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The action-based situation comedy, or actcom, is the most common form of situation comedy on television, 88% of the total number of sitcoms.
The plots of actcoms are plots of action. That is, the emphasis is on the action rather than on characterization or thought, as will be shown below.
The exposition is usually under the opening
credits: still photographs, cartoons, or film showing the characters, settings,
and basic premise. For example, the opening of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW shows
photographs of the cast, as does FAMILY TIES. C artoons
were very popular as openings in the 1960s (BEWITCHED, I DREAM OF JEANNIE, IT'S
ABOUT TIME), and films showing characters and locations are often used
(CAVANAUGHS, NEWHART, RHODA, THE WONDER YEARS). If any information other than
visual is needed, then the lyrics of the title song supply it, as on GILLIGAN'S
The problems in an actcom are mistakes, misunderstandings, attempts to influence the behavior of others, or unforeseen circumstances, all of which disrupt the status quo. In one episode of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW (see appendix C) the plot is precipit ated by Mel Cooley, the producer of "The Alan Brady Show" (for which Rob Petrie, Sally Rogers, and Buddy Sorrell are writers) and Alan's brother-in-law, who rejects a script about a man rising to the top by marrying the boss' daughter, thinking the script is about him. He is wrong but he realizes it only at the end of the show, allowing a half-hour of comic results built on his misunderstanding. In another episode of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, the plot is started by Ritchie, Rob's son, being in a school pl ay.
In an episode of I LOVE LUCY, Lucy thinks the romance has gone out of her marriage and wants to induce her husband, Ricky, to show the same interest in her that he did when they were first married. She never mentions this to him, but instead embarks on three different schemes, each designed to get Ricky's attention.
Sometimes the character attempts to influence his own behavior rather than someone else's. Rhoda, on RHODA, frequently tries to behave in a manner not consistent with what she believes her character to be. In one episode, she rebels against her ste reotyped upbringing that insists that a woman wait for the man to ask for a date, and asks the man of her choice to go out with her.
On yet another show, DELTA HOUSE, the boys want to impress their parents on Parent's Day at the University.
Most often the problem is an unforeseen occurrence: Mork (MORK AND MINDY) demonstrates his gullibility; Lucy and Ricky (I LOVE LUCY) prepare for an overseas trip; the station (WKRP IN CINCINNATI) is holding a contest with a cash prize; Tabitha (BEWI TCHED) wants a toy elephant; Cosmo (TOPPER) needs money to pay his wife's bills; Brad's father (ANGIE) wants Angie and her mother to come meet him; Roper's (THREE'S COMPANY) drain needs fixing; Alex (TAXI) picks up an old lady; Murray, the cop, (THE ODD C OUPLE) meets Felix' new girlfriend and remembers that he raided the play she is in; a space capsule is going to pass directly over the island (GILLIGAN'S ISLAND); Frasier and his new girlfriend invite Sam and Diane over for dinner (CHEERS).
All of the above examples are simple, yet set off chains of events that comprise the bulk of the show, all of them physical rather than mental or emotional actions.
The complications are flaws in the plan to solve the problems or natural outgrowths of the problem. In the first DICK VAN DYKE example, complications include Rob quitting in protest to Mel's canceling the script, and Buddy and Sally not quitting wit h him. In the second example, Rob has to leave town and can't go to Ritchie's play. In the I LOVE LUCY example, complications include Lucy's schemes to get Ricky's attention. In other examples: The Delta House boys realize that the last thing that wil l impress their parents in their junkyard of a house. In addition, their faculty advisor is told to get contributions from their parents or face an unrenewed contract; Mork meets an escaped prisoner who tells Mork that he escaped in order to visit his mo ther; Lucy has to get a passport for the trip, but can't because she has no birth certificate; Johnny Fever, the WKRP disc jockey, misquotes the amount of the cash prize, saying that it is $5000.00 instead of the correct $50.00; Clara the witch, Tabitha's aunt, wants to give Tabitha a toy elephant, but mixes up her magic spell and creates a real elephant instead; Cosmo gets involved in catching counterfeiters; Angie's mother is afraid to fly and therefore won't go to see Brad's father; Roper can hear what is said in the apartment upstairs through the open drain; the old lady likes Alex' company and sets up a regular meeting for him to drive her around; Felix thinks that his girlfriend is a librarian, not a nude actress; the castaways attempt to signal the capsule; Frasier and his girlfriend, Lilith, who has just moved in with him, begin arguing about their personality foibles.
