Sunday, September 1, 2013

Sci Fi and Sitcoms Pt. I

I've posted about novels mixing humor and science fiction, but television and the movies have also utilized it. Many science fiction TV shows try to have a little humor mixed in to lighten the load, but some are basically comedies with science fiction as a setting. "My Favorite Martian" for example. Classic '60s sitcom right down to the laugh track. And yet it used the late '50s and early '60s preoccupation with aliens as its springoard. It also took full advantage of the willingness of 1960s viewers to suspend disbelief with their comedy when they tuned into shows like "I Dream of Jeannie," "Bewitched," "The Munsters," "The Addams Family," etc.

In "Martian," Ray Walston plays a Martian who crashes on Earth after a newly fired rocket nearly hits his ship. He's found by reporter Tim O'Hara (Bill Bixby) who befriends the being. The Martian is christened Martin O'Hara, is claimed to be Tim's uncle and moves in with the friendly Earthling. who must keep the secret of his "uncle" from being discovered especially by his landlady who begins to develop a bit of a crush on Martin. Martin has the ability to raise his antenna and disappear as well as levitate items with his finger, which helps get him out of trouble (or gets him into trouble, depending on whose around to see it). It's actually a sweet show, the premise sold by the sincerity and charisma of the two leads. Interestingly, Bixby would turn to science fiction for another hit the following decade when he starred in "The Incredible Hulk" based on the comic book character of the same name.

A decade or so later, the premise would be used again to give Robin Williams a vehicle for his improvisational talents. The character of Mork first appeared on a strange episode of "Happy Days" in which Mork, collecting specimens to bring back to Ork, his home planet, chooses Richie Cunningham as part of the collection. He is only stopped by the power of the Fonz! The appearance was so popular that a show was devised with Mork as the lead character and "Mork and Minday" was born. As in "Martian," Mork arrives on Earth in another fact-finding mission only he does so in the late '70s and meets up with Mindy McConnell (Pam Dawber) who is also a writer and is also willing to take in strange alien life forms. The two fall in love, marry and even have a son in Mearth played by Jonathan Winters who was one of Robin Williams' comedy influences and able to hold his own during their improv sessions.

In the 1980s, a fuzzy brown puppet alien visited Earth in "Alf" (an acronym for Alien Life Form). This time the alien stayed with a family after a following a ham radio signal to Earth and crashing into their garage. Unlike Uncle Martin and Mork, Alf could make no pretense at being human. He was short, brownish...had a long snout...and then there was the tuft of hair...well its hard to describe what he was outside of loveable yet often insufferable. He was a wise cracking alien. Kind of like your Uncle Bob who stayed too late at the bar. So keeping him under wraps was a bit harder. Also, unlike Martin who was trying to fix his ship to get home, and Ork who was in constant contact with his home planet, Alf's planet, Melmac, was destroyed in a nuclear war. So sadly, this was one alien in the three who couldn't physically blend yet had no place else to go.

"Third Rock From the Sun" took hold of the science fiction genre and slapped it silly. They didn't just offer us one alien, they offered four--an expedition posing as a normal human family. Well, as normal as they could pretend to be in bodies that weren't really theirs and took some getting used to. Tommy Solomon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in particular had his work cut out for him being the oldest of the four in the body of a boy just hitting puberty. With John Lithgow as leader Dick Solomon, Kristen Johnston as the Amazonian-like Sally Solomon, French Stewart as Harry Solomon and Jane Curtain as Mary Albright the uptight and unsuspecting  professor that Dick as fallen in love with and eventually falls in love with him. "3rd Rock" lasted a surprising five seasons. I say surprising because generally, science fiction didn't really work well on network TV after the 1970s. Thankfully this did cause it's one of the funniest shows, sci fi or otherwise, thanks to the cast's ability to take broad characters and make them likable and in an odd way, characters we could relate to.

More on this topic next post.

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