viewers a ~nse of being on the scene-the critics did not like shows that failed to integrate these perfor- mances in o a realistic story.

Indeed, in quite contradictory ways, the ideal sitcom was expected – to highlight both the experience of theatricality and the naturalism of domestic life. At the same time that family comedies encouraged audi- – ences to feel as if they were in a theater watchingy. play, they also asked f viewers to believe in the reality of the families presented on the screen. Like Jane and Goodman Ace, these television famrlres q eated an aura o~ intimacy by giYing al!diences the impression that they were lifelon companions. Indeed, as seen in chapter 4, the programs emphasized th importance of neighborliness, and since man Y.lJad pre..’liously been o radio, the characters must have seemed like familiar friends. When radio comedies made the transition to the television medium, critics judged the degree to which the addition of sight to sound enhanced the charac- ters’ credibility and the programs’ overall sense of intimacy. As Variety noted in its review of The Goldbergs’ first televised episode, “There’s no basic change in the familiar characterizations, but it’s as though a new dimension has been added to bring them to life via the new medium.” •0

Moreover, The Goldbergs and other ethnic family comedies were particularly praised for their warmth and sentimentality, qualities that added to their aura of believability. One Variety critic claimed that Molly Goldberg’s “Yiddishisms, the background and her impossible malaprops only savor the story and character and bring it closer to credibility,” while another critic liked Mama’s depiction of a turn-of-the-century Norwegian family, claiming its presentation of “Ups and Downs [of] family life crystalized into personal identification.” 70 Even the more middle-class family comedies were judged on their ability to create warmth and sentimentality. Variety praised Ethel and Albert for its “charm and simplicity,” My Son Jeep for its “believable and warm family group,” Marge and Jeff for its “relaxed performances, with characters registering realistically.” 71 Such sentiments also filled the pages of gen- eral readership magazines, creating a popular hierarchy that favored a naturalistic portrayal of everyday life. Time liked the “real recognizable




domesticity” of My Favorite Husband and the “homey” quality of Easy Aces, while Saturday Review praised the unstrained dialogue in Ethel and Albert that “rises out of and reflects the natural rubbing-along-together” of the characters. 12

These programs also produced a sense of intimacy and authenticity by encouraging viewers to believe that the characters were real families who just happened to live their lives on television. ‘TV couples” such as Jane and Goodman Ace, Ozzie and Harriet, Burns and Allen, and Lucy and Desi were an ambiguous blend of fiction and reality. By appealing to viewers’ “extratextual” knowledge (their familiarity with television ce- 1lebrities through fan magazines and other publicity materials), these ~ rograms collapsed distinctio~s between real life and t~levision. When ~ ucille Ball became pregnant m 1952, the program replicated the event f n a season of episodes that revolved around Lucy’s pregn~ncy and ~he eventual delivery of her son. In the January 19, 1953, episode, which scored an all time high rating of 68.8 on the Trendex scale, Little Ricky (the fictional baby) materialized immediately after the real Desi, Jr., was born, so that audiences could imagine they had witnessed the birth of the real child.7J As Newsweek claimed in its cover story on the blessed

. event, “All this may come under the heading of how duplicated in life and television can you get.” ”’ Advertising and product tie-ins further en- eouraged audiences to confuse the boundaries between reality and fic-

” tion by allowing people to purchase elements of the story. Lucy and Desi smoking gowns, comic books, Little Ricky dolls, nursery furniture, and even replicas of the fashionable waterproof bags in which Lucy carried her baby bottles gave the fictional world a material status.n Most explic- itly here, a 1953 advertisement for Lucy and Desi bedroom suites told

. consumers to “Live Like Lucy!” and even included a tie-in advertise- ment for Lucy and Desi matching pajamas so that couples could com- pletely simulate the bedroom life of the stars.

Television critics fostered this materialization of the fictional world ..-by judging such sitcoms on the degree to which they depicted a natu- J ralistic picture of the stars’ “real” family life. Here, naturalistic perfor-

mance meant a sense of ordinariness and f · · · y. Reviewing one of the earliest o t ese comedies, “Mary and Johnny Kay” ( 1949), a critic for Variety claimed it “allegedly parallel [ ed] the actual experiences of its stars” and thus “had an unforced quality of naturalness which is the greatest asset.” ‘ ° Critics for popular magazines also praised the natu- ralistic feel of comedies such as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, which were based on dialogue and character interaction. In 1952, a critic for Newsweek detailed the everyday adventures of the real Nelson family, telling readers, “Ricky kicks his shoes off during the filming, just as he does at home , and both boys work in front of the cameras in their




regular clothes. In fact, says Harriet, they don’t even know the cameras are there.” ” And in 1953, a reviewer for Time wrote, “The Nelson chil- dren apparently accept their double life as completely natural.” In that same year. the Saturday Review commented, “The Nelsons are appar- ently living their lives in weekly installments on the air …. ” Indeed, this unobstructed, unmediated view of the Nelson family was the es- sence of television theater that critical discourses described. Even the comedies that did not include real-life families were publicized in this fashion. Make Room For Daddy, starring Danny Thomas, was a case in point. In 1954, Newsweek assured its readers that Danny was a “Two Family Man,” and that “Danny’s TV family acts like … Danny’s Own Family.” The reviewer even went on to suggest that Danny Williams (the character) resembled Danny Thomas (the star) more than Gracie Allen resembled herself on The Burns and Allen Show. 18

With its emphasis on theatrical/studio performance on the one hand, and domestic normality on the other, the family comedy was a site of contradictions and tensions. It seemed to be undecided about how to depict domestic life, and perhaps for this reason it often tended to break the rules of unity and balance found in the classical novel and film.79 A strange mix of naturalism and theatricality, the family comedy was a virtual “theater of the everyday” that presented reality in a height- ened, exaggerated fashion.

The Theater of Everyday Life: Self-Reflexivity and Artifice

Torn as it was between theatricality and naturalism, the family comedy 4’ seemed unable to resist reflecting back QQ_ the paradox of its own form. 1 Self-reflexivity was indeed a hallmark of the genre between 1950 and 1955, the years in which it became one of the most popular and widely used program types. Quite contrary to the popular assumption that genres become more self-reflexive as they mature, ~t-¥–W<l.SJn fact integral to the rise of this form. As demonstrated throughout this bo6k, family comedies included plots that revolved around television’s effects on the household. Television’s first families were, above all elsj families that owned television sets and thought quite a bit about the me- dium’s place in their daily lives. Equally important, many of these pro- grams self-consciously acknowledged the theatrical artifice involved in representing a naturalistic picture of domesticity.

By far the most self-reflexive was The Burns and Allen Show, whose entire premise revolved around a real-life couple (George Burns and ~ Gracie Allen) who played themse_Ives playing themselves as real-life per- formers who haa a television show based on-rnefr lives as television stars. If this is a bit confusing, it should be because the entire show was based on.the-paradox involved in transforming everyday life into a play


for television. Designed to be the television version of Our Town, the program featured George Burns as part-time narrator /part-time charac- ter, who continually stepped out of his role in the family scene, reflect- ing on the stage business and the plot. A 1952 episode took this to the extreme, basing its plot on a TV party that George and Gracie held for the producers of their show. While Gracie scuttled around the house “performing” her hostess chores, George sat with his network cronies, somehow miraculously watching himself on his own live television pro- gram. In the final scene, George turns to the home audience and smirks into the camera, calling attention to the plot’s absurd premise.

Although Burns and Allen was an extreme example, its self-reflex- ivity was symptomatic of a general trend. Numerous series included epi- odes that revolved around characters going on television programs,

\J restaging their domestic lives for the camera. I Love Lucy, which told the

fi story of an average housewife and her celebrity husband, made ample use of this device, producing t.welve “TV” episodes between 1951 and J, 1955.”0 In “Mr and Mrs. TV Show” ( 1954), the Ricardos are invited to

host their own morning television program for Phipp’s Department store, broadcast live from their breakfast table. In ‘The Ricardos Are In- terviewed” ( 1955), Lucy, Ricky, and their friends the Mertzes appear on Face to Face, a Person to Person type talk show in which television cam-

~ ras film the private lives of the stars.•• And in “Ricky’s Hawaiian Vaca- tion” ( 1954), Lucy and Ricky try their luck on Freddie Fillmore’s game show Be a Good Neighbor, a plot that was also used in a 1955 episode of The Goldbergs, a 1952 episode of Burns and Allen, and a 1954 “Honey- mooners” sketch on The Jackie Gleason Show. •2 Similarly, such family comedies as I Married Joan, Make Room for Daddy, and The Honeymooners depicted characters who performed on television panel shows, variety shows, or commercials.” 3

The Ruggles, a suburban family comedy aired between 1949 and 1955,~ticularly good example of how the programs self-con- sciously reflected on the artifice involved in representing a naturalistic picture of family life. Although shot live in the studio, the program was similar to its better-known filmed successor, Father Knows Best. The fa- ther, played by Hollywood character actor Stuart Erwin, dealt with the everyday problems of his wife Margaret and his four children. In many ways a “mirror” of family life, the show nevertheless reflected back on its own conventionality.

An episode entitled “Charlie’s Lucky Day” ( 1950), for example, be- gins in the living room of the Ruggles’s suburban home. Wife Margaret and daughter Sharon work at the sewing table in the adjoining dining room, while the other children sit in the living room doing homework and playing games. Charlie Ruggles roams around the room, humming


tunes and interrupting his children who politely ask him to quiet down. The scene thus presents a picture of a tranquil, uneventful night at home, punctuated only by Charlie’s attempt to liven up the scene. Sud- denly, however, these domestic doldrums are interrupted as a camera crew from the local newspaper invades the home and begins taking pic- tures of the family. The confused Ruggles spend the rest of the evening attempting to figure out why they are celebrities. Finally, Sharon sug- gests that they have probably won a contest on the radio show Surprise Me and that radio crews have hidden wires in their home in order to broadcast the family to the rest of the nation. Alarmed by the prospect, Mr. Ruggles objects, “Now wait a minute, this is my home, they’re not going to wire anybody for sound here,” after which his family begins a frantic search for the radio equipment. Moments later, the Ruggles findt that their search is in vain as a television crew invades the home, sets up cameras, and informs the Ruggles that they are on the Tender Delicious Raspberry Show to receive a case of the sponsor’s product and a check for $1,000. The flustered Mrs. Ruggles protests the invasion, shouting, “Now listen to me, you are not going to televise my home .” Neverthe- less, the show goes on.

This rather bizarre plot serves to highlight the fact that despite their protestations, th~ deedateievision fa’ The naturalistic portrait of the American family in the opening scene turns out to be nothing other than an act for mass media-first for the newspaper, then for radio, arui finally for television. The final scene self-consciously ac- knowledges this paradox when the narrative returns to the domestic doldrums of the opening scene. By this point, however, the naturalistic picture of family life has a very different meaning since it seems only to highlight the artifice enta iled in staging domesticity. Rather than looking like a slice of life, this scene now seems blatantl y theatrical, with the “actors” back in place as if nothing happened. The final exchange be- tween Mr. and Mrs. Ruggles reflects back on this situation. Wandering around the room, bored and restless, Charlie finally asks Margaret if he can invite the neighbors over to liven things up. With a twinkle in her eye and a tone of irony in her voice, Margaret replies, “That’s the trouble with our modern life nowadays. Too sedentary. N~~gt eve-rh~ens.” Thus, as the dialogue so wistfully suggests, the atte o-sketCa teatr istic porJ..cii}t oLe¥m:y~lifeisa l~t ed…_by-rec nofogical r production that recasts ordinary experience into a dramatic eiay.

