It May Look Like a Living Room...: The Musical Number and the Sitcom
Genre Blending
  1. While the musical number now operates as a generic disruption, it has also been reintegrated into the narrative. The sitcom has developed into a more sophisticated and flexible genre, often incorporating a more realistic view of life, which does not demand resolution at the end of every half-hour. Repetition starts to shade over into progression.

  2. While Murphy Brown was abrasive and satirical and had its disruptive moments, the musical number in Murphy Brown tended to be more realistic: though still comedic, it carried an unusual poignancy. Most commonly, as in the first episode, the number is performed by Murphy at the end of a long day—like Joel Goodson (Tom Cruise) in Risky Business, she turns on the stereo and sings along uninhibitedly. On an obvious level, Murphy’s utter inability to carry a tune is a kind of musical slapstick; it is also a leveling factor that, like Lucy’s lack of talent, and can be read in a number of ways. It is a kind of containment—Murphy is successful in her career as television news reporter, but she is hopeless at one thing that she loves—a symbol of her frustrated personal life. It is also a kind of liberation—away from the stresses of her job, in the protected space of her living room, she can indulge in her musical passions. Music is a constant in Murphy’s life, and participates in intratextual references with 1960s R&B in general and Aretha Franklin’s performance of Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman” in particular. Murphy sings this song at the end of the first episode, and later in the series tries to sing it with Aretha Franklin; the song is given a whole new meaning when she sings it to her newborn son.

    Candice Bergen as
    Murphy Brown

  3. The generations of the Brown family are also brought together through a common appreciation of music. Murphy’s mother, Avery, embraces the music of her youth (Billie Holiday) just as her daughter does, and baby Avery (named after her mother, after a protracted gag emulating the running secretary joke and subsequent nanny joke) develops an “unfortunate” attachment to Barry Manilow. The year-long running joke caused by the conflicting musical tastes of mother and child is defused at Avery’s first birthday party, when he is serenaded by Manilow himself. The incongruity of the situation, Murphy’s exasperation, the appreciation of the real Manilow’s ability to take all the ribbing and even participate in it, and the lyrics of the song “I Am Your Child” layer irony and humor. Cynics may dismiss these occasions as sentimental piffle, but in the context of an otherwise brash show, they are a touch of the power music holds in real life—music’s power may be a myth, but the persistence of that myth makes it a difficult one to dislodge.

  4. In a nostalgic show like The Wonder Years (1988–93), music’s ability to evoke memory and emotion is particularly powerful. Unlike most sitcoms, the half-hour show was shot on film33 and is more of a half-hour drama with comedic elements. As is more common for dramas, the music tends to be non-diegetic, and along with other generic markers, the way music is used also crosses genre boundaries. Popular music is especially useful in establishing time period, as in this show set in the early 1970s, and as we can also note in the time-traveling science fiction show Quantum Leap (1989–93), as well as in such jukebox films as American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973) and The Big Chill (Lawrence Kasdan, 1983). Like The Big Chill, The Wonder Years has a dual historical setting. This is more obvious in The Big Chill, where friends who meet in 1983 are gauging how much their lives have changed since their college years in the 1960s. Motown songs provide the soundtrack of their idealistic youth. In The Wonder Years, the diegetic setting is clearly in the past, but the voiceover narrative is that of young Kevin Arnold all grown up. The music gains significance from the adult Kevin Arnold’s point of view, not only establishing his place in the past but his emotions in the present. These are perhaps not best called “musical numbers” but “musical moments.”

