Situation comedy

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A situation comedy, usually refered to as a sitcom, is a genre of comedy programs which originated in radio. Today, sitcoms are found almost exclusively on television, as one of its dominant narrative forms. Sitcoms usually consist of recurring characters in a common environment such as a home or workplace.


[edit] History

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 WGN radio of Chicago in 1926. It was partially inspired by the mix of jokes 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 which was one of the most popular sitcoms through the 1930s.

According to the 12th edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, the term sitcom was coined in 1951, making the term contemporaneous with I Love Lucy.

Situation comedies have been a part of the landscape of broadcast television since its early days. The BBC in the United Kingdom broadcast Pinwright's Progress from late 1946 until early the following year. The first American sitcom was probably Mary Kay and Johnny, a fifteen minute show which debuted on the DuMont Television Network in November 1947.

By 1983, sitcoms in America had declined in popularity, giving way to the evening soap opera format. Kate & Allie was the only sitcom to finish in the top ten most-popular television productions in the U.S. that year. However, 1984 brought forth The Cosby Show, which almost single-handedly revived the format. By 1998, the sitcom again showed signs of decline; this time not from lack of interest, but from high production costs and the popularity (and cost efficacy) of reality TV.[citation needed]

[edit] Characteristics

Traditionally, situation comedies featured individual episodes that were largely self-contained. The regular characters remained largely static, and events of the episode resolved themselves by the conclusion of the episode. Most sitcoms took this format. Events of previous episodes would rarely be mentioned in subsequent episodes. While school friends or beloved relatives might appear, often they would only be seen once in the series, and they would rarely be mentioned in subsequent episodes (apparent in The Brady Bunch and many other programs).

This formula has been parodied many times by The Simpsons. Mr. Burns, despite repeated close interaction with his employee Homer Simpson, never recalls those incidents and does not remember who Homer is in subsequent episodes. The revelation of Seymour Skinner's true identity in The Principal and the Pauper parodies the habit of traditional sitcoms introducing a major upheaval in the story of one episode, before returning everything to how it was before by the episode's end. More recently, sitcoms have introduced some ongoing story lines. Friends, an immensely popular US sitcom of the 1990s-2000s, had an overall story arc similar to that of soap operas. In addition to using traditional sitcom stories, which were introduced and resolved in the same episode, the show always had two or three ongoing stories taking place at any given point in the show's run. Friends also used other soap opera elements such as regularly resorting to an end-of-season cliffhanger and gradually developing the relationships of the characters over the course of the series.

Friends was not without precedent, however, as a sitcom with continuing story lines. The Beverly Hillbillies, for example, frequently had continuing stories during its successful 1960s-1970s run, and One Day At A Time frequently featured ongoing issues and four-part episodes.

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. In Britain, Johnny Speight's Till Death Us Do Part (which All in the Family was based on) and Ray Galton and Alan Simpson's Steptoe and Son are good examples.

A common aspect of family sitcoms is that, at some point in their run, they introduce a baby to the family. One exception to this are sitcoms starring Bob Newhart who insisted that his sitcoms not have babies or children. The addition of a new baby to a sitcom family provides new story situations for the series as the family must adjust to a new member. However the new-born baby itself, while appearing cute, provides only a limited range of stories, due to its limited mobility, mental development, and limited vocabulary. In addition, there are practical problems with working with a baby on-set. Thus, most sitcom kids are aged to four or five within two years of their birth—such as Andrew Keaton on Family Ties and Chrissy Seaver on Growing Pains—allowing the characters a wider range of story lines. Occasionally a sitcom would retain the same child without such age jumps such as Erin Murphy as Tabitha Stevens on Bewitched and the Olsen twins as Michelle Tanner on Full House.

