In Ancient Greece, people used to gather around an arena-like stage to watch actors tell stories. The word “tragedy” actually translates to “goat song” in Greek, expressing that these plays were originally religious ceremonies to different Gods (particularly Dionysus, the God of Wine and Merriment), in which they would tell stories and end the ceremony with a sacrifice of an animal (hence the “goat” part of “tragedy”). Most of these stories would end in the fall of a hero who came from noble blood and all that other stuff you can learn in your 10 Grade English Class. These stories usually ended up bumming the audience out too in a flood of pure, unadulterated xatharsis. But eventually, although people loved hearing about how Medea ate her own children and how Oedipus had sexual intercourse with his mother–it became a little tiring to see such upsetting material onstage every time you went to see a play. In light of this, a playwright named Euripides (see Media) decided to add elements of humor to a play called Alcestis, which would eventually be known as the first comedy. After that, comedies became more and more attractive to audience members. Jumping hundreds of years here, but check out William Shakespeare. To this day, his comedies are still regarded as hilarious, and his works are consistently referenced in modern media. Since storytelling began, humans have loved to feel catharsis through humor.
Since 1946, situational comedies (AKA: sitcoms) have become an integral part of how the western world gets their daily dosage of humor. My mother can recall watching MAS*H when she was younger, and my grandmother will tell me how much she loved Three’s Company as an adult. Tons of people tell me how much they love Friends, The Office, and Community. Sitcoms are something that people can enjoy together, something people can bond over. But what is it that makes a sitcom worth watching? What is the recipe for a good sitcom?
According to an article from The Atlantic, an episode of a sitcom consists of four elements: the “Teaser”, the “Trouble”, the “Muddle”, and the “Triumph/Failure”. The “Teaser” is described as “A short, introductory sketch that often runs before the credits”. This teaser is generally a very important part of an episode, because it generally draws the audience member in and creates a general tone for the episode. The “Trouble” is where we “meet the protagonist(s) and see that they’re just where we left them last episode, but a new problem or goal has come to their attention, which forms the main plot (Story A) of the episode,” which draws us into the story even more, hopefully by allowing us to relate to the characters. The “Muddle” is “another obstacle, a spanner in the works that requires an alternative plan or some amusing delay to the success of the initial strategy,” which creates more depth to the episode, and it meets a conclusion at the “Triumph/Failure” where (obviously), the characters either win or lose.
For example, let’s take a look at an episode of The Office. This particular episode is titled “Golden Ticket” and is the nineteenth episode of the fifth season of the show. The Office is a show based around a group of employees at a branch of a failing paper company (Dunder Mifflin) in the middle of Scranton, PA. Their workplace is filled with numerous quirky characters, and a boss named Michael (Steve Carell) who really has no idea what he’s doing. In this particular episode, Michael decides to repeat a gimmick done in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, where he provided company discounts to the clients who received the “golden tickets”, but when it all backfires, he blames it on his overly-literal assistant-to-the-regional-manager, Dwight. For this episode, the teaser would be a short clip of Michael running around the paper factory, sticking the golden tickets into boxes, and even getting yelled at by one of his employees for messing around in the warehouse when he wasn’t supposed to. Then, the theme song plays, signaling that the opening sketch (while still being relevant to the episode as a whole), is over. The Trouble shows its “ugly”, yet hilarious face when it is revealed that Michael only managed to put the tickets into boxes going to the most important client of the branch. He also managed to not specify that each ticket was limited to one customer. Since losing such a large amount of money would be detrimental to the company, Michael’s employees are naturally upset, and when Michael’s boss demands to know who came up with the idea, Michael threw Dwight under the proverbial bus. The Muddle turns out to be that the company actually loved Michael’s idea (which was now considered to be Dwight’s), and Dwight got all of the recognition. This, of course, makes Michael incredibly upset. After bickering between Dwight and Michael, Michael’s boss decides that he really doesn’t care enough to continue the battle, and ends it without either of them getting the recognition. This would be the Triumph/Fail scenario.
