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Sunday, January 28, 2024

Dispatches From Jerry's Impossible Hallway


At the end of a long day, sometimes there's nothing better for comfort food than revisiting an old favorite sitcom or discovering a new one. In an age in which these shows can be conjured on demand and streamed one after the other, they can be as cozy as a warm throw blanket on a cold night. Familiar faces and situations greet you on the screen, making you laugh even though you've seen the episode before and know the punchline already. So ubiquitous is this form of media, and so universal in its influence since its first inception on radio programming nearly a century ago, that the weirdness of the format often flies under the radar. So it is with weirdness- sometimes the absolute weirdest stuff is woven into the very mundane. And so it is that we turn our gaze, through the lens of our strange spectacles, toward the television screen as a familiar theme song plays- snacks at the ready, we settle in for dispatches from Jerry's Impossible Hallway.

The format of the situation comedy, or sitcom, lends itself very easily to the blandest forms of banality. All that is required is a cast of characters who the audience expects to see carried over from one episode to the next, with consistent and predictable personalities. While many shows come and go quickly, failing to hit the mark with audiences, others become the stuff of legend. The most popular shows are celebrated decades after the airing of the final episode, influencing everything from language to cultural norms. In a previous post, I alluded to the subliminal effects of The Simpsons on myself and others of my general age group- in particular, that of Homer Simpson as a sort of archetypal everyman. Homer-isms have a way of seeping in, which may in part explain the dumbening of our society broadly- the childlike oafishness of the character stands as an exaggerated exemplar of all of us at our most foolish, emotive, lazy, and, well, American. Controversial at the time, Homer and contemporary TV dad Al Bundy of Married... With Children seemed to the more conservative viewers to be corrupting influences on the media landscape. The depiction of a "dysfunctional family" was jarring to those who preferred their TV dads and their respective families to be squeaky-clean projections of the ideal household, while at the same time more realistic and appealing to other viewers. The outward presentation of the idealized TV family is of course a fa├žade, but is no less intoxicating for the viewer who falls under the spell of scripted familiar characters and live studio audiences. When the ugliness of real life intrudes, such as with the revelations about Bill Cosby's sex crimes, a real crisis ensues. Fans can no longer see Dr. Huxtable the same way ever again- a feeling of betrayal pervades, as though the fictional character and actor were known personally and found to be a wolf in sheep's clothing.


In the current era, media such as sitcoms is consumed in a different way, but the archetypal nature of the characters still finds its expression. Long before I had ever watched a single episode of Parks and Recreation, I was familiar with the character of Ron Swanson (pictured above) based almost entirely on memes and animated GIFs used on social media. Nick Offerman's character on the show, it seemed to me at the time, had a noticeable impact around the culture of food- particularly when it came to bacon. Suddenly it seemed to me that bacon was having a renaissance, and I couldn't help but feel like the fictional character from a wildly popular sitcom had a hand in it. Whether this is true, it's hard to say- but the memeification of these cartoonish representations of people and their foibles, quirks, and catch-phrases does have a noticeable effect on the public consciousness. These effects range from dietary choices, as in the Swanson example, to more profound and impactful social changes brought about by utilizing the bigoted characterization of Archie Bunker in All in the Family. In a subtle way, they become avatars of aspects of humanity, which invariably cycle back into a feedback loop creating the world in which we live.

There is an allure to the world in which the sitcom characters live, which we only glimpse through that missing fourth wall most of the time- but upon reflection, often it doesn't add up. Another product of the internet and social media age which impacts our collective understanding of the sitcom phenomena is the endless minutiae and conjecture from fans with too much time on their hands. Forums are littered with "fan theories" about shows, sometimes connecting one program to another; other times viewers dedicate time to pointing out continuity errors and problems with the set design. Such is the case with Jerry's hallway in the show Seinfeld- according to people who have clearly put a lot of effort into proving it, Jerry's hallway can't exist as it is shown based on how his kitchen is shaped. The door through which Kramer slides into the apartment, unannounced, thus becomes a portal to a non-Euclidean realm of warped dimensions. The city of New York in the Seinfeld-verse is populated by an odd assortment of memorable and wacky characters- Soup Nazis, close-talkers and hard-nosed library detectives. Some of them, like the aforementioned Kramer and Crazy Joe Davola* are based on real people- and of course, Jerry is playing a fictionalized version of himself.  George is an exaggerated version of series co-creator Larry David, who went on to play a fictionalized version of himself in Curb Your Enthusiasm. The feedback loop for the characters, amplified through our collective embrace of their enduring qualities, subtly erases lines between the fictions and the factual basis- not just of the people involved, but their beliefs, their settings, and their attitudes. Like that missing fourth wall which allows the camera and studio audience a glimpse into the sitcom universe, the liminal bleedover from the soundstage to our living rooms reconfigures our perception of reality, however subtly. More than 20 years after the final episode of Seinfeld aired, people still reference George's father's invented holiday Festivus when it comes around- and who is to say whether it will stay a joking observation, or whether it will one day be recognized as a legitimate holiday? At the time of this writing, Curb Your Enthusiasm is ending its run with David releasing a tongue-in-cheek farewell to the version of himself that appeared on the show, saying he's looking forward to "shedding" the malignant persona. "And so, 'Larry David' I bid you farewell. Your misanthropy will not be missed." He says he can now be reached at Doctors Without Borders where he will presumably be doing humanitarian work.

*RIP to Peter Crombie, who played Crazy Joe Davola. He passed away in January of 2024 at the age of 71. For those keeping up with the clown theme on this blog, his passing seems significant.