Most contemporary situation comedies are filmed with a multi camera setup in front of a live studio audience then edited and broadcast days or weeks later. This practice is used mainly for traditional domestic or workplace-based comedies. Several 1960s sitcoms, such as The Munsters, The Addams Family, I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched, used the single camera filming style which looked slicker and was more practical given the visual effects used in these shows. Overall, the late 1960s was a period of greater production values for sitcoms as shows such as Get Smart also used the single-camera filming style. It allowed it to feature carefully created and sharply edited sequences that parodied action and fight sequences of spy genre films and TV shows, that would not have been achieved with the same level of finesse in a multi-camera production. In the 1970s M*A*S*H also used the single camera filming style, which again was more suited to the show's naturalistic and flowing style, and more practical given its multiple sets and frequent location filming. In the 1980s US sitcoms again predominantly used the multi-camera style.

A recent trend in sitcom production has been to dispense with laugh tracks and studio audiences. The Simpsons, My Name is Earl and The Office, as well as cult hits Arrested Development and Scrubs, are part of this trend. However, most sitcoms have used laugh tracks—as was established early on by shows such as I Love Lucy. The choice of a laugh track has sometimes led to conflict between producers and networks. The producers of M*A*S*H, for example, argued that the show did not need one, but CBS disagreed. They compromised by silencing the laugh track during the scenes in the operating room. (And when it was released in the United Kingdom, the laugh track was entirely removed.)

[edit] Premises

Sitcoms are based on such premises as the fish out of water, the foil, the young protagonist’s point of view, misunderstandings, and the parody of serious versions of their characters or genres.

[edit] Fish out of water

Many sitcoms, despite a variety of settings, are based on the premise of a character’s being out of his or her element, a fish out of water.

  • On Gilligan's Island, the title character (the first mate on a cruise ship), his skipper, and their passengers become castaways on a desert isle. Having left civilization behind, these latter-day Robinson Crusoes must fend for themselves while seeking a means by which to effect their rescue.
  • On Green Acres a lawyer and his Manhattan socialite wife abandon New York for a run-down farm complete with poor soil and a ramshackle house. The lawyer, a hopeless sentimentalist, has always dreamed of having his own farm to till, plant, and harvest. However, he is out of his league, the well-meaning but bumbling agricultural agent is unable to help him, and the con artist from whom he bought the farm is unwilling to help him. He’s on his own in an environment he does not understand and in which he cannot function well.
  • The Beverly Hillbillies is based on the same premise. Upon discovering oil on his land in Bug Tussle, Jed Clampett and his kin move from the back hills of Tennessee to Beverly Hills, California, where they must cope with a way of life they’ve never known and with which they are ill equipped to handle.
  • On Bewitched, Samantha Stevens promises to forgo witchcraft and live according to the ways of the mortal world she chooses to inhabit because of her love for her mortal husband, Darrin. This decision both mortifies and annoys her mother.
  • A similar premise is the basis for I Dream of Jeannie, in which a female genie serves as the faithful servant of her astronaut master, upon whom she has a romantic crush.
  • Mork and Mindy was also based on the fish-out-of-water premise. In this sitcom, the extraterrestrial Mork, who had a crush on Mindy and wanted to fit into her world, was the situation about which the comedy revolved.
  • My Three Sons involved a single father’s attempts to raise three sons without the aid of a wife and mother.
  • The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air also used a fish-out-of-water setup, but "with a hipper twist," as said by the filmmakers in the Season 1 DVD featurette. The show fetures streetwise Will Smith landing at his aunt and uncle's mansion in Bel-Air. Instead of Will being uncomfortable and confused about this element of "preppiness" of which he is unfamiliar with, his homeboy nature allows him to go on the way he is without shame, as he considers the fancy people, including his cousin Carlton, people to insult and look down on, which in turn makes up a large part of the show's humor.

[edit] Foils

Other sitcoms are based on foils. In fiction, a foil is a minor character whose traits are the opposite to those of the main character. This situation highlights the main character’s traits just as a silver foil behind a ruby would highlight the ruby’s color. I Married Joan and I Love Lucy are examples. In both series, a straightforward, down-to-earth, rational husband marries a flighty, zany, emotional woman given to hatching complex absurd schemes that invariably cause problems for their impatient but long suffering husbands.

