Book edited by WFU professor takes serious look at the sitcom

By Maggie Barrett
November 3, 2005

"The Sitcom Reader: America Viewed and Skewed," published in October, is one of the first books to take a serious look at the situation comedy or sitcom, one of the oldest, most popular forms of television programming.

The Sitcom Reader

Edited by professors from Wake Forest University and Marist College, the book is a collection of critical essays examining the ways sitcoms depict and influence American culture. The editors are Mary Dalton, Wake Forest University assistant professor of communication, and Laura Linder, Marist College associate professor of media arts.

Because the sitcom has enjoyed such popularity and longevity since it debuted on radio in the 1920s, the genre has become a barometer of American culture and warrants academic study, Dalton said.

The book's 21 chapters, all new material from different contributors including a chapter each by Dalton and Linder, cover topics including conventions of the sitcom genre, family dynamics and representations of gender, race, sexual orientation and work and social class. Chapter authors focus on shows from the earlier years of the sitcom such as "I Love Lucy," "Our Miss Brooks" and "The Andy Griffith Show," as well as contemporary programs including "Sex and the City," "South Park" and "Will and Grace."

"One chapter in the book brings up the dichotomy between Lucy Ricardo and Lucille Ball," Dalton said. "Lucy Ricardo was a woman who wanted to work outside the home, but was confined to her role as a stay-at-home wife and mother. Lucille Ball, also a wife and mother, was a business-savvy woman working outside the home. The reason Lucy Ricardo could not be more like Lucille Ball was that when 'I Love Lucy' was in production, American culture was not ready to accept a woman like Lucille Ball. She was not the norm."

Dalton and Linder, who have known each other for many years, arrived at the idea for the book together.

"Laura and I were at a conference and she told me that she was preparing to teach a seminar class on sitcoms and had not been able to find a single, comprehensive text from which she could draw material for her class," Dalton said. "It became clear that there was a lack in the literature and such a book would be of great value in the area of media studies."

One contemporary show discussed in the book is "The Osbournes." Although structured like a sitcom, the show about Ozzy Osbourne and his family is also considered reality television, a new genre of programming that some people fear has lead to the demise of the sitcom as evidenced by the prevalence of reality shows on network and cable television.

"Reality TV is competitive because it's much cheaper to produce," said Dalton, whose favorite television show is the animated sitcom "King of the Hill." "But I don't think the reality shows are going to have the shelf life that sitcoms do. You can still watch an episode of 'Leave It to Beaver' and appreciate it. What's going to happen is the same thing that happened when people declared the sitcom dead in the 80s before 'The Cosby Show' came along and breathed new life into the genre. Someone will come up with something that is fresh, or just particularly well-made and engaging, and people are going to want to see the sitcom again. It's a staple."

"The Sitcom Reader: America Viewed and Skewed" is published by State University of New York Press and is available on the Web at