Jerry's 1990s New York and the mysterious architecture of his apartment building serve to illustrate the weird logic of sitcom universes, which follow rules specific to ratings, fan reactions, and continuity more than any type of "canon". For a "Show about nothing", it certainly had a lot going on. For any sitcom though, and for storytelling more generally, one must employ a willing suspension of disbelief. This becomes easier when the show is funny and well-liked, but even the best shows face this kind of scrutiny in today's world of online communities. When one starts thinking in terms of multiple universes, as physicists suggest might be the case, one wonders if these sitcom worlds could actually exist in an alternate reality. Conversely, if you're of the belief we all live within a holographic, artificial world, how would we know whether we were just characters on a screen with laugh tracks added on, playing out our lives for the amusement of some supercomputer? The Marvel series WandaVision plays with this concept, illustrating how unnerving such a reality might be from an outside perspective. Using her memories of sitcoms she saw as a child, she has a traumatic break from sanity- and uses her powers to construct the idealized sitcom world around her, effectively trapping an entire town within it. 

Thinking of any particular show as its own insular universe is one thing, but others take it further- insinuating that through a network of crossover appearances, many of the sitcoms and dramas on TV all occur in the same universe. What's more, they all stem from an extended daydream from an autistic child in the series St Elsewhere. This "Grand Unification Theory" of TV, known as the Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis, was originally advanced by writer Dwayne McDuffie as a way to illustrate the absurdity in insisting on continuity and canon within both TV shows and comic books. The final episode of St Elsewhere, a medical drama based in Boston, reveals the whole series to have been a daydream from a patient with autism. Thus, the reductio ad absurdum argument goes, all connected shows must also have only been a daydream, extending off of the one in the series. The list includes Cheers, The X-Files, Homocide: Life on the Streets, The Bob Newhart Show, and even The Simpsons and The Critic. The hypothesis has taken on a life of its own, despite its original premise rejecting an insistence on continuity between franchises. He writes that cross-overs are fun, but obsessing over making sense of it all is silly.

Silly though it may be, it's fun to think about how these shows could overlap. Richard Belzer's iconic detective character, John Munch, has crossed over to more shows than any other. It's amusing to think of him as some cross-dimensional detective, almost MiB-like in his affect. Munch as a character shared similarities with the actor who played him; Belzer's signature comedic delivery and mildly paranoid worldview were worked into the scripts. Munch was everywhere for a time, it seemed- and the conspiracy laden lines he delivered in character were echoes of the real Belz who would release books on such subjects- a further amplification of resonant feedback looping.


Sometimes, it's not the characters that crossover and imply a shared universe but the props and products used. An example of this is Morley Cigarettes, notably the favored brand of the enigmatic, shadowy villain of The X-Files. Morleys have a history as a fictional brand, created to avoid advertising conflicts in the early 1900s for use as props on film. The Morley-verse thus encompasses The X-Files as well as The Dick van Dyke Show, The Walking Dead, The Twilight Zone, and movies such as Psycho. Detective John Munch would of course have at least visited this universe, as he appeared in character in one episode of The X-Files. One hopes that he fared ok in the zombie apocalypse which was to come...

These fictional worlds, however you want to look at them, offer a perspective of the era in which they are produced just as they inform and influence the culture which consumes them. Going back to the earliest days of really successful sitcom programming for television, there are some surprisingly spooky origins to it all. I Love Lucy stands as one of the greatest shows of all time, and Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz built a media empire off of it. It began, Ball has said in interviews, with her friend Carole Lombard coming to her in a dream and telling her to get into television rather than movies. Lombard had died in a plane crash in 1942- and regardless of what one believes about the supernatural, it's wild to think that such a huge piece of television history was at least partly inspired by something of a ghost. Ball also traces her family history back to women who were accused during the Salem Witch Trials. It is notable that iconic series such as Star Trek and Mission: Impossible directly owe their existence to Desilu Productions, but in terms of influence and setting of standards in TV programming much more of what we've consumed in the history of sitcoms rests with those early episodes of her show.

Likewise, The Honeymooners was a landmark show which similarly influenced generations of shows that followed. Jackie Gleason, who starred as Ralph Kramden, was very much interested in all manner of weird topics. He was especially interested in UFOs, and allegedly accompanied then-sitting President Richard Nixon to view retrieved alien bodies and craft specimens. He appeared on talk shows to discuss Flying Saucers, and had an immense library of books on the paranormal which are now archived at the University of Miami, in Florida. He even had a custom built house built in New York shaped like a flying saucer.


Of course, aliens are no stranger to the sitcom multiverse. My Favorite Martian, ALF, Third Rock From the Sun, and Mork and Mindy are all examples of sitcoms with lovable alien characters. Mork and Mindy was a spinoff of an alien themed episode of Happy Days, and even shows like The Golden Girls have episodes that at least reference UFO phenomena. The 1960s in particular had other weird subjects featured, in such shows as Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, which in their own way introduced and normalized magic to audiences. The Addams Family brought to life the characters from comic strips by Charles Addams, which in turn inspired the repurposing of Universal monsters for the show The Munsters. These shows proved that even the spooky, kooky, and ooky among us can be loved by audiences, and perhaps they hinted at some of the weird origins of the medium. The enduring popularity of these shows in their recent adaptations prove that it's a message that still resonates, and continues to expand.

Regardless of the type of show, the era in which it first aired, or how you consume it, for many of us the sitcom is a form of escapism. Like the theme song to Cheers says, "You want to be where you can see / our troubles are all the same / you wanna go where everybody knows your name". Whether that's a basement bar under a restaurant in Boston or the idyllic town of Mayberry, whether it's in a paper sales office in Scranton or in an apartment in New York, we find comfort in these soundstage environs as much as we do on the couch from which we view them. Wouldn't you like to get away?



  

 







 

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