[edit] Youthful protagonist's point of view

A third premise for sitcoms is that of telling the story from the youthful protagonist’s point of view (i. e., the use of an unreliable narrator). This is the theme of such sitcoms as Gidget, Leave It To Beaver, and frequently The Brady Bunch. In these shows, the main characters are teens or pre-teens whose view of the world is often both exasperating and endearing simultaneously. Trying to understand their world through inexperienced and naïve eyes, these characters often misunderstand the implications of incidents and actions. Often, they make a bad situation worse before their parents or another wise, understanding, and loving adult bails them out of their trouble. As a result, they become a little older and a little wiser.

[edit] Parody

Television sitcoms such as Batman and Get Smart are based on parodying other more serious versions of their characters or genres. Batman, starring Adam West, poked fun at the campy elements implicit in costumed crime fighters and over-the-top villains whose comic book punches are accompanied by hand-lettered onomatopoeia in dynamic and dazzling fonts. However, this was done so unobtrusively that the show could be watched as a straight action series if the viewer was so inclined—in general, boys up to 14 years of age preferred to take the show seriously. Likewise, Get Smart made fun of the action-adventure plots of secret agents like James Bond that were all the rage at the time.

[edit] Ensemble cast structure

Many sitcoms reuse a common mixture of character archetypes to achieve reliable comedic situations from week to week.

[edit] The naïve fool

The most common archetype appearing in sitcoms is the naïve fool. Typically, this character accepts events and statements at face value and often misunderstands situations in ways that create conflict in the plot. Some of the many characters in sitcom history that fit this description include Maynard G. Krebs (The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis), Monroe Ficus (Too Close for Comfort), Chrissy Snow (Three's Company), Rose Nylund (The Golden Girls) Woody Boyd (Cheers), and Linda (Becker).

[edit] The sage

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. Often suggests solutions to resolve the major plot conflict. The character Wilson from Home Improvement is one example of a sage.

[edit] The comic relief

The comic relief character usually exhibits eccentric personality traits and unusual reactions to commonplace situations and sometimes serves as the protagonist of the situation comedy series. This character's strange attitudes and reactions to events provide opportunities for absurd or unexpected humour. Cosmo Kramer from Seinfeld is a textbook example of a comic relief character. On the American version of The Office, Dwight Schrute is the main comic relief character. On The Golden Girls, Rose Nylund and Sophia Petrillo can be considered comic relief characters.

[edit] The antagonist

This archetypal character functions as a primary rival, competitor, or enemy of the series' principal character, the protagonist. On the sitcom All in the Family, Michael "Meathad" Stivic served as the primary antagonist to his father-in-law, Archie Bunker. On The Simpsons, Homer Simpson chooses (most of the time) to make an antagonist of his neighbor, Ned Flanders. Jerry Seinfeld's main antagonist on his self-titled sitcom was his postal worker neighbor Newman.

[edit] The ladies' man / the man eater

The ladies' man and the man eater are aggressively sexual characters whose primary humor derives from their sexual exploits. Depending upon the tenor of the series, the character's attitude can range from harmless flirtation to borderline hypersexuality. The characters Larry Dallas (Three's Company), Blanche Devereaux (The Golden Girls), Roz Doyle (Frasier), The Todd (Scrubs), Joey Tribiani (Friends, Joey) and Glenn Quagmire (Family Guy) are examples of this character type.

[edit] The ethnic/regional stereotype

Some sitcoms feature characters from other countries or specific parts of the United States whose accents, speech patterns, mannerisms, and attitudes provide opportunities for conflict or comic relief. Examples include Latka Gravas (Taxi), Carla Tortelli (Cheers), Thurston Howell III and Lovey Howell (Gilligan's Island), Fez (That '70s Show), Otto and Gretchen Mannkusser (Malcolm in the Middle), Lola Hernandez (Hot Properties) and Joy Darville (My Name Is Earl).

