How ‘Mad About You’ Perfected the Network Multi-Camera Sitcom

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It’s surprising to me that Mad About You doesn’t receive more attention and acclaim than it does.

After all this was one of the biggest sitcoms of the 1990s, running for seven seasons — it won a dozen Emmy Awards and a Peabody. It introduced most of us to Helen Hunt, which in and of itself should make it a notable show. It also had a great supporting cast that included John Pankow (before Episodes), Lisa Kudrow (before Friends), Jeff Garlin (before Curb Your Enthusiasm), Richard Kind (before Spin City), and Hank Azaria (back when he just the Simpsons guy).

It’s also just been remade in China as the Mandarin language TV show Xin Hun Gong Yu — roughly “Wedding Apartment” — which has become a hit.

At a time when there’s more TV than ever to watch it’s hard to find time look back at anything, but Mad About You definitely deserves a second look.

It’s a hard show to categorize. It’s about a recently married couple, Paul (Paul Reiser) and Jamie (Helen Hunt). He’s a Jew from New York, she’s a WASP form Connecticut — although I don’t think the words “Jew” or “WASP” are ever uttered on the show. It’s not primarily about them and their friends hanging out. It’s a show about family but they don’t have a baby until about halfway through the show’s run. It could be a workplace show for periods of time as Paul made movies and Jamie worked in public relations.

This strangeness, this hard-to-describe nature of what the show was, is one reason why I think it’s been forgotten. It’s also one reason why it was such a success. It never received the attention of acclaim that other shows did, but it was one of the most inventive and innovative shows of its time. This was a multi-camera sitcom, but they were regularly trying new approaches.

In the first season, one episode took place on a train car; the first half of the episode on their way to Hunt’s parents for Thanksgiving, and the second half on the ride home after the holiday. In a later episode they’re stuck in the bathroom the entire time when the doorknob falls off.

“The Conversation,” which was a sixth season episode, is probably one that people remember. In the episode, written by Victor Levin and directed by Gordon Hunt, Reiser and Hunt have a twenty-minute conversation outside the baby’s room, which was filmed and initially shown in a single uninterrupted take.

That the show made Reiser a documentary filmmaker should make it ironic that the direction of the show could be flat at times, but the two stars and the cast were good enough, and the writing was strong enough, that often just pointing the camera at them was all that was necessary.

More than just formal innovation, though, the show also had its own approach to the typical sitcom format. The producers wanted to make a traditional sitcom, but they wanted to make a show that was set in the 1990s, which didn’t mean that there were a lot of obnoxious period details (though some episodes made me think, you couldn’t do this one today because everyone would have a cell phone) but by echoing the concerns that people had and talking to how they were living.

This is a show that spent half a season with the lead characters moving further apart and debating having affairs with other people. Of course back then, everyone knew that what would happen is that they would not sleep with anyone and they would stay together. Today of course, that would not be a given. Today some sitcoms might use this as an opportunity to move things around, to split them up, to alter the meaning of the title “Mad About You” before bringing them back together.

That didn’t happen in Mad About You, but they did address — and not just in single episodes but over many episodes and many seasons — a lot of the turbulence of relationships. They struggled with fertility over the course of an entire season. They went into therapy, which was never exaggerated, it was simply presented as something they did every week, and something that they occasional fought over, but something that was helpful to them.

What Hunt and Reiser were great at, but rarely had the chance to do, was physical comedy. So much of the show was in their rapport, the dialogue, but there was an episode in the final season where their therapist challenges them to not say a word for the rest of the day so as to concentrate on each other’s body language. Of course, as anyone reading this knows, that means that the entire cast shows up at their apartment in the second half of the episode. Before that happens, though, Hunt and Reiser have a lengthy sequence as they enter the apartment and prepare dinner and engage in this elaborate dance as they push against each other and then work together so perfectly, that it’s clear that they could have made an entire episode in silence and not only would it have been funny, but we would have understood them the entire time.

Of course the stars of the show were Hunt and Reiser.

