‘City as might have been’: Sitcoms and the 80s

We ain't going to the town / We're going to the city

If sitcom title sequences in the 70s marked an era of urban verisimilitude, then the 80s ushered in the age of the suburban fantasy. Think about it: Family Ties was set in a Columbus suburb; Growing Pains in Long Island; even Who’s the Boss exiled Tony Danza and onscreen daughter Alyssa Milano from Brooklyn to waspier pastures in Connecticut (a premise replicated in the straight-to-syndication series Charles in Charge). But even the few shows that were set in the city were inflected by a suburban consciousness: no longer were there any neighborhoods, or project housing, or public transportation, or, you know, people of color on the small screen; just downtown thoroughfares, skyscrapers, and landmarks. The sitcom city in the 80s was fit to be printed on a postcard, which, come to think of it, seems to reflect the larger role that urban life played in the imagination of upwardly-mobile (post-white flight) America at the time. It was a trip down to the financial district for work, or the baseball stadium for a Saturday outing, not a place where anyone actually seemed to live (even if the characters of these shows apparently did).*

1. Manhattan – Head of the Class (1986-91)

Head of the Class actually had one of the better title sequences of the era. Its theme was a ballsy, cinematic instrumental and came out ‘classical’ before it ‘rocked you’ with some harmonized keytars. Set in Monroe High School in Manhattan, and starring WKRP in Cincinnatti star Howard Hesseman, the Head of the Class opening was a sharp contrast to Welcome Back, Kotter‘s poetic scenes of Brooklyn. Instead, we open with New York’s familiar icons: the Chrysler and Empire State buildings, the Statue of Liberty, the famous yellow cabs, and sexy pedestrians. It’s Hollywood’s version of NYC, not the ‘hood life of, say, All in the Family. Still, to its credit, the show did reflect the shifting racial dynamics of the city since the Kotter days; braniac Indian, Jawaharlal Chodhury and the late addition of Jasper Kwong all signaled a New York transforming after the post-65 migrations from the Third World. Not that you could tell from the lily-white streets teach walked through.

2. Chicago – Perfect Strangers (1986-93)

The Chicago of Perfect Strangers has to be the antithesis of the Chicago of Good Times; the latter’s theme of survival, its ironic lyrical inversions, its gritty shots of the Cabrini-Green projects, give way to the former’s Reaganite fantasies of upward class mobility. Lines of communal inclusion (“Ain’t we lucky we got ’em”) are now replaced with individual exception (“It’s my life and my dream / and nothing’s gonna stop me now”), and the gospel choir is replaced with what sounds like Naked Eyes’ drum machine. There’s a lot going on in this sequence – first, the narrative of travel from small town to big city is twinned with the immigrant narrative of Old world to Western metropole (Cousin Larry’s drive from Wisconsin to Chicago / Balki “Borat” Bartokamous’s transcontinental schlep from “Meypos” to the US by steamer). Perfect Strangers is also the second show on this list that features the emblematic Statue of Liberty; no surprise, then, that creator Dale McRaven says he was inspired to write the show during the renewed patriotism after the ’84 olympics. And no surprise either, that Balki and Larry’s American dreams involved bagging one blonde wife, a piece, by the series’ end. That sort of luck calls for a dance of joy.

3. San Francisco – Full House (1987-95)

As the AIDS epidemic destroyed the lives of tens of thousands in San Francisco alone, and Reagan turned a homophobic eye, Jeff Franklin decided to celebrate non-traditional structures of the home by creating what is, probably, the most saccharine show that ever aired on television. There was nothing remotely regional about Full House, aside from the opening credits, and the reference to Bob Saget’s news job at ‘Wake Up, San Francisco.’ We have John Stamos at least partially to thank for this theme song. (Was I the only one who felt borderline queasy every time Stamos said, ‘have mercy’? Or when Coulier ‘cut.it.out.’?)

4. Boston – Cheers (1982-93)

Was Cheers’ opening sequence the greatest of the 80s? It’s certainly up there. An exterior shot of the Bull & Finch pub in Beacon Hill, Boston transforms into a sepia-toned montage of lithographs from a century of hard drinking. Gary Portnoy’s theme was, and still is, the perfect jingle for alcoholism I’ve ever heard: “Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.” The shot at 0:49 (“We Win!”) remains deeply ambiguous – Did the Allies just win? Did the Sox beat the Yanks? Did Bostonians just vote on the Big Dig? – whatever it was, it seems like it was worth a toast. Nevertheless, aside from that opening shot, Boston has no real presence in this theme.

