Evolution of Sitcoms


In the field of entertainment, everybody could use a good laugh and this is where the comedy genre comes in. As the name states, its purpose is to bring humor and laughter to the audience. Comedies come in many formats in movies and television. In television, one of the most common genre is the situation comedy or sitcom, for short. As the name states the plot is centered on a particular situation set in a typical setting such as a home or workplace. A situation comedy features a regular cast of characters plus recurring ones who would appear in subsequent episodes as well as special guest stars. There are sitcoms that are aired performed before a live studio audience, making it similar to a theatrical play.

One can tell it is live whenever a special guest star would appear as the audience would cheer enthusiastically. Another distinctive feature of the sitcom is the laugh track or what is called “canned laughter” which is played every time a hilarious scene unfolds. What makes sitcoms different from stand up comedy and sketch comedy is that they have a storyline and this essentially makes it a comedic drama; and as mentioned before, the setting is usually centered on family, workplace, or a group of friends as the principal characters or mainstays.


Sitcoms came about when the television was introduced and this enabled audiences to return to a certain program if they like it. As a result of this (initial) trend, the performers who have key roles would become mainstays and the situations would remain the same to enable audiences to be familiar with them. Even animated shows, also adapt the sitcom format to cater to a specific audience as well, not merely children.


Another feature of the sitcom is that it is often character driven and naturally, running gags often develop during a series or season. The plot of a sitcom episode is typical: It starts with the status quo where everything is normal among the characters and then, a disruption will occur, thereby affecting the usual situation and the relationships of the characters, but by the end of the episode, these issues will be settled, the situation will revert to the status quo and it is “all’s well that ends well” until the next episode where the it will happen all over again but in a different plot.


History and Evolution:


Throughout its history, sitcoms over the years have evolved not only in the performers but also in the plot as well as how humor is delivered. In the early years of sitcom, the most common method of delivery is the slapstick approach of the 1950’s and well into the 1960’s. The slapstick is characterized by exaggerated violence where the characters appear to be hitting one another with exaggerated sound effects without getting hurt. This is common is earlier comedies such as The Three Stooges. Slapstick also features characters doing unthinkable or “crazy” stunts or acts or silly things in the scene to the point of making complete fools of themselves.

One of the most popular sitcoms of the period was I Love Lucy starring the real-life couple of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. This sitcom is one of those that features the slapstick delivery. One example is a scene in one episode where Lucy works in a chocolate factory.

The chocolates are being churned out so fast that Lucy had to eat those that could not be packaged. In another episode, Lucy was mashing grapes in a winery and wrestled with another worker in the vat, making a mess out of themselves (Oppenheimer, 4-5).
As for the setting, it centers on a typical couple, Lucy and Ricky (Arnaz) Ricardo. What makes the story interesting is that Lucy is not content in being a plain housewife while her husband works as a bandmaster in a club. Lucy aspires to have a career and this is the source of the humor. Besides these madcap adventures and misadventures, there is also the relationship with their neighbors Fred and Ethel who play the “straight” couple to their seemingly dysfunctional one to provide balance. Essentially, women would be portrayed as scatterbrained but extremely clever, men would be indignant (like Ricky), and friends or neighbors would be unwitting pawns, accomplices or “villians” (such as Fred and Ethel).
Besides the typical family setting, early sitcoms offer different settings but with similar plots such as Sergeant Bilko, which looks at the humorous side of the military; Car 54 Where Are You? for the police officers and McHale’s Navy in the US Navy set during World War II to boot. The 1960’s added a fantasy touch with sitcoms like I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched. This was made possible with advancements in the realm of special effects which enabled these magic “tricks” to be performed. In addition, 1960’s sitcoms deviated from the earlier ones in the sense that they were not filmed before live audiences but were filmed instead where the sessions are called “tapings.”


The 1970’s and 1980’s saw a change in the character makeup of the sitcoms as evidenced by such shows as The Jeffersons, Different Strokes, Barney Miller and Chico and the Man where nonwhites began to share top billing as well yet the plot remains the same. This underscored by the real-world events happening the changes America has been going through by way of racial integration and that nonwhites were not regarded as equals to whites. This is what these shows intend to convey besides providing laughter (Dalton and Linder 125-126; Hamamoto 87, 90-91). In terms of delivery, studio audiences became the norm again on shows that were not filmed in several locations and several factors have to be taken into consideration such budget (Dalton and Linder 49-50). There were also changes in the composition of the characters or how they are shown in the show. It is no longer the “typical” family. The show would center on the kids or teens such as Facts of Life and Charles in Charge which deals primarily with issues teenagers usually face. Besides race, feminism got into the act with shows such as Rhoda and The Mary Tyler Moore Show as women took lead roles in sitcoms as well. The 1990’s saw a continued surge of similar shows such as Murphy Brown and Just Shoot Me. There were even instances when some shows would challenge morals at the time such as Married…With Children which features a dysfunctional family, an introduction to the genre commonly known as transgression comedy.
One other noticeable feature of sitcoms starting in the 1970’s was the evolution of the delivery. Slapstick was no longer used at this point in time. Rather, the producers and the performers make use of the current situations they are in, whether they are personal, affecting only them or the social situation that affects them entirely. In other words, they poke fun at their problems without having to do crazy stunts or exaggerated violence reminiscent of The Three Stooges.