[edit] Other common characters

Other recurring archetypal characters that appear in sitcoms include:

[edit] Plot formulas

The plot and situations for many sitcom episodes arise out of a character's lying to or otherwise deceiving the other characters. 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.
  • Attempts to replace destroyed property before discovery of destruction.
  • Attempts to ignore certain characters.
  • Attempts to recreate scenarios.
  • Attempts to fix situations that end up making them worse.

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 some exotic location.
  • 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.
  • A character thinking another character is going to die and does anything to please him/her, of which the other character takes advantage.
  • Male and female characters exchanging their archetypal "men" and "women" roles to demonstrate the other part "has it easier" only to find out they were more comfortable with their own.

[edit] Life cycle

Landmarks in the life cycle of a typical sitcom include:

[edit] Specific countries of origin

Most American sitcoms are half-hour shows in which the story is written to run a total of 22 minutes in length, leaving 8 minutes for commercials. Sitcoms made outside the US may run somewhat longer. American sitcoms are often characterised by long season runs of 20 or more episodes, whereas the British sitcom is traditionally comprised of distinct series of six episodes each. American sitcoms often have large teams of young script writers from top universities firing gags into the script and round-table sessions, while most British sitcoms are written by one or two people.

[edit] Australia

Australia has not had a significant number of long running sitcoms; most successful sitcoms on Australian TV are British or American. Many of the shows described under the British and U.S. sections of this article are or have been extremely popular in Australia. British sitcoms, many from the BBC, are a staple on the government broadcaster Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and traditionally many have also been shown by the Seven Network. American sitcoms dominate the comedy line-up of the three commercial networks.

While there has been a significant number of Australian sitcoms throughout the history of Australian television, they have most commonly run for just a single season - usually 13 half-hour episodes. Many successful Australian sitcoms have been somewhat similar in style to UK comedies, and several closely followed the premise of earlier UK programs.

An early successful situation comedy was My Name's McGooley, What's Yours? (1967) about a working-class Sydney family. Other popular sitcoms of this general period included The Group, and Our Man in Canberra.

In the first half of the 1970s it was the popular soap operas Number 96 and The Box that provided the main forum for Australian-grown sitcom style comedy. By the late 1970s Australian versions of popular UK comedies were produced using key personnel from the original series working in Australia. These productions retained the title and key cast members of the original programs and operated within the same story world of the original even down to explaining how the characters came to leave their original UK locale and be temporarily resident of Australia. These comedies, Are You Being Served, Doctor in the House (as Doctor Down Under) and Father, Dear Father (as 'Father, Dear Father in Australia), transplanted key original cast members to Australia to situations markedly similar to those of the original series. During this same general period, one of the UK producers of these shows also launched The Tea Ladies in Australia. Also during the late 1970s Crawford Productions, best known for their successful police drama series, also created situation comedy series. These include The Bluestone Boys (1976) on Network Ten, and Bobby Dazzler (1977) on the Seven Network.

The late-1970s sketch comedy series The Naked Vicar Show spawned successful a sitcom spin off, Kingswood Country, in 1980. This series was immensely popular, running four years. Its situation was somewhat similar to the British comedy Til Death Us Do Part and its American cousin All in the Family.

In the early 1980s there were few Australian sitcoms, with soap operas being the more common genre produced in Australia. During this period however the Australian Broadcasting Corporation produced Mother and Son, which emerged as an enduring audience favourite. In the late 1980s and early 1990s several new Australian sitcoms achieved significant success including Hey Dad...!, Acropolis Now, All Together Now, and later, Lano & Woodley, which all had relatively long runs. Other programs such as Hampton Court and My Two Wives were only moderate successes, lasting just one season. This period also saw many short-lived failures such as Late for School and Bingles.