Each of the complications is fairly simple and straightforward, and do not lead the characters to any great moral decision or mental strain. They lead quite naturally to some type of action, in which the characters do something to solve the complica tion: Rob tries to get back in time to see the play; Lucy tries yet another scheme to get Ricky's attention; the Delta House boys take over the swank Omega House; Mork frees the prisoner; Lucy tries to find someone to vouch for her at the passport office ; the disc jockey tries to rig the contest so nobody can win; Clara tries to get rid of the elephant; the ghosts try to get rid of the men in Cosmo's basement who are counterfeiters; Angie tries to get Brad's father to come to see her; the three kids upst airs give Roper a good piece of false gossip; Alex feels like a gigolo but goes along; Felix and Oscar go to the theatre to see if Felix' girlfriend is really a nude actress; the castaways on the island try a variety of ways to signal the space capsule; L ilith locks herself in the bathroom.
The crises are the points at which it is 1) necessary for the protagonist to make a decision about what action to take, or 2) the events place the protagonist at a low point. The decisions involve no great soul searching, philosophical pondering, no r consideration of possible consequences beyond the solving of the immediate problem. The greatest amount of thought is devoted to the actual mechanics of carrying out the decision. The low point is the failure of a plan, or circumstances that put the p rotagonist in some sort of trouble.
Examples of the first include: Alex must decided whether he should continue to see the old lady; Oscar must decided whether to tell Felix about his girlfriend.
More often, the protagonist finds himself in trouble: Mork is arrested for freeing the prisoner; Lucy can't find a witness in lieu of a birth certificate; someone wins the WKRP contest for $5,000.00; a loan officer and investigator are coming over a nd will see the elephant; the ghosts think Cosmo is the counterfeiter; Roper thinks that Chrissy is pregnant.
The climax is the highest point of physical and verbal action. The protagonist has gone to his farthest extreme in mistake, misunderstanding, attempt to influence, or to cope with the unforeseen occurrence. A result must be obtained, either vindica ting his actions or showing him his error, thus achieving resolution.
The resolution of actcom plots in most cases is a restoration of the status quo. In both THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW and I LOVE LUCY examples, once the protagonists have admitted what they were doing (Rob hating Buddy and Sally for not quitting with him and Mel admitting his error, and Lucy trying to rekindle romance), the facts were told and the status quo restored. In the other examples: Mork is vindicated when the prisoner returns from visiting his mother; the WKRP prize money is stolen by a conman, but Johnny, the disc jockey, redeems himself by getting it back; the bank inspector is made to look a fool and thinks he hallucinated the elephant; the ghosts alter the printing plates to make play money and catch the counterfeiters, saving Cosmo; the Om ega House is destroyed but the advisor has checks for contributions, saving Delta House and his job; Roper looks like a fool and the kids get what they want-- $50.00 off the rent; Alex tells the old lady off, refusing to be a gigolo; the capsule blows up; Rob dreams he's a puppet and his wife is pulling the strings to get him to his son's show; both Lilith and Diane end up in the bathroom, upset with Frasier and Sam.
The denouement shows that the status quo has been reestablished. It can occur very quickly. In the above I LOVE LUCY example, it is simply Ricky and Lucy embracing after he reassures her that he does indeed love her. More often, though it is a sho rt scene showing that all is once again as it was at the beginning, with everyone happy and laughing together: Ritchie sings his song from the play for Rob; Johnny offers a new prize--a tube of lip gloss; Mrs. Topper had $10,000 in counterfeit money but couldn't find anything she wanted to buy; the checks the advisor gave the dean were forged by the Delta House boys; Roper has done a bad job of fixing the drain -- it leaks all over him; the old lady agrees not to try to buy Alex, but is not sure she can stomach the places he can afford to take her; Oscar sets up a date for Felix with Felix' ex-wife, Gloria; Mr. Howell, who had money on the space capsule when it blew up, throws a tantrum; Frasier locks the bathroom door from the outside and he and Sam go upstairs to watch television.
As can be seen in the above examples, the orientation of the plots is toward action rather than character or thought. The problems are superficial and often invented by the characters themselves, and are minor occurrences happening to the main or a s upporting character leading to further action.
