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.

In the period from 1969 to 1972 the situation comedy moved away from the gimmicks that had played so large a part in situation comedies since 1962. There was a return to the family, even if it was no longer complete. The shows that had complete families (a mother, a father, and children) were, for example, THE BRADY BUNCH, ARNIE, THE SMITH FAMILY, and THE JIMMY STEWART SHOW. Shows that had only partial families (with either the mother or father missing) were becoming more and more in vogue. They included TO ROME WITH LOVE, NANNY AND THE PROFESSOR, THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR, and THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE'S FATHER. Those with surrogate families, wherein there was no actual mother, father, or children, but characters that maintained somewhat the same relationships, included ROOM 222 and HEADMASTER, both set in schools, and THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, set in a television newsroom.

Another trend that began to appear in 1969 was the creation of situation comedies for non-television stars: stars from the stage or motion pictures. Examples of these shows were THE DEBBIE REYNOLDS SHOW, THE GOVERNOR AND J.J., starring Dan Dailey, THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY with Shirley Jones, and THE JIMMY STEWART SHOW. Apparently the networks managed to convince themselves that the name was all that was necessary. However, none of the shows received much critical approbation and only one, THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY, remained on the air for any length of time. It was not Ms. Jones, it is reasonable to assume, but another member of the cast, David Cassidy, the heartthrob of millions of young girls, who kept the show's ratings high enough to ensure renewal. Since 1971 very few shows have been created for movie stars simple because of their celebrity status.



In 1970 a groundbreaking new situation comedy premiered. THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW gave every appearance of being just another situation comedy, no better and no worse than any that had gone before. However, it introduced two new concepts to television comedy that had previously not existed. One was the idea that a woman could reach the age of 30 and not be married and still be happy, and even more importantly, not be celibate. Mary Richards was the first truly liberated woman on television, living her own life as she wished. There were network misgivings, of course. For example, the producers wanted her to be a divorcee, but the network didn't like the idea of having a divorced woman as the heroine of a show. In the premiere episode, therefore, Mary is dumped by her boyfriend.

The second was the idea that disassociated adults could form a relationship with each other strongly resembling a nuclear family: Mary, Lou, Murray, Rhoda, and Ted were not just coworkers, they were a family.


Then, in 1971, there appeared on the scene two phenomena the like of which had not been seen before. One was ALL IN THE FAMILY. The other was its creator, Norman Lear. Lear felt that television comedy should be not only funny, but provocative and stimulating. After his first show, ALL IN THE FAMILY, Lear went on to be a very successful creator/producer of new comedy shows.

The violation of cultural taboos often provokes the greatest laughter. In American society the greatest taboos are discussions of sex, biological functions such as the elimination of body wastes, and death. These are all subjects that society has decreed should be discussed seriously, discreetly and euphemistically if discussed at all. When these subjects are not treated seriously they produced embarrassed, titillated, or delighted laughter, or any combination of the three. ALL IN THE FAMILY, for the first time in any situation comedy, regularly used these subjects, and others such as racism, sexism, and religious bigotry, as the basis for plots.

A sampling of plot synopses of sitcoms of 20 years ago compared with shows of recent years illustrates the freedom that television now enjoys. For example:

MR. PEEPERS (1953) Mr. Peepers decides to buy a new suit, and his mother and aunt decide to help him make the selection -- HOT L BALTIMORE (1975) Ainsley, the timid mamma's boy is romancing one woman while another threatens to name him in a paternity suit -- FAMILY TIES (1984) Elyse worries when her divorced mother goes out on a date and doesn't return until morning;

THE LIFE OF RILEY (1954) Chester and Gillis decide to swap houses -- MAUDE (1975) The Findlays spend a disconcerting evening with a swinging couple who think Maude and Walter would be the perfect couple for a mate-swapping game;

MR. PEEPERS (1953) Mr. Peepers discovers one of his students can't afford a dissection set -- WELCOME BACK, KOTTER (1975) Gabe tries to find out which boy in his class is responsible for one of his female students' pregnancy;

PRIVATE SECRETARY (1954) Susie tries to get rid of a cold by testing remedies recommended by members of the office staff -- GOOD TIMES (1976) J.J. panics when his girl friend tells him that she has VD and that he is the culprit;

MY LITTLE MARGIE (1956) Margie's boy friend uses a trick dog to retrieve his golf balls -- ONE DAY AT A TIME (1976) an entreaty by Julie's boyfriend throws her into a turmoil: he wants to spent the night with her;

LEAVE IT TO BEAVER (1959) the family admires Wally's suit as he goes on a date -- VALERIE (1987) Valerie advises her son going on a date about responsible sex and birth control.

It is obvious from the above examples that television is moving more and more toward the use of societal taboos as subject matter for plots, and using ideas rather than pat situations with pat solutions.