  5. Scrubs (2001–present), a sitcom spoof of medical dramas, is emerging as one of the most adventurous shows yet in its use of music. There is nothing particularly innovative about any of the techniques used, but their breadth is unusual. In contrast to a show like Ally McBeal, where certain elements became part of the style and predictable in key situations, Scrubs’ use of music is irregular and therefore unpredictable, keeping that sense of the unexpected that can be funny, or occasionally dramatic. In an early episode (“My Best Friend’s Mistake”), a recording of Erasure’s “A Little Respect” played during an operation develops into a musical number similar to Murphy Brown’s “You Keep Me Hanging On,” drawing in the various characters. Yet, the song itself is not such a literal joke—it has significant emotional resonance for the characters. The show often features a pensive non-diegetic musical finale, showing a montage of characters under a commentative song—but usually overlaid with idealistic inter JD’s (Zach Braff) reflective commentary (the show bears similarities to both M*A*S*H and The Wonder Years); this “adagio finale” is a convention of hour-long television drama from Miami Vice through to Ally McBeal. “Beautiful World,” by singer-songwriter Colin Hay, is the playout of “My Last Day,” the final episode of the first season—the song is the ironic coda to a series of devastating personal revelations made by a vindictive Jordan (Christa Miller), the ex-wife of JD’s menor/nemesis Perry Cox (John C. McGinley), that drives all the characters apart. Then, Colin Hay himself appears as a troubadour in the first episode of the second season (“My Overkill”). He has an intriguingly ambiguous presence, appearing onscreen, but magically transcending place and time through the continuity of edits, achieving a fluidity usually associated with non-diegetic music. He interacts with the characters “silently” in terms of dialogue, but they react to his presence with quizzical glances as if recognizing the non-diegetic music “in the flesh,” and he appears to haunt JD, following him from the street to the hospital and into the morgue. Finally, Dr. Cox takes Hay’s guitar and smashes it against a wall in annoyance—the troubadour helpfully offers, “I have other songs.”
    Click here for video example

  6. More overtly comic, “My Way or the Highway” is Scrubs’ parody of West Side Story, a musicalization of the competition between the medical and surgical interns that features regularly on the show.34 Yet one of the most emotional moments in the entire series is also the most theatrical: in “My Philosophy,” a vibrant young woman awaits a heart transplant but is realistic about her chances. She speaks of going out “like in a Broadway musical.” This narrative cue is fulfilled at the end when she dies and the entire cast participates in a big Broadway ballad number, which is clearly framed as a fantasy, fading in and out on her empty hospital bed. The pensive finale and the theatrical number are combined into one powerful gesture.

  7. In a bittersweet comedy like Scrubs, music’s usual position as a gag has been inverted, whether narratively or generically. This sitcom draws on both the unexpectedness of register-shifting that could easily provoke laughter, and music’s dramatic and emotional power, heightening its effect with this double-switch. But in certainly the most self-reflexive of musical commentary in the show, the sepulchral hospital lawyer Ted (Sam Lloyd) incongruously turns out to be part of a barbershop quartet: their repertoire? Sitcom theme songs.35

  8. Histories and Rituals

  9. The presence of sitcom re-runs on television—especially when self-consciously framed as on Nick at Nite or TV Land, and intertwined with the availability of old films on television and video—creates new sets of references that are, if not completely ahistorical, then based in a less-than-linear history. This media- and technology-based persistence of memory gives rise to two divergent impulses: the classicizing, or canon-building, which sets up some shows as “great,” and the more relativizing reception that views sitcoms from various historical periods on a level playing field. Home video releases tend to reinforce the formation of a canon, as does the prevalence of certain syndicated shows: in America, the sheer number of times over the average lifetime that one has had an opportunity to see I Love Lucy makes it common cultural currency; in England, The Phil Silvers Show—a show rarely seen in American syndication—holds a similar position. The profusion of fairly undifferentiated syndicated re-runs on independent stations allows for relativizing (of course, a certain initial commercial success is necessary in order to generate enough episodes for “stripping,” or showing an episode every weekday without undue repetition). More specialized cable channels have more flexibility: Nick at Night can actually serve both functions, screening full evenings of stripped classics; The Paramount Comedy Channel in England can strip shows like Frasier and Cheers, mixing them in with shows like Flying Blind and Girls on Top which did not generate all that many episodes, but which have a quirky appeal or started the careers of stars.

  10. The presence of musical numbers in classic American sitcoms, especially significant ones like I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show, makes them generically available, as a comparison with British sitcoms highlights (the British film industry never really grasped the musical genre, either). British sitcoms, with very few exceptions, tend to be even more conservative in form and content than American ones, and very, very few offer musical numbers. Two exceptions that do, have extra-generic reasons for doing so. Goodnight, Sweetheart (1993–99) is about Gary, a time-traveling bigamist, with one wife in the 1990s and one in wartime 1940s. Gary pretends to be a songwriter to explain his lack of a 1940s occupation, and he continually passes off songs written after the war as his own work. A simple historical disjunction creates the joke: laughter invariably ensues as he performs a Beatles or Elton John song in a World War II setting.