More than just a witty commentary on its own medium, the famrly comedy was part of a much larger history of ideas about and representa- tions of the family. Links between theatricality and domesticity can be traced back to the Victorians.’….f__a_scination with display and ritual, their elaborate staging of social relations, and penchant for exhibiting house-

1 1


‘ hold finery. In fact, at midcentury, bourgeois Victorians were so fasci- nated with theatricality that they literally turned their parlors into theaters, staging plays with friends and family members in their homes. As Karen Halttunen has observed, these “parlor theatricals” were sold in books that people purchased and adapted for their own use at parties. Using their front parlor as a proscenium space and their back parlor as a backstage area, Victorians constructed theatrical spaces, even adorning entrance and exit ways in the home with curtains and other decorations.

The plays themselves were often extremely self-reflexive in nature, eluding dialogue and actions that self-consciously referred to th~

flee of every~ e. According to Halttunen, “the parlor theatrical was itself a play within a play, an explicit theatrical performance taking place within the larger, implicit theatrical performance that was middle-class gentility

; .” Moreover, she argues, “Parlor players often emphasized the

connection between the parlor theatrical and the larger genteel perfor- mance of which it was a part by freely crossing the invisible boundary petween stage and audience and by dropping briefly out of their stage characters to reveal themselves in their private characters. In other words, they delighted in subverting the play by revealing its theatrical- ity.” Describing one of the most popular plays, “Irresistibly Impudent,” Halttunen shows how the promptor (or what we might call a narrator) directly addressed the audience, emerging from backstage “to argue with a player who had forgotten his lines, and then appealed to the au- dience for vindication,” and even stepped out of character, asking the audience how they thought the play should end. Through such tech- niques as these, Halttunen suggests, “the parlor theatrical continually emphasized the fact that players were all performers, and repeatedly drew the audience on stage as well, thus suggesting that all the world was a stage and all men and women merely players. Many popular pri- vate theatricals succeeded in collapsing the distinction between the overt theatricality of the play and the implicit theatricality of all parlor social conduct. The message of parlor theatricals was simply this: middle-class social life was itself a charade .” 84

The plays that Halttunen describes sound like a prototype for the television comedies of the early 1950s, which often played with the

oundaries between fiction and reality, between theatricality and every- ay life. Like the nineteenth-century cast of “Irresistibly Impudent, ”

elevision personalities often left their roles as characters or narrators to speak directly to the audience . Ozzie and Harriet Nelson often stepped out of the story to invite viewers to tune in next week or enter a spon- sor’s contest (in fact, at the beginning of the episode, Ozzie sometimes appeared on a theatrical stage, greeting the home audience). At the end of I Love Lucy, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo returned to their star personae of



Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, inviting viewers to smoke Philip Morris cigarettes. And of course, George Burns, the most exemplary case, liter- ally stepped out of his role as husband in the domestic setting and onto a stage where he directly addressed viewers, inviting them to consider Gracie’s madcap logic. By 1957, George even installed a “magic tele- vision set” in his house through which he would literally rewind the narrative, reflecting on plot events and possible outcomes. Indeed, like l the play within a play structure of the parlor theatrical. family comedies presented an intensely self-referential world where the distinction be- tween fiction and reality was constantly thrown into question.

Given this, Halttunen’s sociological interpretation of the parlor theatrical can be usefully applied to the family comedy. Although the television comedy appeared in a different historical context from its nineteenth-century predecessor, its self-conscious acknowledgment of its own artifice was similarly directed to a more general. implicit self- reflection on middle-class life. If in the nineteenth century this self- reflection was aimed at codes of Victorian gentility, in the context of th~ 1950s it was directed toward the artifice of postwar consumer culture, i prefabricated, hypercommercialized ideals of middle-class family life.

Such an interpretation is more convincing when we consider the links between domesticity and theatricality throughout modern culture, and particularly in the postwar era. Although the grandeur and scope of the Victorian home gave way to increased comfort, family life was still . represented in terms of spectacle and theatricalizatio0-Consumer maga- zines and aclvertisements offfie 1920s evised elaborate ways to depict the nome as a showca~ for glamorous commodity lifestyles, while dis- cou~e s of architecture and interior decor adopted metaphors of the- atricality when speaking about domestic space. In 1940, Louise Pinkey Sooy and Virginia Woodbridge’s Plan Your Own Home began by asking female readers, “If all the world’s a stage, what drama is being presented J within your four walls? For what parts are the members of your family ‘ cast? As the director of production, are you, the homemaker, creating a backdrop against which the story of your family life may be sympathet- ically and beautifully portrayed?” 85 Thus, even before the 1950s, the- atricality was a potent metaphor for modern domesticity.

Postwar Americans-particularly those being inducted into the ranks of middle-class home ownership-must, to some degree, have been aware of the theatrical. artificial nature of family life. For people who had lived througnlli e Depression and the hardships of World War II, the new consumer dreams must have seemed somewhat syn- thetic or, at least, unorthodox. Leaving ethnic and working-class areas for mass-produced suburbs, these people must have been cognizant of the new roles they were asked to play in a prefabricated social setting.


( \


This perception is suggested by sociologists of the era, whose studies showed that people were sensitive to the theatrical quality of everyday life.

The strongest case was made in I 95 5 by sociologist Nelson Foote. In his article “Family Living as Play,” Foote claimed that “family living in a residential suburb has come to consist almost entirely of play.” While he admitted that the “popular recognition of this Jait accompli is only par- pal,” he went on to detail how “the family home may be most aptly de- pcribed as a theater.” The members of the family, he argued, were all

rformers: “The husband may be an audience to the wife, or the wife to e husband, or the older child to both.” Acknowledging the relation be-

ween this form of family play and the impact of television’s domestic [ agings, Foote observed that “by no means is this conception [ of the

ome as a theater] to be reduced to watching television … . The ration of time spent by family members as an audience for the performance of each other as against time spent in watching commercial portrayals may signify how well the home rates as a theater in their own eyes.”••

If Foote saw theatricality as a metaphor for family relations, other sociologists concentrated on the wider drama of social relations, show – ing how families transformed their homes into showcases for their neighbors. In his study of the mass-produced suburbs, Harry Henderson suggested that “constant attention to external appearance ‘counts for a lot’ and wins high praise from neighbors .” While residents decorated their homes in distinctive ways, none strayed far from the predictable standards exhibit ecfm middle-class magazihe6-in fact, Henderson ar- gued that “wha tma n–y:-.-:[n=-e=w::-,ht:'”‘.o::-,m==e…..,o=w=n’=’er::::s( sought in their furniture was a kind of ‘approval insurance.”‘ ” Sociologist William H. Whyte claimed that furniture store owners had noticed that people who moved to the suburbs quickly acquired new, more refined tastes, turning away from the “purplest purples and pinkest pinks” toward “something 12_lai~ Moreover , if people were unable to live up to the standards of rfffi@le-class tastes, problems ensued. Whyte told of one woman who was “so ashamed of the emptiness of her living room that she smeared the picture window with Bon Ami; not until a dinette set arrived did she wipe it off.” H• Lacking the props with which to display her social pres- tige, the woman simply inverted the terms of conspicuous caosmnption, literally making her poverty inconspicuous to her neighbors.

Home manuals, magazines, and advertisements extended this em- phasis on the home as showcase, recommending ways to create glam- orous backgrounds on which to enact spectacular scenes. In The House and the Art of Its Design, Robert Woods Kennedy claimed that the house- wife needed “an effective and glamorous background for her as a sex- ual being, commensurate with the amount of energy she expends on


clothes, make-up, and society.” 90 Home magazines and their adver- tisements continually suggested this idea in illustrations that depicted housewives who were visually integrated into domestic backgrounds by color, shape, and size. In I 949, one upper-crust, planned community in Great Neck, New York (the Kings Point Estates) took the house-as- showcase aesthetic to its logical extreme, basing the entire suburb around principles of theatrical design . Built by Homer Harmon, who had formerly been director of advertising and publicity at the Roxy The- ater, the community was engineered by a production team that included Charles Burton (designer of Paramount Theaters), Herbert Coe (who had once been on the executive staff of Columbia Pictures), and Arthur Knorr (the executive producer at the Roxy Theater). According to the Home section of The New York Times, the architects incorporated “many of the unusual features of the homes of Hollywood stars . .. in a colony of theatrical and ranch style residences.” 91

Given the emphasis on social performance and spectacle display in postwar culture, it seems reasonable to assume that the genre of fam~ ily comedy, with its self-conscious reflections on the theatricality ; everyday life, might well have struck a familiar chord with audiences at the time. Like the nineteenth-century parlor theatrical, these television shows allowed people to laugh at their own social conventions by point- ing to the artifice entailed in middle-class domesticity. )

Of course, by the I 950s, this form of domestic theater had become an extremely mediated affair, as the television industry, rather than the public itself, staged the theatrical scenes. As spectators rather than play- ers, people were now divorced from the sphere of dramatic action. Nevertheless, the genre compensated for this lack of participation by offering viewers a chance to imaginatively venture onto the scene of the- atrical presentation-where, of course, they would find people just like themselves playing the roles of average American families. Quite para- doxically in this regard, Ghe early family comedy invited audiences to visit the people in the theater next door) They welcomed viewers into a simulated neighborhood where everyone was putting on a show.

All the Home’s a Stage: Domestic and Theatrical Space

The self-reflexive strategies of early television worked in two, seemingly opposite, directions. On the one hand, self-reflexivity provided viewerl with critical distance from everyday life-the ability to laugh at the stagy artifice of domesticity. On the other hand, it encouraged viewers to feel c!_s)ser to th~scene of action, as if they had an intimate connection to the scene. By acknowledging its own artifice and theatricality, the family comedy encouraged viewers to feel as if they had been let in on a joke, while at the same time allowing them to take that joke seriously.

The realistic mise-en-scene of Burns and Allen’s backyard creates a sense of neighborhood intimacy, even as their comic banter recalls the artifice of vaude- ville theater. (Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research .)


This situation was most clear in the case of Burns and Allen, which used self-reflexivity not simply to reveal its own artifice, but also to give audiences a sense of being at the theater. As in the parlor theatricals that Halttunen describes, this program’s fundamental principle was a mise- en-abyme structure, an endless stage within a stage, a bottomless pit of representation. Gracie Allen’s style of humor was also a kind of bot – tomless pit in which audiences were caught in an endless quagmire of metarealities . In formal construction, the program repeated the mise-en- abyme structure because it continually “reframed” the action in two separate, but intricately linked spaces-a stage space and a domestic space. The juxtaposition of these two spaces encouraged audiences to feel as if they werew 1tnesslng,rti vein eatrical production.

