Television Sitcoms

A situation comedy, or sitcom, is a genre of comedy which originated in radio and which became a mainstay format for television from the 1950s. Much television drama relies on certain formulas. The most popular include crime series, hospital dramas and "soap operas," continuing dramas often on a domestic theme. Sitcoms tend to be regarded more as entertainment rather than dramas, although they present a fictional narrative in which a given situation reveals new comic possibilities each week.

A sitcom is generally a half-hour comedy program, which means that for networks in the United States, it takes 22 minutes of programming and eight minutes of commercials. Each program features a recurring group of characters. Episodes are typically self-contained, meaning viewers do not have to have any previous knowledge of the show to get the jokes. Sitcoms are usually studio produced in front of a studio audience, whose laughter is heard, although they are not seen. However, the effect of a live studio audience can be also imitated with the use of a sound track providing what is known as "canned laughter."

Sitcoms usually adhere to the series format, with each continuing for a limited number of episodes. Individual shows are broadcast at the same time each week, centering on the lives and activities of an established core of characters and locations. The content of sitcoms often mirrors the family or domestic setting in which the viewer is situated. The characters have conversations in real time, interact in everyday locations, such as the apartment, the coffee house, the bar, the workplace, and speak in ordinary language, much as the viewers do in their daily lives. The basis for most situation comedies is that all characters will revert to their original position at the end of every episode and problems are invariably resolved. Some sitcoms use a version of the "stage whisper," device, where a character may break away from the narrative for a moment to address the audience directly down the camera, engaging them as friends and allies in the situation.

Eaton (1981) developed a typology of sitcom, according to which there are three locations, or situations, in which the comedy tended to occur. First, the home, where humour derives from the interactions between family members. Second, the workplace, where relationships between colleagues at work drive the humour. Third, a location that is neither home nor work but contains some of the relationships and tensions that those situations generate. A recent example of this might be the popular American show Friends, where there is not a traditional family environment, but where some characters take on family roles which are often the source of mirth.

Some situation comedies aim for more than just a laugh. They flirt with reality, wrap the social, political, and moral lessons in humor so that each episode becomes a reminder of something useful to the audience. Many sitcoms are innocuous, while others address almost-real problems with almost-real people.

Comedy offers a safe space within a society from which to witness social transgression. Jokes are used destroy hierarchy and order and denigrate dominant systems. The humorous context means that views can be expressed and these allow the assimilation of more liberal attitudes to social problems. The form allows the temporary challenge to hierarchies of ordered social relationships and effects a relief from the constraints of social dominance and subordination. Many situation comedies have dealt with entrapment. Their characters are often unable to escape the constraints of their class, gender, marital status, or work position. Therefore, the viewers have been offered ways of coping, or even ways of escaping, literally.

Into the 21st century, situation comedies dealt with material that was previously considered as taboo for television organizations, but they continue to present likable characters in predicaments that are solved by episode's end.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Sitcom
Brett Mills.
Edinburgh University Press, 2009
TV Genres: A Handbook and Reference Guide
Brian G. Rose.
Greenwood Press, 1985
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "Situation Comedy"
The Horror of "Honey, I'm Home!": The Perils of Postwar Family Love in the Domestic Sitcom
Mock, Erin Lee.
Film & History, Vol. 41, No. 2, Fall 2011
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
From Wise to Foolish: The Portrayal of the Sitcom Father, 1950s-1990s
Scharrer, Erica.
Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Vol. 45, No. 1, Winter 2001
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Masculinity in Popular Sitcoms, 1955-1960 and 2000-2005
Miller, Diana.
Culture, Society and Masculinities, Vol. 3, No. 2, Fall 2011
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Does Father Still Know Best? an Inductive Thematic Analysis of Popular TV Sitcoms
Pehlke, Timothy Allen, II; Hennon, Charles B.; Radina, M. Elise; Kuvalanka, Katherine A.
Fathering, Vol. 7, No. 2, Spring 2009
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Television Myth and the American Mind
Hal Himmelstein.
Praeger Publishers, 1994 (2nd edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "TV Comedy and Contemporary Life: Mayfield, Mayberry, Minneapolis, and Manhattan"
The Cosby Show: Audiences, Impact, and Implications
Linda K. Fuller.
Greenwood Press, 1992
Archie Bunker's America: TV in An Era of Change, 1968-1978
Josh Ozersky.
Southern Illinois University Press, 2003
Black Television Travels: African American Media around the Globe
Timothy Havens.
New York University Press, 2013
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 " Integrated Eighties Situation Comedies and the Struggle against Apartheid," Chap. 3 "The Cosby Show, Family Themes, and the Ascent of White Situation Comedies Abroad in the Late 1980s," Chap. 4 "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Channel Fragmentation, and the Recognition of Difference"
Prime-Time Feminism: Television, Media Culture, and the Women's Movement since 1970
Bonnie J. Dow.
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996
Librarian’s tip: Includes chapters on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, One Day at a Time, Designing Women, and Murphy Brown
A Relevance Theoretic Analysis of Verbal Humor in the Big Bang Theory
Hu, Shuqin.
Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 7, No. 1, July 1, 2013
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Television Studies: Textual Analysis
Gary Burns; Robert J. Thompson.
Praeger, 1989
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 6 "He's Everything You're Not: A Semiological Analysis of Cheers"
"I Am Not Down with That": King of the Hill and Sitcom Satire
Thompson, Ethan.
Journal of Film and Video, Vol. 61, No. 2, Summer 2009
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Because I Tell a Joke or Two: Comedy, Politics, and Social Difference
Stephen Wagg.
Routledge, 1998
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "'At Ease Corporal': Social Class and the Situation Comedy in British Television, from the 1950s to the 1990s"
Television and the American Family
Jennings Bryant; J. Alison Bryant.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 8 "Sibling Interaction in Situation Comedies over the Years"
Nervous Laughter: Television Situation Comedy and Liberal Democratic Ideology
Darrell Y. Hamamoto.
Praeger, 1991
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