The producers behind CNN’s new eight-part docuseries “History of the Sitcom” knew that trying to tell the complete 70-year history of the TV genre would be an impossible task. So they divided some of the biggest comedies of all time into specific categories — and set out to illustrate how the evolution of the sitcom mirrored real-life advancements in society.
“It was pretty apparent that given the number of sitcoms that have been out there in history that you couldn’t do some sort of comprehensive, start-to-finish history, as though you were in a college course studying it from beginning to end,” says executive producer Bill Carter. “There had to be a way to categorize them and follow them according to some grouping. We have eight episodes; we could have done at least 80.”
“History of the Sitcom,” which premieres Sunday, July 11, with two back-to-back episodes, is the follow-up to CNN’s recent “The Story of Late Night.” Both come from Cream Productions, through the CNN Original Series banner. But whereas “Story of Late Night” had an obvious chronological lineage to tell the story (Steve Allen to Jack Paar to Johnny Carson, and so on), Carter and showrunner/executive producer John Ealer say it took some time to figure out the best way to tell the “History of the Sitcom.”
“In some ways, you need a bigger story than just the sitcom in order to link them up together and that has to be the story of America,” Ealer says. “That was kind of our approach, whether it be the American family, how friendships in America have evolved, how work in America has evolved, how race and gender have evolved and how escapism has evolved. That’s how we came up with these themes.”
The producers conducted a total of 184 interviews for “History of the Sitcom,” including stars, producers, executives and journalists (including this reporter). And they did it all in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think it speaks to the power of the sitcom and how connected people feel to the sitcom, that so many amazing celebrities and icons came out to talk to us despite the pandemic,” Ealer says. “It’s something they wanted to talk about, something that gave them a little bit of joy.”
Among those interviewed: Norman Lear, Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan, Lisa Kudrow, Jason Alexander, Kelsey Grammer, Kim Fields, Tim Allen, Carl Reiner, Dick Van Dyke, George Lopez, Mel Brooks, Isabella Gomez, Ted Danson, Joey Soloway, Jimmie Walker, Judd Apatow, Dan Levy, Zooey Deschanel, Chuck Lorre, Mara Brock Akil, Helen Hunt and more.
“I was surprised at some people who said yes,” says Carter, whose lengthy career covering the TV business at the New York Times included breaking the news of the end of “Seinfeld.” “It was not something they had to do, obviously, and they were taking some risk… John and I talked about this early on that we had to get the legends first, the people who were over 90. And that turned out to be a very good decision.”
The second day of the shoot, the crew interviewed Reiner, Van Dyke and Brooks on the same day. “They all wanted to be shot in the same location so that they basically could have lunch together,” Ealer says. “We walked out of that place buzzing because we just talked to three of the biggest icons in sitcom history. The Mel Brooks interview, I probably asked the fewest questions ever. I asked about four questions, and I got all the best answers, because it’s Mel Brooks. It was the most fun I’ve ever had, just sitting there listening and laughing.”
That batch of interviews was conducted just before the COVID-19 lockdown, and was likely the last in-person recorded interview with Reiner, who died in June 2020.
“History of the Sitcom” arrives as the genre is facing another downturn. NBC, for example, will not air a single half-hour comedy on its schedule this fall for the first time in history. That desire to preserve the form also likely played into some of the interviewees agreeing to participate.
“I think what was clear was that the people who have been in sitcoms, they are very into sitcoms,” Carter says. “They started out as young people watching them after school, and they understand what a great genre it has been, and have enormous respect for it. Obviously it made their careers in a lot of cases. I think they realize how deep and meaningful an art form it is. It’s not just another slice of entertainment.”
Of course, it seems unlikely now that in the modern streaming era of short seasons and episodic orders that any sitcoms will ever reach the longevity of shows like “Friends” or “The Big Bang Theory.” Says Carter: “I do think there’s a sense that things are quite different, for sure.”
Besides the interviews and the thematic storytelling of the episodes, “History of the Sitcom” also includes plenty of clips from classic comedies. “It’s not a clip show, obviously we use them judiciously, but they’re essential to tell them the story and they are really entertaining,” Carter says. “That is part of the goal of what we’re doing. We’re trying to tell a story but also show the greatness of the comedy.”
The producers said they also haven’t shied away from controversy, including how Bill Cosby, whose sexual assault charge was recently overturned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, has permanently spoiled the legacy of “The Cosby Show,” or how star Roseanne Barr’s racist tweets impacted the memory of “Roseanne.”