There are a few other sitcoms that could play into this theme. Episodes from Malcom in the Middle to Three’s Company could be used in this exact formula. However, even though it certainly seems plausible that there might be a recipe for the perfect sitcom episode, there still isn’t an exact recipe for the perfect sitcom. This article also suggests that a good episode of a sitcom will also have a subplot to coincide with the main plot of the episode. For example, in that episode of The Office, there is a romantic subplot where another one of the characters has troubles in his romantic relationship. This subplot helps ease the emotional efforts of the episode and makes it easier to watch for people. Multiple character plotlines also create more opportunities for comedic scenes. A good sitcom will have multiple characters who will have interesting chemistry. This chemistry should also grow and change throughout the entirety of a show–not just an episode.
An example of good character growth within a sitcom would be in the 1970’s hit, MASH. This show follows the life of Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce and his MASH unit (4077) during the Korean War. This show also follows the plot structure described earlier–each episode makes silly jokes, has caricatures and ongoing situations that are funny. However, MASH also takes serious situations within its light activity. Characters die in this show, and the audience feels pain. Even though it is a comedy, the struggles of war are not taken lightly. Characters in this particular sitcom grow in their relationships to one another. One of the greatest character relationships seen in sitcoms is the one between Radar (the clerk for the MASH unit) and Colonel Henry Blake. Blake and Radar have a typical boss-employee relationship, but it is clear that their friendship is one of the most important ones in the show. They develop it through goofy situations, but later on when Blake died in a plane accident on his way home, Radar never fully recovered. It was constantly evident that the loss of Blake weighed on him, and all of the other members of the unit.
Another show that uses character growth and development would be Parks and Recreation, a show about a government worker named Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) who is dedicated to her town, Pawnee, Indiana. This show is done in a similar mockumentary style to The Office, and has full length storylines undergoing the crazy situations. The characters in this show grow and change in many different ways, constantly developing their own story arcs. The cast of this particular sitcom is also very cohesive. A good friend of mine, David Jenny, once told me that the best characters are ones where you could completely change their gender, but they would be the same. This notion is incredibly true for this particular television show.
At the same time, an article from Bustle.com suggests that sitcoms have changed a lot since 1979. It notes that they have changed in their characters, plot lines, and overall development of the show. This article particularly examines the general themes of sitcoms, the cast type, the female presence, the “diversity check”, the relationship statuses of characters, the set locations, the family friendliness and the “lasting legacy” of the shows. This article mentions how in the beginning, shows were mostly about white American families, centered mainly around a cis male. When examining shows like Cheers, Family Ties, and Growing Pains, this seems relatively accurate. Of course, there were shows like The Cosby Show and MAS*H as well. Regarding the overall female presence in these particular sitcoms, it is minimal and would not pass the Bechdel Test. However, these days, having LGBTQ characters, mixed diversity and female leads in sitcoms is a lot more evident. Modern Family and Community were particularly cutting edge, adding cohesiveness and diversity to the mix.
After examining these sitcoms and conducting personal research, I believe that “the perfect sitcom” would be one that follows a distinct recipe. Each character should have an overall beginning, middle and end of their stories–a beginning, middle and end for each episode, season and the show as a whole. There should be equal amounts of hilarity and seriousness, and relationship development. I also think that they are interesting when they have relationships of all different kinds–and lots of diversity and interesting female characters. Sitcoms should be a funny representation of our real lives–our real life struggles and romances, and our real life joy and pain. When I watch a sitcom, I want to simultaneously think and not think. Comedy is one of the only forms of art that can provide such catharsis for the human brain, making it so important to human culture. It is incredibly important to connect our humanity to the humanity of others, and it is also incredibly important to escape ourselves sometimes and go into a world where we can laugh about someone else freely.
Cracking the Sitcom Code
Noah Charney – https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/12/cracking-the-sitcom-code/384068/
BBC – Writing TV Sitcom – Writers Room
Evolution Of The Television Sitcom, From Studying 1980 To Predicting 2020
Mary Garis – https://www.bustle.com/articles/63052-evolution-of-the-television-sitcom-from-studying-1980-to-predicting-2020
Sitcom: What It Is, How It Works Conclusion
Who’s Laughing Now? The History of the Sitcom Laugh Track
Matt Schimkowitz – http://www.indiewire.com/2014/10/whos-laughing-now-the-history-of-the-sitcom-laugh-track-69284