There were a variety ofwaysi n which this was achieved . In the most simple form, the stage was shown as a proscenium space with drawn curtains, behind which the domestic setting was contained. After the initial commercial, the scene shifted to the stage, the curtains opened,


the domestic setting was revealed, and the evening’s story unfolded. wasn’t simply the image of the stage on the television screen that gave the illusion of being at the live theater; rather it was the alternation be- 1. tween the stage space and the domestic space that produced a sense of “being there.” Through this alternation, viewers experienced a kind of layered realism in which the stage appeared to contain the domestic space, and thus, the stage seemeds patialty-closer-or more,- eal-than the domestic space. –

The heightened sense of realism was further suggested by the shift- ing forms of address as the program moved from the domestic to the stage space. At various intervals during the program, the plot was mo- mentarily frozen as George left his role in the story and walked onto the stage where he delivered a monologue in direct address to the audience (ambiguously the studio audience and the home audience). For ex- ample, in a 1952 episode, George literally walks out of his role as a char- \ acter in the story, moves upstage to reveal the entire domestic setting, \ takes his place in front of the curtain on the right side of the stage, and J delivers a monologue. After this, George walks back across the stage· to reveal once more the domestic setting behind him. He arrives at the front porch, knocks on the door, Gracie answers, and George walks into his living room-literally returning to his place in the story. Obviously, in this example the domestic space is rendered with a high degree of ar- tifice; in fact, there is no attempt to sustain the illusion that it is a real space at all. Instead, it is the stage space that is represented through real- ist conventions. The stage is depicted as a ~e, never sub- ject to the kind of spatial disorientation that occurs in the domestic space, and actions on the stage always appear to unfold in real time, that is, in the time that it takes the home audience to watch the program. Thus, the stage appears more real than the domestic space-and the home audience is given the sense of watching a live playin-the theater.

Such play-within-a-play _de.vices also served to create a program en- vironment conducive to the display of sponsors’ products. In a number of episodes, the program presented a literal mise-en-abyme when George and Gracie appeared within the logo of one of their sponsors, Goodrich Rubber. The couple was pictured in the cutout circle of the Goodrich tire from which they waved goodbye to the home audience. A similar graphic strategy was used in Ozzie and Harriet, which sometimes depicted the Nelson family within the Hotpoint logo (a sign spelling out the company name) . Ozzie and Harriet appeared within the letters “O” and “P” of the Hotpoint sign while Ricky and David sat on top of the first and last letters, where they threw a football back and forth at one an- other. Such framing devices had the effect of showing viewers that the advertiser was responsible for the night’s entertainment because the

Molly Goldberg leans out her window to greet neighbor Mrs. Cohen in The Goldbergs. (Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research .)


stars were literally contained within the company logo. At the same time, they also underscored the artifice involved in representing domes – ticity because these “real life” families were transformed into ideal ad-

\ vertising types-transformed into graphic spectacles of consumption. In a 1952 episode of I Love Lucy ( “Lucy Does a Commercial”), the

sponsor’s product literally served as the stage of representation for the narrative. In the opening sequence, we see a cartoon drawing of an oversized box of Philip Morris cigarettes. The cigarette box turns into a stage when two cartoon figures that represent the real-life stars, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, approach the box. They peel up the cigarette box wrapper (which now looks like a curtain) to reveal a narrative space in which the lead character, Lucy Ricardo, appears sitting on her living room sofa. The camera then zooms into this narrative space and the sit- com story begins. At the end of the story, an animated sketch represent- ing a theater stage appears, and the two cartoon drawings of the stars draw the curtains over the domestic setting of the Ricardo home. Subse- quently, the real-life Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz appear in a heart- shaped frame and deliver a commercial for their sponsor . Not only did this framing structure work as a graphic reminder that the story had !;!een brought to our homes through the courtesy of the sponsor, it also :;ved to mak~ th~ ad~ ~_E?ear to be in a world closer to the

· ~ wer’s real hfe smce the commercial messa~ conveyed by stars who came out of their roles in the storyt o directly address the viewer at home. – –

This scheme is most pronounced in The Goldbergs. At the start of each episode Molly Goldberg (but also, ambiguously, the star, Gertrude Berg) leaned out of her window and delivered her sponsor’s commercial directly into the camera . This served to give the home audience a sense of being Molly’s next-door neighbor, and the advertising pitch seemed more like interpersonal communication than mass marketing. The inti- macy of the commercial message was further constructed through the transition into the domestic space where the story unfolded. In a 1952 episode, for example, the transition from the window frame to the do- mestic space served to produce an illusion of moving from a level of pure discourse to the level of story, of moving fro a kind of unmediated communication to a narrative space wher e….aJiction took pa e.•


The episode begins with o y eaning out her window, advertising RCA television sets in her motherly, Yiddish accent. This leads to an- other mise-en-abyme structure when Molly introduces us to an RCA representative who demonstrates “true tone” television sets that all pic- ture Molly Goldberg at her window. At the end of this demonstrational narrative we cut back to the window where Molly continues the com – mercial with her neighborly advice. The commercial ends as Molly turn s


away from the window frame (as well as the frame of the television im- age) to enter the Goldberg living room, where she now takes her place in the story. The transition from commercial to story is made absolutely explicit in the program because Molly literally turns her back on the ad- vertisement’s enunciative system and takes her position in the tale as she walks into the living room where her daughter, Rosalie, now addresses Molly as a character in the story. In this way, Molly’s turn from commer~ cial to fiction dramatizes the separation of the advertisement from the program-:-uius g1vmg the ad a nonfict10nal status. However, tlie transi- tion from ad to-story a lso alerts-the viewer to the artifice of the domestic setting, thus making us more aware of the fictional status of the story its~lf.

The world onto which Molly Goldberg’s window opened was, as in all television, an alternate view, an endlessly self-referential world as op- posed to a document. The domestic spaces contained within the frame of these stages were also often represented as stagelike, as prosceniums rath ~ an real s~aces.””In some ways-, rtrls-had to do with technological conditio riscincf1n- studio shooting practices. On the ten- and twelve- inch television screen, it was typically difficult to show depth of field, and the even, high-key lighting used for live and live-on-film television gave the picture a kind of flattened -out quality. In addition, because


many of these sitcoms were broadcast live, or else filmed live in real time, it was impossible to shoot reverse fields. Even the use of multiple cameras for filmed programs created a sense of proscenium space. Since

e camera setups were designed to capture continuous action, the mul- iple camera stra~ allowed for Jess variation in angl~istance, and 1ghting than it was possible to achieve in the cinema . Finally, although

technIC1ans were experlmentmg with sound techniques during the pe- riod, sourui.b.QQms were often rooted in one place at the front of the stage so that the principal dialogue usually took place in a frontal, pros- cenium position. 9 }

However, the theatrical quality of these programs wasn’t only deter-

t mined by technological and practical circumstances. Instead, the pro- rams consistently drew on and developed themes that brought to the

forefront the theatrical nature of domestic life, presenting the home as if it were a stage for performance. In Burns and Allen, for example, domes- ic spaces actually took on the functions of the stage space. After the

early episodes, which featured such variety acts as the Skylarks on the stage, the series began to incorporate performances into the domestic

tting. Here, rather than simply interrupting the story, performances ere motivated by narrative elements. For example, in “The Teenage isit” ( 1951), two teenagers visit George and Gracie’s home. The teen-~

age characters turn out to be professional jitterbuggers who dance, not on the stage, but in the Burns’s living room; that is, the performance

kes place within the narrative space. This in turn has the effect of laking the domestic sl?.ace appear stage-like, for even while the pe~o~-ance is motivated by the story, the dance segment is represented as if it ere a variety act being performed on a theatrical stage. George and

Gracie clear the furniture from their living room/set so that the domestic details of the mise-en-scene vanish. The camera remains in a frontal and static position, thus depicting a flattened-out proscenium space. In this way, the program was able to create a smooth continuous transition from story to performance but still evoke the sense of live theater so im- portant to early television. Burns and Allen found a way in which to me- diate the demands of theatrical realism with the sense of presence that television promised to its public.

In presenting the home as a theatrical space, television programs such as Burns and Allen were no doubt drawing on previously established conventions of the Holl ood cinema. In her analysis of Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnel~L 1944), Serafina Bathrick demo_nstrates ho~ the Hollywood musical mixed performance and storytellmg conventions within the domestic setting .~

94 Although early domestic comedies im- ported these kinds of representational strategies from the cinema, they developed t~ f.l..tO..their own broadcast context. The inclusion


of theatrical performance fulfilled the popular expectation that television should approximate the experience of going to a live theater.

Indeed, numerous sitcoms presented the home as if it were a venue for theatrical performance. In The Ruggles (“Charlie’s Lucky Day”), the domestic setting is turned into a stage as numerous comedians, who play highly stereotyped roles reminiscent of stock characters in vaude- ville sketches (a policeman, an inventor, and an insurance agent), knock on the door, enter the living room, and begin performing _short sketches full of comic banter and broad PhY.si_cal humor. Similarly, in The Honey- mooners the Kramden apartment was often turned into a theatrical arena where the stars exhibited their talents to viewers. When, for example, Alice Kramden invites all of her neighbors to take mambo lessons in her home, the domestic space becomes a stage for a hilarious burlesque-type performance as a Latin lover teachers the working-class housewives how to dance (“Mama Loves Mambo,” 1956). Another episode depicts Ralph Kramden and his pal Ed Norton playing piano in the Kramden home, rehearsing for their appearance on a television program ( “The $99,000 Answer,” 1956). Even in the more folksy comedy of Ozzie and Harriet, the interior space of the Nelson home was often rendered in a highly theatrical fashion, particularly in the early seasons. In the open- ing sequence of “The New Chairs” ( 1952), the foyer in the Nelson home served as a proscenium in which the events took place. A round white rug, which covered the center of the foyer floor, functioned as a spotlight for the action as Ricky and David humorously performed a game of foot- ball. Architectural elements of the home, such as doorways and parti- tions between rooms, served to frame the stage direction of the actors as they entered and exited the frame. In other episodes, when Ozzie and his best friend Thorny met in their front yards, the camera was placed in a frontal, static position, thus giving tµe comic banter between the char- acters a stagy feel and transforming elements of the domestic setting into a proscenium space where performance took place. Similarly in Burns and Allen, windows, doorways, and passageways between rooms were used to frame performance segments. Sometimes the couple performed a vaudeville sketch on their front porch at the end of the show, with the porch serving as a stage for the action. Often these kinds of “framing segments” appeared to take place within the story itself. For example, in a 1953 episode (untitled), Gracie embarks on one of her famous come- dic double-talk routines as she talks to her neighbor Blanche Morton in , her backyard. While speaking, the women stand behind a white picket fence, and since the camera remains in a frontal position, the scene re- sembles a puppet show. The fence frames Gracie’s comic routine and thus showcases the performative aspects of the tale.

