AskDefine | Define sitcom

Dictionary Definition

sitcom n : a situation comedy

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English

Etymology

From SITuation COMedy

Noun

  1. A situation comedy
  2. An episodic comedy television program with a plot or storyline based around a particular humorous situation.
  3. An episode of such a program.

Translations

episodic comedy television program

Extensive Definition

A situation comedy, usually referred 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.

Characteristics

As opposed to "standup" comedy, or the telling of jokes, the situation comedy has a storyline plot and is basically comedic drama. The comedies of Aristophanes in Ancient Greece, Terence and Plautus in Ancient Rome, and Shakespeare and Molierein post-Renaissance Europe were essentially situation comedies. The essence of the current, modern situation comedy on television is that the characters remain in the same situation from episode to episode. The situation is usually that of a family, workplace, or a group of friends. The term was adopted to distinguish the sitcom from other comedy formats: sketch comedy, which generally featured new characters and situations each outing, or the humorous monologue or dialogue, which did not feature characters. Often these other formats were presented within a variety format mixed with musical performances, as in Vaudeville. The emerging mass medium of radio allowed audiences to return to programs over and over, which allowed programs to return to the same characters and situations each episode and expect audiences to be familiar with them. Thus, while the humor in sitcoms varies, it is usually character-driven, which may result in running gags during the series.
Due to the need to retain the same situation over many episodes, in many sitcoms characters remained largely static. Events of individual episodes typically resolve themselves by the end, and are rarely mentioned in subsequent episodes. This episodic nature is mirrored in many dramas as well, but there are also many sitcoms that feature story arcs across many episodes, where the characters and situations slowly change over the course of their run.

History

Comedies from past civilizations, such as those of Aristophanes in Ancient Greece, Terence and Plautus in Ancient Rome, and numerous examples including Shakespeare, Moliere, the Commedia dell'Arte and the Punch and Judy shows from post-Renaissance Europe, are the ancestors of the modern sitcom. Some of the characters, pratfalls, routines and situations as preserved in eyewitness accounts and in the texts of the plays themselves, are remarkably similar to those in earlier modern sitcoms such as I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners.
1930-2008 the history of sitcoms In the early 1930s and 1940s

Radio

The situation comedy format was born on January 12 1926 with the initial broadcast of Sam 'n' Henry on WGN in Chicago. The 15-minute daily program was revamped in 1928, moved to another station, renamed Amos 'n' Andy, and became one of the most successful sitcoms from this period. It was also one of the earliest examples of radio syndication. Like many radio programs of the time, the two programs continued the American entertainment traditions of Vaudeville and the Minstrel show.
The Jack Benny Program was another important and formative sitcom, beginning in 1932 and lasting until 1955 on radio, then continuing for a number of additional years on television. For a few years before 1955, the show had versions on both radio and television. The storyline was often built around a fictionalization of Benny's getting his show ready for its next airing, with his worries and troubles in getting it prepared. Although a generous man in real life, Benny's radio and TV persona was a stingy, self-centered narcissist interacting with his program's cast which included Mary Livingstone (his wife in real life but a lady friend on the show), bandleader Phil Harris, singer Dennis Day, Benny's butler Eddie (Rochester) Anderson and announcer Don Wilson.
Fibber McGee and Molly was one of the most successful sitcoms of all time, airing on radio from 1935 to 1959. The show starred vaudevillians James "Jim" and Marian Driscoll Jordan and also had its roots in Chicago.
In 1947, Beulah became the first radio sitcom featuring an African-American in the lead role.

