by Alan Mandel
Of all the television situation comedies of the era, I Dream of Jeannie perhaps fills the ideals of the genre to the extreme. While unheralded in its prime and now passed into the obscurity of syndication, this show perfected the comedic vehicle of what I shall call "perpetual misbelief." This paper explains the latter term, and attempts to justify this lofty claim. The History section describes some of the earlier and contemporary comedies, which provide a foundation for the humor in I Dream of Jeannie. The Basis section delves knee-deep into the show's particulars, mulling the diverse elements which form the melange which tickles our collective funnybones. The Conclusion section summarizes what I fear may seem to be a slightly rambling discourse.
Comedies hark back to the dawn of Man. While no Neanderthal scratchings have proven to contain jokes 1, we have no doubt that they were a very witty society. It is not believed that Homo Erectus was able to actually stand erect for millions of years simply because he was usually doubled over in laughter.
The earliest recorded comedic productions were those of Aristophanes. While I Dream of Jeannie does not borrow heavily from Aristophanes' frameworks, some standard motifs do appear from time-to-time.
Until the advent of mass media (beginning with widely-published books, although formally with the era of radio), comedies took a "One Shot" approach. No themes were carried over from production to production; in each play the characters were defined from the ground up, the stage set for a series of gags and scenarios, and finally the permanent resolution. A permanent resolution is one in which there is no backing out, for example, a character may die or the principles may separate.2
Only when radio (and then television) came into power did the notion of the continuing theme find a suitable home. The canned character eliminated the need for the viewer to identify the "good guy" or to understand the characters' interrelationships. The benefits of this development are threefold:
1) Viewers did not have to spend effort deciphering motives, which are typically the most difficult elements to extract from a first-seen show. While this panders to casual viewing, it is perfect for comedy since it does not tax the viewer's brain, which must be eased into a receptive mood as opposed to being severely challenged.
2) With already adequate background, half-hour shows became more feasible.
3) The viewer is endowed with a rich history of the character's actions. With 13-26 new shows each television season, a successful sitcom has the potential to build up a vast selection of arcana to build upon. Alas, most shows do not take advantage of this capability.3
The most alarming negative result of this development is the "Ending Parity" paradigm, in which the final state of the show at the end of the episode must be the same as the entering state. Ending Parity was prototyped in early fiction, such as Sherlock Holmes. If this were to be breached, then the viewers who miss an episode must endure a ramp-up period during which they would potentially be unreceptive to humor. Furthermore, this soap-opera style is much more demanding of script coordination. For any show in which there are trivial differences at the end of the show (for example, the main character has a newly broken arm), the following show will ignore these differences. Whereas, if any changes slightly less trivial occur by the end of a show, the show will be advertised as a blockbuster must-see.4
The most beneficial of all results above is the setup for the "Running Gag" - a humorous element that carries over, and is seen in multiple episodes. This, too, was not new to television, being amply displayed in the early days of radio (eg, "Don't Open the Closet!"). But the combination of Continuing Themes and Running Gags set the stage for most television situation comedies as precursors to I Dream of Jeannie.
The comedic element referred to in the Overview, Perpetual Misbelief, is defined as a continuing theme of one character attempting to prove or ascertain some fact which can somehow always be hidden or misrepresented by some other character. One of the first mass-media forms traces back to the Lone Ranger, whose identity is always hidden (but this was not exploited frequently). Early Superman and Batman comic books frequently used Perpetual Misbelief as a thematic undercurrent in episodes dominated by some other primary plot. Although not inherently humorous, these precursors to I Dream of Jeannie allowed the use of deception as a dramatic element which nevertheless would culminate in at least a smile. 5
It was not until quite late in the era of 1960s television that the Perpetual Misbelief was melded with situation comedies and the Running Gag to produce the shows in the genre of I Dream of Jeannie. The One Shot approach did not allow Perpetual Misbelief to mature into a farcical tour-de-force (by definition, it could not be perpetual). Even early, successful comedies such as I Love Lucy did not exploit Perpetual Misbelief simply because the premise for the show did not require deception as a basis.6 But once the first shows hit the air with the proper premise, a flood of copycats followed.
