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The domestic comedy, or domcom, is the second most numerous form of situation comedy on television, 11.5%, lagging far behind the actcom's 87.5%. The first TV situation comedy that could really be called a domcom was FATHER KNOWS BEST, which premier ed in 1954.
In the FATHER KNOWS BEST syndrome, the pratfall laugh gave way to family warmth. The father had a sudden rise in I.Q., the mother had important things to do, and the children actually had a part to play in the plot.
There are two major differences between the type of comedy represented by FATHER KNOWS BEST and what had gone before. First, there is an attempt to create an actual feeling of family among the characters, rather than a simple conglomeration of come dic actors playing characters with the same last name. This provides a sense of family warmth out of which the humor can grow, with the problems being solved by, at first, the father assisted by the mother, then in recent years, by the parents acting in partnership.
Second, the situations in which the characters become involved are more believable. Less emphasis is placed on contrived misunderstandings to set off the plot and more on actual personal problems that could plague the average American.
The domcom comes in several varieties, each of which will be discussed separately. The types are: 1) standard; 2) single-parent; and 3) pseudo-domcom. All three types use the same plot orientation and elements. It is in the characters and setting s that they vary.
The plots of all types of domcoms are most often plots of character. The emphasis is on the characters, their emotions and relationships with other people and society, rather than on action or thought.
The exposition of a domcom is, like the actcom, the establishment of characters, settings, and basic situations. It is shown in the opening segment, with the credits, just before or after the teaser, and often consists of the protagonist either arri ving home and greeting his loved ones, or doing something lovingly paternal or maternal, all showing the personal relationships of the characters. For examples, the opening of FATHER KNOWS BEST shows the father entering the front door of his home, where he is smiling greeted by his wife and children; Andy (THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW) is walking along a dirt road, taking his son fishing; Tom (THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE'S FATHER) is playing with his son on the beach; Prof. Howard (THE JIMMY STEWART SHOW) is riding his bicycle through the tree-lined streets to his home where he is greeted by his loved ones; the family plays football on the lawn (EIGHT IS ENOUGH); photographs of the individual characters are shown on the mantle, followed by a family portrait (FAMILY TIES). In any case, the impression to be gained from such expositions is one of place and character rather than situation, a middle-class residential district and house inhabited by a loving family.
The problems are those of character, in which a character is presented with a moral and/or emotional dilemma which needs solution. The problem is usually a child's: a problem in growing up, maturing, learning to live in human society. Such problem s include sharing with others, sibling rivalry, responsibility to work, home, family and self, sex, school, drugs and alcohol, etc. Once the problem is introduced the entire family, but in particular the parent or parents, become involved in discovering the full extent of the problem and finding the solution. Problems can include: Mary (THE DONNA REED SHOW) is called "wholesome" by her boyfriend, a description she finds insulting; Opie (THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW) wants some spending money; the Free Clinic (ONE DAY AT A TIME) is going to be filmed for a documentary; the family (FATHER KNOWS BEST) is on a trip at Christmas; Beaver (LEAVE IT TO BEAVER) wants to go to Eddie Haskell's house.
The complications are new developments in the problem that challenge the character's abilities and understanding, forcing the character to grow and develop as a person. For example, in an episode of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, Opie, Andy's son, wants a job to earn his own money for toys. A job opens for a grocery delivery boy. The first complication is the arrival of a competitor for the job. The grocer, wanting to be fair, tells the boys that he will hire them both for a week and then hire permanent ly the one that does the best job. The next complication comes after Opie gets the job and finds that the other boy needs the money for his family. However, Andy is so proud that Opie got the job that he can't just quit, nor would the other boy accept w hat he would consider charity.
Other examples: Mary wants to find out what other people think of her; the director of the documentary is an egomaniac who gets on Julie's nerves; the family's car breaks down and they're stuck for the night; Beaver's mother insists that he do somet hing he promised to do.
The crises are the turning points at which events can go different ways. In the above example, the crisis is Opie learning that the other boy needs the job to help support his family. If the grocer had picked the other boy there would have been no crisis. In a domcom, crises will go in the direction of forcing the character to the point of making a moral, ethical and/or emotional decision. The crises in the other examples are: Mary wants to change her image, to be vivacious and exciting instead of wholesome; Julie finds that she's in love with the director; the family can't get home before Christmas morning and Kathy, the youngest, is very upset; Beaver snubs his mother and makes her upset.
