Sitcom: What It Is, How It Works
The Development and Landmark Forms of Television Comedy


Richard F. Taflinger, PhD

This page has been accessed since 31 May 1996.

Wally Cleaver (LEAVE IT TO BEAVER) tries to think of the best way to ask a girl out; David Hogan (VALERIE, later THE HOGAN FAMILY) is given a lecture on safe sex and using condoms before he goes on a date.

The situation comedy has changed considerably over the years since it first came on the home screen. This chapter is in two parts: 1) an examination of the variety show, the only regularly scheduled comedy show besides the situation comedy, and the forms it takes; and 2) a discussion of the types of situation comedies and seminal influences on the development of the situation comedy on television, covering originators and landmark forms, their copies, and their spinoffs.

Variety Show

Star-Based Shows

One popular type of comedy show was the variety program, which appeared in many forms. One form revolved around a well- known star, often a stand-up comedian and/or comedy actor. Such stars were Jack Benny, Jack Carson, and Abbott and Costello. The format of a star-based show involved short comedy sketches, and the stars would usually appear in their own personae in the various situations used in the sketches.

The star-based shows in 1950 were transfers from radio, and if one looks at the longevity of an individual show, the star-based is the most popular form of comedy. In 1950, the second longest running comedy in the history of television first appeared on the air. That show was THE JACK BENNY PROGRAM, and it ran continuously for 15 years. However, in terms of quantity of shows on the air in any given year, the star-based must rank as the lowest. There was never more than four on the air at any one time, and then only in 1952-54.

Personality-Based Shows

A second type of variety show was the personality-based show. Rather than having an already established star as its leading figure appearing as himself, there would be a comedic actor such as Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, or Ernie Kovacs playing whatever role was called for in the sketch. Although they did become stars, these personalities maintained their type of variety show as personality-based rather than star-based.

Comedy-Variety Shows

A second type of variety show was the comedy-variety show. It, like the personality-based show, used short comedy sketches, but, unlike the personality-based, comedy was not the basic staple. Instead, a majority of the show was devoted to various types of acts, such as song, dance and recitations, as well as stand-up comedy routines and sketches.

The comedy-variety show came in two formats: 1) celebrity-centered;and 2) review. The celebrity centered format was created for a star, either an existing one or a potential one. The star was usually a successful performer or group of performers from a field other than comedy. These performers were most often recording and concert musicians. They were proven successes in their field, and it was the networks' hope that this success would carry over to television. Examples include Sonny and Cher, the Captain and Tenille, and Donny and Marie Osmond.

There were exceptions to the musical performer rule. Comedians occasionally had comedy-variety shows, but they were usually also capable of musical performance--singing, dancing, playing an instrument, etc. For example, Carol Burnett is also a singer, and Dick van Dyke is a song-and-dance man.

The review form of the comedy-variety show did not have a regularly appearing celebrity around whom the show was based. Instead, there was often a guest host who did introductions and a few of the acts. This guest host might appear on a rotating basis with other hosts, or on a one-time basis, or appear on an irregular basis. Often, but not always there was a regular corps of performers who did various acts during the show and assisted the guest hosts in his acts. There was a heavy reliance on guest stars, particularly singers, dancers, and comedians, especially on those show that did not have a regular corps. Examples of this type of show are THE SATURDAY NIGHT REVIEW, WASHINGTON SQUARE, and THE HOLLYWOOD PALACE.

The variety show, once a numerous form of comedy show, has dwindled to almost nothing. What has replaced and surpassed it in popularity is the situation comedy. This type of show is characterized by a continuing cast of characters, continuing settings, relationships, and situations.


One thing that is immediately clear when watching television is that its programming is dominated by entertainment formats, many of which were developed on radio. These include soap operas, talk, doctor, detective, police, mystery, western and science fiction shows, and anthology programming.

To many people, particularly those born since 1950, the situation comedy is a form of broadcast programming invented by and for television. However, those people over forty years of age know that the situation comedy has its roots not in television but in radio, going back to 1929 and the popular AMOS 'N' ANDY, the first comedy show to capture in a vise-like grip the funny bone of the American people. The situation comedy helped to establish the idea of a continuing cast in a different situation each week.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s the situation comedy was a staple on radio, with such programs as L'IL ABNER, BABY SNOOKS, BLONDIE, THE GOLDBERGS, and HENRY ALDRICH. The situation comedies were particularly popular during World War II, perhaps because they helped the audience to forget what the serious world outside was like.

