Situation comedy

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A sitcom or situation comedy is a genre of comedy performance originally devised for radio but today typically found on television. Sitcoms usually consist of recurring characters in a format in which there are one or more humorous story lines centred on a common environment, such as a family home or workplace.

The situation comedy format seems to have originated in the old time radio era of the United States, but today they have become among the most popular programmes on the schedule.

As of 2006, the longest running sitcom is the UK's Last of the Summer Wine, which has been running continuously since 1973.



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 the Chicago, Illinois clear-channel station WGN in 1926, and was partially inspired by the notion of bringing 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 was one of the most popular sitcoms through the 1930s.

According to the 11th 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 in the United States was probably Mary Kay and Johnny, a fifteen minute sitcom which debuted on the DuMont Television Network in November of 1947.


Traditionally, situation comedies featured individual episodes that were largely self-contained; the regular characters themselves 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 and while school friends or beloved relatives might appear, often they would only be seen once in the series, something 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 true identity of Seymour Skinner revealed in The Principal and the Pauper parodies the habit of traditional sitcoms introducing a major upheaval in the story of an episode before returning everything to how it was before and subsequently never mentioning that change in later episodes.

More recently sitcoms have introduced some ongoing storylines. Friends, a hugely popular US sitcom of the 1990s, 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 also 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 developed the relationships of the characters over the course of the series.

Friends was not without precedent, however, as a sitcom with continuing storylines. The Beverly Hillbillies, for example, frequently had continuing stories, during its successful 1960s-1970s run.

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., and Johnny Speight's Till Death Us Do Part (which All in the Family was based on) in Britain.

A common aspect of family sitcoms is that at some point in their run they introduce an addition to the family in the form of a new baby. One exception to this are the several sitcoms starring Bob Newhart, who insisted that his sitcoms not have babies or children. The addition of a new baby to the 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 their limited mobility, mental development and limited vocabulary. In addition there are the practical problems of working with a baby on set. Thus most sitcom kids are aged to four or five within two years of their birth—for example Andrew Keaton on Family Ties and Chrissy Seaver on Growing Pains, allowing the characters a wider range of storylines. Instances in which sitcoms retained the same child without such age jumps, such as Erin Murphy as Tabitha Stephens on Bewitched and the Olsen twins as Michelle Tanner on Full House are the exception to the rule.

Most contemporary situation comedies are filmed with a multicamera setup in front of a live studio audience, then edited and broadcast days or weeks later. This practice has not always been universal and is used mainly for traditional style 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 increased production values for sitcoms, with others such as Get Smart also using the single camera filming style allowing it to feature carefully created and sharply edited sequences that parodied action and fight sequences of spy genre films and TV shows—something 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 multicamera style.

Ensemble cast structure

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

The Naive Fool

The most common archetype appearing in sitcoms is the Naive Fool. Typically, this character accepts events and statements at face value, and often misunderstands situations in ways that create conflict in the plot. Examples of the naive fool character in sitcoms include:

The Sage

This one is another frequently-occurring archetype in sitcoms. In the standard sitcom ensemble, 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, and often suggests solutions to resolve the major plot conflict. Examples include:

The comic relief

This archetypal character usually exhibits eccentric personality traits and unusual reactions to commonplace situations. Their strange interpretations of, and reactions to, events provide additional opportunities for absurd, unexpected punchlines. This character sometimes serves as the protagonist of the situation comedy series.

Other recurring archetypal characters that appear in sitcoms include:

Plot formulas

The plot and situations for many sitcom episodes arise out of a character's lying to or otherwise deceiving the other characters. Some sitcom television series, such as Mr. Ed, Bewitched, Three's Company, Spaced and Bosom Buddies based their fundamental premise on the main character's attempt to hide the truth through a series of deceptions and "white lies".

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 ignore certain characters.
  • Attempts to recreate scenarios.
  • Attempts to fix situations but ends 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 Hawaii, Hollywood, or Europe in later seasons.
  • 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 thinks another character is going to die and does anything to please him/her, which the other character takes advantage of.


Landmarks in the lifecycle of a typical sitcom include:

Specific countries of origin

Most US sitcoms are half-hour shows in which the story is written to run a total of 22 minutes in length, leaving 8 minutes of commercial time. Sitcoms made outside the US may run somewhat longer. US 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. US 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.


Australia has not had a significant number of long running sitcoms; most successful sitcoms on Australian TV are British or American and many of the shows 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, the Australian equivalent of the BBC, and traditionally many have also been shown by the Seven Network. American sitcoms dominate the comedy line-up of the three commercial networks. However there have been a significant number of Australian sitcoms throughout the history of Australian television though they have most commonly run for just a single season. 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, who were 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.

Late 1970s sketch comedy series The Naked Vicar Show spawned successful sitcom spinoff Kingswood Country in 1980. This series was immensely popular, running four years. Its situation was somewhat similar to UK comedy Til Death Us Do Part.

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, and All Together Now, 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, successful sitcom Kath and Kim begun its hit run.


See also: Canadian humour

Despite Canada's wealth of comedic talent, Canadian TV's conventional 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 in their time as being particularly unfunny.

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

Canadian TV networks have had much more success with sketch comedy shows such as The Kids in the Hall, CODCO, SCTV, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, You Can't Do That On Television, and Royal Canadian Air Farce, and quirky dramedies such as Twitch City, The Newsroom, Made in Canada, Trailer Park Boys, The Beachcombers, Naked Josh and Seeing Things. While being teen dramas, the shows Degrassi Junior High and its sucessor, 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 no actor played more than one role.

A notable Quebec sitcom in recent years was La Petite Vie; one episode of that show holds the world record for the highest market share ever achieved by a television program. A popular current Quebec sitcom is Les Bougon.


See also: Russian humour

Sitcoms have appeared in Russia in second half 1990s, for example, My beautiful nurse on channel STS, and recent arrival "No! That's my octopus!".

New Zealand

New Zealand began producing television programmes 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 per year each. 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 Māori Television). The team of David McPhail and Jon Gadsby produced and/or starred in quite a number (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. (e.g. 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 US sitcoms are and have been popular in New Zealand, including many of those aforementioned in this article.

South Africa

Sitcoms broadcast in South Africa during the apartheid era were often English-language imports from the United States of America. From the mid-1980s onwards, SABC and commercial competitors such as eTV have commissioned successful local sitcoms such as 'Sgudi 'Snaysi (a Zulu language comedy which was the most-watched programme on SABC in the late 1980s), Madam and Eve and Nomzamo.

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 redone in adaptation. Classic British sitcoms include Only Fools and Horses, Porridge, Fawlty Towers, Dad's Army, Blackadder, Open All Hours, and The Young Ones. More recent successes have included Father Ted (set in Ireland), The Vicar of Dibley, The Royle Family, Spaced 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 Harry are quashed by his needy, manipulative father, and the end of each series of Blackadder involved the ritual slaughter of the cast. Additionally, British sitcoms tend to be set in unusual situationsWorld War II, prison, the far future—than the more everyday situations preferred elsewhere.

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 hugely 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 (see 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 propsed 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 staring on March 5th, 2006.

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 Lucille Ball, which is well known because the producer took the step, unusual for its time, of shooting the 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.

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.

See also


Further reading

External links

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