Other programs featured the theatrical nature of domestic life by


using conventions of the backstage musical. In these cases, the nar- ratives were structured around characters who were constantly in the process of putting on a show (and it should be noted that while they were based on real-life celebrities, both Burns and Allen and Ozzie and Harriet did not typically include plots about show business). One of the first such programs, The Truex Family, dealt with the family life of thes- pians Ernest Truex and his wife Sylvia Field. Broadcast on New York’s local station WPIX in 1949, the first episode detailed Truex’s attempt to win a part in a play by impressing a wealthy producer whom he invited over to dinner. As in many backstage musicals, the performances were motivated by rehearsals-only here the rehearsals took place in Mr. Truex’s home as he read the script to his family. Eager to get in on the act, the entire family began pitching their talents to the producer who, in a case of mistaken identity, turned out to be an insurance salesman. 9′ In this and other “showbiz” family comedies, theaJtic~emed to be a natural condition of domestTc hfe.

Two of the most popular and critically acclaimed programs, Make Room for Daddy and I Love Lucy, are perfect examples of this theatrical narrative strategy. Like Burns and Allen, both were based upon the alter- nations between a stage space and a domestic space. Unlike Burns and Allen, there was no formal division between the action on the stage and

i the

events that took place in the domestic sketches. Instead, these pro-

rams seamlessly joined the premises of family drama with those of ariety=sfiow-ernertainment through storylines that focused on the omestic lives of “showbiz” families. The male heroes (Danny Williams

and Ricky Ricardo) were entertainers who regularly performed on their nightclub stages. However, these performance segments were just as often incorporated into the domestic space where they were integrated with the story. Danny Williams often sang in his apartment, and the Ricardos typically performed at home. For example, in “Rusty’s Report Card” (1953), Danny is shown rehearsing at his living room piano, while Ricky takes his entire band home with him for a shindig in “Breaking the Lease” (1953). In addition, these family comedies often welcomed guest stars into their homes so that the attractions of variety

~ comedy

were cleverly interwoven into the sitcom form. I Love Lucy first

sect this strategy in 1954 when Tennessee Ernie Ford played a displaced illbilly camping out in the Ricardo living room. More typically, how- ver, guest stars simply appeared as themselves. During the season in hich Lucy and Ricky moved to Hollywood ( 1954-55), the inclusion of

movie stars was narratively motivated by the fact that the Ricardos were living the lives of film actors, with Ricky under contract to a major H0llywood studio. In Make Room For Daddy, such celebrities as Dinah



Shore and Jack Benny were introduced as friends of the family and did routines both on the nightclub stage and in the Williamses’ apartment.

The showbiz narrative W.J:IS thus a perfect vehicle for the integration of story an d performance. The comic gags and musical numbers of the variety show were now contained within a realistic star_y that created an aura of sentimentali!.Y:-As one critic< wrote in Saturday Review: “Mr. Thomas rs1’ifliisTclio. When he cracks a joke at home it’s habit and we believe it. When he says to his daughter, ‘let’s pla horse : he makes a floor-show gag out of her response …. The amil v es are uthentic, and the professional behavior rings true. The expert ending of the two in the opening programs promises the most consistently amusing life- with-father show on the air.”‘ 0 A Variety critic similarly praised Lucy for its ability to merge performance spectacles into a well-crafted-5.tory about do~tic life: “Lucy’s emergence as refreshing and bigtime video …. cariiiof help but strengthen the growing belief that video programming, to save face and sponsors, must of necessity detour into such avenues where the writing and the material, the human equation and comedy formulas inherent in well-produced situation comedies, will take TV out of its present rut of overproduced spectacles.” •1

This is not to argue that I Love Lucy and Make Room For Daddy were “realistic.” Lucy’s slapstick clowning, trick costumes, and wild antics made for highly unrealistic depictions of domesticity (and, in fact, many critics disapproved of the show for that reason). However, I would sug- gest that while these programs included hyperbolic and theatrical rendi- tions of everyday life, they presented a classical solution to the elements that!!!!litude. Although these snowblz family sitcoms high- lightecf the talents ol’Tairio’us stars, the performances were never as radi- cally detached from the story as were those in the early episodes of Burns and Allen. The inclusion of a fictional audience ( either in the form of nightclub patrons or family. members) helped created a bridge be- tween ~ d story, and since the alternation between the nightclub an…d domesti c_settiogs_was_mQUY.atea b}’ narratiy_e__~ts, the programs..establishe e,La_continuitY. between p_erformances-on the stage and those that took place in the domestic arena. In the showbiz nar- rative ther seemed to be a direct causal link between the theatrical depiction of the s ce an t e theatrical representation oft e do- mestic space.

Even so, these showbiz family narratives constantly reflected back on the artifice of middle-class family ideals and presented what can be called a kind of “fractured domesticity.” 1r hile seamlessly integrating story and performance, showbiz narratives nevertheless disrupted the naturalistic portrayal of everyday life by turning the home into a stag~


where spectacles took place. In particular, through this fracturing of the domestic situation, these programs dramatized the artifice of gender roles in postwar life.

Backstage Mothers

With their merger of domestic and theatrical worlds, sitcoms turned housekee in into a literal performance . In both I Love Lucy and Make Room For Daddy, the heroine was ab e to traverse the two spheres (at times literally, at other times figuratively) by exhibiting her talents in two arenas . l!!..!!_iese programs domestic space served as a backdrop for _!!!e housewife/star’s performan ~ veryday activities were often mter- twined with comedy routines so th~ ~ u~ dane jobs such as cleaning the living room became an oc.casion for t e isplay of star talent sc ontained within the average housewife character. But in the showbiz family narra- tive, ~usion of the literal stage/nightclub setting repeatedly served to reflect back on the spectacle of housekeeping. As Patricia Mell_sn- camp has argued , Lucy’s :eerformances w~re a form of rebellion against

-me domestic ideal as Lucy attempted to get out of the kitchen and into tlie” a’ct 98 “Even W -ueili ese pe–rfoiffiances were contained within nar-

ratlves ~:.,::r~

that …

were resolved in conservative ways, and even while they usually resulted in making a comic spectacle out of the woman ..m_ nevertheless expressed a “i::.ti.e.s..about»:aL npt~ ,m of domesticity.

a y, t e programs alternated between the domestic and night- club settings. In Make Room for Daddy (“Margaret’s Career,” 1953), Danny Williams appears on the nightclub floor as his wife Margaret watches from the audience. In the middle of his act, Danny introduces Margaret to the audience and, as it turns out, Margaret gets a round of applause for her ad-libbed performance . The following scene takes place in the Williamses’ apartment where a theatrical agent attempts to con- vince Margaret to star in her own one-woman show. Upon hearing this, Danny becomes outraged at the thought of Margaret working for a living, but Margaret, defying her husband, decides to accept the agent’s offer. In the next scene, the arena of performance is shifted from the nightclub to the domestic space where Margaret, dressed in a formal evening gown, now sings a somewhat off-key rendition of “All of Me” while her black maid plays the piano. The audience for this “act” is com- posed of Margaret’s two little children, Rusty and Terry. Although Mar- garet eventually “learns her lesson” and agrees to stay out of show business, her performance at home works to collapse the boundaries be- tween domesticity and theatricality .

Similar situations occurred in I Love Lucy. In “The Audition” (1951), Lucy learns that television talent scouts are planning to visit Ricky’s nightclub. Sitting before her bathroom mirror, Lucy begs her husband to


let her into the act, telling Ricky, “Y~m ne,ed a prft t;v,&id.m.,..Y.QYI..act. to ~vertise the_sponsor’s .product.” Unable to convince him with words, Lucy launches into a series of perlormances, dancing through her home with a lamp shade on her head and singing “A Pretty Girl is Like a Mel- ody.” 99 The next scene takes place in the Tropicana Nightclub where Ricky rehearses his show for the night . This scene works much like ii backsta e musical in which performances are framed by the “story of the show.”I nthls particular case, Buffo the clown falls off his trick bi- cycle while practicing his act and, following Ricky’s suggestion, Buffo goes to the Ricardo apartment in order to recuperate. As usual, Lucy is able to connive her way into the act, this time by convincing Buffo to let her take his place in the show. The final scene takes place in the Tropi- cana where Ricky now entertains the television executives singing his famous “Babalu” number. Running onto the stage in an oversized tux- edo and carrying a large cello, Lucy masquerades as Buffo. Lucy effec- lively upstages Ricky as she plays the cello, impersonates a seal, and rides Buffo’s trick bicycle.

As in this episode, many of the programs employed self-reflexive strategies to dramatize the unequal distribution of power between the sexes. Numerous lots revolved. un h a television as a channe of access to power in the market lace. In a Make Room For

a y episode.( “The Opera Singer,” 1953 ), the W1 liamses promote the career of a young singer, Maria, whose uncle does not want her to leave home. Maria’s access to the public sphere is gained through a television performance, which becomes the crux of dramatic conflict. Her uncle begs her to give up her dreams of a show business career, telling her not to perform on a television variety show. Maria, however, sees the tele- vision engagement as an exciting alternative to her domestic role as caretaker for her uncle. Although television serves as a narrative figure for family discord, it nevertheless functions to restore harmony at the end of the episode. Thinking that Maria is performing live on television, her uncle switches on his set. However, to his delight, he discovers that he is watching a delayed broadcast and that Maria is actually back home with him. Thus, television technology helps Maria to balance the com- peting desires for a career and a family life by allowing her to be in two places at once.

Lucy Ricardo also attempted to launch a career by performing o~ television. In “The Million-Doll(!r Idea” ( 19 54), she and Ethel decide to start their ow~usiness by purchasing advertising time on a local television station. This, in turn, provides the motivation for a female version of the vaudevillian traveling salesman skit in which Lucy plays a little old lady, “Aunt Jenny,” who pitches her product to the tele- vision audience. Similarly, in “Lucy Does a Commercial,” Lucy begs

Joan’s leading role in a TV commercial turns out to be less than glamorous in this 1952 episode of I Married Joan. (Wisconsin Center lor Film and Theater Research.)


Ricky to let her advertise the sponsor’s product in his television variety show. Attempting to prove her salesgirl abilities, she scoops out the in- side of her television set, climbs inside and, dressed as the Philip Morris Boy, auditions for the part. After Ricky refuses to let her in on the act, she connives her way onto the show behind his back, where she appears as a spokeperson for “Vitameatavegamin,” a pick-me-up tonic that is 23 percent alcohol. This now classic scene provides a stage for the comic talents of Lucille Ball, whose character Lucy Ricardo becomes increas- ingly inebriated on the tonic as she rehearses the commercial. When the show goes on, a thoroughly intoxicated Lucy misses her cue for the commercial, interrupts Ricky’s musical performance, and waves hello to her friends at home. Ricky then literally drags Lucy off the stage, reeling .. her back to bee bousewife mle as Lucy Rjcardo.

