TV Lexicon: Sitcom
A sitcom or situation comedy is a genre of comedy
performance originally devised for radio but today typically found on
television. Sitcoms usually consist of recurring characters in a format in
which there are one or more humorous story lines centered on a common
environment, such as a family home or workplace.
The situation comedy format seems to have originated in the old time
radio era of the United States, but today they are produced around the
globe. Many countries, such as Britain, have embraced the form and so
sitcoms have become among the most popular programs on the schedule. (They
are sometimes referred to as "Britcoms.")
The situation comedy format originated on radio in the 1920s. The first
situation comedy is often said to be Sam and Henry which debuted on
the Chicago, Illinois clear-channel station WGN in 1926, and was partially
inspired by the notion of bringing the mix of humor and continuity found
in comic strips to the young medium of radio. The first network situation
comedy was Amos & Andy which debuted on CBS in 1928, and was
one of the most popular sitcoms through the 1930s.
According to the 11th edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate
Dictionary, the term sitcom was coined in 1951, making I Love Lucy
the first sitcom to be called a sitcom.
Situation comedies have been a part of the landscape of broadcast
television since its early days. The first was probably Mary Kay and
Johnny, a fifteen minute sitcom which debuted on the DuMont Television
Network in November of 1947.
This type of entertainment seemed to originate in the United States,
which continues to be a leading producer of the genre, but soon spread to
Traditionally, situation comedies were largely self-contained, in that
the characters themselves remained largely static and events in the sitcom
resolved themselves by the conclusion of the show. One example of this is
the animated situation comedy The
Simpsons, where the characteristics of animation has rendered the
characters unchanging in appearance forever—although the characters in
the show have sometimes made knowing meta references to this (the writers
have made reference to that by calling The Simpsons a
Other sitcoms, though, use greater or lesser elements of ongoing
storylines: Friends, a hugely popular US sitcom of the 1990s,
contains soap opera elements such as regularly resorting to an
end-of-season cliffhanger, and has gradually developed the relationships
of the characters. Other sitcoms have veered into social commentary.
Examples of these are sitcoms created by Norman Lear (including All
in the Family and Maude)
in the U.S., and Johnny Speight's Till Death Us Do Part in Britain.
A common aspect of family sitcoms is that at some point in their run
they introduce an addition to the family in the form of a new baby. One
exception to this are the several sitcoms starring Bob Newhart, who
insisted that his sitcoms not have babies or children. However while
babies are thought to be cute and give adult characters opportunities to
act silly, toddlers are believed to have little use in comedy, partially
due to the difficulty of working with very young children, and partially
because their abilities are limited to looking cute and small
vocabularies. Thus most sitcom kids are aged to four or five within two
years of their birth—for example Andrew Keaton on Family
Ties and Chrissy Seaver on Growing
Pains. Instances in which sitcoms retained the same child without
such age-jumps, such as Erin Murphy as Tabitha Stephens on Bewitched
and the Olsen twins as Michelle Tanner on Full
House are the exception to the rule.
Most contemporary situation comedies are filmed with a multicamera
setup in front of a live studio audience, then edited and broadcast days
or weeks later. This practice has not always been universal, however,
especially prior to the 1970s
when it became more common. Some comedies, such as M*A*S*H,
were not filmed before an audience. (In the case of M*A*S*H, the
use of multiple sets and location filming would have made this
impractical.) In British sitcoms in recent years there has been a movement
away from filming in front of a live audience and several, including The
Office and Absolute Power have dispensed with the laughter
Ensemble Cast Structure
Many sitcoms reuse a common mixture of character archetypes to achieve
reliable comedic situations from week to week. The most common archetype
appearing in sitcoms is the naive fool. Typically, this character accepts
events and statements at face value, and often misunderstands situations
in ways that create conflict in the plot. Examples of the naive fool
character in sitcoms include:
- Rose Nylund in The
- Gilligan in Gilligan's Island
- Coach / Woody in Cheers
- Latka Gravas in Taxi
- Joey in Friends
- Father Dougal in Father Ted
- Herman Munster in The Munsters
- Walter (Radar) O'Reilly in M*A*S*H
- Kramer in Seinfeld
- Barney Fife in The Andy Griffith Show
- Mork in Mork
- Baldrick in Blackadder
- Uncle Fester in The Addams Family
- Kelso in That 70's Show
- Chrissy Snow in Three's
- Tim Tailor in Home Improvement
The Sage is another frequently-occurring archetype in sitcoms. In the
standard sitcom ensemble, this character usually has either an elevated
intellect, advanced age, or "outsider" experience. The Sage
frequently comments wryly on the situation into which the other characters
have placed themselves, and often suggests solutions to resolve the major
plot conflict. Examples include:
- Chandler Bing in Friends
- Professor Roy Hinkley Jr. in Gilligan's Island
- Mike Brady in The
- Dr. Frasier Crane in Cheers
- Wilson in Home Improvement
- Andy Griffith in The Andy Griffith Show
- Dr. Heathcliff "Cliff" Huxtable in The
- Debra Barone in Everybody Loves Raymond
- Steven Hyde in That 70's Show
Other recurring archetypal characters that appear in sitcoms include:
- The meddling or nosy neighbor
- The wisecracking curmudgeon
- The well-meaning blue collar worker
- The lovable loser (the always-second-best)
The plot and situations for many sitcom episodes arise out of a
character's lying to or otherwise deceiving the other characters. Some
sitcom television series, such as Mr. Ed, Bewitched,
Company, and Bosom
Buddies based their fundamental premise on the main character's
attempt to hide the truth through a series of deceptions and "white
The most common comedic situations based on deception include:
- Attempts to hide egregious mistakes or acts of weakness.
- Attempts to protect friends and family members from bad news.
- Attempts to "correct" a mistake before others find out
- Attempts to hide the breaking of pacts.
- Attempts to maintain an advantage based on deception.
- Attempts to dupe someone so as to achieve an advantage.
- Attempts to return stolen property before discovery of the theft.
The majority of sitcom episodes revolve around some form of the
lying/deception premises listed above. Lesser-used sitcom plot formulas
- One or more characters going into a foreign environment only to
return to "where they belong." Frequently, sitcom writers
will use this plot formula to transplant the entire cast to Hawaii,
Hollywood, or Europe in later seasons. Typically, a "Hawaii"
episode indicates that a particular sitcom has began to decline.
- A character choosing to make some fundamental change in their body,
habits, job, or other component of their environment, only to return
to "what feels normal."
- Characters entering contests or races.
- Characters being elevated to positions of responsibility they can't
- Newcomers or strangers making one-time appearances that change the
personal dynamics between the recurring characters.
- A special holiday episode, such as for Christmas or Halloween.
Most US sitcoms are half-hour shows in which the story is written to
run a total of 22 minutes in length, leaving about 8 minutes of commercial
time, although ones made outside the US may run somewhat longer. US
sitcoms are often characterized by long series runs of 20 or more
episodes, whereas the British sitcom is traditionally comprised of
distinct series of six episodes each. US sitcoms often have large teams of
script writers firing gags into the script and round-table sessions,
whereas the British sitcom is usually written by two co-writers or is the
work of one person.