The 1990’s saw the emergence of sitcoms in animation followed the lead of live shows such as The Simpsons which is still enjoying a following to this day, and later South Park (Dalton and Linder 270-271). This trend would go on well into the 21st century with similar shows coming out such as The Office and 30 Rock which still follow the same trend. Furthermore, sitcoms have also broken down into categories according to age groups. Disney Channel offers sitcoms for children and teenagers such as That’s so Raven, Hannah Montana and Corey in the House. Naturally, the shows centers on the younger characters with the adults in the supporting role but the plot is nonetheless similar to the “mainstream” sitcoms (Dalton and Linder 44-45). 
By the 21st century, the trend in the entertainment industry is leaning toward reality-TV shows which feature non-actors and single-camera recordings.

The reason for this increasing popularity is that the participants are not actors and the audience can easily relate to them as the cameras capture every moment of their life and they are seen in their best and their worst and there are no cuts and takes, the camera continues rolling. It is as real as it gets and all the elements or genres are there from action, drama and even comedy without the “canned” laughter. It is said that these shows will replace mainstream programming which would affect soap operas and sitcoms.

But this does not mean sitcoms will fade into oblivion or give up without a fight. In the latter shows, for instance, The Office, 30 Rock and even The Drew Carey Show make use of an element called the pathos. Where the shows make the viewers sympathize with the characters, and relate to them on a level unlike any other show (Graham 1). Old sitcoms never had this pathos. The problems facing the characters in the show are similar problems the audience faces on a regular basis in real life (Graham 1). In addition, this pathos need not be exaggerated like in slapstick. It is shown in a plain simple way similar to what real people go through every day. The characters, especially the main ones, are depicted as the “everyman” or average Joe. In the case of the three sitcoms, they reflect the joys, trials and tribulations the average (American) employee goes through in their daily routine. Nothing is exaggerated and the issues they face are real since real people experience them too. Matthew Gilbert puts it nicely “At their best these single hand held sitcoms are an uplifting art form, one that has come of age in the past 20 years. They can invent a unique comic lexicon, invite us to laugh at our failings, capture the brilliance of our imaginations, and satirize our culture, they can reflect, clarify, and normalize human nature”(Gilbert 1). Even animated sitcoms like The Simpsons and South Park show that as well this is why such animated series also appeal to adults, breaking the notion that they are only for children.


Shows like Arrested Development and The Office are amongst some of a growing number of sitcoms that look different and are produced differently from sitcoms in the past. Eric Berlin states on the changing sitcom “This new genre combines oddball characters, stress on improv acting, cinematic look, expert single-camera production work, and inventive use of flashbacks, private one on one confessions with the camera and quick cut-aways. The writing is daring, smart, and resembles the everyday awkward encounters that humans experience”(Berlin 3). Shows like The Office and Arrested Development have been appropriately termed by author Brett Mills as the televisual style called “comedy verite”(Thompson 63). What comedy verité is doing through its distinctive televisual style is shift the source of humor in the television comedy from the constructed joke, as seen in prior sitcoms, to the observation of a comic event (Thompson 67). Thompson states “The observational component of these sitcoms, which includes not just what they look like but also the timing of shots and the sense that at times we observe events in real time, creates a different type of engagement with the narrative. The sitcom is thus reinvigorated by a shift from the tired realm of the staged sitcom, with its three cameras, studio audience, or one-camera, coverage shooting, to an experience of observation or witness”(Thompson 67). A big part of these new “comedy verite” style sitcoms is how they convey the observational mode that the viewer is caught in, primarily through handheld shooting and a pacing that suggests particular segments unfold in real time as if their viewer were there (Thompson 68).

However these segments and scenes are increasingly taking place in intimate settings, including shots conveying a particular character’s subjectivity and vulnerability, and are less marked by characters performing for the camera, a “fly on the wall” type of perspective (Thompson 68). This production style that is new to the Sitcom tries to convey to the viewer that they are not watching comedy but are observing the comedic acts that unfold before the ever present handheld camera. Whether the acting is improvised or carefully scripted, it looks like it just happened and that’s the whole point (Thompson 71). As a mode of production, this new developed sub genre of the sitcom is addressing comedy like never before and is effective in the use of presenting what is truly funny to viewers.


Furthermore, what makes sitcoms better than reality TV is, as mentioned earlier, these shows do not only try to make the audience relate to the character as far as pathos is concerned, but being a comedy, it encourages the audience to laugh off their problems as well. Furthermore, unlike reality shows, it is the characters that are laughed at, not the people themselves. Because of this, this is what will make sitcoms last longer and keep on entertaining people.

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