“A show like that would basically be on a par with ‘I Love Lucy’ in terms of playing forever,” Carter says. “But now it has this cloud over it. And I think that was something that had to be addressed. Some of the other controversies, we talk straight about. I think our lens was kind of cultural. We still have a responsibility to the shows themselves and what they meant at the time: What was their profound impact on the era, on the TV business and on culture? But also we have a responsibility to report and to indicate how that legacy has been changed.”
Meanwhile, there’s also the question of what exactly can be considered a sitcom. ABC classified “Desperate Housewives” as a comedy, and it even won Emmys in that field — but the “History of the Sitcom” producers felt it didn’t pass the smell test. “The Love Boat,” which featured a laugh track and was much more comical even as an hour-long show, did.
“That was a question we spent a lot of time discussing,” Ealer says. “We go from early in the sitcom era where the genre is very clearly defined. Just like the very defined roles in society for everyone, where rules were incredibly strict. As the sitcom evolved, and as America evolved, all of those rules became more flexible. America became more understanding of the gray areas between things… it’s kind of like a sniff test.”
Ultimately, Ealer and Carter say they tried their best to include as much as they could into the series, but they had to make some painful cuts and leave some great anecdotes on the cutting room floor.
“Eight hours is a very, very short amount of time to cover this kind of rich history,” Ealer says, explaining why not many canceled or critically reviled shows made the cut. “There are a lot of great iconic shows, hidden gems that we couldn’t cover. It’s hard to spend time on ‘The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer’ when you’ve only got three minutes for ‘Frasier.’”
“History of the Sitcom” airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. ET on CNN. David Brady, Kate Harrison Karman, Bill Carter and John Ealer are executive producers for Cream Productions, while Amy Entelis and Lyle Gamm are EPs for CNN Original Series.
Variety asked Ealer and Carter to compile some interesting trivia and facts about the sitcom genre that they picked up while producing “History of the Sitcom.” See some of their picks below:
• ABC rejected “All in the Family” twice (with two different sets of kids) before Norman Lear took it to CBS and made a transformational hit.
• In “Julia,” Diahann Carroll was the first Black woman to star in a TV show who was not a domestic worker. The pressure led to a near-nervous breakdown.
• Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers stormed into Norman Lear’s office to protest the narrow depiction of Black families in “Good Times” and “Sanford and Son” as poor and working class… a protest that led directly to “The Jeffersons.”
• The release of the iPod saved “The Office” from imminent cancellation.
• The “Seinfeld” pilot tested so poorly that the only reason it got a reprieve was because NBC executive Rick Ludwin canceled a Bob Hope special to pay for four more episodes.
• The first line of the pilot and the last line of “Seinfeld’s” finale are the same, a testament to how groundbreaking that show “about nothing” really was.
• “The Munsters” and “The Addams Family” aired for exactly the same two seasons — at an era of peak racial tension about integrated neighborhoods and the “people moving in next door.”
• Mel Brooks invented the shoe phone for “Get Smart,” and, yes, takes credit for the entire mobile phone industry.
• “Rutherford Falls” is the first sitcom to ever have a Native American in a leading role. And it debuted in 2021.
• “Maude” had an abortion just months after the Roe v. Wade decision.
• Garry Marshall’s son gave him the idea for adding an alien to “Happy Days” — an alien that become Mork from Ork.
• “Happy Days” was originally intended to be a family sitcom… until the Fonz broke big and helped usher in the era of the “hanging out with friends” sitcom.
• “The Cosby Show” was Ronald Reagan’s favorite sitcom, and the mayor of LA, Tom Bradley, called for protestors during the LA Uprising to go home and watch the finale.
• Norman Lear, responsible for the cutting edge of relevancy comedy, also gave us “hugging and learning” and “the special episode” thanks to “Facts of Life.”
• Nick Colasanto, “Coach” on “Cheers,” was so ill during the last season of the show that he couldn’t remember his lines and wrote them down on the doors leading into the set. After Colasanto died, Ted Danson found one of the lines that read “It’s like he’s still with us.” The cast would always touch that line when they walked in.
• New networks like Fox, UPN and The WB built their businesses with Black audiences, only to pivot away from them once established.
• Sherwood Schwartz wrote the theme song to “Gilligan’s Island” because ABC didn’t think people would “get” why the seven castaways were stranded every week.