  11. Click here for video example The short-lived The High Life (1994) was a surreal farce with a Busby Berkeley-style credit sequence. This opening sequence immediately lets the viewer know that this is a high-camp world of gay men, or men coded as gay (Steve McCracken (Forbes Masson) and Sebastian Flyte (Alan Cumming) are, most stereotypically, air stewards), who communicate through pop culture references that are themselves a kind of “code”—even Steve’s apparently heterosexual obsession with a fellow female flight attendant is because she reminds him of the mermaid Marina from Gerry Anderson’s puppet show Stingray (1963). While Steve is off romancing with her in the swimming pool to Aqua Marina’s theme song, Sebastian is tucked up in bed under his Stingray duvet with an array of skin-care products (their flight crew chief Shona McSpurtle (Siobhan Redmond) pops in to borrow some from him). The overt display of and play with coded communication is one of the pleasures of camp—flaunting the secret while connecting clearly with those “in the know,” and the profusion of pop culture references offer an abundance of entry points for the enjoyment of the show.
    Click here for video example
  12. In its six episodes, the storylines of The High Life became increasingly absurd (having spent months on finding the perfect Eurovision song title—“Piff Paff Puff”—the boys need to write the song over the weekend; a crazed cookie mogul kidnaps Sebastian and Shona in search of the perfect oatcake recipe) and the cross-references to other genres and cultural moments grew denser, encompassing corporate anthems, the Eurovision Song Contest, the 1960s Batman television series, Star Trek, and Torvill & Dean’s 1984 Olympic Bolero.36 Song lyrics and titles commonly infested the dialogue. Here, the musical number operates on multiple levels, offering pleasure through interlocking recognition and appreciation: the number itself as a display of performance skill; the referential nature of the number, whether recalling general or specific other cultural forms or texts; the disjunction—or even more potently, the unexpected correlation—between a musical number and its (a)historical referent; and a second order of performance skill based on the incorporation of previous genres into new ones. The extremity of a series like The High Life pushes genre borders to their breaking point, but in doing so it points up quite clearly how these border transgressions operate.

  13. The sitcom is very much like a popular song—most examples have more or less the same form; the pleasure is in the details. Though surprisingly persistent, and very common in two of the most popular and enduring of sitcoms, the musical number has also become a foreign object in the narrative of the sitcom, and this foreignness renders it even more comedic. It provides pleasure in both its plenitude—the skill of performance—and its lack—the disruption of narrative and generic coherence. Sitcoms’ repetitive and cyclical nature has led at least one influential scholar to ascribe a ritual function to the sitcom, a reinforcement of cultural values through crisis and resolution (Newcomb 28). In an increasingly secular society, for better or for worse, the sitcom probably wields broader cultural power than most other rituals.37 And most cultures—ours included, it seems—tend to celebrate their rituals with singing and dancing.


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33. Sitcoms are typically shot on videotape in front of a live audience. While this gives a theatrical immediacy to such shows, it typically does not allow for location shooting expense nor the sophisticated manipulations of the image available on film (for instance, the montages that are a stylistic feature of The Wonder Years and many hour-long dramas). Videotape also does not allow for the manipulation of the soundtrack, such as The Wonder Years’ voice over narration, non-diegetic sound effects, and the careful integration of those elements with both non-diegetic music and diegetic dialogue and sound, that film can afford.

34. A fair number of dramas have done “musical episodes” in the past decade—Xena: Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Oz—though the context is very different. In the first two instances, the shows are about magic and fantasy to begin with. In Oz, the use of music to critique violent relationships and the criminal justice system has an obvious but powerfully ironic effect. I think what made this acceptable in a way that Cop Rock was not is that the show’s theatrical structure, with a Shakespearean on-screen omniscient narrator, already lends itself to the inclusion of musical numbers generically. We should also not underestimate the fact that Oz is an HBO show, and therefore not under the same commercial pressure of attracting a broad audience as a network show.

35. This is part of a larger pattern of references to old sitcoms scattered throughout the show—for instance Dr. Cox’s sarcastic names for JD include “Laverne,” “Shirley,” and “Joanie,” referring to the Happy Days world.

36. Most of these referents themselves are exceptionally campy, particularly Eurovision and Batman.

37. Anthropologist Victor Turner would call this a progression from the “liminal” to the “liminoid,” from a truly transformative cultural experience to the representation of one in, usually, a commodified form. “One works at the liminal, one plays with the liminoid” (55).

Table of Contents
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The Musical Number and the Sitcom

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