Would This Newsletter Make a Good Sitcom?

Audrey Thompson

Although my brother regularly urges me to publish my stories in some highly visible outlet such as The New Yorker or the Encyclopedia Britannica and assumes that there is no serious obstacle to my doing so, getting his name in these outlets would merely be icing on the cake of fame, as far as Chuck is concerned. In his eyes, he already has enduring fame. Once he has been written up in a family newsletter, he considers himself famous, regardless of whether anyone reads the story.

In general, family standards for fame and immortality are low. My mother pretty much sums up the family standards when she says, “I do hope the Thompson name doesn’t die out.”

Given such paltry standards for immortality, I was not surprised by my family’s satisfied feeling that everything that could be done for them in the way of fame was being done, whenever I sent them a family newsletter that so much as mentioned their name. While it seemed odd to me that so many in-laws and out-laws shared the very same ambition as members of my birth family, I put that down to too much Thompson exposure. Perhaps, over time, they had found themselves soaking in the peculiarly Thompsonian aspiration to minimalistic fame — although I must say that in some cases this effect has been known to take place remarkably quickly. Indeed, in the case of out-laws, the effect can take place with little or no contact.

Out-laws are a very broad category; Rick invented it. The invention came about when Rick and Phyllis were first dating and she told him that she was going to take him to Corvallis to meet not only Barb and Joe and the kids but Mom and Dad. “You’re taking me to meet your former in-laws?” he asked. “Yes,” she said. “Am I supposed to get their approval?” he asked. “Yes,” Phyllis said. He had a moment of surprise, but Rick rolls with the punches. “Okay,” he agreed. After that, there were many visits to the Thompsons and Gilrays. As Rick and Phyl left, he would tell friends and family, “Well, we’re off to see the out-laws.”

Phyl and Rick on vacation
Phyl and Rick
Joe, Barb and Annika in the snow
Some of the Out-Laws

Out-laws are not merely one’s own former in-laws or those of one’s partner; they are a much larger category than that. When Rick and Phyl got married, all of his relatives became Ivan’s and my out-laws. Rick wrote to tell me so in advance. The reason he thought he should warn me was because, according to him, once he and Phyl were married, all of the Silvermans would expect to be in my newsletters. As far as I know, the Silvermans had never even seen one of my newsletters, but I wrote one for them anyway. It was not very factual. I didn’t really know any facts about them, whereas I know all the most dire mysteries about my own family. Nevertheless, the newsletter was pronounced “good,” despite being almost devoid of actual news, simply because it was a newsletter and therefore, automatically, a source of personal fame.

So alluring is the prospect of the fame to be achieved through these newsletters that some of my friends are caught up in the fever. For several months, William has been pressuring me to include him in my stories. When I did in fact mention William and Paula in a story, Bryan immediately filed his objections regarding the lack of American Indians in general and of Lumbees in particular in my stories. Also, he said, it was not fair that William got to represent not just African Americans but people of color in general, and what is more, William always gets all the good roles, and in addition it did not seem fair to him at all. This is pretty much a direct quote. Now, without getting into why Bryan should want whatever William has, as that might take us into psychoanalysis, which is great for entertainment and shock value and causing a general uproar but is not necessarily what you might call a help, I do have to wonder how it came to be that both William and Bryan share the Thompson family’s distinctively understated ambitions. Most likely, they caught the lust for newsletter fame from Ivan, who has a particularly virulent case. (This is Ivan’s favorite part of the newsletter; you see what I mean.)