After World War II television became a commercial practicality and developed a need for programming. Radio, already well established, was a natural source for material. Many shows were transplanted from radio to television almost intact, including THE GREAT GILDERSLEEVE, LIFE WITH LUIGI, AMOS 'N' ANDY, BEULAH, DUFFY'S TAVERN, THE HALLS OF IVY, JOE AND MABEL, MY FAVORITE HUSBAND, THE LIFE OF RILEY, FATHER KNOWS BEST, THE ALDRICH FAMILY, and THE GOLDBERGS. The situation comedy soon became a mainstay of television programming.

The television situation comedy has gone through many permutations in the years since 1950, altering its form and formats through public whim and corporate policy, depending on what the networks think the audience will watch, tempered by what the audience actually does.


When television comedy shows first began they were done by professional comedians (not necessarily actors) who were already well established, either before live audiences or on radio, or both. The shows were usually written and supervised by the performers themselves, using material that had proved itself through the years as being funny. For many of them this could not last. Once their original material was used it couldn't be done again (this idea has been forgotten, e.g., the rerun). In addition, they could not go out and work up something new and polish it before an audience over a long period of time. They had to have something new every week, television being a voracious eater of material. Some could not do it and left television. Some stayed, but relied heavily on writers, directors, and others. Some retained their originality and individuality--Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Red Skelton, Jack Benny. They were the ones who could follow their format of monologue and sketch and keep it fresh and alive and funny.

The format of the big comedy shows created a big problem: for each sketch and bit the writers and the star had to start from scratch, creating characters, situations, locations, times, everything; and they had to do this every week. All the stars ended up employing platoons of writers. The stars sometimes helped by creating characters they could repeat, such as Skelton's Freddy the Freeloader and Clem Kaddiddlehopper, and thus avoid the difficulty of creating the leading role, but even with this things got stale.

It was found that the situation comedy negated many of these problems. The major characters and their personalities were set, the times and places determined, and the basic premise already established. The only major difficulty left was to find the problem in which the characters could get entangled.

Many of the situation comedies that appeared on the air were mere flash in the pan, but some had far-reaching effects. These effects were not always limited to just the situation comedy.


The early years was the period of the bumbling father or husband: Ralph Cramden, Stu Erwin, LIFE OF RILEY, LIFE WITH FATHER, MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY, MY FAVORITE HUSBAND, OZZIE AND HARRIET. There was also the female counterpart: I MARRIED JOAN, MY FRIEND IRMA. I LOVE LUCY, however, was a landmark in television comedy.


I LOVE LUCY premiered in 1951 and, from the first, was something different from the other situation comedies. It seemed on the surface to be just another comedy, but Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, William Frawley and Vivian Vance created a show that set the standard for television comedy for years and even decades to come.

I LOVE LUCY changed not only the situation comedy, but television itself. Prior to I LOVE LUCY television programming originated in New York and was broadcast live over telephone cables or kinescoped (filming the show off the television screen) and sent around the country. Kinescopes were of low quality but were the best method for recording and distributing television programs at the time.

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz (the owners, producers, and stars of I LOVE LUCY) wanted to live in California, not New York. They also had very definite ideas about how their show should be done, and proceeded to do it their way. Rather than going on the air live (a commercially unfeasible idea for a show originating in California due to time zone problems) or kinescoping, they decided to film the show and ship the results around the country to stations, thus creating two major facets of the television industry: high quality pictures and the ability to show the same episodes of a program again and again as reruns.

They also preferred the combined effects on performance of a live audience watching a full run of the show in sequence. The usual technique of filming called for shooting scenes out of sequence with one camera and splicing the film to create the illusion of continuity. Arnaz considered the problems involved in filming a show in sequence before a live audience and invented the 3-camera technique, in which three cameras shoot the entire show from different angles and distances all at the same time. All camera movements and shots were well worked out and rehearsed in advance. The resulting films were then edited and spliced together according to the dictates and desires of the director and/or producer. This novel method of filming required less time and money than the old way, two criteria vital to television. It also provided high quality film, thus allowing it to be shown in its original quality over and over. This laid the groundwork for the rerun. It thus became standard technique for many programs, having the advantages of high quality pictures, ease of distribution, ability to be rerun, and requiring less time and money.