Before I Dream of Jeannie is discussed in relation to these other shows, it deserves mention that the dramatic (as opposed to humorous) tension of Perpetual Misbelief cannot be overlooked. If Ending Parity is lost, then the viewer, as well as the main character, has lost a part of himself. Imagine if Lois Lane knew who Superman was.7 A slump in the success of Cheers was tied to the first actual romance between Sam and Diane.
So, the elements of:
*Perpetual Misbelief (in dramas)
*Opportunity for Running Gags
sat as a comedy treasure waiting to be exploited...
The storyline of I Dream of Jeannie is summarized, without further ado, in the following paragraph:
A NASA astronaut, Major Anthony Nelson, is stranded on a desert island after re-entry, and finds a bottle with a genie in it (Jeannie). He becomes her master, and she lives with him in their suburban home in Coco Beach, Florida. Jeannie has amazing powers to alter reality. In each episode, some forbidden use of her powers alters things in some way which must be explained and coped with (to achieve Ending Parity). No other "normal" human knows Jeannie's secret except for Major Roger Healey, Tony's closest friend. Together they must conspire to keep Jeannie secret from all others8, especially the nosy Dr. Bellows, who is always discovering peculiarities in Nelson's life and always on the brink (never succeeding) of bringing them to the attention of Nelson's commanding officer General Peterson.
This unremarkable framework has given birth to a surprisingly rich comic result. Various aspects of the show will be discussed in more detail below. As background, there are several other sitcoms which offer parallels with I Dream of Jeannie, for which the storylines are included for reference:
My Favorite Martian
"Uncle Martin", a Martian, is befriended by Tim. Uncle Martin has alien powers, which only Tim knows about. Together they must keep their secret from their nosy neighbor, Mrs. Brown, and from the suspicious policeman, who are always on the brink of discovering their secret.
Samantha, a witch, marries a mortal, Darren Stevens. Samantha has witchly powers which only Darren knows about.9 She and Darren agree that use of her powers should be generally forbidden. Together they must keep their secret from their neighbor, nosy Mrs. Kravitz, who is always on the brink of discovering their secret.
Wilbur is a human, and keeps his talking horse, Mr. Ed, in a stall near his house. Only Wilbur knows that Mr. Ed can talk, and together they must keep their secret from a variety of nosy people.
There was this guy, and he had a car which could talk, since the auto was the reincarnation of the guy's mother. Together they kept this a secret from certain other people. The author is currently awaiting a rerun to refresh his memory.10
Mork and Mindy
Mork, an alien from the planet Ork, is befriended by Mindy. Mork has alien powers, which only Mindy knows about. Together they must keep their secret from a variety of people who are on the verge of discovering their secret.
These shows are the closest in theme to I Dream of Jeannie, some more than others. For example, in Mork and Mindy, many episodes are not devoted to revealing Mork's secret. However, these outlines are given as backgrounds for the complex analysis which follows.
The principle character of IDOJ should by all rights be Jeannie herself. Ironically, Jeannie is the weakest part of the show from a comic standpoint. Her presence is more of an alluring, subservient example of 1960s feminism than of a powerful force. At the time of the show's airing, the major controversy happened to be whether or not Barbara Eden's navel should be visible (it was ultimately covered by her costume).11
Jeannie has the common sense of a prepubescent suburban youngster. She never learns from her errors. After years of living with Tony, even as his wife, she is unable to absorb enough sense of Florida culture to get by without wreaking havoc. She initiates trouble, rather than solves it. She does not contribute to the humor of the show, she is merely a catalyst for the situation. Her character is one with her bottle, an icon of feminine captivity and object-treatment which would not sit well with modern-day feminists.
Jeannie's unappealing trait could potentially have destroyed the comic effects of the other characters, but her presence is at worst a neutral factor. Her moronic behavior can be effectively rationalized by the following argument. She is from a race of genies, living in a human world.12 Genies have such power that disease and discomfort are foreign to them. Consequently, Darwinism would not strongly apply to intelligence, ie, one would not have to be a very smart genie to survive quite nicely.
Jeannie's double-digit IQ contrasts with Samantha's (Sam) in Bewitched. Sam is a model of competence: keeping house, raising a family, fending off the whining intrusions of her mother, and rescuing Darren from almost certain dismissal from his place of work, the ad agency run by Larry Tate. This competence may depict the witch in a more appealing light, however it also does not add to the comedic effect. Therefore, the conclusion must be that regardless of the competence of the witch/genie, she does not add humor herself.