Television

In the late 1940s, the sitcom was among the first formats adapted for the new medium of television. Most sitcoms were a half-hour in length and aired weekly. Many of the earliest sitcoms were direct adaptations of existing radio shows, such as Amos 'n' Andy or The Jack Benny Program, or vehicles for existing radio stars such as Burns and Allen (The Burns and Allen Show) and film stars such as Abbott and Costello (The Abbott and Costello Show). Early sitcoms were broadcast live and recorded on kinescopes or not recorded at all.
The television adaptation of Beulah in 1950 became the first TV sitcom with an African-American lead.
An early innovator in the history of sitcoms is Desi Arnaz who is credited with the first successful use of the multiple-camera setup, where three cameras shoot the action on stage simultaneously and the best shots from each of the cameras are later edited together. I Love Lucy, the extremely popular show that Arnaz and his wife Lucille Ball created and starred in together, was also among the first to record all episodes on film, and he is thus also credited with foreseeing the viability of the rerun.
Eventually, sitcoms began to divide themselves into two distinct groups: the domestic comedy, which focused on a family or a married couple in their home, and the workplace comedy, which focused on the employees at a workplace. The earliest domestic comedies include The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Honeymooners, and Make Room for Daddy. The earliest workplace comedies include Our Miss Brooks and Mr. Peepers, both set in high schools, and The Phil Silvers Show, which was set on a US Army post. (Although Jackie Gleason's The Honeymooners consisted of only 39 original episodes, these have been airing in nearly continuous rerun cycles over and over again, on various channels, for more than 50 years since their production in 1955-56.)
The animated sitcom was born during this period with Hanna-Barbera's The Flintstones and The Jetsons. The latter show was the first example of the science fiction sitcom subgenre.
By the mid-1960s, sitcom creators began adding more fantastical elements to live action sitcoms. Monsters and ghouls were featured as regular characters in The Munsters and The Addams Family created from a series of cartoon comics. Genies and witches featured in I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched, respectively. Sherwood Schwartz created the somewhat implausible Gilligan's Island. Also popular were the spy and superhero parodies Get Smart and Batman. Many of these shows returned to the practice of the single camera filming style, which was more practical given the visual effects used in these shows. Overall, the late 1960s was a period of greater production values for sitcoms. This allowed for the careful creation of special effects and sharp editing, features which were not possible with the same finesse in a multi-camera production. Many of these programs were not filmed before live audiences, yet featured a laugh track.
Another trend beginning in the 1960s was the expansion of the domestic comedy beyond the nuclear family or married couple. The Andy Griffith Show and My Three Sons featured widowers and their children. The Partridge Family concerned a widow and her children. One notable sitcom from this period is Sherwood Schwartz's The Brady Bunch, which centered on a blended family, perhaps the best-known domestic comedy in US television history.
The musical sitcom become an important and popular sub-genre of sitcoms in the mid 1960s through early 1970s with The Monkees, which played off of the success of The Beatles, and with The Partridge Family.
In the early 1970s, advances in commercial TV ratings techniques began to demonstrate a fundamental flaw in the simplistic "show of hands" ratings systems used up until then. The realization was that, even though the simple wholesome sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s attracted the largest number of viewers, in general this demographic tended to have the lowest disposable income.
The desired target was the newly-emerging "yuppie" sector, better educated and with higher disposable incomes. To tap into this market, the emerging sitcoms began to address controversial issues in a serious way, and largely returned to the three-camera shoot before live audiences. Many programs began to be recorded to video, as opposed to film, during this time as well. In the US Norman Lear is largely credited with the social issues development through his sitcoms All in the Family, based on Johnny Speight's Till Death Us Do Part in the United Kingdom, and its spin-offs Maude, The Jeffersons, and Good Times, all in the US. Also in Britain was Ray Galton and Alan Simpson's Steptoe and Son, which also had a US remake in Sanford and Son.
In 1971 El Chavo del Ocho was released, in Mexico. Based around characters in a little neighborhood called "la vecindad" it was the most popular sitcom in Latin America and Spain of the period.
Women's liberation was the backdrop in a series of female-led sitcoms produced by Grant Tinker: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and its spin-offs Rhoda and Phyllis.
The topic of war was addressed in the popular and long-running sitcom M*A*S*H. The producers of M*A*S*H did not want a laugh track on the show, arguing that the show did not need one, but CBS disagreed. CBS compromised by permitting the producers of the show to omit recorded laughter from scenes that took place in the operating room, if they wished. When it was shown in the United Kingdom, episodes were broadcast without the laugh track. Also the dubbed German version lacks canned laughter. Ross Bagdasarian also refused to use a laugh track in his production of The Alvin Show.
Also during this time, Bob Newhart adapted his deadpan club act for television in sitcom format, which was at once a throwback to the early vaudevillian origins of sitcoms and a harbinger of the 1980s - 1990s stand-up comedian sitcom trend.
In the mid-1970s, Garry Marshall had several huge hits in the US with his trio of sitcoms Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, and Mork and Mindy. Nostalgia for the 50s was a major theme in both Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley.
Sex and titillation became a theme in the late 1970s with the UK sitcom Man About the House and its US remake Three's Company. Two soap opera parodies, Soap and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, are also notable shows from this period which pushed the envelope of what was acceptable in television sitcoms.
The 1980s saw the creation of a hybrid single camera half-hour drama / sitcom called a "dramedy". Examples include United States and The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd. These were largely unsuccessful, but hour-long comedy dramas would become popular in the 1990s. Also successful was the use of crude humor by shows like Married with Children.
Also in the 1980s, stand-up comic Bill Cosby starred in the tremendously successful sitcom The Cosby Show, which was the earliest of the current trend of successful sitcoms built around a stand-up comic's stage persona. Comedienne Roseanne Barr continued the trend in the late 1980s with her eponymous sitcom, as did Garry Shandling (It's Garry Shandling's Show and Larry Sanders). More recently, Jerry Seinfeld (Seinfeld) and Ray Romano (Everybody Loves Raymond) have also made the transition from the brick wall to the small screen with self-starring sitcoms.
Seinfeld was an innovative show in that it typically had four plot lines going simultaneously, one for each of the show's principal characters. Another innovation was that the essential shallowness of the characters' self-absorbed concerns fulfilled the program's famous self-description that it was a "show about nothing."
Larry Sanders was about a similarly shallow, self-absorbed character, in this case a late-night TV talk show host, and his travails while getting his show ready to broadcast each night. The format thus harked directly back to one of the sitcom's founding dynasties, The Jack Benny Program, which was also about a narcissistic host trying to produce his weekly radio show on time. Larry Sanders was filmed, except for those segments which portrayed the show-within-a-show actually on the air, which were on videotape and thus seemed to be live because of videotape's greater fidelity. These segments recalled some decades-earlier Jack Benny plot segments in which the fictional show-within-a-show finally went "on the air" at the end of the week.
The early 1990s saw the rebirth of the animated sitcom, a trend which continues to this day. Most notable is The Simpsons, the longest-running sitcom in US history. Other successful sitcoms in this subgenre include South Park, Futurama, Family Guy, Daria, and King of the Hill.
This era also saw a significant return to film origination. The main reason for this was that it was seen as "Future-Proofing" productions against any new developments such as HDTV. Programs shot on standard definition videotape in general do not convert well to HDTV, while images on 35mm film can easily be re-scanned to any future format. As well as this, recent developments in film camera and post-processing technologies had eroded the advantages of using videotape.
In the mid-1990s several sitcoms have reintroduced the ongoing story line. Friends, the most popular U.S. sitcom of the 1990s-2000s, had an overall story arc similar to that of soap operas, in the tradition of earlier sitcoms such as The Beverly Hillbillies and One Day At A Time. Friends also used other soap opera elements, such as regularly employing the device of an end-of-season cliffhanger and gradually developing the relationships of the characters over the course of the series. Frasier, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Roseanne, Moesha, Boy Meets World, and Seinfeld are also noted for their long-term story arcs.
The early 2000s saw a rebirth of the single camera shooting style for half-hour sitcoms, with shows such as Malcolm in the Middle, The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, and Scrubs. Unlike earlier single camera shows, these sitcoms do not use laugh tracks. The British sitcom Green Wing, often featured scenes that were shot using a single steadycam, and which were later sped up or slowed down for comic effect.
Curb Your Enthusiasm brought one of Seinfelds key off-air creators and writers, Larry David, back to television as the star and writer of his own series. In this show, he plays himself, a self-absorbed, narcissistic (this character type seems to be an eternal sitcom staple) comedian making his way arrogantly through life. The trivial shallowness of the events and situations which so obsess Larry, and cause him to habitually lie and repeatedly disgrace himself in front of his family, friends and business associates, provides a thematic comedic link with Seinfeld.

