Sitcom: What It Is, How It Works
Dramedy: Thought-Based Situation Comedies


Richard F. Taflinger

This page has been accessed times since 30 May 1996.

The dramatic comedy, or dramedy, is the rarest of all forms of situation comedy, representing slightly more than one percent of all sitcoms that have been on the air. Nonetheless, the dramedy is also the most popular form of situation comedy for aud iences, virtually every one that has been on the air staying in the top fifteen shows on the Neilson rating list throughout its run. The final episode of M*A*S*H, a two hour made-for-tv movie, was the highest rated program of all time.

With the undoubted popularity of the dramedy with audiences one would think that it would be the most common form of situation comedy, not the rarest. However, it must be understood that the dramedy is also the most difficult of comedy shows to produce because it must contain three things: 1) a superb cast working as an ensemble; 2) a clearly delineated sphere of activity for plots; and 3) excellent writing. Thus, the needs of the dramedy meet head on against the exigencies of television.

Television is a voracious eater of time, money and talent. For there to be a strong cast the actors must have the ability to work without becoming exhausted. However, since there is an almost literal deadline to get a show's film or tape to the net work in time for broadcast, it is sometimes necessary to work 16 to 18 hours a day, six or seven days a week. This can totally exhaust a cast.

What applies to the actors also applies to the writers. They work under the gun, needing to get a script in working condition in time to film the show in time to get the show in to the network. Thus, it's sometimes necessary to take shortcuts in the writing, to go for easy slapstick rather than the witty response, to follow a formula and "fill in the blanks" rather than to be original and thoughtful, to use stereotypes rather than carefully crafted individual characters, to use bathos (a ludicrous descent from the lofty or elevated to the commonplace) rather than pathos. Sloppy writing would be the death of a dramedy.

The sphere of activity must not only be clearly delineated but must have an essential nature of its own, one that by its very appearance gets a reaction from the audience. Such locales are either rare or difficult to establish for the audience.

Thus it is clear to see that the dramedy, although possible to do as evidenced by the fact that it has been, is extremely difficult for television, with its many limitations imposed by its time constraints.



Dramedy plots are most often plots of thought. However, because purely intellectual argument can become dry and didactic, character development and physical action are also well developed, more so than character and thought are in plots of action, o r action and thought are in plots of character. A dramedy is perhaps the best mixture of all three elements to be found in the three types of situation comedy.

There are two kinds of dramedies. In the first, the human dramedy, the emphasis is on the characters battling the theme as it relates to the theme's effects on other characters. In the second, the advocate dramedy, the characters are in two warring factions, each faction advocating a certain point of view about the theme. M*A*S*H and BARNEY MILLER are examples of the first, ALL IN THE FAMILY and MAUDE are examples of the second.


The exposition, as in the actcom and the domcom, establishes the settings and major characters. However, since the locale is so important in the dramedy, it is more strongly emphasized behind the credits. For example, the camp and surrounding territory are clearly shown in the opening of M*A*S*H, and the neighborhood and house shown for ALL IN THE FAMILY.


The problem opens the area to be explored in that episode. It can be the effects of battle fatigue that make a soldier think he is Jesus Christ, or a white bigot's niece deciding to go out with the boy next door, a boy who happens to be black. It c an be the effects on other people when they come in contact with a "Jesus Christ" arrested for disturbing the peace on the sidewalks of New York, or a woman discovering she's pregnant, something she doesn't want to be.

Human dramedies usually have a subplot, the only type of situation comedy that does. The subplot is often comic, underscoring the main, more serious plot. It is also usually a conflict between people, rather than a conflict between people and the intangible forces surrounding them. For example, in one episode of M*A*S*H, the main plot problem is a wounded soldier suffering from hypothermia, being so cold that his body temperature falls to 85 degrees and his blood flows sluggishly. The subplot is about everyone trying to stay warm, particularly the conflict between Majors Winchester and Hoolihan over a pair of gloves--she has them, he wants them.

In an episode of BARNEY MILLER, the main plot centers on a bigamist who is to be extradited to Cleveland. In a subplot, Fish wants a separate vacation from his wife. The main plot is a conflict between the man and the laws against and effects on ot her people of multiple marriages; the subplot is a conflict between Fish and his wife. The subplot underscores the theme of marital relationships.

In another episode of M*A*S*H, the main plot is about an emergency at the front lines: the surgeon at the aid station has been killed and a new one is needed immediately. The subplot centers on the conflict between the characters left at the M*A*S* H unit and their fears for the safety of the doctor, nurse and orderly who went to the front: most fear for their safety; Frank Burns worries that Margaret and Hawkeye are having an affair at the front. The main plot is a conflict between the people at the front trying to save lives and the fact that they must do it in the midst of battle, an attempt to take lives; the subplot is a conflict between the people who worry about the people at the front and Frank Burns, who worries only about his relationship with Margaret.