Sam and Jeannie are virtually identical in range of powers and in situation, although Sam herself was never hidden from existence as Jeannie was. Another significant difference is that Sam typically did not initiate a problem by indiscriminate use of her powers as Jeannie would do. In order to create the peculiar situations which must arise for the comedy to have an effect, Sam had a bevy of relatives to serve as catalysts: her mother Endora and her aunts Esmerelda and Agatha were the usual sources. Endora's jealousy, Esmerelda's incompetence, and Agatha's absent-mindedness combined to set up the same sort of situations that Jeannie could start all by herself.
In the event that the cauldron of crisis needed to be stirred up more, there were always the evil sisters. Jeannie's evil sister would pass herself off as Jeannie in order to make mischief. This was more of an excuse to allow Barbara Eden to masquerade as a brunette, since she played both roles. And Samantha's evil twin, Serena, popped up periodically for similar purpose. Serena was also played by Elizabeth Montgomery. The overriding factor here was the producer's desire to show off both women in a more flirtatious role, which would not be possible when they were being themselves.13
A smaller difference is in the way the magic is invoked on the two shows. Jeannie will fold her arms and blink, whereas Samantha would wiggle her nose rapidly as if she had a tic. The actions of both characters would be accompanied by a sound: for Jeannie it was a Jew's Harp boing, and for Sam it was a high-pitched alternating tickle-sound. Although all shows implied that the sound was not actually heard by any characters but merely for viewer satisfaction, it is well-known that when the main character lost her power, either no sound would be emitted, or a sour low-pitched thunk would be used. This event would happen approximately once every 10 episodes. Another common fact is that neither character could undo the magic that another genie/witch had done.
Less obvious parallels exist with other shows. In My Favorite Martian, Uncle Martin would rarely initiate a problem, since he was of high intelligence (much the same level as Samantha). Since he was a student of human culture, he rarely made cultural blunders. But in his effort to rebuild his spaceship in order to return to Mars, transgressions would inevitably occur, which required explanation. From time to time, his powers would go awry14, which provided the writers with broader opportunity to create predicaments. Uncle Martin was a toned-down Samantha, being primarily reactionary as opposed to initiatory. He did not have any Martian relatives to create a situation. The upshot was that the antics were less frequent than on IDOJ.
In the cases of Mr. Ed, and My Mother the Car, both main characters were not even seen as participants by other characters in the show. They were not so much integral with the show as they were foils for the antics of their owners, Wilbur and whatshisname, respectively. This explains why people even today are embarrassed to admit to watching these shows. Nobody wants to laugh repeatedly at a talking horse; this is a single joke. Imagine someone confessing to cracking up "every time Mr. Ed moves his lips!" Ed and the Car did act as catalysts sometimes, but more often they helped their hapless owners out of a bad situation.
IDOJ had a rich cast to support the weak main character. Tony Nelson was a master of looking confused, and of appearing sincere only when he had something to hide. Roger Healey was able to straddle the fence between being Tony's closest friend, and trying to stab him in the back constantly in order to get Jeannie for himself (for her powers, as opposed to her body it would seem).15 Dr. Bellows was a master of appearing confused and incredulous as well, and was rarely called upon for any other emotion (except for transient gloating over having caught Major Nelson in some unnatural act). They all supplied ample fodder for a scriptwriter's pen or director's megaphone.
Bewitched, the closest show to IDOJ in theme and cast, offered Darren Stevens as the battleworn husband. The first Darren, Dick York, was amply able to convey confusion, exasperation, and good-natured anger. When York threw his back out for the last time, a new Dick [Sargent] came on as the new Darren. He was never able to convey the fumbling confusion of York, and could only manage exasperation and a rather mean-spirited anger. This duality of Dick-Darrens offers the chance for a scientific analysis of the comedy. For the audience never much cared for Dick York's Darren. The incontrovertible conclusion is that the sputtering, befuddled confusion element must be well-played as a prerequisite for humor. Larry Tate, as Darren's boss, came across as an equivalent to Dr. Bellows. However, Larry was rarely on the verge of discovering the truth about Sam. He required complex explanations from Darren and Sam, but did not suspect them. That task fell to Mrs. Kravitz, who presented a one-sided character who only appeared in every few episodes.
