Sitcom:What It Is, How It Works
Comedy in the Sitcom


Richard F. Taflinger

This page has been accessed since 31 May 1996.

The plots of all three types of situation comedy provide four of the six basic criteria for humor: appeal to the intellect rather than emotion, established societal norms, incongruity to those norms, and the perception by the audience that the occurrences are essentially harmless to both the characters and to the sensibilities and beliefs of the audience.

The societal norms are fairly well established by current American attitudes and mores that are well understood by the majority of American society. Any special attitudes with which the audience must be acquainted are given in the exposition to the episode to which they apply.

Actcoms use actions that are incongruous with reality as perceived by society. When Rob (THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW) dreams he is literally a puppet controlled by strings held by his wife, it violates the norms of people not being controlled by strings and the idea that husbands are controlled by their wives. When on LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY, Laverne wants to be like Shirley and begins to act like her, it violates the idea of personal identity, and is incongruous with the character the audience knows Laverne to be. Lucy (I LOVE LUCY) violates the norms of action when she tries to convert her New York apartment into the Cuban countryside, complete with chickens and a burro.

In all cases, in an actcom it is the actions that are incongruous, not the characters or thought.

Domcoms illustrate the effects of behavior by characters that is incongruous with the established norms of behavior. In this way, the characters can be shown aligning their attitudes and actions with the norms. Barbara (ONE DAY AT A TIME) is pressured by her boyfriend to go to bed with him, and the conflict within herself is shown, until she aligns herself with the established norm of avoiding sexual relations until mature enough to handle them. Mary (THE DONNA REED SHOW) learns to be herself and that "flashy" isn't necessarily good.

In all domcoms, it is the established norms of behavior by characters that is used to provide incongruity for humorous effect, rather than actions or thought.

The dramedy holds societal norms up for examination by illustrating them in extreme cases. Attitudes on sex, crime, war, patriotism, race, religion, etc., are carried by characters who are either strongly for or strongly against societal norms for those attitudes. Hawkeye (M*A*S*H) is strongly for personal freedom and life, and plots show him in conflict with warmongers and rigid militarists and disciplinarians. Archie Bunker (ALL IN THE FAMILY) is a racial and political bigot, heaping scorn on blacks, Jews, foreigners and women, and anyone else whose political views are not as conservative as his own. He is shown in conflict with those whose attitudes and beliefs run counter to his. However, unlike other types of situation comedies, the characters in a dramedy do not hold the societal norms: the norms are the foundation from which they depart, their attitudes and actions incongruous with the norms in order to hold the norms up for examination.

The actcom only appeals to the intellect in that it does not have an emotional content: the characters do not react in a fashion that could create a real emotion (e.g., grief, pathos, awe) in the audience.

The domcom can and does appeal to the emotions of the audience, but only as a byproduct of illustrating growth in the character as he or she copes with an emotional situation. In any case, the emotion is shortlived as it is often maudlin and ended with a short comic scene, to relieve the emotion.

The dramedy is the only form of situation comedy that has emotional appeal as a regular part of the effect of the show. The intellect is appealed to during the examination of the societal norm, but emotion is used to show the effect of the societal norm on the characters.

In all cases, the actions and attitudes are perceived by the audience as harmless: people are not physically, mentally, or emotionally hurt by the events that occur. Even in the domcom, in which a character's emotions may be whipsawed by events, the audience is still aware that by the end the character will not only be spiritually unharmed but will be happier than before. Only in a dramedy is there a chance that a character will be harmed, and those moments are not humorous: they many be poignant, sad, or horrifying, but they are not funny.

However, in the last several years sitcoms have begun taking chances, violating the norms, ideas or attitudes of the ideal "Middle American" family in such a way that some people seem them as harmful (and therefore not funny). Shows such as MARRIED . . . WITH CHILDREN and WOOPS! base much of their humor on not just violating but making fun of the norms. Those people that actually adhere to those norms feel insulted because their attitudes are being held up to ridicule, and thus they feel harmed by such humor. These people sometimes accuse the shows of being lewd, crude, and tasteless, and try to have the shows cancelled, or run campaigns to reduce sponsor support.

The characters in all three types of situation comedy provide the final two criteria for humor: they are inherently human, and, for the most part, they react in a mechanical manner to stimuli.

That the characters are inherently human is, in most situation comedies, obvious: they appear, talk and act like human beings. In those situation comedies, actcoms all, that have nonhuman characters (MR. ED, THE HATHAWAYS, MY MOTHER, THE CAR), such characters still give the impression that they are human beings, merely in disguise: Mr. Ed, a horse, talks and thinks like a man; the three chimps on THE HATHAWAYS act like human children; the car on MY MOTHER, THE CAR talks and thinks like a woman.

In an actcom, as previously stated, human characteristics are either ignored or exaggerated. Nonetheless, they are human characteristics. The characters are also the most mechanically acting in any of the three types of situation comedy: they are almost robotic in their following of a course of action that, with a little thought, would obviously be doomed to failure. In many episodes of most actcoms, the same course of action is followed several times, each time in a way that is more elaborate and exaggerated than the time before. For example, in the I LOVE LUCY episode cited previously, Lucy tries three different ways to gain Ricky's attention, each more exaggerated than the one before. The final solution was simply telling Ricky that she wanted the romance back in their marriage, thus breaking the chain of mechanical response to the lack of results to her various plots.

In the domcom, the mechanical responses to stimuli are greatly reduced as compared with the actcom. The main character, in particular, is a reasonable and reasoning person, although he or she will often have a knee jerk reaction in keeping with established norms upon first encountering the problem. Many of those around rher are not so reasonable and reasoning, and provide most of the humor. In consequence, the domcom is not as funny as an actcom, but more humorous in a human fashion, with a feeling of enjoyment rather than laughs.

In the dramedy, mechanical responses are greatly reduced as part of the action: the characters will usually act in a manner indicating thought and foresight. Instead, the responses appear more in the form of verbal humor, jokes for their own sake, even practical jokes played on other characters so that the audience laughs along with the characters rather than at them, the mechanical aspects internal to the joke and relating to the plot only as comic intensification. The characters are, in consequence, the most human of all the characters discussed in the situation comedy, being funny because these people are just more consistently funny than the norm.


Those situation comedies that work, that the audience laughs at and enjoys and that the networks keep on the air because the audiences like them, use all six criteria for humor. They avoid emotionally involving the audience, they understand and follow the established societal norms and act to violate them, the audiences perceive the acts as harmless, and the characters are inherently human and act in a mechanical manner to stimuli. Those situation comedies that do not have all six criteria do not remain long on the air.

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