– I Married Joan, famous for being I Love Lucy’s clone, presented simi- lar scenarios. While the program was not a showbiz family comedy per se, it was based on the premise that Joan Stevens gave UQ her aspirations for stardom to bec.mne..~wife. Not surprisingly in this regard, Joan

ftc;n fantasized a.ham having a glamorous career, and her fantasies typi- ally provided the motivation for vaudevillian performances that frac-

~ured the domestic scene. In a 1952 episode, the scene opens on Judge Brad Stevens (Joan’s husband) who counsels a couple arguing over the wife’s desire to get a job. The next scene is motivated by Brad’s flashback as he recalls the time when Joan wanted a career of her own. The flash- back also involves an extended slapstick comedy routine. In a humorous skit, Joan mops her kitchen floors, becomes exasperated with her home- maker role, and tries to break into show business. After landing a job as an actress in a television commercial for a new heavy-duty kitchen mop, Joan is given ample time to perform another slapstick routine. Cast as an old hausfrau, Joan mops the floor the “old fashioned way” in a gag that finds Joan covered in household grime from head to toe. This section of the narrative is motivated not so much by the story of Joan Stevens’s career, but rather by the comedic performance of the star Joan Davis who upstages the domestic story altogether. In 1957, this plot was re- peated almost verbatim on Make Room for Daddy (now retitled The Danny Thomas Show) when wife Kathy longs to become the spokesperson for a floor cleaner .

In all of these cases, the programs had struck a compromise between competing ways of addressing family audiences. Retaining the aesthetics of spontaneous live performance, they featured comediennes, and in some cases vocalists, who used the J?.ackdr,oR,Qf.dgip,Ssticity as a stage for their unique talents…Embedding these performances in seamless story-

1l nes and domestic settings, the programs toned down the more threat- ening elements of variety comedy, even as they maintained, through


their self-reflexive theatricalit rnidd e-c ass society.

From Gender to Generation

By 195 the move to realism in family comedies had become more pro- nounced as the genre increasin l emphasized storytellin g_over and above zany vaudeville perfo-;;Jiance or revue-type fare. Ozzie and Harriet’s appearance in 1952 marked the transition to a more naturalistic type of comedy where good, clean family normality was the reigning aesthetic. Like I Love Lucy, the program featured a well-known celebrity couple who sometimes performed on the show. In an episode entitled “Tutti- Frutti Ice Cream” ( 1957), for example, an elaborate dream sequence shows the Nelson family in a musical-comedy revue number, singing and dancing the Charleston in an old-fashioned soda fountain. Unlike Lucy, this program typically downplayed the talents of the celebrity couple, centering most of its plots around the rather mundane “adventures” of the group-episodes in which, for example, Ozzie goes on a diet ( “The

The Nelson family bridges the generation gap by incorporating teen idol Ricky Nelson into a family quartet. (Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.)


Pills,” 1952) and the Nelsons don’t like their pancakes ( “The Pancake Mix,” 195 3). Aired until 1966, the program was the epitome of whole- some TV fun designed for a family audience. In the words of one Variety critic who reviewed the series’ premier episode, “It’s a socko family show, built mainly around the talents of the young Nelson offspring.” 100

As Mary Beth Haralovich has shown, the realist suburban family sitcom flourished at the end of the 1950s, with programs such as Father Knows Best, Leave It To Beaver, and The Donna Reed Show drawing on codes of verisimilitude to present portraits of everyday life in the white middle-class suburbs. 101 De-emphasizing the theatricality of perfor- mance and becoming less self-conscious about their own artifice, these programs worked to “naturalize” family life, to make it appear as if this

1 l~ving arrangement were in fact the only one possible. Except for occa-sronal-ep-lsottes;-the-unh appy housewife character was gone. Dealing with enera mnal ather than gender conflicts, they baseo their dramatic appeal on si mg rivalries and the dilemmas of childrearing. Father Knows Best focused on the problems of young Bud’s failed attempt to become a newspaper boy, little Kathy’s preteen angst about being a tomboy, or daughter Betty’s lessons in becoming a woman when she chooses between a “male” career as an engineer or dating her boss. Similarly, The Donna Reed Show presented the troubles of young Jeff Stone, who felt neglected when his father refused to take him camping, or else it focused on Donna and Alex’s parental dilemma when their daughter Mary fell for an older man who took her to an Ingmar Berg- man movie.

Not surprisingly in this regard, not only stories but also perfor- mances typically centered around the children. Ricky Nelson’s singing career was launched by his parents in a 1957 episode ( “Ricky the Drum- mer”), in which he performed with his father’s big-band friends, and later his singing numbers became a regular feature of the show. Like- wise, Shelley Fabares and Paul Peterson of The Donna Reed Show both performed their hit singles in episodes of the program . Presented as slick pop songs addressed to a new generation of middle-class teens, these performances were fundamentally different from the antics of vaudeville clowns whose wild physical humor disrupted the domestic doldrums of family life. Rather than fracturing domesticity, these teen idols seemed to repair it by bnnging the new youth culture, with its threatenmg Elvis Presleys and _!,ittle RichardS:-mto a clomestTcwor ld where children sang the laitst nits under t e waicnful gaze of t e1r parents . In act, when Ricky first played with his father’s band in “Ricky the Drummer,” Ozzie, Harriet, and big brother David were watching and eventually even joined him on stage to sing a family quartet. Similarly, in 1962 when Shelley Fabares/Mary Stone stood in her yard and sang “Johnny Angel.”


mother Donna looked tenderly at Mary through her bedroom window. Just in case the message of parent-child bonding wasn’t clear enough, another episode featured Paul Peterson/Jeff Stone singing the top ten sin17-!e “My Dad.” 102 The new “teen-vid” strategy was so popular that in the~955-56 season Burns and Allen incorporated their son Ronnie into the act, hoping to capitalize on the new storytelling trend of heartwarm- ing teenage troubles)ver and above the vaudevillian tradition of male- female comedy routines. In 1959, The Danny Thomas Show went one step further, featuring teen idol Annette Funicello in numerous episodes where she appeared as Gina, an Italian exchange student who lived with the Williamses . Although the vaudevillian sitcoms still existed, the \ family comedy, at least for a little while, embraced a more realistic style of presentation, portraying an ideal picture of contented suburbanites. 103


Still, in its earliest manifestations, the family comedy provided tele- vision viewers with more than just an idealistic picture of themselves at home. A refraction rather than a reflection of family life, the domestic

t/ sitcom appealed to viewers’ experiences in postwar America and, above l>f.. all, their fascination with the new television medium. The self-reflexive

genre wedded everyday life to theatricality, revealing the artifice entailed in staging domesticity for teJeyjsjon C(!!!leras. In the process, it offered viewers a sense of imaginary transport, promising to carry them into the homes of fa · · television neighbors, who lived in a new electronic landscape where the bo tween fiction and reality were easily crossed . ~

Question: When did the home theater concept first come about?

Answer: I believe this was in the mid 1980’s, with the increase in the popularity of rental videotapes.

Interview conducted by Electronic Industries Association with Roger Dressler, Technical Director, Licensing Group, Dolby Laboratories’

In September 1989, the Chicago Tribune printed a story about Levittown, Pennsylvania, assuring readers that “the community has aged with a grace that would surprise many of its early critics.” In place of the “ticky-tacky boxes” were distinct houses that “took on the character lines of middle age,” and instead of the muddy acreage and barren lots, there were now tall trees lining Lavender Lane. Hal Lefcourt, a resident for thirty-seven years, claimed that “Bill Levitt … opened our horizons to stuff we didn’t know existed. It was the land of milk and honey with things like community swimming pools and shopping centers.” Selma Golub, one of the first to move to the community in the 1950s, said, “I grew up in the 40s and 50s, when you went to the movies a lot. and that was the culture you saw. You grew up with certain things in mind: to get married, have a family, own a car and own a house. For me to own a home in my 20s-I thought that was the greatest thing .” ! These memo- ries of suburban relocation give closure to lives lived in the midst of the cultural transitions that marked the postwar world. For such people and, no doubt. for other members of the white middle class, the migration to suburbia is remembered as a time of joyful acquisition. However, the ar- ticle suggests, this first generation of suburbanites shares little in com- mon with its present-day neighbors. Now Levittown is populated by senior citizens and “dual career, two-income households.” with many residents commuting to jobs in Manhattan, eighty miles away. The sub- urban wilderness of postwar America is now the epitome of American civilization, a sign of tradition in a culture built on shifting ground as the dream of nuclear familialism gives way to new ideals and new social constraints.

Not surprisingly, in the contemporary cultural landscape, discourses on communication technologies continue to proliferate, promising uto- pian possibilities and tempering fears about technology out of control.


72. Better Homes and Gardens, November 1951, p. 218 . 73. Ladies’ Home Journal. January 1952, p. 64. 74. McDonagh , et al., “Television and the Family,” Sociology and Social Research 40

(4) (March-April 1956), pp. 117, 119. 75. Survey cited in Betty Betz, “Teens and TV,” Variety, 7 January 1953, p. 97. 76. Good Housekeeping, September 1955, p. 137. 77. House Beautif11l, November 1955, p. 126. For other examples of this sort, see The

New York Times Magazine 12 June 1949, p. 6; Colliers, 9 December 1950, p. 58; Life, 6 December 1948, p. 3.

78 . W. J. Baxter, Baxter International Economic Research Bureau , The Future of Television: How It Will Affect Different J11d11stries. Bulletin I IA (New York, 12 March 1949), p. 12. In NBC Records, Box 106: Folder 13, Wisconsin Center Historical Ar- chives, State Historical Society, Madison . Similarly, after reviewing numerous studies from the fifties, Bogart claims in The Age of Television, “In the early days, ·guest view- ing’ was a common practice” (p. 102). For a summary of the actual studies. see Bogart, pp. IO I – 7. For additional studies that show the importance of guest viewing in the early period, see Riley, et al.. “Some Observations on the Social Effects of Television,” Public Opinion Q11arterly 13 (2) (Summer 1949), pp. 223-34 (this article was an early report of the CBS-Rutgers University studies begun in the summer of 1948); McDonagh. et al., “Television and the Family,” p. 116; “When TV Moves In,” Televiser, October 1950, p. 17 (this is a summary of the University of Oklahoma surveys of Oklahoma City and Norman , Oklahoma) ; Philip F. Frank. “The Facts of the Medium,” Televiser. April 1951, p. 14; and “TV Bonus Audience in The New York Area,” Televiser, November 1950, pp. 24-25.

79. McDonagh. et al., “Television and the Family,” p. 116. 80. Esquire, July 1953, p. 110; Bob Taylor, “Let’s Make Those Sets Functional,” TV

Guide, 21 August 1953, p. 10. 81. Herbert J. Gans. “The Sociology of New Towns: Opportunities for Research,” So-

ciology and Social Research 40 (4) (March-April 1956), p. 238. Later, in The Levittowners. Ways of Life and Politics in a New Suburban Comm1111ity (New York: Pantheon, 1967), Gans suggested that residents had a less pessimistic view of the new suburbs. While he acknowl- edged women’s boredom and isolation, he argued that home ownership gave many Levit- towners a sense of pride .

82. Whyte, Organization Man, p. 314. An advertisement for Levittown also evoked the idea of friendship, telling prospective residents that they wouid “enjoy life. for here in Levittown all of our 37,000 men, women, and children have a common purpose: to be happy , friendly, neighborly .” See The New York Times, 25 September 1949, sec. R, p. 3.

83. Henderson, “Rugged American Collectivism, The Mass-Produced Suburbs, Part II,” Harpers. December 1953, p. 80.

84. John Keats, The Crack in the Picture Window ( 1956; Reprint. Boston: Houghton Miffiin Company, 1957). p. 80.

85. NBC Promo for Ethel and Albert for Use 011 The Golden Windows. 31 August 1954, NBC Records. Box 136: Folder 15, Wisconsin Center Historical Archives, State Historical Society, Madison.