The characters in an actcom are not human, but humanoid. That is, though they have the appearance of humanity, certain characteristics are exaggerated in an actcom for effect. When a character is in love rhe wanders aimlessly, moony-eyed and sighin g; when rhe cries rhe screws up rher eyes and wails; when rhe's angry rhe tears rher hair, bugs rher eyes and yells.
Characterizations are generally shallow, the
writer emphasizing certain characteristics and ignoring others. For instance,
Harry on THE LUCY SHOW is loud, belligerent, and constantly angry and
exasperated when he is not being obsequious to his super iors.
Ricky (I LOVE LUCY) is also loud and ill-tempered, as is the Skipper on
In addition, there is a great deal of stereotyping. The husband is the breadwinner, usually the only one in the family with a job, as in I LOVE LUCY, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, BEWITCHED, and TOPPER. The wife is the homemaker, staying in the house. I f she does get a job she usually quits by the end of the episode, having proven that she is incompetent outside the house. The children are either cute and winsome, brats, or both. Of course, as society changes, so do the stereotypes as they reflect tha t society. In the last ten years, women have become more and more important in the workplace. Thus, sitcoms now have the wife working. Nonetheless, much stereotyping still exists.
Many actcoms, such as I LOVE LUCY, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW and NEWHART, will have what I will call, for lack of a better term, a star, as opposed to a main character. A star is the leading character in virtually every plot, being the focal point of t he action, the instigator and the one who carries out the bulk of the action, and the most visible character. Lucille Ball, Bob Newhart, and Dick Van Dyke were all the stars of their shows, acting as focus to the action. In recent years, Harry Anderson on NIGHT COURT, Tony Danza on WHO'S THE BOSS?, and Alf on ALF are the stars.
There are certain characteristics devolving on the star depending on whether the star is male or female. If the star is male his character is often confused and beset, he tries to do his best but often fails, tries to be honest and straightforward b ut is defeated by the forces around him.
If the star is female her character is often confused and confusing, flighty, ambitious, and devious.
Along with the star there is often one other character who is the second lead. Ricky on I LOVE LUCY, Laura on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, and Joanna on NEWHART are examples. If the second lead is male he is usually loud, volatile, and exasperated. If the second lead is female she is often docile but determined, supportive, and witty. A female second lead is also often more intelligent and well-rounded that a male second lead. Joanna and Jill (HOME IMPROVEMENT), for example, are witty and clever, ver y supportive but not above making disparaging remarks about their respective husbands, Bob and Tim.
Many actcoms have a basic unit of a man and a woman as main characters. Actcoms based on gimmicks such as magic or other supernormal powers always have this basic unit, although it may be a hybrid such as MY FAVORITE MARTIAN wherein the basic unit i s a man and a Martian, or MY LIVING DOLL in which the unit is a man and a robot (although the robot looks like a beautiful woman).
In gimmick-based actcoms
one member of the basic unit has unusual skills or characteristics: Samantha
(BEWITCHED) is a witch, Jeannie (I DREAM OF JEANNIE) is a genie, Uncle Martin
(MY FAVORITE MARTIAN) is a Martian with the ability to disappear, lev itate objects, etc. In all
cases, the other character is both the victim and the benefactee
of the first character's skills. An interesting point is that in all cases
wherein the basic unit is a man and a woman, it is the woman who has the
special abili ties. It appears to be assumed that it
is acceptable for a woman to take advantage of a man by turning him into a
housefly or dropping him into the middle of the
In most actcoms the main characters are shown as shallow and superficial, physically rather than mentally or emotionally motivated, with certain characteristics exaggerated. The motivations and emotions that are shown by the characters are few and s imple, basically those necessary to continue and illustrate the action. Motivations can be jealousy, greed, envy, curiosity, fear, etc., but they are never complex and rarely mixed. The same is true of the emotions shown: they are basic--grief, fear, e xcitement, love, etc.--and usually exaggerated for comic effect. However, in the more sophisticated actcoms such as RHODA, THE GOLDEN GIRLS and HOME IMPROVEMENT, the characters are more dimensionally human: they respond to stimuli in a fashion denoting an ability to think rationally and not necessarily comically. They have a tendency to use wit rather than slapstick, tears rather than crybaby wailing, sarcasm rather than yelling.