In 2002, the successful sitcom Kath and Kim began its hit run.

[edit] Canada

See also: Canadian humour

Despite Canada's wealth of comedic talent, Canadian sitcoms have generally fared poorly with both critics and audiences. One particularly notorious example is The Trouble with Tracy regarded by many Canadians as one of the worst TV shows ever made. Other Canadian sitcoms have included Snow Job, Check it Out!, Mosquito Lake and Not My Department all of which were mocked as being particularly unfunny. There have rarely been more than one or two Canadian sitcoms airing at any given time, although this has changed in recent years with the growth of original programming on cable television.

The few successful Canadian sitcoms have included: La famille Plouffe and its English version, The Plouffe Family; King of Kensington, Hangin' In, Puppets Who Kill, and Corner Gas.

Canadian TV networks have had much more success with sketch comedy shows such as

and quirky dramedies such as

While teen dramas, the shows Degrassi Junior High and its successor, Degrassi: The Next Generation occasionally use sitcom-like subplots for comic relief.

One of Canada's most enduring comedic television series, The Red Green Show, was essentially a cross between a sitcom and a sketch series. Each episode unfolded through short comedic sketches rather than a conventional sitcom plot but unlike a true sketch series, the sketches always drew from a single set of characters and always fit within the shows main premise, and no actor played more than one role.

Notable Quebec sitcoms in recent years have included La Petite Vie, Catherine and Les Bougon.

[edit] Russia

See also: ru:Ситком, ru:Ситуационная комедия, Russian humour

Sitcoms have appeared in Russia beginning in the second half of the 1990s, for example, My Beautiful Nanny on channel STS and recent arrival No! That's My Octopus!.

[edit] New Zealand

New Zealand began producing television programs later than many other developed countries. Due to New Zealand's small population, the two main New Zealand networks will rarely fund more than one or two sitcoms each year. This low output means there is less chance of a successful sitcom being produced to offset the failures.

Early sitcoms included Joe & Koro and Buck House. Later there was The Billy T James Show subsequently rerun in early 2004 as part of the first year's offering on Maori Television. The team of David McPhail and Jon Gadsby produced and/or starred in quite a number of sitcoms such as Letter to Blanchy with help from writer A K Grant.

The most popular and successful New Zealand produced sitcom to date has been Roger Hall's Gliding On, based on his hit stage play Glide Time. Another Hall play, Conjugal Rites was also made into a sitcom but by Granada in Britain.

In 1994, Melody Rules was produced and screened. Critically and commercially unsuccessful, it has become part of the lexicon within the television industry to describe an unsuccessful sitcom, for example, that show will be the next "Melody Rules". Another sitcom to have its roots in a stage play was Serial Killers (2003), about the scriptwriters of a medical soap opera.

Many British and American sitcoms are and have been popular in New Zealand, including many of those aforementioned in this article.

[edit] United Kingdom

Main article: British sitcom

The United Kingdom has produced a wealth of sitcoms, many of which have been exported to other nations or adapted for other countries. Classic British sitcoms include

More recent successes have included My Family, Father Ted (set in Ireland), The Vicar of Dibley, The Royle Family, Spaced, Absolutely Fabulous, and The Office.

The British sitcom tends to rely less on quick-fire jokes and quirky characters than plots, the analysis of the British individual, and exaggerated caricatures of everyday stereotypes. There are, of course, some exceptions. Bottom gained popularity through its exaggerated comical violence and childish humour mixed with adult situations. Red Dwarf was a parody of the sci-fi genre. And The League of Gentlemen revolves around the macabre. There is also a tendency towards black humour. Porridge, for example, is set in a prison. The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin involves a man who is suicidal. Steptoe and Son can be heart-breaking as the ambitions of Harold are quashed by his needy, manipulative father. And the end of more than one series of Blackadder involved the ritual slaughter of the cast. One Foot in the Grave also regularly featured dark humour hidden beneath its seemingly innocent suburban exterior. Additionally, British sitcoms tend to be set in unusual situations than the more everyday situations preferred elsewhere: the Second World War, prison, the far future.