86. Gilbert Seldes, “Domestic Life in the Forty-ninth State,” Saturday Review, 22 Au- gust 1953, p. 28.

87. George Lipsitz. “The Meaning of Memory : Family, Class and Ethnicity in Early Network Television,” Time Passages, pp. 39- 76.

88. I Married Joan’s Aunt Vera, My Favorite Husband’s Gillmore and Myra Cobbs, Burns and Allen’s Harry and Blanche Morton, and Ozzie and Harriet’s Thorny Thornberry


were among the faithful companions in the early 1950s sitcoms. Later in the 1950s and in the early 1960s, sitcoms extended this convention (e.g., Leave It To Beaver’s Eddie Haskell and Donna Reed’s Midge and Dave Kelsy). Although set in urban locales. early sitcoms that focused on middle-class families also included neighbor characters (e.g., I Love Lucy’s Fred and Ethel Mertz, My Little Margie’s Mrs. Odens, and Make Room For Daddy’s Benny).

89. Madelyn Pugh Davis, interview, I Love Lucy: The Very First Show, CBS, 30 April 1990.

90. Horace Newcomb makes a distinction betwen situation comedies-that is, come- dies based on situations, complications , and confusions that take place in a relatively closed space-and domestic comedies that he sees to be more realistic in their spatial artic- ulations of the home and in their portrayal of family life. He also claims that the domestic comedy provided glimpses of the neighborhood outside . See the second chapter in New- comb, Television: The Most Pop11lar Art (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1974).

91. Better Homes and Gardens. November 1951, p. 162. 92. Better Homes and Gardens. October 1952, p. 215. 93. Ho11se Beautiful, November 1949, p. 77. 94. Life. 27 April 1953, p. 12. For other examples of this sort. see Life. 26 October

I 953, p. 53; Life, 22 November 1948, p. 59; Life, 5 October 1953, p. 87. A related advertis – ing motif was the phone call. Here, advertisers gave the illusion that television was a form of interpersonal communication by depicting a television screen on which a person was engaged in a phone conversation . Since the human figure always seemed to acknowledge the reader with a sideways glance, the ads suggested that television would involve poten- tial consumers in a kind of unmediated dialogue. Sec Better Homes and Gardens. November 1953. p. 53; Life, 27 April 1953, pp. 16-17; American Home, November 1954, p. 127.

95. Advertising and Selling. January 1951, p. IOI. 96. Sylvester L. Weaver, “Thoughts on the Revolution: Or, TV ls a Fad, Like Breath-

ing,” Variety, 11 July 1951, p. 42. 97. “NBC to Project ‘American Family’ in 3-Hour Saturday Night Showcase,” Vari-

ety. 3 August 1949, p. 31. 98. Variety. 6 August 1952, p. 26. 99. For a review of the show, see Variety, 30 January 1952, p. 31. Note that the par-

ticular episode I have seen is aimed clearly at a female audience, with its pitch for women’s stockings and its promise of a date with Cesana; however, Cesana addresses the home viewer as if she were a man, specifically his pal who has been stood up for a double date. Note, as well, that there was a radio version of this program in which a female host courted male viewers in the late night hours . Entitled Two at Midnight, the program was aired locally on WPTR in Albany and is reviewed in Variety, 22 October 1952, p. 28.

100. “DuMont Daytime,” p. 5 (see ch. 3, n. 22). IOI. “CBS-TV’s ‘Studio Without Walls’ New Gitlin Entry,” Variety, 24 September

1952, p. 43. 102. “Guest In the House,” Newsweek, 12 October 1953, p. 64. 103. This article appeared in John Crosby’s popular anthology. Out of the Blue: A Book

about Radio and Television, pp. 170- 72.

Chapter Five

I . The Television Code of the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters. 2d ed .• March 1954. Reprinted in Hearings: Juvenile Delinquency (Television Programs). 5 June 1954, p. 45.


2. This program was reviewed in Time. 9 December 1949, p. 55; Variety. 21 De- cember I 949, p. 28.

3. This chapter is based on over 1,000 family comedy episodes. I refer to the genre by its various appellations : family comedy, family sitcom. and domestic sitcom.

4. The earliest prime-time network offerings include Mary Kay and Johnny (which was successively aired on DuMont. NBC. and CBS between 1947 and 1950). Wrens Nest (ABC, 1949). Growing Paynes (DuMont. 1948-49), Mixed Doubles (NBC. 1949), The O’Neills (DuMont, 1949-50), The Life of Riley (NBC, 1949-58), One Mans Family (NBC, 1949-55), The Aldrich Family (NBC, 1949-53), The Ruggles (ABC, 1949-52) , and The Goldbergs (which was successively aired on DuMont, CBS. and NBC 1949-55) .

5. Variety, 25 August 1948, p. 32. 6. Edward Stashelf. The Television Program: Its Writing. Direction. and Production (New

York: A. A. Wyn. 1951 ), p. 25. This book had a chart showing how television deviated from theater, film. and radio (p. 26); Caroll O’Meara, Television Program Production (New York: Ronald Press, 1955). p. 174.

7. My research concentrates on critical reviews in national magazines and The New York Times (which chiefly expressed the views of east coast critics), as well as the Holly- wood industry trade journal, the weekly Variety (which. it should be noted. was read by television executives in numerou s parts of the country. but also originated in the east). Future research might locate nuances in national tastes by comparing television criticism in local newspapers throughout the country .

8. Gilbert Seldes, Writing For Television (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1952), p. 32; Jack Gould. “Live vs. ‘Canned,”‘ The New York Times Magazine. 5 February 1956, p. 27. For more on critical commentary, see Boddy, “From the ‘Golden Age’ to the ‘Vast Waste- land ,”‘ pp. I 04-15.

9. For an analysis of the connections between vaudeville and motion picture come- dies, see Henry Jenkins . lll, ‘”What Made Pistachio Nuts?’ : Anarchistic Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic ,” (Ph.D. diss .. University of Wisconsin, Madison. 1989). Jenkins shows how anarchistic comedy’s integration of the vaudeville aesthetic helped to under- mine the style of classical realism used in the majority of big-budget Hollywood films. He also shows how this cycle of films worked to transgress middle-class tastes in humor. For related issues. see Steve Seidman, Comedian Comedy: A Tradition in the Hollywood Film (Ann Arbor: UM! Research Press, 1981).

I 0. Stasheff. Television Program. p. 21. 11. Boddy. “From the ‘Golden Age’ to the ‘Vast Wasteland,” ‘ pp. I 04-15. 12. Lobby Ceremonies. 1950, NBC Records. Box 162: Folder 10, Wisconsin Center

Historical Archives, State Historical Society. Madison. 13. “ABC Sets Ragtime Teeolf Splash for WJZ-TV; Reprise Palace Vaude,” Variety.

4 August 1948, p. 26. 14. Jack Benny, cited in Walter Kingson, ct al., Broadcasting Television and Radio (New

York: Prentice Hall. 1955). pp. 3-4 ; Delbert Mann. cited in William I. Kaufman . ed .. How to Direct For Television (New York: Hastings House. 1955). p. 70; Kingson. et. al.. Broadcasting. p. 107.

15. Samuel Chotzinolf. “The Future of Music on Television,” House Beautiful. August 1949, p. 113.

16. See, for example , Jack Gould, “Durable Burns and Allen,” The New York Times. 3 December 1950, sec. X. p. 13; Jack Gould. “Inside U.S.A.,” The New York Times. 9 Oc- tober 1949, sec. X, p. 11; Jack Gould. “Ed Wynn on TV,” The New York Times, 16 October 1949. sec. X, p. 11; Grace and Paul Hartman. “Is There a Doctor in the House?” Variety. 26 July 1950, p. 40; Nat Kahn, “TV Must Develop Camera Technique,” Variety, 3 March 1949, pp. 29, 40; William Molyneux. “Less Than Meets the Eye,” Theatre Arts. August


J 953. pp. 69- 72; Mardi Gassner. “Advancing Television Technique,” Televiser. May 1950, pp. 9-11; D. P. Bowles. “What’s Ahead in TV Programming and Production?” Advertising and Selling. April 1950, p. 136.

17. Orrin E. Dunlap , The Future of Television (New York: Harper and Brothers. 1947). p. 87.

18. This wasn’t simply a taste standard; it was also motivated by economic factors. As Robert Vianello has argued, the networks saw live-origination as an ideal way in which to compete for hegemony over the airwaves. Since live-origination was a distinct capabil- ity of the networks, it allowed them to compete successfully with numerous telefilm producers and packagers during the early period . By promoting the superiority oflive tele- vision, the networks. in effect. could maintain power over affiliates and advertisers . See Vianello, “The Power Politics of ‘Live· Television,” Journal of Film and Video 37 (Summer 1985). pp. 26-40 and “The Rise of the Telefilm and the Network’s Hegemony over the Motion Picture Industry,” Quarterly Review of Film Studies 9 (3) (Summer 1984), pp. 204-18 .

19. “Defense of Staying Live,” Variety, 5 January 1955, p. 92. By this point. Pat Weaver clearly recognized the industry trend for film and even expressed his willingness to compromise, admitting that “recording a live show on film can be good .” However, he asserted that it could never be “as good as a live show.” In this particular case, he was promoting his new idea of live spectaculars, what we might now call specials, with which he hoped to exploit his parent company’s color system. In his study of Pat Weaver, Vance Kepley, Jr., also argues that Weaver’s preference for live-origination over filmed program – ming was directly related to his attempt to court affiliate stations. Broadcasters. Weaver feared. would have no reason to sign network-affiliate contracts if the programs they received from the network could also be purchased from movie producers or telefilm syndicators. See Kepley, “The Weaver Years at NBC,” Wide Angle 12 (2) (April 1990), pp. 46-62 .

20. The reasons for the industry’s switch from live to filmed formats has been docu- mented by Boddy, “From the ‘Golden Age’ to the ‘Vast Wasteland ‘ “; Barnouw, Tube of Plenty; and Tino Balio, ed., Hollywood in the Age of Television (Boston : Unwin Hyman. J 990). Production costs, production schedules, and changes in the structure of network- advertiser relations, as well as shortages of talent, teleplay properties, and studio space, all provided good reasons for the networks to move to Hollywood and use film. Furthermore, as William Lafferty has shown. the early efforts of independent syndicators and program packagers proved the viability offilmed television-especially its potential for extra profits in reruns. See Lafferty, “No Attempt at Artiness, Profundity. or Significance: Fireside The- atre and the Rise of Filmed Television Programming,” Cinema Journal 27 ( 1) (Fall 1987), pp. 23-47. In 1953, when the fledgling ABC network merged with United Paramount Theaters, the wedding of film and television was given network status . Filmed program- ming, produced by Hollywood studios, was particularly set in place in 1955 when ABC cooperated with Disney to produce Disneyland. See William Boddy. “The Studios Move into Prime Time: Hollywood and the Television Industry in the 1950s,” Cinema Journal 24 (4) (Summer 1985), pp. 23-37. Situation comedies. action adventures. and westerns produced by both Hollywood majors and, to a lesser degree, independents, became a sta- ple of network television by the end of the decade .