In My Favorite Martian, Tim was presented as a level-headed suburban single male, who just happens to have a Martian as his cohort. He was unable to master any sort of caricature or exaggeration of anything funny; this was a major failing of the show.16 Mrs. Brown was a valiant, talkative neighbor who would put up with endless antics, but she never managed to be anything but an ancillary, annoying obstacle for Uncle Martin and Tim. The stock phrase for this show was "But what about Mrs. Brown?", uttered approximately twice per episode. The policeman, always on the trail17, presented more danger to our heros, but as he was depicted in a serious light, the audience could not feel empathy, hence humor, for him.
For the remaining shows, it is notable that there are no acting standouts. Wilbur, Mindy, and whatshisname had nothing to offer the viewer other than appearing to be normal people who are thrust into a strange situation. All energy is concentrated on Mork; he is the center of attention (as well he should be, as he provides a show all by himself). All energy is likewise directed at Mr. Ed and the Car. The results of this strategy have been discussed above.
No matter the characters, the plot is the rubber meeting the road of audience acceptance. It is in this that IDOJ excels.
The stock series of events for IDOJ goes something like this:
*Jeannie does something less than intelligent
*Tony tries to get her to fix it, but he can't find her and the damage has been done.
*Dr. Bellows notices weird behavior, and stalks Tony to document the events. He demands an explanation from him.
*Tony stammers out a series of lame excuses.
*Dr. Bellows summons General Peterson to prove that Tony is a crackpot.
*Jeannie reappears and sets things straight, sometimes by luck.
*General Peterson arrives to find nothing amiss, with Tony looking surprised that he was even under suspicion.
*General Peterson recommends a long vacation for Dr. Bellows.
There are common threads of dialogue as well:
DR. BELLOWS: Major Nelson! There's a babbling brook in your living room!
MAJOR NELSON: There's a perfectly logical explanation, Dr. Bellows. You're going to laugh when you hear it.
DR. BELLOWS: Yes, I'm sure I will. Just wait here while I get General Peterson.
MAJOR NELSON: Yes, of course, sir.
MAJOR NELSON: MNYUHHH...Jeannie!!!!!!!!!
DR. BELLOWS: General, you must come with me to Major Nelson's house.
There's a babbling brook in his living room!
GENERAL PETERSON: Doctor, if this is another one of your...
DR. BELLOWS: No, General Peterson, this time I've got him. He's gotten away before, I don't know how he does it, but this time I've got him.
<everyone back at Major Nelson's home>
DR. BELLOWS: You'll see, General, it's right in....where's the
MAJOR NELSON: Heh? Wha? What do you mean, Doctor?
DR. BELLOWS: It was here just a minute ago.
<A miniature Jeannie laughs from inside a mug>
GEN. PETERSON: Dr. Bellows, you need a vacation! Make it a long one!
MAJOR NELSON: He's been under a lot of stress.
This sequence would appear approximately 1.5 times per show. The only difference would be the object of concern. Substitute, for "there's a babbling brook in your living room", any of the following:
i) It's snowing on your house. But only on your house!
ii) There's a general store in your office!
iii) Your car was driving, but there was No Driver!
iv) How did that woman get in that space capsule?
Note that the repetition is no cause for concern. Enormously popular shows, such as Get Smart, show that endlessly repetitious humor is good as long as there is some variation.18 In the case of IDOJ, the success of the humor is at the expense of Dr. Bellows, a seemingly benign and competent character who is mercilessly portrayed in General Peterson's eyes as a hopeless schizophrenic.
The crazy situations (some of them shown above) are simple but effective. The major guffaw-getter is not in the situation itself, but the anticipation of what is to follow: the explanation, and then the aforementioned confrontation with Dr. Bellows. Explanations would be along the lines of:
MAJOR NELSON: You see, sir, we're rehearsing a little play here, and it calls for an elephant.
DR. BELLOWS: But a real elephant? How on earth did you bring a real elephant onto the base?
MAJOR NELSON: Yeah, uh huh, oh. <spilling coffee on Dr. Bellows> Oh my, sir, let me clean that up <knocking over something>.
