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!

And Robin Shall Restore Amends

You’ve probably seen (or heard) impressionist Jim Meskimen‘s work. Not only was he on America’s Got Talent, but he’s also turned up in everything from Friends to Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. If you haven’t seen his Richard III you really should. This is a Shakespeare blog after all. I’ve followed him on Twitter since I first discovered that one.

Recently he put out an offer on Twitter for custom recordings. I assume he was expecting people to ask for voice mail greetings. But just like my habit of typing “Shakespeare” into every new search engine I see, I knew exactly what I wanted him to read, and which voice I wanted him to do.

Robin Williams doing “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”

I can’t even really tell you why. I had no plans for it. It’s not my voice mail greeting. I just wanted to hear his voice again. Not the manic Robin Williams who never stood still. The Dead Poet’s Society Robin who wanted you to hear what he was saying to you because it was important. It made me think of Steve Jobs’ “Here’s to the crazy ones” commercial. Maybe I’ll put this to a video montage at some point.

In the meantime, though, please enjoy.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Thanks Jim, I love it. Flights of angels, Robin.

These Happy Masks

Ok, fine, we all have to wear masks for a little while. Like so many other things these days we don’t have to love it, but we can make the best of it.

Today I learned the great news that one of my merchandise manufacturers, Redbubble, is doing mask designs! I immediately made a number of designs available. If they turn out to be popular I’ll certainly do more. Bardfilm had already requested one that says “A plague on both your houses!” Or was it “A plague on none of your houses?”

Anyway, I hope you enjoy!

The popular “Shakespeare Insults” theme
I went looking for short Shakespeare quotes to sum up what we’re all going through, found this one.
Shakespeare doing Einstein’s famous pose.
Sometimes this just sums it up.
I’m hoping the rainbow theme finds its audience. I have a lighter version of this one coming soon.

If you’re tired of looking at geometric and animal prints and want some more Shakespeare in your government mandated accessories, leave a comment and let me know what you might like! Happy to put your favorite quote on a mask.

Sigh No More, Students ( A Geeklet Story )

I hear my oldest coming down the steps. “I wonder if she needs help with calculus or physics?” I ask my wife.

She rounds the corner. “Ok, so, we’re playing trivia in virtual classroom and the category was Shakespeare.” Oh fun. “Which character has been in three plays?”

“I’m going to assume Falstaff.”

“Right. Yes, well, we got it wrong. We guessed Antony.”

“That’d be Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, only two.”

“Exactly, I knew that wasn’t it. But anyway, he’s, like, a big character, isn’t he?”

My kids know thee well, old man.

“He was never the title character, but it’s been argued by more than one person that he’s Shakespeare’s greatest creation. Books have been written on just him. I literally have a book upstairs right now that’s nothing but an actor’s diary of when he played Falstaff.”

“I thought so. Our teacher told us that he’s a huge Shakespeare fan, and how he’s read all of the Henry’s because, you know, he prefers the lesser known plays, and that he didn’t remember this character, he must not have been that important.”

I fire up my computer. “Hold on a second.” I google “Harold Bloom Falstaff”:

Then there’s Harold Bloom, who, in the opening pages of his short, charming new book Falstaff: Give Me Life,[1] writes that he has “come to believe that if we are to represent Shakespeare by only one play, it ought to be the complete Henry IV, to which I would add Mistress Quickly’s description of the death of Falstaff in act 2, scene 3 of Henry V.”

For Bloom, what puts Henry IV on top is not the starring role, Prince Hal, but the supporting character Sir John Falstaff. “I think of this as the Falstaffiad,” writes Bloom, “rather than the Henriad, as scholars tend to call it.” For Bloom, who has been teaching at Yale since 1955 and who is considered by many to be the most distinguished living literary critic (he’s 87), Falstaff is not just “the glory of the Henry IV plays” but (his italics) “the grandest personality in all of Shakespeare.” 

You can’t bluff your Shakespeare knowledge in front of my kids.

Now He’s Just Showing Off (A Geeklet Story)

Last week my son surprised us all by dropping an out of the ordinary Hamlet quote into dinner conversation. Apparently he liked the reaction it got.

During quarantine he has, like I’m sure most boys his age, been avoiding his homework at all costs. Every day is a battle over when to get his homework done and how much effort to put into it. Today at lunch he comes up to me say, “Ok, Daddy, I’ve got a new strategy for doing my homework. Ready? Better three hours too soon, than a minute too late.”

I smile and acknowledge, “You’re studying your Shakespeare quotes now. I approve. I bet nobody else in the family would have recognized that, but yes, I got it.”

“Good,” he tells me, “Because that is so not my strategy.”

Sigh. “I know.”

Happy Shakespeare Day!