A frequent theme in British sitcoms is that of people trapped, either in an unpleasant situation, or, more often, in an unpleasant relationship. Shows such as Steptoe and Son (son unable to escape controlling father), Sorry (son unable to escape controlling mother), Gimme Gimme Gimme (two rather unpleasant people unable to escape each other) and Fawlty Towers (man unable to escape his own emotions, or his emasculating wife) play on this. Where a sitcom of this type definitely ends, it is with an act of escape (Timothy literally flies away in Sorry, and Tom gets his dream job in Gimme Gimme Gimme).

The sitcom format has been hugely successful for the BBC with ITV having less success. Almost all successful classic British sitcoms first aired on BBC One; ITV have not had many successful sitcoms since the 1980s. BBC Two , BBC Three, and Channel 4 have begun to have more success with comedy in recent years with BBC One having less success. American sitcoms in the UK tend to be aired on Channel 4, BBC Two, Sky One with the American network ABC's channel ABC1 airing sitcoms shown on ABC in the United States.

Many British sitcoms are re-made for American audiences. For example, Till Death Us Do Part became All in the Family; Man About the House became Three's Company; and, the immensely popular Steptoe and Son became Sanford and Son. The Office was also remade for an American audience using the same title. However, most British sitcoms usually fare better in their original forms. Re-makes of Red Dwarf, Men Behaving Badly, Coupling, and One Foot in the Grave (Cosby) fell victim to adaptations that largely removed the essence of the comedy and did not stand the test of time.

Possibly the best example of this was Fawlty Towers, in which there were three attempts to Americanize the show. The first attempt was a proposed series titled Chateau Snavely in 1978 but a pilot was never produced. The second attempt at Americanizing Fawlty Towers was Amanda's, where the character of Basil became a woman played by Beatrice Arthur. This eliminated the roles of the hen-pecked lead and the dragon-like wife. Amanda's was picked up by ABC in 1983 but never attracted an audience and was canceled soon after. The final attempt to remake Fawlty Towers was Payne, in which John Larroquette played the title role/Basil Fawlty counterpart. It was seen on CBS in 1999, but as with Amanda's, it was soon dropped by the network.

The UK is also home to the world's longest running sitcom- Last of the Summer Wine. The show's pilot was broadcast in early 1973 with the first series starting that autumn. The series continues to this day with the show's 27th series starting on March 5th, 2006.

[edit] United States

Mary Kay and Johnny was followed by The Goldbergs which first aired on January 17, 1949. Probably the most well-known and successful early television sitcom was I Love Lucy starring the real-life couple of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, which was groundbreaking for many reasons including the shooting of episodes on film thereby inventing reruns. The Simpsons is another very successful sitcom, which has become the longest running such program in the United States (it was first broadcast in 1989 and episodes are still being made today). The show is unusual in that it is animated. The longest running live-action sitcom in America was The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, which ran from 1952 to 1966 on ABC. Other very successful sitcoms to air on United States major networks include All In The Family, The Cosby Show, Friends, Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond, Roseanne, Married... with Children, Happy Days, Cheers, Frasier, and Mash.

In 2005, Bravo aired a reality show, called Situation: Comedy, produced by Sean Hayes. Out of 10,000 scripts, NBC President, Kevin Reilly, chose two pilots: Mark Treitel and Shoe Schuster's The Sperm Donor and Stephen's Life, with the latter ultimately winning the reality series.

[edit] Trivia

As of 2006, the longest running TV sitcom is the UK's Last of the Summer Wine, which has been running continuously on the BBC since 1973. The longest running continuous TV sitcom currently airing in the United States is The Simpsons.

[edit] See also

[edit] Bibliography

[edit] Further reading

[edit] External links

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Situation comedy

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