The transferral of my entire childhood to YouTube and various streaming services means that I now have the ability to study, in all its pastel and neon glory, the television staples of the 80s and 90s. I will have you know that although I have long regarded the period of 1982-1992 as the apex of Western Civilization, the simple act of seeing Murphy Brown in its original form has given me great pause on the tastes of my youth.

In its time, I thought this represented the apex of smart sitcom writing, and yet its hyperfocus on of-the-moment political issues, fallbacks on tropes, broad acting, and blind reliance on the three-camera format renders it nearly unwatchable in 2021. This show is not smart. This show is Joanie Loves Chachi set in a DC newsroom.

Even the greats deemed timeless– Seinfeld, Golden Girls— have a sticomminess about them that I can’t quite forgive. Is it from over-familiarity? Has endless comfort-food watching rendered them stale and ruined the joke?

But recently I caught up on the final season of a sitcom I’d missed from 2020; it was still “filmed in front of a live studio audience,” and I felt like I was watching something from when McAlpin’s had a tea room. The wicker furniture in that Miami living room hasn’t changed; I have. The culture has. We’re bathed in irony, multiverses, and documentary-style comedies now, and there’s no turning back.

I wonder if this is because I submitted to training as to what was funny and what was not– the relative lack of choice available to us made comparison shopping difficult. Full House and Family Matters were schlocky but safe in their predictability. Were they ever truly funny, or was I just 10 years old?

The forces that sharpened their skills on Catskill stages, or by those who were mentored such sages. Seinfeld may have deconstructed the sitcom subject-wise (“No hugging, no learning”) but it still sank to the level of Wacky Neighbor to do so.

This doesn’t happen with baseball– if we let it. The further back we go, the more we can appreciate bare-knuckle, pitching-all-nine innings origins of our sport. Some obvious social issues aside (it’s eternally embarrassing to the nation and the sport that the Negro League even needed to exist), a look into the way baseball worked in the age of the laugh track is to admire a sport free of lock-outs, analytics, and self-consciousness.

That’s not to say baseball was necessarily better; each era offers its frustrations. I want the entirety of the steroid era replayed. And absolutely nobody wants a full-throated return to players mired in losing teams with no way out. It’s deeply uncomfortable to reflect on the careers that were unnecessarily shortened by years playing on Astroturf–essentially a parking lot with a thin green carpet rolled over the top. Data will get you on base faster than a gut feeling 90% of the time. And inspiring as it was to see Johnny Bench crouch behind the plate with little more than an unattached roll of bubble wrap hanging over his chest, I’d prefer to see concussion protection instead of feeling impressed by such flagrant disregard for potentially lethal head injuries.

It’s easy to sink into the moment and think that the evolution of sport and entertainment, fused as they are, have reached their end point and that there’s no forward motion from here. But in twenty years we’ll see footage of Votto, Moose, and India and turn to one another in the bar all, “Now that was when this game was a game. Look at these real men out there.”

What are we doing right now that future generations will regard as barbaric? There’s always something. Is it the constantly-changing Special Uniforms? The fight over the netting along the baselines? The idea that nine-year-olds should have pitch counts limitations? I vote that whatever replaces the Internet will see a great deal of snickering over our giant pixellated Jumbotrons; the 2031 Reds will be outfitted with a hologram projecting Gold Star ads straight up into the sky, and there’s nothing you and I will be able to do about it.

11 Responses

  1. Scott C

    I was fortunate, I grew up in the era of The Andy Griffith Show, I Love Lucy and Hogan’s Heroes, Variety shows like Red Skelton and George and Gracie Burns. Then I had the luxury later on of watching shows like M*A*S*H.
    You are exactly right with the caveats that you mentioned baseball is and to some extent most sports, are timeless. Ken Burns did a fantastic job in exploring the history of baseball in his documentary. Baseball will be forever changing, but let’s hope that we don’t get hologram ads projecting from Reds uniforms into the sky

    • Jim Walker

      I don’t think I have watched a sitcom since Beverly Hillbillies. Sure, I have been stuck in social situations where they were on TV and I saw bits and pieces, but to “follow” one or watch regularly, nah.

      • Mary Beth Ellis

        I remember receiving an invitation to a pool party at “the cement pond” and nervously asking my mother what in the world that was. Lax education.

      • Scott C

        Very Cool info. Speaking of WKRP, that was a very funny show that probably lasted only as long as it should have. I watch the Thanksgiving Special every year. “As God is my witness, I thought Turkeys could fly.”

  2. Jim Walker

    Bench was the first guy I recall wearing the batting helmet under his mask versus the soft cap. However, as I recall, it later came to light that some catchers had for some time been wearing a skull cap interliner under their soft cap while catching. For those unfamiliar, the interliner had competed with the full batting helmet as head protection for hitters. Later on some catchers wore a visible hardened full coverage version of the interliner instead of the reversed batting helmet.

    One high school team I played on in the mid to late 1960s still had a couple of the interliners but we were required to wear full external helmets (sans the ear flaps) at the plate during games. My best memory is that the liners were little more than rounded egg shaped aluminum bowls with a round pad inside at the crown also pads along the temple areas.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Catchers are BAMFs. They went so long without any proper equipment whatsover.

  3. LWBlogger2

    Hi Mary Beth… Missed reading your stuff. I need to find some time to catch up on your articles I’ve missed. Cheers!

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Thanks for reading– even the backlog! 🙂

  4. Mark Moore

    Not baseball, but on topic for the title … 🙂

    The so very few shows over the past couple decades that are worth watching come quickly to mind. Somebody mentioned M*A*S*H already – they certainly went out on a high note. Seems like 90+% of the stuff just “jumps the shark”. For every show with really crisp writing there are so many that are garbage.

    And for every team that wins the MLB World Series, there are 29 who didn’t and 28 who didn’t even get a chance. Maybe instead of a “laugh track” we need a “cry track” or a “yell track” for our Reds?

    Your mention of the Negro Leagues made me think of two things. First was the Ken Burns documentary, especially the entire “inning” dedicated to the Negro Leagues. Second is the ball cap I found in an antique mall over the summer. It’s a 30-year-old issue from the museum in KC and it sports about 20 logos of Negro League teams. I have it sitting on a shelf, stuffed with paper to make it stand up full.

    Something feels as if we’re standing on the edge of major changes. What remains to be seen is the substance of a 2022 season and the team our Reds field. We already know Tucker and Nick C. are gone (I expected both). How much gets done prior to December 1 is anyone’s guess.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      I’ve learned that American shows that follow the British model and have a short lifespan tend to be much better– the writers can plan out a long-term arc, and the show has its run before what makes it good wears thin, or if the plotlines change so much that the characters/original situation become unrecognizable. Shows that go on and on, squeezing every possible episode out of a network, always reveal wear and tear. Fortunately, that seems to be changing with streaming. Much as I love The Mandalorian, I was relieved to hear that it will only last 3 seasons, and would even have been fine with the Season 2 finale as the end of the series.

      Respect to Jerry Seinfeld for not going that route and going out on top, which was unthinkable in his day.