The more sophisticated actcoms approach sex as something more than simply that which one avoids telling the children. The main characters are rarely virginal in mind or body. For instance, Rhoda and Brenda on RHODA both think of men not only as mar riageable but as sexual objects. Dan on NIGHT COURT thinks of women only as sexual objects. Granted, they often use oblique language, but they are rarely reticent in admitting to sexual encounters.
Supporting characters in actcoms are usually henchmen, dupes and straightmen. They provide assistance, wittingly or not, and are occasionally the targets of schemes. They also provide straightlines for the main character's punchlines.
Their dramatic function is usually limited to being confused and beset, rarely providing plot problems, simply aiding and abetting, or being the victim of the main character's actions. Colonel Bellows (I DREAM OF JEANNIE), Gladys Cravits (BEWITCHED) , Maynard (THE MANY LOVES OF DOBIE GILLIS), Mr. Roper (THREE'S COMPANY), and Cliff (CHEERS) are examples.
In the more sophisticated actcoms, such as THE GOLDEN GIRLS and THE DAYS AND NIGHTS OF MOLLY DODD, supporting characters are also often relatives of the main character, intimately involved in rher life: mother, father, siblings, spouse. They do pro vide plot problems and complications, often by imposing themselves on the main character's personal life. In addition, the supporting characters can, like the main character, grow and change, affected by the events that occur.
Unsympathetic characters are often supporting characters, providing a variety of functions. They are foils for the main characters, are perpetual obstacles to overcome, and are continuing butts of complications in constant confusion. Larry Tate on BEWITCHED, Mel Cooley and Alan Brady on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, Herb on WKRP IN CINCINNATI, Dean Wormer on DELTA HOUSE, Brad's family on ANGIE, Louis on TAXI, and Dan Fielding on NIGHT COURT, are examples of this type of character.
In any case, supporting characters are as shallow and superficial as the main characters in the same show, their special characteristics exaggerated and others ignored.
Transient characters have three purposes. First, they provide plot problems and complications. Second, they provide comic bits of business, aiding the regular characters in comic scenes. Third, they make it possible for many plots to function, per forming those bits of business that would be dramatically impossible for a regular character to do.
Transient characters can often be unsympathetic, providing conflict with the main character or one of the supporting characters, or both.
The relationships between the characters on an actcom are only as close and deep as is necessary to make the actions possible and believable. Families and friends often appear to have no life beyond that shown on the screen, leaving a sense of super ficiality, as though families were barely acquainted, much less related.
All characters in actcoms have one special purpose: to be the agent to carry out the dictates of the action. Their characterizations are developed only to the point at which they can carry out their function, with little or no growth or change as p eople.
The settings for an actcom are generally simple and functional, serving as a background for the action rather than being a part of it. They show little personality, either of their own or of the characters inhabiting them. They are kept to a minimu m, usually just the home (the living room, kitchen, and occasionally a bedroom), and the main character's place of work.
They are generally middle-class, occasionally lower-middle-class, but very rarely upper-class. Lower- and upper-class settings are only used when they are a basic part of the situation, as the run-down shack on GREEN ACRES, or the mansions on THE BE VERLY HILLBILLIES, THE GOOD LIFE, and THE POWERS THAT BE.
The rooms are often not even designed to be functional. For example, the kitchen on THE LUCY SHOW has the refrigerator upstage center, the sink stage right, and the stove stage left. This would not be remarkable were it not for the fact that the ki tchen appears to be approximately 20 feet across. Such a distance and arrangement of appliances would make cooking more an act of endurance than a preparation of a meal.
If one is to believe an actcom, bodily functions do not exist. Bathrooms are almost never used. If a bathroom is shown it is only if specifically required for the plot in a particular episode, as in an episode of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW in which Lau ra gets her big toe stuck in the bathtub faucet. However, the only fixture that appears in this bathroom is the bathtub. The rest of the room is empty. In another DICK VAN DYKE episode, Rob thinks he is losing his hair, but he comes out of his house's bathroom to check his scalp's condition in the bedroom dresser's mirror. A most unusual house, that has no mirror in the bathroom. On an episode of CHEERS, the bar's men's room was used, but only because Diane's name and number were on the wall, and she had to go erase it.
The basic locations on place-based actcoms are dictated by the format. For example, on
Due to the nature of gimmick-based actcoms many special locations are used: clouds, icebergs, jungles, deserts, etc. These locations are easily conjured up by magic. Nonetheless, the majority of the action takes place in settings just like any oth er actcom.