It may be, though, that Bryan caught it from William, because this is the first I have heard of a burning need on the part of American Indians to find representation in newsletters about my family, and it seems suspicious to me that I only heard about this apparently longstanding demand after William and Paula appeared in a newsletter. By contrast, William has put considerable time and effort into getting me to see what I should be doing to enhance his own standing in my purportedly fictional family. In fact, he has talked about practically nothing else for the last three months. Recently, he emailed me to say that every white sitcom worth its salt has an African-American couple who are the best friends of the main characters. Volunteering himself and Paula for the best friend role, he added that their characters could offer my characters free psychoanalysis. I took this offer somewhat amiss, although I doubt that my family would object; they are happy to be the stars of any story, even if it involves psychoanalysis. Then again, they might raise objections once they became aware of some of the funkier assumptions underlying psychoanalysis. When I explained Freud’s basic beliefs to my mother, she was outraged. “He thinks women wish they had a what?!” she said. It is one thing to want to have the story of your life written down for posterity; it is another to have Freud suggest that the desire for fame is really, secretly, the desire for, well, we won’t go into it here, but something else entirely.

Presumably it is because he does not believe that the stories about my family are true that William was so quick to offer free psychoanalysis. If he knew my family, he would know that it is by no means easy for would-be therapists to get a word in edgewise. For some people, this is a bonus. After meeting our family, Phyllis said with satisfaction, “You never have to say anything at all, if you don’t want to.” Joe, on the other hand, sees this more as a liability; he has his own stories to tell. One night at dinner, he told a lively, amusing story to my family, only to find that, apparently, no one was listening. Feeling the need to round out the story and provide it with some modicum of recognition, he said to himself, “Amazing story.” As it turned out, I was listening, but you can never count on someone listening, unless, of course, you happen to mention their name.

The whole family in Peoria

Like Chuck, William moves quickly from microscopic to worldwide notions of fame. Conveniently ignoring the fact that I do not watch television, he continually urges me to write sitcoms and promises me that I will receive an Academy Award for doing so. I may not watch television, but I do know that you do not get Academy Awards for writing sitcoms. No doubt William knows this too, but thinks that the promise of an Oscar will tempt me into producing the sitcoms that he is sure I am on the verge of writing. All of these, I have been instructed, are to feature the African-American “best friends next door” role that he has already assigned to himself and Paula. Rather ruthlessly, he has cut his four children and his mother from this script, or perhaps he thought that it would be better to introduce further characters one at a time, as the opportunity arose.

I could tell you more about William’s ideas, but the thing is, they are so elaborate and so specific and so much like something out of Wonder Woman that it would be better if he wrote them himself. One of his recent ideas involved my challenging racist cops and gaining worldwide approval for feminism as a result; in the process, I was supposed to wear a cape and crown, although this is far from being standard feminist attire. Crowns, especially, are frowned upon.

William has many, many more ideas than this, each one totally incompatible with the previous one. Still, the point is, he goes to elaborate pains to write them all up and explain them to me and then try to get me to write about them. Bryan, on the other hand, has not put this kind of time and effort into becoming famous through other people’s family newsletters. Not that I am complaining. Frankly, I discourage people from dreaming up sitcoms and trying to get me to write about them. I particularly discourage the idea that a newsletter would make a good sitcom. This seems to me to ignore the basic idea of what a sitcom is.

Let us review the facts about sitcoms. A short list of subjects who would not make a good sitcom would look like this: thesis editors, administrators, AT&T service reps. You probably have personal favorites of your own to add. Myself, I would want to include “owners of cement companies,” but perhaps that would be too sweeping. Maybe that was just that one owner of a cement company. What prevents these subjects from lending themselves to sitcoms is that, even if humor were to suggest itself in these contexts, it would be under circumstances so unrelentingly bleak that the humor would be unbearable. There might be funny moments, but the overall effect would be merely to enhance the essential meaninglessness and hopelessness of it all.

The networks’ expectation that sitcoms will make the products in the commercials seem more attractive should also raise concerns for those who see these family newsletters as the basis for a sitcom. Just what product might a sitcom about the Thompsons, Gilrays, Smiths, Brayboys, Silvermans, and Van Laninghams help to sell? I ask this strictly as a rhetorical question; I don’t want to hear actual opinions. I am just raising this as a point of quiet, private, internal reflection.