These themes are nothing new. The Marx Brothers were masters of the elaborate set-up requiring explanation. They could get themselves layered in complex levels of deception, and talk their way out of it. This modus was permitted by the lengthy movie format, and the One Shot which does not require Ending Parity. On the other hand, Fawlty Towers manages to convolve a layered deception technique in a single half-hour show. This can be attributed to the fast-paced (almost slapstick) acting of John Cleese and the full half-hour allotment, since there are no commercials on BBC. IDOJ does not have the luxury of a layered plot, therefore it supplies a parallel deception in which situations arise and are resolved one way or another before the next weird situation arises.19
The bumbling of Major Nelson is highly important, especially in light of the failure of Dick Sargent. While not as totally inept as Chevy Chase in Fletch, Larry Hagman as Nelson does a magnificent job creating diversions whenever he needs to. Major Healey complements Nelson by helping the charade and doing a bit of bumbling himself - otherwise Nelson would have no strong ally, and would be cast adrift to deal only with Jeannie.
In contrast, the typical Bewitched plot does not invoke threat of discovery, but merely explanation:
LARRY TATE: Darren, Carter Industries is a million-dollar account! Why did you tell Mr. Carter that you thought his yacht was a piece of junk? <a spell having been put on Darren to make him always tell the truth> You're fired!
<later, back at Tate's office with Sam and Mr. Carter>
LARRY TATE: Darren! Sam! Darren, I told you your services were no longer required.
SAMANTHA: Larry. Mr. Carter. You never got a chance to hear Darren out. What Darren was trying to say was that the yachts Mr. Carter builds remind him of the austerity and magnificence of the Chinese Junk. Your ad campaign could show the evolution of the boat from Chinese Junk to your yachts!
LARRTY TATE: I hate it.
MR. CARTER: I like it. It's got bite to it!
LARRY TATE: Just as I was going to say, I like it! It has bite!
While the confrontation is on a par with IDOJ, the lack of discovery is a major flaw. Mrs. Kravitz only appeared occasionally. When she did, she would have to convince her husband, Mr. Kravitz, of the goings-on. This is not as powerful a predicament as with Bellows/Peterson. Bellows is likeable, and a man of authority who has much to lose by appearing to be flawed. Mrs. Kravitz is meddlesome, ergo unlikable, who has to answer only to her husband who just wants to read the newspaper. Furthermore, the Running Gag cannot be elicited with only a token appearance. Bewitched tried to bite off more than it could chew by segregating the Tate action from the Kravitz action - there simply wasn't enough time to do both justice. This is particularly supported by fact that a great deal of time was required to develop the familial antics - be it Esmerelda, Endora, Agatha, even Doctor Bombay or Uncle Arthur.20
The other sitcoms do not offer nearly as close a comparison. The elements of discovery and explanation were erratic or even nonexistent. A talking horse can't generate an outrageously peculiar situation, nor can a Car. Mrs. Brown and the cop were not used consistently, nor were they placed in a vulnerable position often enough (which is almost a requirement for laughter). Uncle Martin was always striving for control, yet control kills comedy.
I Dream of Jeannie is the embodiment of Perpetual Misbelief. This is why the show succeeds where others fail.21 The Running Gag of both explanation and fear of discovery are consistently applied. The Ending Parity makes the show totally non-threatening; if viewer B came into the show halfway through, viewer A would only need say "Jeannie switched Roger and Tony's voices" to convey the full plot. Only IDOJ uses the same character (Bellows) as the focal point for both the explanation, and the continuing tension surrounding the proof, to someone else, that there is indeed something funny going on. In I Dream of Jeannie, there is something funny going on!