I think it’s fair to say that Reiser is a much better actor than most comedians. (Admittedly that sounds like damning him with faint praise.) He managed to be funny, but he also played off other actors, and not simply perform for the audience. Reiser was wooden at first, but you can see that he’s very much trying to create a character, and was able to relax a little after a while.

While I described their relationship earlier as “New York Jew marries Connecticut WASP,” the show never treated them like those archetypes any more than they treated them as artist marries businesswoman. The show found a way to treat them as individual characters, which meant that neither was the idiot, neither was the fool, neither was the overbearing one, but each could be that in an episode or a scene depending on how their characters reacted. It felt natural the way that they acted an reacted.

Hunt was a great actor and it’s easy to see how the show could have become unbalanced. Hell, I’ve lost track of how many shows I’ve seen where a male comedian is paired with a female actor and he gets to be the funny and wacky one who’s performing for her and for the audience and she’s reacting and playing the more dramatic character.

One reason the show avoided this trap was simply that Hunt was funny, and could play off Reiser and other characters. All the actors were able to work together but they all had different styles and rhythms. Reiser was willing to be unfunny and be overshadowed, even when he was writing the episode, and I think this plays into his ambitions. He wanted to act, to be dramatic, to do more than just tell jokes. He lucked out finding an actress who could be funny and forced him to up his game as an actor.

One of the pleasures of binge-watching Mad About You is that is reveled in being a television show. I don’t mean that it made a lot of meta or in jokes, but it was about actors and plots and approaches. This is a show where Hunt’s parents were played by Carol Burnett and Carroll O’Connor. Sid Caesar and Mel Brooks played Resier’s uncles. Some of the cast of Laugh In appeared in a lengthy dream sequence in one episode. Jerry Lewis and John Astin and Ed Asner showed up. Barbara Feldon played, essentially, herself.

Also in what remains an incredibly inspired episode of television, Carl Reiner guest starred as Alan Brady, the character he played on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Simply having Reiner appear as the character was funny and weird enough, but the real treat was how he interacted with Resier and Hunt, who played off him — and each other — perfectly.

I think that connection to The Dick Van Dyke Show is key. Because today television borrows from a lot of different media in terms of structure and style and approach, but Mad About You was working in a tradition of situation comedies, just as Reiner was when he created Van Dyke.

The show could be too soft and too schmaltzy, but there were times when the show managed to not feature wild overreactions and obvious comedy targets and yet be funny, and also hit an emotional and thoughtful tone for the characters.

In one episode in the third season, Paul’s father gives his sporting goods store to Paul’s cousin Ira (as played by John Pankow). This bothers Paul, who of course doesn’t want to inherit the store, but of course feels slighted by this. That he should have been asked, that there should have been a conversation about this between him and his father. And he tells his wife about those rare occasions that his dad would take him to a baseball game. This tension continues through the episode but Paul doesn’t blow up at his father or complain to his mother or yell at his cousin.

The climax comes when Paul and his father have a moment together in the stockroom of the store and his father makes a comment about how he’s glad that he can give this to Ira, because Ira doesn’t have anything else. Paul says, well, Ira’s band could take off, and his dad just shakes his head. He doesn’t have it. Not like you. Because his dad knows that his son doesn’t want the store, and he doesn’t need it. Paul realizes that by not having a conversation about the store was his father’s awkward but heartfelt way of telling his son how proud he is and a sincere compliment. And they just have this moment, which is tied to that earlier story about two of them at ball games, of genuine emotion, where the two don’t say anything.

Over the course of 164 episodes, the show managed to be more than the sum of its parts. Overshadowed by the cultural phenomenon that Seinfeld was (and continues to be) and the immense success of Friends, Mad About You offered an update to the sitcom form. While it wasn’t revolutionary, what the cast and crew did with the show was a more subtle, more nuanced and more formally dynamic show than most of the family sitcoms on the air — then and since. Like a lot of shows, it would have been twice as funny if they made half as many episodes, but the show managed something rare. The people behind Mad About You accepted the guidelines for what a network sitcom was, and then it managed to tweak, play with, and subvert every single rule except one — to be funny.

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