Sitcom Shakespeare

I don’t like working from home. It’s not so much the distractions, it’s that I am in control of the distractions. Odd, right? If I’m in control of the distractions I should be able to limit them. And that’s why I don’t like working from home, because that’s what I’m bad at. Example? We have a kitchen at work. I have a kitchen at home. I know at work if I get up and go to the kitchen every half hour, people are going to notice. But at home the only person stopping me is me, and I go easy on myself.

The same is true for background noise. I’m one of those people that tells myself “I work better with noise in the background.” So the television is always on. But I’ve learned from years of practice that it has to be a certain kind of television. It has to be interesting enough that if I pay attention to it I’ll like it, but not so interesting that I care if I miss anything, you know? So while there might be an endless supply of Shakespeare to stream, it doesn’t fit that latter category. You have to pay attention to Shakespeare. Same with Netflix originals.

You know what’s great for this, though, is sitcoms. Binge-watching old sitcoms. There’s countless hours of them, they’re just entertaining enough that you catch a joke here and there that makes you smile. But the world isn’t going to end, you’re not going to lose the plot forever, if you get up and walk away for twenty minutes.

So that’s what I’ve been doing. And I noticed something very interesting. There used to be a lot of Shakespeare in these old sitcoms. It’s fairly obvious that any sitcom set in a high school would inevitably do a Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet episode. And Frasier was full of references, but a show about two over-educated snobs is really just on level one when they break out the Shakespeare. They’re just getting started.

But then I started watching Grace Under Fire, the 1993 Brett Butler sitcom about a divorced mom who is a recovering alcoholic trying to escape an abusive relationship. Sure enough, Shakespeare shows up by the third episode! A good amount, too, as Brett and her friend end up at a college party, where at 35 they feel way, way too old for these college boys, until she finds herself in a Shakespeare quote-off with one of them. A few episodes later there’s a reference to the town’s production of Macbeth as well, again allowing Butler to throw some quotes into the script.

I got to wondering what purpose Shakespeare serves in these shows. On the one hand it’s public domain so the writers can help themselves without worry. But to what end? For a Shakespeare joke to go over, the audience has to get it. Which is probably why we only ever get Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Macbeth references. They’re the ones people remember most from high school English class.

It’s also interesting to consider the context of the reference. In the Butler’s show it’s clearly there so we know that despite her circumstances she’s intelligent and well educated. But what about something more modern, like Friends? I’m reasonably sure that every Shakespeare joke in Friends – and there’s maybe only three of them? – was at the Joey’s expense. As in, “I haven’t heard Joey stumble to get words out like that since that time he played Macbeth.”

I can’t think of any more recent examples, but I also don’t watch as many sitcoms anymore.

So I’m left wondering, were sitcoms “smarter” decades ago? By that I mean did writers assume the audience would be more likely to get the reference? Or am I reading too much into this?

Who else has a good sitcom Shakespeare reference? I was going to say “the older the better” but that’s only evidence for my point. If you’ve got new stuff, stuff that’s still on tv, I’d love to see it. I want to see if there’s anything to my theory.

Star Trek : The Next Generation doesn’t count 🙂 – not only is it not a sitcom, but a show starring one of the world’s most well known Shakespearean actors in an ongoing story arc teaching an android about what it means to be human is hardly an unbiased example.

I know M*A*S*H had a few (thinking of Hawkeye performing Richard III most notably) but what about Taxi? How about the goofier ones like Three’s Company?

I’m straying dangerously into Bardfilm’s territory now so I expect him to come in and school me at any moment. But I’m starved for content and hadn’t written anything in a while, so take that, Professor!

2 thoughts on “Sitcom Shakespeare

  1. Yes, it’s a fascinating field! I just discovered one reference in Taxi, and an alert reader p0inted out several other places where Shakespeare comes into play in that show.

    The question of audience consideration / audience expectations is an interesting and probably really complicated one. Modern sit-coms assume other kinds of knowledge in their viewers . . . but not as much Shakespeare. Also, I haven’t been watching many modern sit-coms . . . so maybe it’s there but I’m not seeing it.

    The Office had a bunch of small Shakespeare moments. Arrested Development did, too. And The Gilmore Girls. Are those more modern?

    If you come on over to Bardfilm, you’ll find Shakespeare in all the following shows:

    Happy Days
    The Twilight Zone (not really a sit-com, but sometimes with sit-com elements)
    3rd Rock from the Sun
    The Simpsons
    Family Guy
    Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (also not really a sit-com)
    A Different World
    Gilligan’s Island
    The Cosby Show
    Sanford and Son
    I Love Lucy

    And you’ll find even more!


    kj (Bardfilm)

  2. Also, WKRP in Cincinnati. I forgot about that one!

    kj (Bardfilm)

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