RETURN TO HOMEPAGE
1Although Mel Brooks' 2000 Year-Old Man does attempt to recreate the humor of the Stone Age. In addition, the comedy It's About Time was set in this early era - but its success was primarily limited to its themesong in modern trivia games. <BACK TO ARTICLE>
2Although even today, death does not necessarily mean the end. Witness Dallas, in which Bobby is brought back to life after an entire season, by retrofitting a dream sequence onto the past year's shows. And Planet of the Apes broke the barrier to the Shameless Sequel Syndrome by peppering the screen with contrived before-and-after timeslices. <BACK TO ARTICLE>
3Probably due to the risk of alienating new viewers, and the complexity of production sequencing. Cheers is one sitcom which does [very] occasionally dare to flirt with the past. Mentions of Coach, or of Diane persist even in the days of Miss Howe and Woody. The hit M * A * S * H dealt with Henry's death too rarely to be considered as coping with change well. <BACK TO ARTICLE>
4Such as the birth of little Ricky on I Love Lucy, or when Ted married Georgette on The Mary Tyler Moore show. <BACK TO ARTICLE>
JIMMY OLSON: Gee Mr. Kent, when you disappeared and Superman
showed up, it was almost like he knew exactly what was going on in
CLARK KENT: <winking at the camera> Maybe he does, Jimmy. Maybe he does. <BACK TO ARTICLE>
6Although many single-episode deceptions were made. For example, Lucy in drag in order to perform at the Tropicana Club. Or, in Leave it to Beaver, the Beave wearing a cap to hide his self-inflicted haircut, offering lame excuses to Ward and June. <BACK TO ARTICLE>
7As in the movie Superman II. Moviegoers experienced profound disorientation when Lois discovered the truth, and were relieved when Ending Parity was reached in the last moments. <BACK TO ARTICLE>
8For the early part of the series, Jeannie's existence was completely unknown to all but Tony and Roger. In a late episode, Tony marries Jeannie, thus her existence becomes known but her powers remain shrouded. As with Cheers, this marriage caused problems - the series did not last too much longer once the sexual tension, never explicit except for a kiss, disappeared. <BACK TO ARTICLE>
9Obviously, Samantha's relatives, witches and warlocks all, know about these powers as well. Darren and Samantha's daughter, Tabatha, and son, Adam, when born in later episodes, have inherited this apparently autosomnal dominant trait. <BACK TO ARTICLE>
10With shows of this nature, it is typically true that the theme song is remembered better than any particular elements of plot. "A 1928 Porter, that's my mother dear, she helps me through everything I do and I'm so glad she's here. My Mother the Car! My Mother the Car!" <BACK TO ARTICLE>
11But Cher was permitted to show her navel on the Sonny and Cher show, during the same era. <BACK TO ARTICLE>
12This parallels a host of other television and movies such as: ET, Star Man, Moscow on the Hudson, Splash, ALF, Mork and Mindy, Big, and the omnipresent Superman. In these, humor (and sometimes drama) is evoked from the "alien in America" motif. <BACK TO ARTICLE>
13It should not have been necessary for the sisters to look like their counterparts, since through witchcraft and magic, they could have transformed themselves into any form they wished. But this was also a method to show off trick camerawork, which was obligatory television sitcoms of the 60's. <BACK TO ARTICLE>
14This happened in other sitcoms as well. The derivation is most likely the red Kryptonite thematic thread from Superman stories. <BACK TO ARTICLE>
15The same actor straddled the same fence in The Bob Newhart Show, in which he was Bob's friend and neighbor, but would risk offending them deeply and constantly by dropping by unannounced for meals and emptying the refrigerator without regard for any manner of social grace. <BACK TO ARTICLE>
16The actor, Bill Bixby, was so unable to emote that he eventually wound up in The Incredible Hulk, in which Lou Ferrigno was substituted as a stand-in every time Bixby was called upon to express a strong emotion. <BACK TO ARTICLE>
17Yet another parallel with The Incredible Hulk, as a reporter was always about to unearth Bixby's secret alter ego. <BACK TO ARTICLE>
MAXWELL SMART: At this very moment, the entire US Sixth Fleet has surrounded this ship.
KAOS AGENT: I find that hard to believe.
MAXWELL SMART: Would you believe, the Fifth fleet?
KAOS AGENT: I don't think so.
MAXWELL SMART: How about a Boy Scout with a water pistol?
<BACK TO ARTICLE>
successful "weird situation" comedies were created by
Laurel and Hardy, and Abbott and Costello. "That's another fine
mess you've got me into, Ollie" is identical in concept to "MNYUHHH...Jeannie!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
<BACK TO ARTICLE>
20The actor Paul Lynde, as Uncle Arthur, was an established comic actor who also appeared on IDOJ as the tax collector who discovers a trove of priceless art in Nelson's home, only to have it anti-miraculously turn to tack, chocolate money, and counterfeit cash overnight. <BACK TO ARTICLE>