In all cases, the subplots underscore comically and thus intensify the main plot.

In advocate dramedies, the problem also opens the area to be explored. However, instead of conflict between people and intangible difficulties, the conflicts are between two factions who battle over points of view. In an episode of ALL IN THE FAMILY, Gloria thinks she's pregnant. Mike, her husband, blames her for not being more careful. In another episode, the problem is Archie being asked to deliver the eulogy at a friend's funeral.

Whatever the problem is in either kind of dramedy, it will require the major characters to try to cope with it, to try to solve it, or, at least, learn to understand or comprehend it. Although the characters may never change their minds or positions , they do gain a new perspective.


The complications are based on the theme but involve character or action. They are new developments in the problem that require the characters to examine their own thinking or take an action that opposes or supports their point of view on the theme. In an episode of M*A*S*H, Hawkeye saves the life of a wounded Korean woman. The complications include the appearance of a ROK (Republic of Korea) colonel who wants to take her into custody because she is a North Korean guerrilla fighter. Hawkeye must, according to his beliefs in the sanctity of the individual and a person's innate goodness, oppose the colonel. Other examples include: the hypothermic soldier failing to respond to treatment; the bigamist's New York wife coming to the precinct station and attempting suicide; the wounded coming into the front line aid station too fast for Hawkeye to handle, so Margaret, who is not a surgeon, must actually operate on them; Gloria insists that Michael take care of contraceptive measures in the future; Archie must deliver the eulogy in a synagogue, his old friend turning out to be Jewish. Each complication forces the character to examine his abilities and beliefs.


The crises are the points at which the characters must decide what action to take. For example: Hawkeye decides to divert the ROK colonel's attention and get the woman out of camp; the doctors must undertake a dangerous procedure to raise the hypothermic soldier's temperature; the bigamist's wife tries to commit suicide and must be saved; the front-line aid station is shelled, but the operations must continue; Michael is confronted with having a vasectomy; Archie is faced with a room full of Jews. The characters are presented with a dilemma and must do or decide something to relieve the stress.


The climax is the point at which the characters must decide what to believe. For example: the colonel finally takes the woman into custody. Hawkeye, enraged, tries to take her back, and the colonel is forced to hold him back at gunpoint. The woman speaks to Hawkeye in Korean and the colonel translates her scorn for the doctors and their work, their beliefs, and their attempts to save her. Her desire is not the thank Hawkeye but to kill him. This forces Hawkeye to reconsider his belief that all human beings, if treated with dignity, understanding and compassion, will respond in kind; the hypothermic soldier dies, but the doctors labor over him and revive him, renewing their faith in their value and their contempt for war; the bigamist's wife is saved, but the incident makes the bigamist reappraise his decision to marry two women; the people from the front return, safe and sound, more certain than ever of the value of life; Michael has the vasectomy, but Gloria finds out she is not pregnant. They reexamine their feelings about the operation, and decide that they were right; Archie realizes that his friend was still his friend, no matter what his religion. In all cases, the climax forces the character to examine his or her beliefs and actions in support of them, and either vindicates or condemns him or her.


The denouement shows the results of this examination of beliefs. Hawkeye thinks that his beliefs still hold true in general, though specific cases may deny it; the hypothermic soldier will live; the bigamist goes willingly to trial in Cleveland, wan ting to atone for what he had done to the women; the people who were at the front lines have an expanded view, ignoring pettiness (Frank Burns and his jealous suspicions) and admiring those who went through the ordeal; Michael and Gloria are happy with th eir decision, and each other; Archie believes in his friends, but his prejudices remain intact.

The denouement of a human dramedy will often end with the conclusion of the subplot, thus ending the show with a laugh rather than deep introspection. For example, the hypothermic soldier episode ends with Winchester getting the gloves from Margaret by trickery; Radar gave away all of Klinger's clothes while Klinger was at the front line aid station.


Human Dramedy

The regular characters in a human dramedy are in occupations that allow them to meet and deal with characters who have problems relating to a societal ill. For example, in M*A*S*H the characters are doctors and nurses in a Korean war zone, and deal with such personalized problems as war, loneliness, fear, prejudice, poverty, illness, pain, futility, and death. In BARNEY MILLER the characters are New York police detectives and deal with such problems as crime, murder, poverty, prejudice, insanity (paranoia, suicide, and assorted maniacs), loneliness, frustration, pain and death, old age, and emotional distress.

Unlike characters in other types of situation comedy, they are rarely the instigator or creator of the problem. Instead, they discover and try to solve the problem; the problem thrust upon them by the nature of the societal ill with which they are concerned.

Though their occupations demand detachment, the characters are very human and cannot avoid personal involvement. They are usually compassionate, human, and try to believe that each person is an individual worthy of respect and personal regard.