21. David Swift, “OZZIEMAMAPEEPERS-VILLE,” Variety, 29 July 1953, p. 40. 22. Variety. 19 January 1949, p. 27; Variety. 27 October 1948, p. 26. 23. “Just a Radio Hangover : Few Properties Built for Video,” Variety. 8 April 1953.

p. I. 24. J. R. Poppele, “Moral Responsibility Cited as Challenge to Television,” Variety. 28

July 1948, p. 28.


25. Peter Lind Hayes, “Stay in the Parlor,” Variety, 3 January 1951, p. I 04. 26 . For an analysis of the critical discourses on anthology dramas, see Boddy, “From

the ‘Golden Age’ to the ‘Vast Wasteland ,”‘ pp. I 04-15. 27 . The notable exception to this was Gulf Playhouse (also called 1st Person), which

used subjective camera to place the viewer in the position of the leading character. Fur- thermore, it should be noted that theater directors who moved into television were inter- ested in developing forms of experimental theater on the new medium . Theatre Arts sometimes spoke of experimental techniques, such as theater-in-the-round, that pro- ducers hoped to adapt to television . By 1953, however. the magazine stopped considering such possibilities and , more generally , the whole field of avant-garde techniques was mar- ginalized as television increasingly moved to Hollywood . where major studios developed factory methods of production.

28. Stashelf, The Television Program. p. 22. 29 . For the development of bourgeois theater and the creation of genteel audiences

see Levine, Highbrow Lowbrow. For the audience composition and class/ethnic address of the vaudeville theater, see Albert F. McLean, Jr ., American Vaudeville as Ritual (LouisviJJe: University of Kentucky Press, 1965); Robert C. Allen, Vaudeville and Film, 1895-1915: A Study of Media Interaction (New York: Arno Press, 1980); and Staples, Male-Female Comedy Teams.

30. Barnouw argues that the anthology drama fell from grace in the 1954-55 sea- son when sponsors and their agencies began to demand control of scripts . He details how sponsors revised the political content of “Thunder on Sycamore Street ,” whose script dealt with the topic of racism. See Tube of Plenty, pp. 154- 68.

31. “Inside Television,” Variety, 21 April 1948, p. 31. In fact, there was even a tele- vision show called Palace Theater of the Air. which tried “to revive as much as possible the atmosphere of the Palace, N. Y.” See Variety, 31 March 1948, p. 31.

32. As Arthur Frank Wertheim has shown, radio variety comedy began 10 take a back seat to slick Hollywood-produced domestic comedies of the l 940s-programs such as The Aldrich Family. See Wertheim, Radio Comedy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), pp. 263-82. By the postwar period. critics often expressed disapproval for the stale

jokes and hackneyed routines of variety comics. In this context, numerous radio comics began emigrating to the television screen where their variety formats were given new life through the addition of sight to sound . Moreover, this emigration was precipitated in 1948 when CBS wooed away NBC headliners . See Wertheim , Radio Comedy, pp . 314- 34 and Robert Metz, CBS: Reflections in A Bloodshot Eye (Chicago : Playboy Press, 1975), pp . 137-45.

33. David Marc has elaborated on this in his book Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989). He also shows how the tradition of variety humor continued to give voice to unconventional and controversial comics such as Lenny Bruce, who appeared on Steve Allen’s program in 1959.

34. Variety, 21 July 1948, p. 37; Variety, 26 January 1949, p. 36; Variety, 2 April 1952, p. 37.

35. Jack Gould, “Ed Wynn on TV,” The New York Times. 16 October 1949, sec. X, p. 11.

36. Variety. 24 September 1952, p. 31; Variety. 3 December 1952, p. 23 . 37. ” Illness Rampant from Overwork, ” Variety, 24 December 1952, pp . 21-22; for

Berle, sec “Danger-TV Comics at Work,” Variety. 15 December 1954, p. I . 38. Bob Hope, “Getting So a TV Comic Doesn’t Know What to Steal First,” Variety,

16 July 1952, p. 43 . 39. George Rosen, “Berle Comeback,” Variety, 3 December 1952, p. 23, reported that


Berle sometimes paid for talent out of his own pocket because Texaco refused to raise the

budget. 40 . Arthur Frank Wertheim, “The Rise and Fall of Milton Berle,” American History/

American Television, ed. John E. O’Connor (New York: Ungar, 1983), pp . 55-78 . 41. Irwin A. Shane, “20 Points For Checking TV Production ideas : Part I,” Televiser.

October 1950, p. 17. 42. Jack Gould, “Television Comedy,” The New York Times, 24 September 1950, sec.

X, p. 11. 43. Hearings: Radio and Television Programs. 25 September 1952, pp . 335, 344 . Some

respondents on the survey found Berle suitable for children, but the general thrust of the survey (and particularly the way Mrs. Smart interpreted it for the Committee) was nega- tive. Arthur J. Klein, a member of the Federa l Communications Subcommittee at the hear- ings, crossexamincd Mrs. Smart for what he considered to be her skewed interpretations of

the data (p. 350 ). 44. NBC Standards and Practices Bulletin-No . 7: A Report on Television Program Editing

and Policy Control, November 1948, NBC Records, Box 157: Folder 7, Wisconsin Center Historical Archives, State Historical Society, Madison .

45. Mr. Kemp, letter to T. McAvity, 25 February 1953, NBC Records, Box 368: Folder 61, Wisconsin Center Historical Archives, State Historical Society, Madison. The NBC Records include a set of document s that concern Gertrude Berg’s appearance on Berle. Included is a wire from the Spring Valley Village Board of Spring Valley, New York. which reads: “Mollie added much entertainment to the Milton Berle Show. Would that we had more of her .” Letter written to president of NBC, 3 March 1953, NBC Records, Box 368: Folder 61, Wisconsin Center Historical Archives, State Historical Society, Madison .

46. Variety, 11 March 1953, p. 23. 47. Poppele , “Moral Responsibility,” p. 28. 48 . “Prelate Blasts TV Comics for ‘Committ ing (Video) Suicide,” ‘ Variety, 28 Febru-

ary 1951, p. 26; “Television Posts Danger Signs,” Variety, 7 March 1951, p. I . 49. Donald E. Deyo, letter to the editor , From the Radio-TV Mailbag, The New York

Times, 6 February 1949, sec. X, p. 11; J. P. C., Jetter to the editor, From the Radio-TV Mail- bag, The New York Times, 6 February 1949. sec. X, p. 11.

50. Hearings: Radio and Television Programs. 25 September 1952, pp. 344-45. 51. Cited in Jack Gould, “Let’s Slow Down : TV ‘Clean-Up’ Threatens to Get Out of

Hand,” The New York Times, 9 April 1950, sec. X, p. 11. As the title of this article suggests , Gould was against government censorship, calling instead for the industry to police itself and for parents to take more control over their children’s viewing. Also see his “Video and Children,” The New York Times, 8 January 1950, sec. X, p. 15; “TV Censorship Board Pro- posed,” Variety. 7 March 1951. p. 36.

52. Hearings: Radio and Television Programs. 5 June 1952, pp. 81-82 . 53. Ibid., 25 September 1952, p. 350. In this testimony, Mrs. Smart was responding

to a question from Arthur Klein, who made specific allusions to the comedian that broad- casts on “Tuesday night at 8 o ‘clock” (i.e., Milton Berle).

54. Hearings: Radio and Television Programs. 3 June 1952, pp. I 0-11. 55. ibid., p. 9. 56. “Low State of TV Comedy Blamed on Censorship, Pressure Groups,” Variety,

25 February 1953. p. I. 57. Arthur Gelb, “Why’s and Wherefore’s for a Revised Format.” The New York

Times, 6 September 1953, sec. X, p. 9. 58. For a review of the 1954 format, see Variety, 29 September 1954, p. 27. 59. Variety. 31 March 1954, p. I. Similarly, variety show director Jack Van Nostrand


observed that “while television variety shows started off in exactly the same vein [as ra- dio] , with the Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan shows as examples . there is a definite ten- dency among the better shows to get away from the run-them-on-and-run -them -off technique …. I believe that the story, thematic or so-called ‘book’ show will finally re- place the disjointed hangover from vaudeville.” Cited in O’Meara. Television Program Pro- duction. p. 228.

60. Staples details this in Male-Female Comedy Teams in American Vaudeville. Also see Linda Martin and Kerry Segrave, Women in Comedy: The Funny Ladies from the Turn of the Century to the Present (Secaucus. NJ: Citadel Press, 1986).

61. For background on female comics in early radio and film, see Martin and Segrave. For more on female film comics, see Jenkins , “What Made Pistachio Nuts?”

62. Jack Gould, “TV’s Top Comediennes,” The New York Times Magazine. 27 De- cember 1953, pp. 16-17.

63. Ibid. 64. Publicity and magazine articles further encouraged audiences to perceive these

women as nonglamorous types, often comparing the Hollywood “glamorpuss” to the ordinary looks of the TV heroine. For example, Life, 18 February 1952, pp. 93-94, ran a two-page spread on Lucille Ball’s transition from film to television entitled “Beauty into Buffoon.” When writing of Marjorie Reynolds, the female lead in the working-class sit- com The Life of Riley. TV Guide printed before and after photographs that compared her Hollywood image to her television role. The first was a studio portrait of Reynolds shot in glamor photography style with a caption that read, “Then: a blonde glamor girl of the films.” The second was a candid shot of Reynolds as she sat (ambiguously in her home or in her dressing room) reading a script. The caption read, “Now: Marjorie, attractive, bru- nette and a housewife as well as a television star.” See TV Guide. 9 October 1953, p. 18. Here as elsewhere, the female television star was tailored to suit the image of a family medium. For more on the deglamorization of television stars in publicity and fan dis- courses, see Denise Mann, “The Spectacularization of Everyday Life: Recycling Hollywood Stars and Fans in Early Television Variety Shows,” Camera Obscura 16 (January 1988), pp. 49- 77. For more on Ball’s average housewife image, see Alexander Doty, “The Cabi- net of Lucy Ricardo: Lucille Ball’s Star Image,” Cinema Journal 29 (4) (Summer 1990), pp. 3-22.

65. Ralph Levy, cited in Cheryl Blythe and Susan Sackett, Say Goodnight Gracie!: The Story of Burns & Allen (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1986), p. 35.

66. Indeed, this innovation must have been extremely important to the producers and creative personnel since the process of filming in front of a live audience necessitated extensive labor. Sets, sound facilities, and elaborate lighting schemes had to be devised so that film cameras could shoot action continuously. The multiple camera system allowed the Desilu production team to achieve variation in camera angle and distance without re- taking scenes. As David Bordwell has suggested to me, this system was similar to that used in the first sync-sound films of the late 1920s and early 1930s, and many of the people that shot early television programs were familiar with the multiple camera techniques em- ployed in these early sound films. In fact, Karl Freund , the German emigre cinemat ogra- pher who worked on numerous Lubitsch musicals in the early sound period, invented the system of high-key , even lighting that was first used in I Love Lucy. Over the course of the 1950s, the multiple camera system that Desilu perfected would become a standard tele- vision industry practice used both by independent companies such as George Burns’s Mcfadden Productions and Hollywood majors such as Screen Gems.