Here is the gist of the problem: your professional sitcom writer does not think of situation comedy as the bringing to life on television of family newsletters. I can’t put it any more bluntly than that. A sitcom is supposed to have a plot of sorts, a recognizable situation that might be of more or less general interest, and characters who are at least vaguely like people one might meet in real life, though perhaps more glamorous or, alternatively, less so. Never do characters in sitcoms appear simply because they think that they will become famous by doing so.

Now, my newsletters are true to life, but by this I do not mean “recognizably true to life,” since this would imply that someone unacquainted with my family might say, “Yes, that is exactly how life is,” and even people in my family do not think this. Take a little discussion I had with my brother the other day. He had been urging me to put his seventeen sock monkeys into a story, but I have resolutely refused to do so. I do not understand the concept of sock monkeys, and having more of them to deal with does not make them more understandable. At regular intervals, however, I have made an effort to understand Chuck’s and Kaarin’s relationship with Sneetchy and his sock monkey kids and grandsocks.

“What is it about sock monkeys?” I asked Chuck on this occasion. “Why do you have them sit on your lap and pretend to eat toast? Why do they sleep with you? Why are we supposed to engage them in conversation?”

“I think Kaarin and I just like to do things like that because it is an acceptable way to fool around and be silly,” said Chuck.

“That is where you are wrong,” I explained. “Teasing Tom and Annika is an acceptable way to be silly. Feeding toast to sock monkeys is unacceptable.”

“Also,” said Chuck, “sock monkeys are like dogs and cats. They are a pet. It is exactly the same as with cats and dogs, only socks. I have had both cats and dogs, you know, and I really cannot tell the difference between them and sock monkeys.”

I tried to argue with this view, but you can see why it was hopeless from the start. It is not possible to argue with someone who, based on his own personal experience, cannot tell the difference between stuffed animals and real animals. Logic is not going to help.

Chuck the wizard Chuck and a cat

My point is that the criteria for situation comedies include a recognizable, true-to-life even if exaggerated “situation,” and this is specifically what is lacking in my family. It is almost impossible even for members of my family to understand other members of the family. Following our conversation, Chuck no doubt said something to Kaarin along the lines of, “Poor Aud. I think she really thinks dogs and cats can’t eat toast. I wonder how her mind works. Well, I suppose that’s the academic life for you. You lose touch.”

This brings me to a small problem with the Smith and Brayboy sitcom ideas that I want to mention. Bryan is an academic. William is an academic. This limits the dramatic possibilities available to your popular storywriter. It is not possible to create a true-to-life sitcom about academics. Some years ago, a Swiss film was made about Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the philosopher from Geneva. The actor who played Rousseau spent most of the hour-and-a-half length of the movie pretending to read and write by candlelight. If you made a movie of my life, it would be a lot like that Swiss movie, except for the candlelight, and also there would be cats yelling. But as far as dramatic interest and complex plotting are concerned, reading and writing would pretty much sum it up. Imagine what the TV ads for an academic sitcom would have to look like. “Tonight, from 7:00 till 8:30, catch our all-star academic line-up! First, William will read and write from 7:00 to 7:30, then, in the exciting sequel to last week’s episode, catch Bryan in the dizzying, dazzling act of reading and writing, from 7:30 to 8:00. Finally, at 8:00, Audrey will read and write while her cats demand to be fed. Only on this channel!”

What I’m saying is, sitcoms about people like us lack a certain je-ne-sais-quoi. It is not an accident that there has never been a Cosby Show or Seinfeld or Dick Van Dyke Show or Simpsons show about a professor of education. The inherent lack of dramatic interest in my day-to-day life is why I started writing my newsletters in the first place. There was never any news to report. I have tried writing news-free letters, but no one but Annika appreciates them. Failing to write letters at all got me in big trouble. Letters with stories about my family themselves, on the other hand, proved highly satisfactory. Naturally, my family already knew all the stories, since they were about them; once written down, however, the stories supplied that guarantee of small-scale immortality for which, without knowing it, they had been longing.

Would this newsletter make a good sitcom? No. If this comes as a surprise to you, you may not have been paying close attention.

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