Early Polly: Inventing the Sitcom

Cliff Sterrett’s Polly and Her Pals (1912-58) was along with George McManus’ Newlyweds and Bringing Up Father and George Herriman’s Family Upstairs one of the pioneers of a situation comedy genre that would eventually define radio and TV. There were progenitors, to be sure, like vaudevillian skits and theatrical parlor room comedy. But it was in the comics pages of the first two decades of the last century that the major tropes and situations of the genre developed. The kooky neighbors, generation gaps, spousal miscommunication and jealousy, and especially the aggrieved and diminished father figure – all took root here and were developed by Sterrett, Herriman and McManus, among others.

Beginning in 1912, we see in Polly and Her Pals these beginnings coalesce into what would become genre conventions. Comics historians tend to focus on Sterrett’s graphic imagination and adoption of modernist visual stylings in the 1920s especially. Even in the first years of the strip in 1912-13, however, you can see his thoughtful character design and attention to posture, the timing across panels, and the spareness of the design. Sterrett’s style can look disarmingly simple at first. Its loose and bigfoot approach feels doodled. But somehow he packs into that neckless, squat jumble of squiggles that make up Maw and Paw Perkins a lot of significant detail and emotion. He froze just the right evocative moment in each panel, and used his spare set of lines to express real emotion and tone in his characters. Note above Ma’s look of surprise that she was singing the ear worm implanted by Polly.

Sterrett finds endless ways to animate his fireplug Paw with combinations of flailing arm stubs, popped eyes and defeated postures. Paw’s compressed expressive design truly embodied the most culturally potent theme of modern American situation comedy – the comically ineffectual father. Literally half the size of his own statuesque and fully modernized daughter Polly, Paw’s compressed figure flails hopelessly against female authority, changing styles of dress, language, courting, the press of a modern world consistently disturbing his comfort zone. The diminished, aggrieved, alienated American male is not an invention of contemporary America. It has been an American reflex response to change for over a century.

It is in having his Perkins clan and a considerable extended family respond comically to the everyday and realities of a changing modern America that Polly and Her Pals helped define both the major tropes and the cultural relevance of a situation comedy genre that would become central to 20th Century American popular art.

The strip was conceived as a showcase for a younger generation of readers, a market newspapers had ignored and were hoping to exploit. Polly herself exemplified the better educated, more socially assertive and independent middle class woman on the cusp of suffrage. Sterrett’s basic idea went through several iterations and titles, first at the New York Evening Telegram in 1912 culminating in a series called For This We Have Daughters. The idea caught the eye of William Randolph Heart as he was readying what would be the first daily full page of newspaper strips at he New York Evening Journal. As was his way, Hearst hired Sterrett away from his rival in order to continue his strip concept under a new name. While Hearst pressed Sterrett to keep the focus on the alluring Polly, Sterrett understood that the center of comic gravity was the aggrieved Paw Perkins. Even in the first months after it premiered in late 1912, Polly and Her Pals, Sterrett seemed to understand the potential for the family-based situation comedy to be a light way of engaging the small dynamics of interpersonal relationships and the ways that the modern world pressed into domestic life. The younger generation’s embrace of changing fashion, the engine of consumer culture, is a persistent theme from early on.

Generational change would of course become a major driver of situation comedy for the next century, but it is early in the 20th Century where we see it emerge, and for good reason. Young people were being empowered by widening education, a new managerial corporate structure, and disposable income that could be spent on the new engine of consumer capitalism and it fuel, changing fashion. But even more fundamental, Americans were first realizing that social change itself was a permanent fixture of accelerating modern life, embodied by a youthful generation that was being raised in a world much different from their parent. And Polly was one of the heroines of that new reality.

In just the first year of Polly and Her Pals, Sterrett engages the new styles of courtship, the ever-changing clothing fashion, the increased use of slang, the growing gulf between rural and urban culture, the new independence of women, to name just a few of the themes of change absorbed by the strip. And absorption may be the way to look at the role of the situation comedy as Sterrett helped develop it. He was showing the large and small realities of modern American life as they percolated down to everyday domestic life and attitudes. In effect, the domestic family comic strip, the roots of situation comedy, was crafting a cultural role for the genre. It took the realities of the new world that the rest of the newspaper chronicled – politics, economics, fashion, media, crime – and domesticated them. In many different ways, and with very different perspectives over time, the sitcom put an intimate, personal filter on modernization and change, giving us a way to at once engage it in relatable ways and often deflect us from its dangers.

While the sitcom had some precedent in vaudeville and theatrical comedy, the newspaper was the perfect medium to shape it into a genre. Its daily regularity offered a platform for episodic, sort form fiction around a persistent set of characters. The comics had always been deeply tied to the rest of the news of the paper. Most if the early practitioners served as news illustrators before photography superseded them, and most of them were editorial cartoonists as well. The creators of modern comic strip were journalists stepped in the news of modern life. And the mass-produced, cheap newspaper itself was capturing a market of new emigre, working class and middle class consumers, which would become the subject of situation comedy.

And while I would argue that Sterrett’s Polly and Her Pals was the most coherent and prescient example among the early family strips of the sitcoms to come, its roots were clearly planted by a range of early comics masters. A new middle class of solicitous and self-conscious parents was lampooned by both Winsor McCay’s The Story of Hungry Henrietta (1905) and George McManus’s The Newlyweds (1904), which was probably the first persistent family-based strip. Both strips explored the inanities of middle-class social self-consciousness, being in style, material acquisitiveness, generational change. And George Herriman’s The Family Upstairs/The Dingbats (1910) advanced the form further by pitting his family against the external world (noisy neighbors), centering the strip around a frustrated and feckless father, and surrounding the Dingbats with a revolving cast of kooky or bemused characters.

The situation comedy quickly became such a staple of mass media that its existence seems almost natural. But it is important to understand that its roots were in the modern American newspaper, not film, radio or TV. It was born from a news-driven medium of social observation and crafted by artist-journalists who were highly attuned to the realities of modern change. The situation comedy was not only made possible by modern mass communication but it took modern change and the family’s responses as its subject. Strips like The Newlyweds, Bringing Up Father, Polly and Her Pals, The Gumps, Gasoline Alley, among others, proved immediately and wildly popular, and that massive public embrace does not happen without reason. They were serving a welcome cultural function – of literally “domesticating” fast-paced social, economic, interpersonal changes to make them personal, relatable, maybe even manageable.

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