The situation comedy, or sitcom, has been a staple of entertainment media for decades. More than 900 have been on the air since 1947. Starting on radio, it quickly became popular with audiences. With the advent of television in the late 1940s, sitcoms migrated to the small screen, and it is these sitcoms with which most people today around the world are familiar. Content and neo-Aristotelian analyses of from 1 to 100 episodes each of approximately 800 situation comedies has led to the following understanding of situation comedies and how they work (Taflinger 1996).
Definition Of Situation Comedies
A definition of situation comedy should look at each word of the name, starting with “situation.” There is a continuation from episode to episode of the same elements: (1) a regular group of characters who appear in all or almost all episodes and who maintain a continuing relationship to each other (e.g., husband and wife and perhaps children, siblings, co-workers, neighbors; (2) a group of settings used in all or almost all episodes in which most of the actions take place – for instance homes, workplaces, schools – and in which (3) the premise of the show is established (Taflinger 1996). For example, the situation could be parents teaching their children how to live and behave in the world, or how doctors and nurses cope with being in a war zone, or how a man’s reach exceeds his grasp, or how friends try to get and succeed in relationships. The premise is the basis of every episode’s story.
However, the above criteria appear to be the basis of other types of episodic fiction TV series, such as lawyer shows, cop shows, medical dramas, and Westerns. Separating TV series from other dramatic art forms such as movies and plays, what distinguishes situation comedies from other types of TV shows is that dramas attempt to evoke emotion from their viewers: love, hate, pity, sympathy, excitement – drama aims at the heart. Sitcoms, on the other hand, use humor rather than emotion: they aim at the head rather than the heart. Thus, the second word in situation comedy: “comedy.”
Criteria For Humor
Six criteria are required for comedy, for an event to elicit laughter from a person (Taflinger 1996). First, it must be mechanical (Bergson 1956). In this criterion, the laughable element consists of a mechanical inelasticity, just where one would expect adaptability and flexibility. It is humorous when a person acts in a manner that is inappropriate to a stimulus or situation, as in any slapstick comedy routine. It is funny when a chair is pulled out from under someone who is sitting down, because he or she does not adapt to the change in situation and continues to sit in a mechanical fashion. A character is funny because he or she mechanically reacts to events without thinking about how events have changed the situation.
Second, it must be inherently human, or with the capability of reminding us of humanity. Something is funny only insofar as it is or reminds the audience of humanity. This is clear when the participants in the joke are people, even cartoon people. However, the audience may also laugh at the antics of animals, such as chimpanzees or horses or bears, but only in direct proportion to the animal’s capability of reminding the audience of something human. Thus, animals such as chimps and orangutans are often dressed in human clothing to heighten the reminder, and horses and mules can talk and think better than the people they are around. It becomes apparent when one examines comedy that it is based on incongruity: the unexpected with the expected, the unusual with the usual, the misfit in what has been established as a societal norm. For there to be incongruity there must be something to be incongruous to. Therefore, for a comedy to work there must be an established set of cultural, human, and societal norms, mores, idioms, idiosyncrasies, and terminologies against which incongruities may be found.
This leads to the next two criteria for humor. Third, there must be a set of established societal or human norms with which the observer is familiar; and fourth, the situation and its component parts (the actions performed and the dialogue spoken) must be inconsistent or unsuitable to the surrounding or associations (i.e., the societal or human norms). These latter two criteria explain why some people do not get a joke: they do not know or understand the norms being violated in the joke. Think of a joke you share with your friends. You may only need to say a single word or a phrase, and you all break up laughing. However, others with you will look confused and not laugh. That is because they do not know the situation to which you are referring, which is a norm for you and your friends, but not for them. Thus, the intellectual element really comes to the fore: to get a joke, you must not only understand the situation, but understand how the situation is being violated. This requires mental processing, not just an emotional reaction. Thus, there is the fifth criterion: it must appeal to the intellect rather than the emotions.
Finally, there is criterion number six: it must be perceived by the observer as harmless or painless to the participants. The comic action is perceived by the audience as causing the participants no actual harm: their physical, mental, psychological, and/or emotional wellbeing may be stretched, distorted, or crushed, but they recover quickly and by the end of the performance they are once again in their original state. It is funny when someone slips on the ice and falls: people laugh; people expect the person to stand up and look embarrassed – until they realize that the person broke his leg. At that moment the event is no longer humorous. This also applies to ethnic, racial, or social group humor: those in that group find the joke insulting and thus harmful to their self-esteem and the way they wish others to perceive their group. They do not find it funny. A key word in this criterion is “perceived”: the attempt at humor does not have to actually be harmless, it just has to be perceived as harmless by the audience.