67. By 6 November 1953, TV Guide reported that “only one or two of all the situation comedies made in Hollywood are filmed before audiences” (p. I) . Programs such as I Mar- ried Joan and Burns and Allen retained the multiple camera system as a means of shooting


continuous action, but alleviated the additional costs and labor entailed by shooting in front of studio audiences . As Marc Daniels (director of both I Love Lucy and I Married Joan) claimed, “While I was able to use the cameras pretty freely in the Lucy Method, I was still bound to the studio audience. In the Joan Method, I was able to put into practice what I had envisioned four years ago. We rehearsed for three days and then filmed the half hour in one day’s shooting with plenty of coverage for comedy.” Cited in Louis D. Snader, “Re- solving Some Major Vidpix Issues,” Variety, 29 July 1953, p. 37.

68. Variety, 22 September 1948, p. 26; Variety, 16 November 1949, p. 42. 69. Variety, 19 January 1949, p. 26. 70. Variety, 28 September 1955, p. 38; Variety, 9 September 1953, p. 34. Similarly. a

Variety review praised the “warmth” with which Life With Luigi depicted Italian immi- grants . See Variety, 24 September 1952, p. 30.

71. Variety, 29 April 1953, p. 33; Variety, IOJune 1953, p. 32; Variety. 23 September 1953, p. 32; Variety, 2 September 1953. p. 27.

72. “Perpetual Honeymoon,” Time, 22 March 1954, p. 82; “A Homey Little Thing,” Time, 19 December 1949, p. 55; Gilbert Seldes, “Domestic Life in the Forty-ninth State,” Saturday Review. 22 August 1953, p. 28.

73. “Lucille Ball Baby Shatters Ratings,” Variety, 21 January 1953, p. I. 74. “Desilu Formula for Top TV: Brains, Beauty, Now a Baby,” Newsweek. 19 Janu –

ary 1953, p. 56. 75. Bart Andrews discusses the popularity of Lucy merchandise in Lucy & Ricky &

Fred & Ethel: The Story of I Love Lucy (New York: Popular Libary, 1977), pp. 17-18 . He claims, for example, that one “furniture manufacturer sold a whopping one million I Love Lucy bedroom suites in just ninety days,” and that “three thousand retail outlets carried Lucille Ball dresses, sweaters and blouses. ” For more on the conflation of life and text in I Love Lucy, see Patricia Mellencamp, “Situation Comedy, Feminism and Freud: The Dis- courses of Gracie and Lucy,” in Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture. pp. 80-95 ; Richard de Cordova, “Enunciation and Performance in I Love Lucy,” paper presented at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Department of Communication Arts, 12 November 1987; and Doty, “Cabinet of Lucy Ricardo.”

76. Variety, 9 March 1949, p. 33. 77. “Normality and $300,000,” Newsweek, 17 November 1952, p. 66. 78. “The Great Competitor,” Time, 14 December 1953. p. 62; Gilbert Seldes. “Do-

mestic Life in the Forty-ninth State,” Saturday Review, 22 August 1953, p. 28; “Two- Family Man,” Newsweek, 15 April 1954, p. 86.

79. For a description of the development of classical film and its techniques of real- istic storytelling , see David Bordwell . Kristin Thompson. and Janet Staiger, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film. Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985). Again, it should be noted that anarchistic comedies and the lesser known “vaudefilms” did break the rules of classic story construction. See Jenkins, “What Made Pistachio Nuts?” and Seidman, Comedian Comedy.

80. It also included two episodes in which the Ricardos appear on radio shows ( “The Quiz Show” ( 1951] and “Lucy Gets Ricky on the Radio,” [ 1952)) and three episodes in which they appear in magazines ( “Men Are Messy” [ 1951 ], “Ricky’s Life Story” [ 1953] and “Fan Magazine Interview” [ 1954] ).

81. A similar plot was used in a 1952 sketch of “The Honeymooners ” on Cavalacade

of Stars. 82. These episodes are untitled . 83. In I Married Joan (untitled, 1955), Joan and her husband go on a panel show ; in

Make Room For Daddy ( “The Opera Singer,” 195 3). the Williams family helps a young Ital- ian girl get on a variety show (see the discussion later in this chapter); in The Honeymooners


( “Better Living through TV,” 1955), Ralph and Norton attempt to become rich by selling a kitchen gadget on a TV commercial; in I Married Joan (untitled, 1952), Joan tries to be a star by getting a job on a TV commercial (see the discussion later in this chapter ); and in I Love Lucy ( “Lucy Does a Commercial.” 1952 and “The Million-Dollar Idea,” 1954), Lucy does television commercials (see the discussion later in this chapter).

84. Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women. pp. 184-85. 85. Louise Pinkey Sooy and Virginia Woodbridge, Plan Your Own Home (Stanford:

Stanford University Press, 1940), p. I. 86. Nelson N. Foote, “Family Living As Play,” Marriage and Family Living 17 (4) (No-

vember 195 5). pp. 297, 299. We might see Foote’s thesis as a precursor to Erving Goff- man’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York: Anchor, 1959). Goffman explains social interaction through a theatrical model of self-presentation, in which people perform roles as if in a play, fluctuating between “backstage” and “onstage” behavior.

87. Henderson, “Rugged American Collectivism,” p. 81 and “The Mass-Produced Suburbs,” p. 27.

88. Whyte, Organization Man, p. 333. 89. Ibid., pp. 343-45. 90. Kennedy, House and Art of its Design, p. 42. 91. “Theatrical Designers Assist in Planning New Colony of Residence at Great

Neck,” The New York Times. 2 October 1949, secs. VIII and IX, p. I. 92. The episode, for which I have no title, deals with a spat between Uncle David and

his brother. 93. Note, however, that many of the sitcoms did utilize offscreen sound effects and

dialogue, which added to the narrative a more realist dimension of space. For an early consideration of creating realistic sound in television, see Richard Hubbell, Television Pro- gramming and Production ( 1945; reprint, New York: Rinehart & Company. Inc., 1956), pp. 154-64.

94. Serafina Kent Bathrick, “The True Woman and the Family Film: The Industrial Production of Memory,” (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1981 ).

95. Variety, 19 October 1949, p. 35. 96. “Daddy Pinza and Daddy Thomas,” Saturday Review, 21 November 1953, p. 55.

Another critic wrote similarly of The Danny Thomas Show: “It doesn’t require deep probing to fathom the reason for its success. Being honest is the prime payoff, staying within the bounds of reasonable caricature of what could happen around any home with two young- sters about. The premise is rarely strained for the sake of a big laugh and if a line or situa- tion doesn’t evoke chuckles there is no begging with extraneous gags of a broad physical nature.” See Variety. 21 September 1955, p. 37.

97. Variety. 17 October 1951, p. 31. 98. Mellencamp, “Situation Comedy,” especially pp. 87-94. 99. It is motivated by intertextual references to Lucille Ball’s prior career in the

movies, i.e., the routine is a comedic reference to Ball’s film performances as a Ziegfeld girl. 100. Variety. 8 October 1952, p. 28. IO I. Mary Beth Haralovich. “Sitcoms and Suburbs: Positioning the 1950s Home-

maker,” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 11 (I) (Spring 1989). pp. 61-83. I 02. Peterson also sang “She Can’t Find Her Keys” on a January 1962 episode that

featured Jeff dreaming that he was a rock star. The recording of the song was a top hit in 1962.

103. As I have argued elsewhere. by 1965 this trend toward realism had subsided as numerous “fantastic family sitcoms” (Bewitched. Mr. Ed. My Favorite Martian, I Dream of Jeannie, etc.) took center stage. See my “From Domestic Space to Outer Space: The 1960s Fantastic Family Sit-com:· Close Encounters: Film. Feminism and Science Fiction, ed. Con-


stance Penley, Elisabeth Lyon, Lynn Spigel. and Janet Bergstrom (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991 ). pp. 205-35.


I. Roger Dressler, technical director, Licensing Group, Dolby Laboratories, cited in interview /press release, Electronic Industries Association Consumer Electronics Group. Washington DC, 6 April 1990, p. 2.

2. Tom Hundley, “Assignment: Levittown: American Dream Has Aged Well, Appre- ciated Too,” Chicago Tribune. 6 September 1989, sec. I, p. 6.

3. Current Population Reports. “Household and Family Characteristics,” series P20, no. 424 (Washington DC: GPO, 1987).

4. Richard Noakes, Sales Manager, Harman-Kardon /JBL, interview /press release, Electronic Industries Association Consumer Electronics Group, Washington DC, 6 April 1990, p. 2.

5. Hans Fantel, video columnist for The New York Times. cited in interview /press re- lease, in Your Home Can Be a Theater. Electronic Industries Association Consumer Elec- tronics Group, Washington DC. 6 April 1990, p. 2; Don Metzger, equipment manager for Memtek Products, interview /press release, in Your Home Can Be a Theater. p. 4; Steve Cladero. national sales manager for Yamaha, interview /pres~ release, in Your Home Can Be a Theater. p. 5.

6. Frank Vizard, “Bring the Big Picture Home.” American Home. Fall/ Winter 1990, p. 100.

7. Mark Fleischmann, “Puttin’ on The Ritz: Bringing a New Meaning to ‘Home’ Movies,” Audio/ Video Interiors. Summer 1990, pp. 76-88.

8. Sound and Image, Summer 1990, p. 113; Audio/Video Interiors. Summer 1990. p. 35.

9. Ted Rozylowicz, manager of marketing and sales, LCD products for Sharp, cited in interview /press release, in Your Home Can Be A Theater. p. 7.

10. Sound and Image. Summer 1990, p. 33. 11. Life, February 1989, p. 67. 12. Mark Heley, “Cyberspace,” i-D. December 1989/January 1990, p. 37. 13. Jaron Lanier and William Gibson, interview, Buzz, MTV. ca. April 1990. 14. Gregory Solman, “Through the Looking Glass:· American Film. September 1990,

p. 50. 15. David Morley, Family Television: Cultural Power and Domestic Leisure (London:

Routledge, 1986); Ann Gray, “Behind Closed Doors: Video Recorders In the Home,” Boxed In: Women On and In Television, ed. Helen Baehr and Gillian Dyer (London: Pandora. 1986), pp. 38-54; James Lull, ed., World Families Watch Television (Newberry Park, CA: Sage. 1988). For examples of research on Dallas. see Ian Ang, Watching Dallas (London: Methuen, 1985) and Elihu Katz and Tamar Liebes, “Decoding Dallas: Notes from a Cross- Cultural Study,” Television: Tire Critical View, ed. Horace Newcomb, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987). pp. 419 – 32.

16. Carlo Ginzburg, “Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method,” History Workshop 9 (Spring 1980). p. 27.

  • Structure Bookmarks
    • The People in the Theater Next Door
    • You Are There: Intimacy, Immediacy, and Spontaneity
    • Addressing the Family Audience
    • Livening Things Up: Vaudeville or Folksy Realism?
    • The Theater of Everyday Life: Self-Reflexivity and Artifice
    • All the Home’s a Stage: Domestic and Theatrical Space
    • Backstage Mothers
    • From Gender to Generation

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