Specific countries of origin

Most North American sitcoms are generally half-hour programs 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 or shorter than 22 minutes. US commercial broadcasters have traditionally been very reluctant to run shows that run too short or too long. Thus very few UK or British Commonwealth sitcoms being run on US commercial television.
US sitcoms (like other American television series) typically have long season runs of 20 or more episodes due to the way they are produced. Canadian sitcoms typically only have season runs of 14 on average.
American sitcoms are often written by large teams of US resident script writers during round-table sessions, but some US sitcoms often do have episodes written by a guest writer. Most British sitcoms are written by one or two people, with four writers sometimes being the norm for some series in the recent past. These divergent writing styles result in vastly different kinds of sitcoms being written.

Australia

Australia has not had a significant number of long running sitcoms. Most successful sitcoms on Australian TV are American or to a lesser extent, British. Many of the shows described under the U.S. and British 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. These shows combined melodrama and sex with large amounts of comedy. In 1976 the Australian Broadcasting Corporation produced a sex-comedy television sitcom Alvin Purple, based on the hit feature film of the same name. Like the films that preceded it, the series of Alvin Purple featured Graeme Blundell in the title role.
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 Till 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 Frontline, Hey Dad...!, Acropolis Now, All Together Now which all had relatively long runs. The Adventures of Lano and Woodley ran for two seasons, in 1997 and 1999, on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 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.

Canada

See also: Canadian humour
Canadian sitcoms have generally fared poorly with both critics and audiences. One 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.
Critically acclaimed shows include: Trailer Park Boys, Twitch City, Corner Gas, Odd Job Jack.

Quebec

In the francophone province of Quebec, several Quebec-made sitcoms are airing since a long time and appreciated by Québécois. One example: Histoires de filles airing on TVA. One of the best sitcom to be made in Quebec history was Moi et l'autre (from 1966 to 1971) with Dominique Michel and Denise Filiatrault.
In Quebec sitcoms, the language used is always Quebec French, naturally.