The gender and number of the regular characters are unimportant except as regards reality and the practicalities of television. For instance, in a Korean war zone, doctors were male and nurses were female. When a female doctor or a male nurse are brought in, it is for a specific purpose: to show the chauvinistic attitudes, both male and female, that were prevalent in that period -- that female doctors were incompetent and that a male nurse is ludicrous and no better than an orderly. New York City detectives are male. When female detectives are used they are symbols of such problems as male chauvinism and the qualifications of women as police detectives.

The number of regular characters is kept to a workable level. If there are too many there is not enough for each of them to do. On the other hand, if there are too few, there are too many problems and too much with which any human being could realistically cope. The number of characters on M*A*S*H is eight; in BARNEY MILLER six.

Psychologically, the characters are as close to fully rounded human beings as can be found in situation comedy. They are capable of depression, exhilaration, love, hate, anger, serenity, sentimentality, compassion, wit and stupidity. Most important ly, they are capable of logical and rational thought tempered with intuition and emotion. They are not perfect. They are also not always predictable, other than in established habits and customs, such as B.J. will stroke his mustache and Hawkeye will sm ell each bite of food before eating it, and the fact that they care about and will attempt to help people.

There is one main character: on M*A*S*H it is Hawkeye; on BARNEY MILLER it is Barney. This character bears the brunt of the problem. He is usually, but not always, the first to see or experience the problem and the usual leader in the search for a solution.

Most plots revolve around this character, usually as he works to solve the problem, but occasionally he is the bearer of the problem. When the problem is his, the other characters band together to help him. An example of this happening is when Hawkeye gets depressed or overemotionally involved with a patient. Another example is when Barney (BARNEY MILLER) was separated from his wife because she could no longer accept his job as a policeman.

The supporting characters in a human dramedy are much the same as the main character, except that in most cases they follow rather than lead.

Usually one of the supporting characters causes antagonistic feelings among the others, and will usually bear the brunt of any subplot. His personality grates on the nerves of the other characters, and makes them desire abatement and/or revenge. On M*A*S*H, Frank Burns, and his replacement Charles Emerson Winchester, are of this type of character. Inspector Luger, and, to a much lesser degree, Dietrich, on BARNEY MILLER are of this type. In all cases, every character will do his job to the utmost of his ability, whether he likes the job or not. Winchester would rather not work in a M*A*S*H unit, but as long as he is there he will do his self-confessed considerable best. Even when the police union goes on strike on BARNEY MILLER, the detectives continue to do their jobs, all the while stating that "this is the last time".

The transients in a human dramedy have two purposes: 1) they are the source of most of the primary problems, either as the creator or the bearer of the problem; and/or 2) aid in finding and/or applying solutions to the problem. The former is most common. On M*A*S*H these transients take the form of wounded soldiers, refugees, visiting officers, or Koreans. On BARNEY MILLER they are criminals of all types and their dependents, and the victims of crimes.

It is most common on M*A*S*H for a transient to come in to aid in finding and/or applying solutions to problems, but not unheard of in other dramedies. This sort of transient usually has skills not possessed by a regular character. On M*A*S*H these characters take the form of specialist surgeons, teachers of new techniques and procedures, and, more often, psychiatrists such as Dr. Freedman. These characters are called in when the regular characters have discovered the problem but have realized that they are not competent to solve it.

Advocate Dramedy

The characters in advocate dramedies are much like those in domcoms, but replace warmth and loving with ice and vitriol.

The main character is one who represents a definite point of view that is usually very limited and not subject to change. Examples of this are Archie Bunker on ALL IN THE FAMILY, an arch- conservative bigot, and Maude on MAUDE, an ultra-liberal.

These characters resent and oppose any point of view other than the one they hold. They think they are always right, and anyone who doesn't agree with them is a fool, an idiot, or worse. They are outspoken to the point of crass rudeness, will voice their opinions loudly and long, and if proven wrong will not accept the argument but will make personal attacks on their opponent's intelligence, background, and morals.

There are three types of supporting characters: allies to the main character, opposition to the main character, and involved neutrals. Allies are those who hold basically the same point of view as the main character. Such characters appear rarely, as the main character appears capable of expressing his or her point of view quite adequately alone.

Opposition characters hold opinions and philosophies diametrically opposed to the main character's. It is from this opposition that plot conflicts arise. Such characters are usually in the main character's family, allowing ready access for battle. Mike and his wife Gloria (Archie's daughter) on ALL IN THE FAMILY, and Walter on MAUDE are such characters.

The involved neutrals are peacemakers and clarifiers. They are most important, however, as representatives for the audience, giving the audience someone with whom to identify and enabling the audience to see the effects of extremism. Edith Bunker, Archie's wife, is such a character, as is Maude's daughter, Carol, on MAUDE.

