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TV Lexicon: Sitcom

By Wikipedia

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 other nations.


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 "frozen-in-time" show).

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 track altogether.

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 Golden Girls
  • 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 and Mindy
  • Baldrick in Blackadder
  • Uncle Fester in The Addams Family
  • Kelso in That 70's Show
  • Chrissy Snow in Three's Company
  • 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 Brady Bunch
  • Dr. Frasier Crane in Cheers
  • Wilson in Home Improvement
  • Andy Griffith in The Andy Griffith Show
  • Dr. Heathcliff "Cliff" Huxtable in The Cosby Show
  • 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)

Plot Formulas

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, Three's 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 lies."

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 about it.
  • 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 include:

  • 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 handle.
  • 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.



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