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.

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom has produced a wealth of sitcoms, many of which have been exported to other nations or adapted for other countries. The British sitcom tends to rely less on quick-fire jokes and quirky characters, and focuses more on plots, the analysis of the British individual, and exaggerated caricatures of everyday stereotypes. There is also a tendency towards black humor. A frequent theme in British sitcoms is that of people trapped in an unpleasant situation or, more often, in a dysfunctional relationship.
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. Political sitcom The Thick of It is currently going an American adaption, also under the same name. 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 Americanising 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 cancelled soon after. The final attempt to remake Fawlty Towers was Payne, in which John Larroquette played the title role. It was seen on CBS in 1999, but like Amanda's it was soon dropped by the network.
The UK is 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 29th series, coming soon in 2008.

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 in production as of 2008). The show is unusual in that it is animated. This and Family Guy are examples of successful evolutions in the Sitcom genre. 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, Married... with Children, Home Improvement, Boy Meets World, Friends, Seinfeld, Full House, Everybody Loves Raymond, The King of Queens, Roseanne, Happy Days, Cheers, Frasier, Scrubs,The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Donna Reed Show, and M*A*S*H.

The Ultimate Sitcom poll

British television station Channel 4 held a poll in the United Kingdom to decide which is the best sitcom of all time entitled The Ultimate Sitcom on 2 January 2006. Although several public polls have been held, this poll was voted for people in the industry, such as actors, writers, directors and producers, and included sitcoms from both the UK and the US. The top twenty sitcoms according to the poll were:
  1. Frasier (US 1993-2004)
  2. Fawlty Towers (UK 1975&1979)
  3. Seinfeld (US 1989-1998)
  4. Porridge (UK 1974-1977)
  5. The Larry Sanders Show (US 1992-1998)
  6. The Phil Silvers Show (US 1955-1959)
  7. Dad's Army (UK 1968-1977)
  8. Blackadder (UK 1983-1989)
  9. Spaced (UK 1999-2001)
  10. The Office (UK 2001-2003)
  11. Father Ted (Ireland / UK 1995-1998)
  12. Cheers (US 1982-1993)
  13. I'm Alan Partridge (UK 1997-2002)
  14. Yes Minister/Yes, Prime Minister (UK 1980-1988)
  15. Curb Your Enthusiasm (US 2000-Present)
  16. The Good Life (UK 1975-1978)
  17. The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (UK 1976-1979)
  18. Hancock's Half Hour (UK 1954-1959 on radio, 1956-1961 on television)
  19. Rising Damp (UK 1974-1978)
  20. The Young Ones (UK 1982-1984)

Modern sitcoms

As with previous generations, there are many changes that are being made to the style and content of the modern sitcom, these are a few examples.

The "Friends clone"

Following the success of Friends, many situation comedies have started using a similar formula: a group of young urbanites and their relationships with each other, almost always with a continuing story arc usually involving on and off again romances between the lead characters. Within the plot, there would always be constant humor usually within dialogue. This includes Coupling, How I met your mother, and The class.

The single camera, no laugh track style

Another popular modern style of sitcom is filmed without a live studio audience or laugh track, using multiple locations and a single camera setup. This avoids the limitations that a stage and the tight shooting schedule of a standard sitcom provide and to make a more theatrical or realistic style. In addition, producers and writers of such shows believe that eliminating the laugh track allows more time for dialogue (and subsequently, jokes) and more movements for the characters instead of standing or sitting, while simultaneously refusing to "dumb down" the audience by cuing them on when to laugh. Early examples of this are Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm and Ricky Gervais's and Stephen Merchant's The Office.

The children's sitcom

There have been a significant number of situation comedies in recent years geared toward children normally ages 12-16. These shows evolved from early shows on Nickelodeon, and highly successful series on Disney Channel have been seen as a reflection of the modern buying power of this group. The style of these shows usually has a lower budget than network series and the plot usually involves teen issues such as "sibling rivalry", school, and dating. In Disney Channel sitcoms, issues are rarely discussed and focuses on one-liners and physical comedy than most of the plot. Also, the characters have more movement than staying still to show their body language. In some cases, like Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide, a children's sitcom will combine realistic issues with surreal humour in one show.
Children's sitcoms are similar to the traditional "family sitcom", but the lead is always a child who is usually strong and independent, or a group of children. The most common type of characters in order would be lucky, helpful and dim-witted.
Like most children's sitcoms, the main characters would always live in a highly exaggerated life. These settings are equivalent to earlier mainstream sitcoms.

Further reading

  • Lewisohn, Mark (2003) Radio Times' Guide to TV Comedy. 2nd Ed. Revised - BBC Consumer Publishing. ISBN 0-563-48755-0, Provides details of every comedy show ever seen on British television, including imports.
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