Among the more popular premises for a sitcom is the fish out of water. Under this general rubric you will find many of the long-running shows of the last fifty years, often organized around the classic social situations: race, class, gender, and sexuality.
Race: The Jeffersons, which was an offshoot of one of the original fish-out-of-water scenes, the loosely veiled but still basically racial All in the Family, whose theme song (“guys like us we had it made… those were the days. … do you remember way back when, girls were girls and men were men… those were the days”) made it clear that Archie Bunker’s biggest problem was that he was a fish out of time — but of course for white folks to be out of time is always to be out of “race” as well. (If you have six minutes watch this amazing clip where Archie, late in the show’s run, takes on the KKK and calls himself “black”.) (Also in this category: Family Matters.)
Class: Two Broke Girls, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (not Roseanne; I’m talking about sitcoms where the basic premise is that someone is out of joint); Sexuality/Gender: Three’s Company comes to mind (but not Will & Grace). Something like Modern Family seems to be trying to wrap all of these up in a single package (which is interesting, because it has to produce wholeness out of that incongruous mix, but of course, that’s the point.)
But none of these categories quite capture the strangeness of the science fictional sitcom, in which the fish is an alien and the new swimming pool is the planet Earth. It’s so strange I think it’s easy to forget that through the 70s 80s and 90s the alien-on-Earth was a basic premise for television comedy. Mork & Mindy for the 70s, ALF for the 80s; and Third Rock from the Sun for the 90s. (There was also Small Wonder (amazing!! theme song), but that was about a robot.)
I have almost nothing to say about this but to that the other night as I fell asleep I was overcome with the marvel of this kind of sitcom. Aliens yes, but aliens and comedy just doesn’t seem plausible. I mean, what a crazy thing, no? It seems totally unimaginable that such a show would be on television today. And so I found myself wondering what kind of culture we are that used to allow these shows, and now doesn’t. It could all just be random noise, of course, but the critical, close readerly demand for total necessity leaves me wanting more.
OK, so if you’re still thinking about All in the Family, look at this amazing clip, in which the show is intercut with an Obama speech to demonstrate that Archie was right all along. For god’s sake.
So apparently I’m WRONG (again)! Bruce Rusk points me to a new alien sitcom, The Neighbors, now airing on ABC. I can’t wait. And my whole sense of the present has been completely upended!
p.s. Also, Bruce reminds me: My Favorite Martian (because if you know a lot of Martians in general you want to have a favorite one).
I’ve never really thought about it until now, but the science fiction sitcom vector is perhaps the most pure fish-out-of-water vehicle. I’m probably going to say something that’s probably demonstrably (and perhaps even obviously) false, but here goes: Most fish-out-of-water setups (race/class/time) position the audience to laugh at/with the fish and not, um, the new water. Scifi sitcoms, however, draw more attention to the absurdities and arbitrariness of current convention. 3rd Rock from the Sun (the episodes I watched in any event), seemed particularly keen on this approach. (Cf. also the Coneheads.)
Your overall premise seems right–in the f-o-o-w sitcom we see ourselves mrirored back to us, and what it reveals is our oddness, our shallowness, our lack of empathy or creativity. The audience is on the side of the water.
I think you’re right that in race sitcoms the situation is more variable. Sometimes we are supposed to see Archie as wrong; sometimes we’re supposed to empathize with his particular hard-edged version of the truth. (You can put together the famous episode where Edith talks back to Archie (case 2) alongside the one where Archie lists the various races in order (case 1) to see how his racism is also aligned with the audience’s laughter sometimes). And I think in Fresh Prince Will Smith’s character learned as many lessons as he taught. Though that may simplly be a function of the family sitcom more generally.
By the way, two more for the archives: Perfect Strangers (remember Balky?) and of course the political fish out of water sitcom, Family Ties.
Is Lettres persanes the seminal work in this genre?
What about Cheers? It was a bit like a family comedy without a family, shot through with f-o-o-w tropes — Sam as post-pro sports, Diane as intellectual working in an ostensibly non-intellectual industry. Family ties followed a similar model (family + political f-o-o-w trope), as did Fraser, with the dad as the gasping fish. I’m finding myself amazed at how much I can think about this.