In general, the settings in actcoms are unimportant. They are impersonal backgrounds to action, generally middle-class unless altered according to the dictates of the format. As the show's type becomes more sophisticated the settings become more pe rsonalized to the characters. However, in all cases the settings are merely functional to the comic action.
The characters in actcoms rarely seem to indulge in rational thought. At most, they devise schemes to accomplish their purposes, to solve their problems. Further consequences of their actions are either never considered or shrugged off as unimporta nt. Their thought processes are also superficial, their motivations based on first impressions, appearances, and hasty conclusions. Rob automatically thinks his friends have deserted him when they don't walk out with him when he quits; Mork believes eve rything he sees and hears; Lucy, trying to get her passport, almost commits a Federal crime because she doesn't think about the consequences of lying on her application; the WKRP prize is easily stolen because the characters don't even consider asking for identification from the man who comes to claim it; many of the magic spells on BEWITCHED backfire because no one thinks of alternative possibilities that the same spell could produce.
Actcom plots rarely have a theme, a point of view expressed or implied by the writer. Occasionally, there is a moral, as on HAPPY DAYS when Fonzie says, "Stay in school-it's cool", but such morals seem almost an afterthought, tacked on and out of pl ace because it is not prepared for during the course of the show. Instead, the show uses action and humor for its own sake.
The language used in actcoms in generally simplistic, the emphasis being on physical action, not verbal wit. It reflects the shallow characterizations found in most actcoms, and is limited to only what is necessary for the plot. When a character is witty, it is usually done for effect, the incongruity of the character speaking like Oscar Wilde or Mark Twain being funny. For example, Frasier Crane (CHEERS) is a psychiatrist, and often speaks in a very erudite fashion. However, when he does, the re st of the characters either make fun of him, or look at him with a blank stare, at which point he translates what he said into simplistic terms.
The first auditory effect noticed on an actcom is the sheer volume of the lines. I can think of no other type of television program on which the characters shout with such consistency. There is little or no use of background music and few sound eff ects.
They almost invariably used a laugh track. There are four basic reasons to use a laugh track. First, people are more likely to laugh with someone else than they are to laugh when they are alone. Thus the track provides them with that crowd.
Second, even though many shows use a live audience, a live audience simply doesn't put out the volume and intensity of sound for it to work. Several shows, including I LOVE LUCY, THE ODD COUPLE, and MORK & MINDY tried to dispense with the laugh machine and use only the live audiences' laughter, which, with each of those shows, was rich and heavy. The results sounded thin and anemic, sort of like the polite noises made by a matron hearing a dirty joke. Therefore, even shows with live audiences "sweeten " the laughter with the machine.
Third, as a stage actor knows from being in shows, when rhe says a laugh line, the audience laughs, and the actor waits until the laughter begins to diminish before continuing to insure the audience doesn't miss the next line -- it's called holding for l aughs. However, on a TV show, particularly one without a live audience, there is no way for the actors to know at what the audience will laugh, or for how long. If you watch the shows carefully, you will see the actors "hold for laughs" after a purporte d funny line, leaving a window of opportunity for the audience at home to laugh and not cover the next line. However, many supposedly funny lines are duds that the audience doesn't laugh at. The laugh track is there to fill that hole of silence so the a udience doesn't notice that the actors are holding.
Finally, of course, "they can assure themselves some laughs during an otherwise mundane show." However, the laugh track is not there just to be annoying, but is there for some purely, necessarily technical reasons. The laugh track is a major characteri stic of the "music" in actcoms.
In conclusion, the actcom is a basic, even simplistic, form of comedy. The idea is to get laughs, not examine character or discuss social or personal problems. Action is the means by which humor is created, rarely verbal wit or subtlety. Little or nothing is placed in the way of the action, neither setting nor diction, and little thought is given to possible outcomes of action.
In recent years there has been a trend toward actcoms examining social ills, such as crime, drug and alcohol use, and sexual diseases. However, many times this social consciousness appears tacked on rather than an integral part of plots. Since to exami ne social problems the characters have to respond to them as people involved and affected by them, not merely agents of actions, actcoms are particularly ill-equipped for the task.
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This page was created by Richard F. Taflinger. Thus, all errors, bad links, and even worse style are entirely his fault.
Copyright © 1996 Richard F. Taflinger.
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