The climax is the point at which the character's moral, ethical or emotional decision bears fruit, when the consequences of his decision culminate. Opie decides to make it appear that he is not responsible enough for the job, saving the other boy th e embarrassment of receiving what he would perceive as charity, even though this strains his relationship with his father. However, Opie goes ahead, bearing his father's upset and disappointment, until the climax, at which point Andy learns the consequen ces of Opie's actions, apologizes and supports Opie's decision and actions. In the other examples, the climaxes are: Mary realizes that she should be herself because, even if she is wholesome, she is unique and wholesome is not bad; Julie, who has been fighting the relationship with the director because she doesn't want to be hurt, decides to take a chance; Kathy realizes that Christmas is not a place, but a feeling with the family, as they put up a tree and give her presents that they made during the n ight while she was asleep.
The denouement shows that equilibrium has been reestablished. However, the characters are not the same as at the beginning: the child has learned something important about himself and life, and the parent has learned that his child is growing up.
The denouement is very often a short, funny scene. There is a purpose to this. The climax can often be sickly sweet and present a definite possibility of syrup poisoning. Thus arose what is called "treacle-cutting". The lecture, soft words, tende r loving care usually hit a peak at the end of Act II. We are thus hip-deep in a morass of molasses during the commercial break. Therefore, rather than leave the audience with a saccharin aftertaste at the end of the show there is a tag, an ending about 45 seconds long, that, it is hoped, ends the show with a laugh. This, again it is hoped, cuts the treacle and leaves the viewer with a good taste that will carry over to the next time the show is on the air, removing the stickiness and making it palatab le. For example: Mary returns home from a date with the boy who "insulted" her and he again says that he thinks she's wholesome. He also thinks she's exciting, vivacious, scintillating, etc.; Julie and the director decide that the bathroom is not the p lace to patch up their relationship and go out to the living room to join the rest of the family.
It should be noted that domcom plots resemble actcoms in many ways until the crises, at which point the emphasis on action gives way to an emphasis on the effects of the actions upon the characters. Opie's competition for the job is pure action, muc h of it slapstick, as are the reactions of the townspeople as they watch the contest. Nonetheless, once the action setting up the complete exposition of factors involved is complete (usually at the point of crisis), the plot then turns to an examination of the effects on character. Opie learns that the other boy needs the job; from there the only real physical action is Opie not going to work but instead going to play. However, this is done in a deliberate attempt to appear irresponsible so that the ot her boy will get the job, an act involving an examination of character, not simply physical response to physical stimuli, as would be the case in an actcom. In an actcom, the factor of the other boy needing the job for his family would never have arisen; it would probably end up with both boys competing for the job and losing it to a girl, the grocer's niece.
In a domcom the characters think in a rational manner, although their thinking is often clouded by emotion or a desire to believe a theory in spite of facts. Nonetheless, they do think and are motivated by a desire to learn and grow. Future consequ ences of their actions are a major consideration, at least by those who stand outside the emotional implications and attempt to solve the problem. When David Bradford (EIGHT IS ENOUGH) goes on a hedonistic, dissipated binge in order to "live life to the fullest", the rest of the family think carefully about what it could do to his future and try to make him abandon his new lifestyle. When Julie (ONE DAY AT A TIME) falls in love with the egotistical director, she wants to break off the relationship becau se of fear of future consequences.
Thought processes are, in general, cogent and deep, with attempts at understanding the complexities of society and human behavior.
Domcom plots often have a theme, but it is strictly related to domestic crises; e.g., how to handle cheating at school, sibling rivalry, premarital sex, alcohol and drug use, etc. Such themes almost invariably reflect middle-class values and morals, and try to instill an attitude of social responsibility and consciousness.
Settings in a domcom are more carefully done than in an actcom, due to the fact that the settings are more a part of the show and less a mere background to the action.
The setting is almost always a house, a single family dwelling.
The basic locations are the living room, the kitchen, the den, and bedrooms. Most action takes place in one of these four locations, or the peripheries thereof (foyer, dining room, hallway, driveway). The living room is neat, tidy, clean, and furni shed in keeping with the personality of the woman. For example, in FATHER KNOWS BEST and EIGHT IS ENOUGH, it is solid, attractive, not frilly but not plain, just like the women of those homes. The living room is used for semi-formal or formal family gat herings and for entertaining guests.
The kitchen is the second most common setting. It is the province of the woman. It is her space, and everyone else who enters appears almost a visitor, including other members of the family. It is used for discussions in which the mother is being consulted about problems. It is neat, clean, and functional.
The father's province is stereotypically male: the den, the garage, the workshop. From the behavior of the characters when they enter to speak to the father, one is sometimes given the impression that the character is entering the shrine of the ora cle wherein judgments will be handed down. It is used for important discussions and decisions, and is usually the place of the final judgment and disciplining. The area is always very masculine, decorated in wood and leather and books, or power tools an d projects.
