CNN History of the Sitcom: Carl Reiner’s latest interview, Tackling Cosby
The producers behind CNN’s new eight-part docuseries “History of the Sitcom” knew that trying to tell the full 70-year story of the television genre would be an impossible task. So they divided some of the greatest comedies of all time into specific categories – and attempted to illustrate how the evolution of the sitcom reflected the actual progress of the company.
“It was pretty obvious that given the number of sitcoms that have existed in history, you couldn’t do some kind of full story from start to finish, like you were in a college class studying it. from beginning to end. Says executive producer Bill Carter. “There had to be a way to categorize them and track them according to a certain grouping. We have eight episodes; we could have done at least 80.
“History of the Sitcom,” which premieres Sunday, July 11 with two consecutive episodes, is the sequel to CNN’s recent “The Story of Late Night”. Both are from Cream Productions, via the CNN Original Series banner. But while “History of Late Night” had an obvious timeline to tell the story (Steve Allen to Jack Paar to Johnny Carson, etc.), Carter and showrunner / executive producer John Ealer say it took a certain time to find the best way to tell “the story of the sitcom”.
“In a way, you need a bigger story than just the sitcom in order to tie them together and that has to be the story of America,” Ealer said. “It was kind of our approach, whether it was American family, how friendships in America evolved, how work in America evolved, how race and gender evolved, and how escape evolved. is how we proposed these themes.
Producers conducted a total of 184 interviews for “History of the Sitcom,” including stars, producers, executives and reporters (including this reporter). And they did it all amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think this is a testament to the power of the sitcom and the way people feel connected to the sitcom, that so many amazing celebrities and icons have come out to talk to us despite the pandemic,” Ealer said. “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 by some people who said yes,” said Carter, whose long career in the television business at The New York Times included the announcement of the end of “Seinfeld.” “It wasn’t something they had to do, obviously, and they were taking risks… John and I talked early on that we needed to get the legends first, the people who were over 90. And it turned out to be a very good decision.
On day two of filming, the crew interviewed Reiner, Van Dyke and Brooks on the same day. “They all wanted to be shot in the same place so that they could have lunch together,” says Ealer. “We walked out of this place buzzing because we just spoke to three of the biggest icons in sitcom history. The interview with Mel Brooks, I probably asked the fewest questions ever. I asked about four questions, and got all the best answers, because it’s Mel Brooks. It was the most fun I ever had, just sitting there listening and laughing.
This batch of interviews was conducted just before the COVID-19 lockdown and was likely the last recorded in-person interview with Reiner, who died in June 2020.
“History of the Sitcom” comes as the genre faces yet another downturn. NBC, for example, won’t air a single half-hour comedy on its lineup this fall for the first time in history. This desire to preserve the form also probably prompted some of the interviewees to agree to participate.
“I think what was clear is that the people who have been on sitcoms, they’re very much in sitcoms,” Carter says. “They started out as kids watching them after school, and they understand how great a genre it is and have enormous respect for it. Obviously, that made their career in a lot of cases. I think they realize how deep and meaningful it is. It’s not just another slice of entertainment.
Of course, it seems unlikely now that in the modern streaming age of short seasons and episodic controls, sitcoms will ever reach the longevity of shows like “Friends” or “The Big Bang Theory”. Says Carter: “I think there is a feeling that things are quite different, for sure.”
In addition to the interviews and thematic storytelling of the episodes, “History of the Sitcom” also includes numerous clips from classic comedies. “This isn’t a show clip, obviously we use them wisely, but they’re essential in telling them the story and they’re really entertaining,” Carter says. “It’s part of the purpose of what we do. We try to tell a story but also to show the greatness of comedy.
The producers said they didn’t back down from controversy either, including how Bill Cosby, whose sexual assault charge was recently overturned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, has definitely ruined the show. legacy of “The Cosby Show”, or how the racist tweets of star Roseanne Barr impacted the memory of “Roseanne”.