Situation Comedies And Society
When all these criteria have been met, people will usually laugh. If any one of the criteria is absent or violated, then the attempt at humor will fail. Situation comedies use the above criteria in telling their stories. The stories themselves are the same as would be found in dramas (police stories, doctor stories, detective stories, love stories), but the stories aim at people’s cognition, not emotions, and are incongruous to real life, not examples of it. Because of the third and fourth criteria, situation comedies, more than any other mediated communication, reflect the actual beliefs their audiences hold about what their society is and the way people within that society should be. Situation comedies, unlike other forms of communication, must be grounded in the society of their times and audience for that audience to understand the jokes. Therefore, if the rules of society change, the jokes do not work.
Dramatic stories (both dramas and comedies) are constructed following some basic rules: there is a universe in which the stories take place (e.g., unmarried friends looking for love, a war zone, an office); a problem arises in that universe; the characters do things to solve that problem, making the problem worse; and finally, they do the right thing and the problem is solved. Because of the way stories are constructed, there are three basic types of situation comedies: the action comedy, the character comedy, and the dramatic comedy (Taflinger 1996).
In an action comedy, the characters simply do things, they perform actions, until they finally do the right thing to solve the problem. The characters are often clever, but not too bright, inventing schemes that they immediately try rather than thinking things through, weighing options, and developing a good plan. The humor comes from watching the characters flounder around until, often apparently by accident, they solve the problem. This type of sitcom is the most common, since it is the easiest to do. More than 86 percent of American sitcoms have been action comedies (Taflinger 1996).
The character comedy requires that a character undergo a fundamental change in who he or she is to solve the problem. The problem arises because a character is doing or believing something wrong: that looks are everything, that social status is more important than being true to oneself, that selfishness is the way to behave. In the early part of the story the character seems to be right, but then the negative consequences start to impact the character’s life, and they come to the realization that they were wrong and need to change what they believe. This change solves the problem. The character sitcom is rare because it is more difficult to do than just have the characters perform actions to solve the problem, and it requires a greater effort on the part of and concentration by the audience to understand the characters’ personal problems and solutions. The character comedy is much rarer than the action comedy, about 13 percent of American sitcoms.
The third and rarest type of sitcom (about 1 percent of the total) is the dramatic comedy, or “dramedy.” In this type of sitcom, the solution to the problem presented in the show is often unsatisfactory or poor, leaving it up to the audience to think about the problem and decide how they would solve it. For example, two characters may hold diametrically opposed extreme points of view. They present their extreme views on the issue in the episode, but never arrive at a good compromise, consensus, or solution. This leaves it up to the audience to arrive at their own conclusion, a middle ground between the two extremes. Another type of dramedy puts the characters in a difficult, almost impossible, situation and has them try to figure out how to cope with that situation. For example, doctors and nurses, who are dedicated to the saving of life, are living and working in a war zone, which is dedicated to the taking of life. The characters’ physical, ethical, moral, and psychological battles are played out, and the audience is left to consider how they would solve the dilemmas and live in the situation presented.
From its inception as a form of episodic entertainment, the situation comedy has been a major element of mass media. Reflecting the mores of its audience and the times in which they live, and poking fun at them, it has provided amusement, and occasionally edification, for its viewers. Although it has had its ups and downs, and even had its obituary published more than once, it has always been and will continue to be a favorite with audiences looking for a laugh.
- (1970). Poetics (trans. G. F. Else). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
- Bergson, H. (1956). Laughter. In W. Sypher (ed.), Comedy. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, pp. 61– 190.
- Brooks, T., & Marsh, E. (1999). The complete directory to prime time network and cable TV shows: 1946–present. New York: Ballantine.
- McNeil, A. (1996). Total television. New York: Penguin.
- Meredith, G. (1956). An essay on comedy. In W. Sypher (ed.), Comedy. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, pp. 3–57.
- Seylor, A., & Haggard, S. (1957). The craft of comedy. New York: Theatre Arts Books.
- Taflinger, R. (1996). Sitcom: What it is, how it works. At www.wsu.edu/~taflinge/sitcom.html, accessed September 21, 2007.