It is mainly the children's bedrooms, rather than the parents', that are used, and then only for the most intimate discussions. They are furnished in keeping with the personality of the occupant: on FATHER KNOWS BEST, Betty's room is frilly and femi nine, while Bud's room is angular and little-boy masculine, with pennants on the walls and models on the shelf. The bedrooms are used for discussions of a personal nature, usually as one or the other of the parents try to determine and explore the child' s problem and help them find a solution.
Any other locations are those dictated by the plot. In the FATHER KNOWS BEST example, above, there is a deserted shack on Christmas Eve. The place of work of the father is shown if the problem is related to the father and his business or dictated b y the format (such as HOME IMPROVEMENT's workshop/studio), but this is rare. In general, other locations are shown only if they are necessary to the telling of the story of that particular episode.
The basic settings in a single-parent domcom are the living room and the child's bedroom in the house or apartment of the family. Most scenes take place in these two locations due to the fact that most plots are showing the personal relationships b etween parent and child. Therefore, the most personal space for both is used: the living room for the parent, and the bedroom for the child.
The placement of these locations is a stylistic and/or format consideration, varying from show to show. For example, ACCIDENTAL FAMILY and THE DORIS DAY SHOW are both set on ranches. MY THREE SONS and THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW both have houses. JULIA and THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE'S FATHER are set in apartments.
Another location that is important to a single-parent domcom is the parent's place of work. This can be anything from Andy Taylor's sheriff's office (THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW) to Tom Corbett's magazine editorial office (THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE'S FATHER ). This location provides plot variations by allowing the introduction of transients and transient plots and a location for non-domestic scenes, including those relating to the parent's work. The place of work is also an excellent location for the paren t to reflect upon and discuss the problem, allowing him or her time and assistance in discovering the solution.
For surrogate mothers, the primary location is almost invariably the kitchen, where she can always be found by either child or parent for her special insights into problems and solutions. Surrogate fathers never seem to have a place of their own, bu t can be found in the parent's areas, either the living room, or, more likely, the place of work.
Other locations, such as other places of work, other children's bedrooms, other adults' apartments or homes, and the bathroom are very rarely shown as regular locations. They do appear, however, as elements of an episode's plot.
The basic setting for a pseudo-domcom is the place of work. The rule is that everyone in the pseudo-family work in the same place, as on THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, ROOM 222 and CHEERS. Thus, the place of work replaces the home, taking the place of living room, kitchen, and den/workshop. The characters' apartments or houses take the place of the children's bedrooms and serve the same function as bedrooms on other forms of domcom. THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW clearly illustrates this use of setting. The newsroom took the place of the living room, where most action took place. Lou's office, when he was being the father, was the den. Mary's apartment, which was basically one room, served as kitchen when she was mother, and bedroom when she was child. Rhoda's apartment, also one room, was her bedroom. Ted's dressingroom when he was single and apartment when he was married served as his bedroom. On CHEERS, the bar represented the living room, and Sam's office and the pool room represented the bedroo ms.
Other locations are very rarely used unless specifically called for by a particular episode.
The language in domcoms is often filled with what is called smalltalk, conversation that does not necessarily further the plot, but creates an atmosphere of homeliness and togetherness, and helps delineate character. For example, in an episode of TH E COSBY SHOW, time was devoted not to any plot development but to Rudy, the youngest child's, tea party, where the discussion revolved around jokes about Rudy's missing front teeth, and her wonderful "invisible tea". The feeling created was one of warmth and togetherness in the family, not the solving of a problem.
Again, there is little use of wit, although the characters, being human, occasionally say witty things.
The delivery of the lines by the actors is much more subdued than in the actcom, high volume being saved for strong emotion rather than a standard way of communicating. There is greater use of oral interpretation to supply emotion to the lines.
The domcom is also the only type of the three situation comedies that uses mood music to any degree to underscore the moments of greatest emotional impact.
The laugh track is still used, as in the actcom, but to a lesser degree: more appreciative laughter, fewer belly laughs.
The domestic comedy, the second rank in number of situation comedies over the years, broke with the action comedy pattern by devoting itself, not to action, but to character. The plots, which usually have children rather than adults as their central figures, revolve around the character discovering what the real world is like, examining rher own character and learning from each new problem and solution.
The characters are much more human than those in actcoms, having real emotions and motivations, and reacting to situations in a more rational rather than purely mechanical fashion.
Settings are important in a domcom. They establish the atmosphere in which the family lives, serving as more than a simple background to the action.
The domcom, since it does devote itself to character and the growth as a person of the character, is a more difficult but at the same time more satisfying form of situation comedy for the audience. It is possible to get involved in the story and the characters, and truly care what happens.
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