“A show like this would basically be like ‘I Love Lucy’ in terms of playing forever,” Carter said. “But now he’s got this cloud above. And I think it was something that had to be worked out. Some of the other controversies we talk about directly. I think our goal was more cultural. We still have a responsibility to the shows themselves and what they meant at the time: what was their profound impact on the time, on the world of television and on culture? But we also have a responsibility to report and indicate how this legacy has been changed. “
Meanwhile, there is also the question of what exactly can be considered a sitcom. ABC rated “Desperate Housewives” as a comedy, and it even won Emmys for it – but the producers of “History of the Sitcom” felt it didn’t pass the smell test. “The Love Boat,” which featured a laugh track and was much more comedic even as an hour-long show, did.
“It was an issue we spent a lot of time discussing,” Ealer says. “We’re starting from the beginning of the sitcom era where the genre is very clearly defined. So were the well-defined roles in society for everyone, where the rules were incredibly strict. As the sitcom evolved and America evolved, all of these rules became more flexible. America has become more understanding of the gray areas between things… it’s kind of like a sniff test.
In the end, Ealer and Carter say they did their best to include as much as they could on the show, but had to make painful cuts and leave some great anecdotes on the cutting room floor. .
“Eight hours is a very, very short time to cover this kind of rich story,” says Ealer, explaining why few of the canceled or critically vilified shows have been accepted. “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 only have 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 anecdotes and interesting facts about the genre of sitcom they chose when producing “History of the Sitcom.” See some of their choices below:
• ABC rejected “All in the Family” twice (with two different groups of children) before Norman Lear forwarded it to CBS and made it a transformational success.
• In “Julia,” Diahann Carroll was the first black woman to star on a TV show who was not a domestic worker. The pressure led to an almost nervous breakdown.
• Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers broke into Norman Lear’s office to protest the narrow description of black families in “Good Times” and “Sanford and Son” as a poor, working class… a protest that led directly to “The Jeffersons”.
• The release of the iPod saved “The Office” from impending cancellation.
• The “Seinfeld” pilot was so poorly tested that the only reason he got a stay was because NBC director Rick Ludwin canceled a Bob Hope special to pay for four more episodes.
• The first line of the pilot and the last line of the finale of “Seinfeld” are the same, a testament to how truly revolutionary this “about nothing” show was.
• “The Munsters” and “The Addams Family” aired in exactly the same two seasons – at a time of maximum racial tension over integrated neighborhoods and “people moving in next door”.
• Mel Brooks invented the shoe phone for “Get Smart” and, yes, takes credit from the entire mobile phone industry.
• “Rutherford Falls” is the first sitcom to feature a Native American in a lead role. And he debuted in 2021.
• “Maude” had an abortion just a few months after the Roe v. Wade.
• Garry Marshall’s son gave him the idea to add an alien to “Happy Days” – an alien who would become Ork’s Mork.
• “Happy Days” was originally intended to be a family sitcom… until Fonz grew up and helped usher in the era of the “hang out with friends” sitcom.
• “The Cosby Show” was Ronald Reagan’s favorite sitcom, and LA Mayor Tom Bradley called on protesters during the LA uprising to return home and watch the finale.
• Norman Lear, Head of Relevant Comedy Cutting Edge, also gave us “the hugs and the learning” and “the special episode” through “Facts of Life”.
• Nick Colasanto, “Coach” on “Cheers”, was so ill during the show’s final season that he couldn’t remember his lines and wrote them on the doors leading to the set. After Colasanto’s death, Ted Danson found one of the lines that said “It’s like he’s still with us.” The actors always touched this line when they entered.
• New networks like Fox, UPN and The WB have built their businesses with black audiences, only to move away once established.
• Sherwood Schwartz wrote the theme song for “Gilligan’s Island” because ABC didn’t think people would “understand” why the seven castaways were stranded every week.