The transients in an advocate dramedy are personalized representations of aspects of political and societal problems over which the main character and his opposition can argue. These characters can represent such ideas as prejudice, racism, sexism, ageism, homosexuality, and other facets of American society.


The characters in human dramedies are constantly thinking, adjusting their attitudes, trying to understand. Their motivations are based on clear, although occasionally strange thinking: Hawkeye's attacks on the system are to gain greater freedom fo r the individual, or to cut through the red tape of militaristic/bureaucratic thinking and get on with his job of saving lives. If he must tread on a few toes or break a few rules to do it, he will. When human dramedy characters do not think rationally it is for a dramatic purpose, to show that the character is not thinking rationally because of the stress put on him by conditions.

The characters in advocate dramedies do not think, they react. Their actions and words are motivated not by rational thought, but by an almost Pavlovian automatic response to any opposition to or support for their ideas and beliefs.

There is a theme in virtually every episode of a dramedy. Very rare is the episode in which the writer is not attempting to communicate a point of view about a subject, be it war, crime, racism, or some other aspect of human society. Such themes are not didactic, nor are they delivered in generalities. They are personalized and personified, relating specifically to a character so that the audience can see the effect on the individual, a much more powerful statement than broad generalities about millions of people.


Human Dramedy

The basic location is the place of work. It is not and is not supposed to represent a home, merely a place to work. Even when the characters do live there, as on M*A*S*H, it is made very clear that it is not home. On M*A*S*H, the characters often voice their desire to leave and go home.

The place of work is appropriate to the work done. A MASH is a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, and the place of work is actually composed of several different places: operating rooms, dispensaries, supply huts, living tents, etc. On BARNEY MILLER, the place of work is the precinct office with a holding cell for prisoners awaiting transport to jail.

The place of work is not comfortable and quite often not even attractive, just functional. It is not treated with affection nor respect, other than for what it represents: a hospital wherein doctors and nurses work to save the lives of front-line soldiers; a police station, where the law and the people who represent it try to help and protect people.

Other locations include the characters' homes, bars, restaurants, and various other locations dictated by the individual plots. However, in all cases, the other locations are simply a continuation of the place of work. The characters' personal lives are short interludes, often interrupted, in the relating to and solving of the problem.

The settings clearly delineate a sphere of activity, a specific locale that can elicit a response from the audience. A hospital in a war zone, with its filth, lack of amenities for both staff and patients, and temporary, dangerous nature, provides a n essential although unstated feeling to all plots. The cramped, old, threadbare, and ugly room in which the detectives on BARNEY MILLER must work does the same. Although the settings are only backgrounds to the shows, they play a vital part in the over all tone and feeling of the show, much more so than the settings in either actcoms or domcoms.

Advocate Dramedy

The settings are much the same as in any actcom, the basic locations being the living room and kitchen. The appearance of the settings is in keeping with the class in society in which the main character lives. Archie Bunker is lower-middle-class an d thus lives in a somewhat rundown suburb of New York in an old, somewhat rundown house. Maude, on the other hand, is upper-middle-class and lives in a better quality house in a better quality suburb.

Other locations in an advocate dramedy appear only as dictated by the plot. The bedrooms will be shown when the plot is about attitudes towards sex, etc.

In general, however, the characters are placed in a setting congruent with their social status and allowed to do battle about their attitudes, opinions, and beliefs, the settings serving merely as a background to the action.


Wit plays a large part in human dramedies. The characters are usually very intelligent and given to the intellectual exercise of verbal wit. In addition, words are the best way to communicate ideas, a prime purpose of the dramedy.

Sarcastic incongruity, rather than wit, is used in advocate dramedies: juxtaposition of opposing ideas and points of view, using exaggeration, personal attack, and anything else the character thinks will allow rher to win rhis point. Characterizations are aided by the diction: their backgrounds, thought processes, level of education, etc., are clearly shown.


Auditory effects, other than those necessary to help create the illusion of place, such as gunfire on M*A*S*H, or for humor, such as the flushing toilet on ALL IN THE FAMILY, are little used.

There is little or no use of background music. The ubiquitous laugh track, however, cannot seem to be escaped.


The dramedy, the rarest of all forms of situation comedy, is also the most difficult to produce, due to its very nature. Its emphasis is on thought, rather than character or action. However, in order to adequately explore a theme, the characters must be well rounded as human beings, able to think and react to situations in such a way as to examine complex ideas.

Perhaps the greatest difference between the dramedy and other forms of situation comedy is that the dramedy is not dedicated to laugh-a-minute action. Although the dramedy is often very funny, it is not because of a deliberate striving for laughs no matter how they are gotten. It is also just as often very serious without descending into maudlin sentimentality. It uses both serious exploration and discussion and comic intensification to examine a theme and make the audience aware of intellectually and feel emotionally about it.

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