Urban television: sitcoms in the city
By STEVE HAMER
One hour dramas usually take place in the suburbs. But something about the city seems to attract the half hour sitcom. Many of the best sitcoms in television history take place in the city. This is just a sample of some of my favorites.
The Odd Couple
The Odd Couple is one of those old classic sitcoms that isn’t even shown in reruns any more. But who can forget the neat and fussy Felix Unger (played by Tony Randall) having to share a Manhattan apartment with the sloppy Oscar Madison (played by Jack Klugman)?
Even back in the 1970s, the rent in Manhattan was apparently too expensive for one man to afford his own apartment and still pay alimony to his ex-wife. So two divorced men with radically different personalities were forced to live together in the same apartment.
I remember one episode where they won a car in a contest. They wanted to keep the car because the American Dream of owning your own car was so powerful. But they eventually realized that there was no place to park a car in Manhattan so they had to give it up. No sitcom taking place in Manhattan would be complete without at least one episode commenting on the fact that most Manhattanites don’t own a car.
Welcome Back Kotter
Mr. Kotter, played by the comedian Gabe Kaplan, was the teacher of the high school delinquents known as the Sweathogs. There were five Sweathogs: Vinne Barbarino, Freddie Boom Boom Washington, Arnold Horseshack, and Juan Epstein the Puerto Rican Jew.
Unlike most of the sitcoms which glamorize the city, Welcome Back Kotter takes place in the ghetto of Brooklyn. The opening credits show the sign that says “Welcome to Brooklyn, the 4th Largest City in America.” When I was a little kid, I always remembered reading that sign when my parents drove over the Verrazano Bridge into Brooklyn. I guess I’m not the only one who was beguiled by that sign. Was Brooklyn really its own “city”?
The show was partially based on Gabe Kaplan’s real life experiences growing up in Brooklyn. Despite Kaplan’s comic genius, it was John Travolta (Vinnie Barbarino) who the show catapulted to fame
At a bar in urban Boston, a fat accountant, a know-it-all mailman, and later on a neurotic psychiatrist gather every night to drink.
It’s amazing that a show with such a simple concept as that lasted 11 years and was one of the funniest shows in the history of TV.
There are many sitcoms that take place in Manhattan, but few are as truly about Manhattan as Seinfeld. The whacky situations that Jerry, George, Kramer, and Elaine get themselves into could only happen in New York City.
The neurotic characters are reminiscent of the works of movie director Woody Allen, a guy who would get prime mention if this were a piece about movies in the city instead of sitcoms in the city.
This wonderful show only lasted for one season, and most have forgotten it. But I still remember the hilarious story of Neil a kid just out of college, who gets a boring office job where he shares an office with a zany co-worker. During lunch on his first day at work, he meets the beautiful but bizarre Alicia, played by Téa Leoni.
One could only imagine Alicia and her whacky roommates living in a place like Manhattan. It was exceptionally funny watching the boring straight-laced Neil interacting with Alicia’s crowd. It’s a real shame this one was canceled.
Like Cheers, Friends is another NBC show with a great ensemble cast. But everyone familiar with New York City wondered how they could afford to live in such a nice apartment in Manhattan with their low salary jobs.
When it first aired it was one of the best shows on television. Unfortunately, I think it went on just a little too long. Ten years later they should all be living with their spouses and children out in the suburbs and not still sharing apartments in the city.
Sex in the City
Sex in the City is the HBO sitcom featuring the lives of Carrie Bradshaw (played by Sarah Jessica Parker) and her friends Charlotte, Miranda, and Samantha. And add to the mix my favorite supporting character, Carrie’s gay friend Stanford. You have to love Stanford’s outfits. I asked someone from New York City, “do gay men in New York really dress like that?” She said, “only the flashy ones.”
The city is in the title of the show, and this is a show that could only take place in the biggest city of all, New York. In one episode in the first season, the main characters rent a car to travel outside the bounds of Manhattan. But no one wants to drive it because they’ve all forgotten how to drive! This was the obligatory episode commenting on the fact that Manhattanites don’t own cars.
After six seasons, you will finally discover if “Big” has a real name, if Miranda and Steve will get together, and if Carrie will ever find true love.