Disclaimer: Spoilers for MASH Season 3 Episode 24 but that came out on March 18, 1974, so :/. Also kind of Friends and That 70s Show but those have both been over for 10+ years.
The definition of a sitcom is a situation comedy. This definition is very wide; it could essentially mean any comedy television show in which there is a situation. However, despite its vagueness, there are tropes and elements associated with a sitcom through decades of practice. To name a few: the laugh track, a stationary plot, an ensemble cast, and a three-wall set. But not all sitcoms have these elements, in fact, most modern ones do not abide by these traditional rules anymore. The idea of a sitcom has become as diverse as its name indicates. The question today is not only what defines a sitcom, but what makes one high quality. This article is going to only refer to American live-action sitcoms, as cartoons have their own markers and styles.
Sitcoms that fit the typical mold are a dime a dozen. Some examples are 2 Broke Girls, Young & Hungry, The Big Bang Theory, and most live action Disney shows. However, just because a show fits this standard does not mean that it is a bad show, just that it’s traditional. A perfect example of a traditional but well-done sitcom is Friends. Friends is not innovative or revolutionary, but it does its job well. The writing is quality, the characters are interesting, the acting is well executed, and there is development and growth in both story and characters. For these reasons, it is beloved. In fact, in a survey posted on the Franklin Post Instagram, Friends received the second most votes for the favorite sitcom. It has the classic elements, and the classic clichés of running through the airport, kissing in the rain, but they lay the foundations for these events and show why they became clichés in the first place.
While there are many shows that follow this traditional style and formula, there are just as many that deviate. One of these deviations is the show that received the most votes for the favorite sitcom: The Office (British and American version). This is the first highly successful major variation in the format in a sitcom. The mockumentary style format allowed for a whole new form of comedy. Instead of cracking one-liners like its predecessors, the show could truly use the situation as its comedy. Other successful breaks in form are Community’s shift between genres, Master of None’s dramatic techniques, and How I Met Your Mother’s manipulation with timeline and point of view.
Another way that sitcoms can differ from one another and establish themselves as unique is through their content and topic. Specifically, Seinfeld was the first to do this successfully. The most revolutionary part of Seinfeld is the characters, who were likable but bad people. They were inconsiderate, selfish, stubborn, and completely real. The characters would say things that no one else would admit that they were thinking. Seinfeld was created to show the quirks of society and the people who fill it, and it discussed taboo topics that other shows like Friends would never mention (feminine hygiene products, masturbation, “cold weather shrinkage”, etc.) because it was attempting to be realistic. This, combined with well-written scripts that weaved plotlines together with a central theme, made Seinfeld one of the most well-received sitcoms in history. Another sitcom that remains popular because of its unique content is It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. While it has a traditional style, with wacky characters and one-liners, it used the same technique as Seinfeld in which their characters were likable, but not moral, and they invented their own tone of dark comedy.
Along with the concept of topic is absurdity. Absurdity is when a sitcom goes beyond realism to achieve opportunities for plot and message that would never have been possible otherwise. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Arrested Development and Community all do this effectively, but by far the most successful example is The Good Place. The Good Place has philosophical foundations connected to its characters and plot, and with such an extreme and wide topic as philosophy, it needs its content to be just as extreme. So, the characters deal with topics such as death and afterlife. The characters are constantly dragged from one extreme situation to the next because that is what is necessary for the show to display these philosophies at work and challenge the show’s themes.
What is the purpose of entertainment? To educate? To evoke emotion? Or is it to distract? To escape into a realm of idealism? The Good Place aims to educate its audience on basic philosophy and its applications, but it’s not the only show to use its platform to advertise a message. One of the returning themes of Parks and Recreation is the disadvantages women in politics are granted. In a season four episode of Brooklyn 99, Terry Jeffords, an African-American police officer and one of the show’s main characters, experiences racial profiling and the remainder of the episode centers on the degrading effects of that interaction. The MASH season three finale “Abyssinia, Henry” centered on Henry Blake’s emotional departure from the Korean War, where the show is set, and his return home to his family. After Blake says his goodbyes and boards his helicopter home, they learn that his helicopter had been shot down over the Sea of Japan and he had died. This reminds the characters and the viewers of the cruel realities of wartime. These heart-wrenching examples are used for story and character development but are also used as education for its audience.
Sitcoms are not just comedies, they are stories. And part of an effective story is inciting emotions in its audience. This is executed in shows like How I Met Your Mother, which is no doubt a comedy, but it also handles heavy themes like death and divorce. In That 70s Show, Steven Hyde is abandoned by his mother and Jackie Burkhart’s father gets incarcerated. And New Girl is a sitcom, but it has just as many touching, emotional moments as it does jokes. Dramatic elements and moments can be incorporated to flesh out the story, characters, and relationships.
But does a sitcom have to have emotional moments to be good? Or can the viewer just disengage for 30 minutes in mindless humor in order to temporarily escape from their own lives? Does that hold as much value? Shows like Happy Days and Seinfeld argue that sometimes, comedy should be at the forefront of the sitcom. In our survey, good humor was voted as the most important part of a sitcom. Shows like Broad City address social issues such as sexism, but they don’t have emotional moments or episodes intending to teach its audience a la Saved By the Bell. Broad City uses its comedy to address social issues. For example, after being told to smile on the street, the two female main characters use their middle fingers to prop their mouths into a smile. There are ways for a show to develop a story and be engaging besides giving way to dramatic techniques.
Because sitcoms are so drastically different, it is hard to define what a classic sitcom is, and it is even harder to define what a sitcom should be. Is it better to have emotional moments, or to stay true to comedic form? Is it better to stay realistic or relatable, or to stretch reality to better establish a message?
In our survey, the production value was voted the least important element of a sitcom, with story progression as a distant second. Alternatively, good humor was voted the most important element, with relatable characters as a close second. However, ultimately, it comes down to nothing but personal preference. Because the genre is so broad, almost anyone can find their niche in at least one sitcom. All a sitcom really needs to do is make someone laugh. Whether it does that through focusing on established characters, a witty, well-written script, observational comedy, or any other form is up to them.