Perhaps I LOVE LUCY's greatest impact was its popularity. It was first or second in the ratings during its entire history (1951-1976) and is still being rebroadcast today, some half-century after its premiere. In 1960 a national poll by Gary Steiner asked what programs the respondents would like to see back on the air (not reruns, but new episodes). I LOVE LUCY was the most frequently mentioned. This popularity led to many imitators and an increase in the number of situation comedies on the air. Within three years of I LOVE LUCY's premiere, the number of situation comedies almost tripled, from 13 to 35. Although it may strain logic to attribute a cause and effect relationship between I LOVE LUCY and the growth of the situation comedy, when one considers the networks' devotion to ratings and the effect I LOVE LUCY had upon the ratings, such a conclusion is, if not verifiable, then certainly possible.

I LOVE LUCY revolutionized television. It was the first program to be based in California rather than New York, to be done on film rather than kinescoped from a television screen, to be performed before a live studio audience and to be filmed in sequence using the 3-camera technique. It set the pattern for situation comedies for years to come. Henceforth, women would be scatter-brained but extremely clever, men would be loud and indignant and confused, and friends would be dupes and accomplices.


The thing that made early programs funny, at least in their time, was their inherent believability. The characters could exist, the situations could conceivably exist, the problems could actually happen. The average audience member recognized either himself or, more often, someone else (certain not to the degree of the oafish lump Riley or the scatterbrained Lucy, but elements that appeared in either one). They were pure entertainment, the sort of thing one could sit and watch and never have to think of a thing.


The 1954-55 season brought the premiere of a new type of situation comedy, the domestic comedy, or domcom. The title of the show was FATHER KNOWS BEST, which remained on the air for nine years. This new type of situation comedy broke the pattern that had been firmly established three years before by I LOVE LUCY and open the way to plots and characterizations hitherto untried by television comedy.

The greatest difference between the old and the new types was that children, rather than being ancillary to the plots as in the old form, became vital elements central to the plots. The stories usually revolved around a child learning to grow up and live in the world, with the parents guiding and assisting.

The domcom soon became a favorite with audiences, scoring consistently well in the ratings, and the type has been repeated in many manifestations ever since.


Rural Comedies

In 1957 the forerunner to a type of situation comedy that was later to prove extremely popular premiered. THE REAL MCCOYS was the first of what came to be known as rural comedies, the most famous ofwhich was THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES (1962). Others of this type were PETTICOAT JUNCTION, MAYBERRY, R.F.D. and GREEN ACRES. This type of show extolled the virtues of nonsophistication in the face of "civilized" behavior, the "down home" over the "up town".

The rural comedy came to a sudden halt with the advent of a new network policy, canceling the type as part of an extensive cutback in "rural"-oriented programming because they appealed to too old an audience to attract advertisers.


By the end of 1957 there were more than 100 series on the air or in production. However, the comedies were being submerged by waves of action shows, in particular westerns. Nonetheless, by 1960 the situation comedy was once again on the rise.



In 1960 a new type of domestic comedy appeared with the premiere of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW. This new type was the single-parent domcom, which had many of the same features as the standard domcom (such as FATHER KNOWS BEST) with the difference that there was only one parent attempting to raise a child rather than two. This allowed for a wider variety of plot possibilities and led to many other shows of this type, including MY THREE SONS, THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE'S FATHER, and THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR. The single-parent domcom has continued to be a popular type of situation comedy.


THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW was important for another reason as well. It was the first example of the spinoff, a new show created because of a popular feature seen in another show. A spinoff often seems to mean taking a hit show, filing off the serial numbers, putting a bright new wrapper on it, and loudly proclaiming it as new and improved. These spinoffs are frequently canceled before their parent show, leaving the impression that they are not (as they often are not) as good as their parents, yet the networks continue spinning off in hopes of getting two, or three, or four, for the price of one. The idea for THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW originally came from an episode of MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY, in which Danny Thomas had a run-in with the sheriff of a small North Carolina town. This episode was so popular with the viewing public that the network decided to expand it into a series, based on the sheriff in a small town. Thus was born Andy Taylor, Sheriff of Mayberry. Other examples are THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES spinning off PETTICOAT JUNCTION and GREEN ACRES, ALL IN THE FAMILY spinning off THE JEFFERSONS and MAUDE; THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW spinning off RHODA, PHYLLIS, and LOU GRANT; and BARNEY MILLER spinning off FISH.

