What Defines a Sitcom
A sitcom is a situation comedy and, unlike a movie, has no real ending. Episodes contain small stories that are wrapped up every week, but the situation itself never ends. Shows that run for a long time can keep going even after they are cancelled. M*A*S*H, which had a powerful series finale, had a spin-off called AfterMASH that picked up and continued the stories of some of the characters from the original show.
The situation itself can be vital or incidental to the show. Take Bewitched — a man marries a witch and it turns his life upside down. But the situation is unimportant in a show like Friends — friends live in apartments across from each other. In that case, the situation was really just a device to put a group of interesting characters together.
The 1940s to the 1950s
The television sitcom, an American original, was born in the 1940s and 1950s. It had existed on radio with shows like Amos 'n Andy, The Jack Benny Program, and My Favorite Husband. Listeners would tune in every week to spend some time with familiar characters they grew to love.
Repetition of gags, catchphrases, and character quirks in radio shows thrilled a loyal following who still laughed even though they knew exactly what was going to happen. Sometimes, these shows would also have a continuing story line, like a soap opera that guaranteed that the audience would tune in to see what happened in the next episode.
When television arrived in the late 1940s, many of these familiar shows made the transition successfully, although others lost something in translation. One of the most successful shows of the 1950s was a reworking of My Favorite Husband into the classic comedy I Love Lucy. Starring Lucille Ball and her real husband Desi Arnaz, this show pioneered the way sitcoms would be filmed for the next 40 years. Shows were filmed in running order in front of a live studio audience, with three cameras recording everything for later editing.
The shows of this era, such as Leave it to Beaver, The Honeymooners, and Father Knows Best, were big on laughs but avoided controversy. They reflected the ideals of the time: The man was the head of the household, and the children were respectful of their parents and took their advice whenever they made a mistake.
Some 1960s sitcoms were still family comedies but had a more modern sensibility, like The Andy Griffith Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show. But the shows that dominated the decade redefined the situation in situation comedy. A hillbilly family strikes it rich and moves to Beverly Hills (The Beverly Hillbillies). An astronaut finds a bottle complete with a beautiful genie (I Dream of Jeannie). A man meets a space visitor who poses as his uncle (My Favorite Martian). A talking horse (Mr. Ed). Two hilariously creepy families (The Addams Family and The Munsters). These high-concept shows blended fantasy with comedy at a time when the nation was going through major social upheavals. Most of the shows of the era used a laugh track instead of a live studio audience.
While some of the shows of the 1970s were still light-hearted family fare like The Brady Bunch, Happy Days, and The Partridge Family, three elements crept in and changed the medium forever: sex, social issues, and controversy. Shows like One Day at a Time, Three's Company, and Maude broke the long-held taboo of discussing sex on television. Groundbreaking shows like All in the Family, Good Times, and Soap dealt with social issues and showed a less-than-perfect side of the perfect American family. Kids started to be seen as smarter than their parents.
Shows in the 1980s tended to steer away from controversy and social issues (except for “very special” episodes), but sex was here to stay. There was also a return to the high-concept shows of the 1960s with shows like Alf, Bosom Buddies, and Diff'rent Strokes. Shows like the Mary Tyler Moore Show and M*A*S*H in the 1970s started to redefine what a family was, but these types of sitcoms flourished in the 1980s. The nuclear family was replaced by the family of choice. The new family was the workplace in shows like Taxi, Cheers, and Night Court.
Early on, every sitcom husband and wife slept in separate beds, including Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. The first couple from a popular series to slip past the network standards and practices department and slide into a shared bed was Herman and Lily Munster. The censors were too distracted by the fact that they were monsters to think there might be anything going on under the sheets.
A sense of family is the most important factor behind the success of every sitcom. The family can be traditional, or a workplace or situational family. Each character in a show fills a role in that family unit. When actors leave a show, they were replaced by a similar character filling the same role. When Col. Blake left M*A*S*H, he was replaced by a similarly fatherly character, Col. Potter. When Trapper John left the show, B.J. Hunnicutt filled the role of Hawkeye's best friend. When Major Burns left the show, he was replaced by Major Winchester, who served as comic foil.
Many of the sitcoms of the 1980s and 1990s were family friendly. The Cosby Show, A Different World, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air were big hits. In the 1990s a large number of sitcoms were made especially for children, such as Boy Meets World, Blossom, Family Matters, The Adventures of Pete and Pete, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, and Clarissa Explains It All.
The 1990s also saw the return of a show dealing with social issues, The Simpsons, which has gone on to become the longest-running sitcom in history. Another trend in the 1990s was the sitcom based on stand-up. The success of Roseanne, Home Improvement, Grace Under Fire, Everybody Loves Raymond, The Drew Carey Show, Seinfeld, The Jeff Foxworthy Show, Norm, and Ellen made comedy clubs the place to look for the next big sitcom. In this decade, shows like The Larry Sanders Show, The Wonder Years, Get a Life, and Dream On started to experiment with the form.
The First Decade of the Twenty-First Century and Beyond
This is when things really changed with the American sitcom. Shows started being filmed with a single camera, shot on location or on studio sets with no laugh track or studio audience. Malcom in the Middle, Arrested Development, 30 Rock, and The Office have set the standard for sitcoms of the future. Shows like these co-exist with traditional sitcoms, which are starting to look old-fashioned by comparison.
The way people watch television has also changed. There is no such thing as appointment television anymore. The Internet provides fans with the ability to download favorite shows and watch them anytime, leaving the networks scrambling to figure out what happens next. That's where you come into the picture. You will be the writer who helps them figure it out.