I can draw contrasts all day between the opening credits of 70s and 80s sitcoms, and fault the latter for its unreal representations of urban life, but that’s not really my point. The 80s ushered in a deeply suburban sensibility to the sitcom, and the cities of these shows were represented from the vantage point of those suburbs – they were white, picturesque, sanitized, and totally unbelievable. They represented neoliberal desires of urban spaces, never once venturing over into the Southside or the Boroughs, where the world didn’t look so perfect, and a whole lot of shit needed rearranging.

Next week: the 90s and the invasion of the yuppies.

*The Cosby Show was firmly rooted in a Brooklyn brownstone, and the show constantly referenced its setting, but the yearly changes to the opening credits sort of threw it out of contention for this list.

– Thumbu Sammy


‘City as might have been’: Sitcoms and the 70s

Norman Lear's City

Last week’s reminiscences of Taxi made me mourn the passing of 70s-era television, and slowly come to grips with what feels like the inevitable decline of everything good into something interminably shitty. But here at TubaTV, we do our best to hold back the tears, be strong, and mask our sentimentality with some cold, hard academese. So, rather than just narrate the downward spiral of sitcoms since the 70s (which, come to think of it, isn’t even true), we’ll be looking at something more interesting: the refiguration of the American city, over the course of three decades, in that most innocuous and overlooked of cultural forms, the sitcom title sequence.

Three decades is a seriously long time in the lifespan of any city, enough to transform it several times over. But along with those social and material changes (the urban renewals and the urban decays) come the changes in our representations of the cities, themselves: the desires we project upon them, the historical context from which we view them, the neighborhoods we look at and the way we imagine the lives within them. This relationship between the material and discursive, is what Carlo Rotella calls the dialectic between the “city of fact” and the “city of feeling.” And here are three examples of how the two played out in living rooms all over the States throughout the 70s.

1. Brooklyn – Welcome back, Kotter (1975-79)

Back before the hipster diaspora converged onto Williamsburg’s blocks, Gabe Kaplan and the Sweathogs were scheming ways of getting out. Lovin’ Spoonful singer, John Sebastian’s mellow, Bacharachian theme may put you to sleep before you notice the subdued poetry of this opening sequence. A tagged train chuffs past Buchanan High, a pigeon circles over a city block and Sebastian’s bittersweet refrain, “Welcome back / your dreams were your ticket out” describe the urban purgatory that once was the “4th Largest City in America.” (BTW, was Brooklyn in the 70s its own city?)

2. Chicago – Good times (1974-79)

Eric Monte, the creator of Good times, grew up in the infamous Cabrini-Green projects on the North Side of Chicago (shown at 0:12 and after), before hitchhiking to Hollywood to become one of the most important and prolific television writers of the last forty years. These days, Good Times is probably more remembered for the debut of Janet Jackson, Ernie Barnes’ Sugar shack, and charges of black stereotyping (read here about Monte’s horror when his writing staff tried to get John Amos to say “I’se be wantin’ to go down by da ribba” ). Nevertheless, Good Times probably stands as the only sitcom that was set in the projects, which described (in its brilliant theme song especially) the long struggle of African Americans living in urban blight. It was the flipside of the upwardly mobile (but still cynical) Jeffersons‘ American dream. Unfortunately, not too long into its five year run, Monte left, and JJ hollered “Dy-no-mite!” as the show tumbled towards infamy.

3. Queens – All in the family (1971-79) / Archie Bunker’s place (1979-83)

This is really Norman Lear‘s crowning achievement. A bigoted Irishman and his sweet, naive wife sing what seems like a funereal dirge about the alleged death of laissez-faire America (“Didn’t need no welfare state / everybody pulls his weight…”) as the camera pans past a line of rowhouses in Astoria. The layers of meaning here are really wonderful: lyrics are inflected by the strained vocals of Carol O’Connor and Jean Stapleton, and the singing is inflected by an iconic (panoptic) shot of Manhattan teetering slightly off center. Archie Bunker’s place, the spinoff that ran ’til ’83, opens much more steadily, and ’cause of that, lacks a lot of the original’s charms. All in the Family was about the awkward collision of the old white guard and the new post-civil rights era – by the 80s, Archie Bunker already knew his place, in the neighborhood pub.

There are other honorable mentions – Maude‘s opening took its viewers from Manhattan to Tuckahoe, The Jeffersons moved us from Queens to the Eastside, and even Laverne and Shirley gave us a glimpse of Milwaukee’s breweries. But the thing that’s remarkable about the urban landscapes of 70s sitcom intros were just how unsanitized they were. All three examples above show the American city with real folks populating it, the rows of working class homes, project housing, and mass transit that, over the years, sustained it. What happened to that city, man?

– Thumbu Sammy