Spinoffs are not limited to other television shows. They also come from movies and stage plays. ALIAS SMITH AND JONES from BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID is a case in point. More often than not, even the title is lifted: BAREFOOT IN THE PARK, THE ODD COUPLE, THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE'S FATHER, THE FARMER'S DAUGHTER, NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS, and THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR. Sometimes a popular show in another country, especially England, is spun off as an American series. ALL IN THE FAMILY, SANFORD AND SON, and AMANDA were American versions of the British sitcoms 'TIL DEATH DO US PART, STEPTOE AND SON and FAWLTY TOWERS, respectively.


Gimmicks and Satire

1962 was the year in which the situation comedy truly broke from the pattern set by I LOVE LUCY and marked the beginning of the use of gimmicks and satire.

In 1962 the sitcom moved out of the middle-class American home and into the World War II South Pacific with MCHALE'S NAVY and BROADSIDE (1965). World War II became a favorite time and place for humor.

In the 1963-64 season, MY FAVORITE MARTIAN started a chain of new sitcoms that had as their basic premise a special gimmick from which the plots and their development could be derived. Usually the gimmick involved magic or superhuman powers which would precipitate and/or solve the plot problem. In the case of MY FAVORITE MARTIAN one of the main characters was a Martian who could disappear, levitate, and read minds. Shows that followed included BEWITCHED, in which a typical American male married a beautiful young witch whose twitching nose got him into and out of trouble, and I DREAM OF JEANNIE, which united an Air Force major with a beautiful young genie out of a bottle. The popularity of this type of show lasted several years and then waned. Though attempts have been made to revive it (TABITHA (1977), SMALL WONDER (1986), THE CHARMINGS (1987)), such attempts have usually failed. One major exception is ALF (1986-91), the alien living with an American family.

Horror was also considered a fertile ground for humor. In 1964, two separate networks each put on a comic-horror show, THE ADDAM'S FAMILY and THE MUNSTERS. The former was based on Charles Addams' macabre cartoons, and the latter was a family composed of a Frankensteinian monster, a most unusual woman dressed in a white flowing shroud, and a vampire. To provide balance and someone with which the audience could identify, a normal looking person, usually a daughter or niece, also appeared.

Other shows which debuted from 1964 to 1966 included the mindless comedy GILLIGAN'S ISLAND, in which seven people are marooned on a desert island and appear to survive in considerable luxury.

HOGAN'S HEROES, following in McHale's footsteps, was set in a World War II German prisoner of war camp in which the prisoners made absolute fools of their German captors. The camp was completely honeycombed with tunnels which contained everything from a fully equipped radio room to barber shops and saunas.

The situation comedy also began moving into the area of satire in the period 1964-66. The first show of this type was CAR 54, WHERE ARE YOU?, with Toody and Muldoon as a take-off on Joe Friday and Frank Smith of DRAGNET. A favorite subject for satire was spy movies, in particular James Bond. Three shows along this line were THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., THE GIRL FROM U.N.C.L.E., and GET SMART.



1962 brought to the home screen one of the most incredible phenomena ever to appear on television. This show ran for nine years and ranks in the fifteen all-time top television Neilson ratings for entertainment programs. This show was THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES.

[Side Note: THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES ranks 26th overall. Eleven Superbowl games rank ahead of it on the ratings list. The all-time ratings champion is the final two-hour episode of M*A*S*H.]

THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES was a break in two directions from the tradition of a middle-class family as the core of the show. It took a lower class family group and put them into an upper class setting. The critics didn't know quite how to take this show. They either panned it as infantile and senseless or tried to find some profound or symbolic meaning in it. There was nothing profound or symbolic in the show. No matter what the critics had to say, the viewing public loved the show.

The immense popularity of THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES prompted the creation of several obvious spinoffs in hopes of duplicating its success. The first of these, in 1963, was PETTICOAT JUNCTION, and the second, in 1965, was GREEN ACRES, which was the number one show in 1966.


[Landmark Forms of Television Comedy is continued in Part Two] Go to Landmarks of Comedy, Part Two

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