Lear's ALL IN THE FAMILY was one of the first situation comedies to regularly violate cultural taboos. THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW had as its leading character a woman over thirty who was not married and yet had relationships with men that were more than platonic, an impossibility prior to 1970. Nevertheless, it was ALL IN THE FAMILY that discussed as a regular part of the show racial bigotry, political ideologies (both extreme right and extreme left), sex, death, and societal dysfunctions that had previously been banned from the public airwaves.

A sampling of ALL IN THE FAMILY episodes includes one in which Edith allows a woman whom she is to care for do what she wants to do--die; Edith rejects God after one of her friends, a female impersonator, is killed by a street gang; Archie is upset about the death of a friend's roommate until he finds out that the two women were homosexual lovers; Edith must contend with the problems of sexual assault and its aftermath when she is almost raped; and Archie becomes upset when his niece, who is white, goes out on a date with the boy next door, who is black. Such violations of societal taboos are fertile grounds for comedy, as is patently obvious from the popularity of ALL IN THE FAMILY, which remained on the air for 12 years.



In 1972 one of the most popular and important situation comedies ever premiered: M*A*S*H. Its popularity is obvious from its ratings, never below 15th, and often in the top five during the entire ten years it was on the air. Its importance stems from the fact that it was the first situation comedy that did not feel that laugh-a-minute scripts was an inflexible rule. It dealt with subjects such as war, death, and misery, not only in a humorous fashion but with a sense of serious examination and compassion. Its primary consideration was not necessarily to get laughs but to be human, which often means being funny. The characters are characters, not charicatures, as is often the case in sitcoms, and they react to situations with honest intellect and emotion.


T&A Comedy

In 1977 the first of the T&A ("tits and ass") comedies came on the air. Its title was THREE'S COMPANY. A T&A sitcom is devoted to showing a number of young women with beautiful bodies wearing a minimum of clothing romping about the stage uttering sexual innuendos. THREE'S COMPANY was a prime example of this type of show. Apparently it was what the public wanted because it rated #3 in 1977 and in the fall of 1978 it became the top-rated show on the air. Other permutations include WE'VE GOT IT MADE, BLANKIE'S BEAUTIES, ROLLERGIRLS, and CO-ED FEVER.

This does not mean to say that only sex and T&A are the subjects of situation comedy. There were several shows on the air that had social consciousness as their themes. BARNEY MILLER was a police comedy show that illustrated the interaction of man and law, particularly as it applied to lower- and middle-class Americans. ONE DAY AT A TIME was about a young divorced woman coping with the problems and follies of her two teenage daughters. ALL'S FAIR dealt with the generation gap and political views.


In the fall of 1978 the networks made an attempt to return to the mindlessness of the early 1950s with such shows as APPLE PIE, WHO'S WATCHING THE KIDS, and THE WAVERLY WONDERS. However, the viewing public rejected the idea. All three shows were canceled within weeks. Viewers obviously preferred something with some content to it, either intellectually, to give them something to think about, or physically, to give them something to watch.


In the late 1970s programming began to be a much more difficult proposition, both to get on the air and to stay on the air. The major problem was the sheer cost. For example, in 1964 the average cost of a half-hour program was $125,000 per episode. A conservative estimate is that in 1976 a network spent $1.5 million per night for its prime-time programming, or twice the 1964 cost. In 1992 costs have risen even higher. Add to that the erosion of the networks' audience by cable and VCR use and rental of movies and it is clear that with this amount of money involved the networks must be very careful with their programming. They therefore watch the Neilson ratings very closely, and if a show does not immediately show favorable results it will often be dropped within days. For example, during the 1979-80 season, of the 30 new sitcoms introduced, 18 were canceled within weeks, A NEW KIND OF FAMILY lasting only six. Seven other sitcoms left the air that season as well. Sixteen of the 19 new sitcoms in 1980-81 were canceled. Twelve of the 15 new sitcoms were canceled in 1981-82, along with nine from previous seasons. Fourteen out of 19 new sitcoms were canceled in 1982-83, and 17 out of 19 in 1983-84.

Many people in 1984 were saying it was the end of the situation comedy on television, that the audience no longer wanted that form of program, but were looking for action and adventure. The networks seemed to listen, because for the 1985-86 season there were only 19 sitcoms on the air, the lowest number since the late 1950s. There was, however, something in, or rather on, the air, a time bomb from the 1984-85 season: NBC's Thursday night lineup, led off by a quiet domestic comedy, THE COSBY SHOW.


NBC had, in January of 1981, put a police drama at 10:00 Thursday night, a show that started out quietly, then built an audience, a following, and a reputation for sweeping awards. To NBC, HILL STREET BLUES seemed the perfect ending to an otherwise blah day. They began putting sitcoms on as lead-ins to HILL STREET, looking for a combination that would hold an audience all evening.

In 1984, as the situation comedy was "dying", NBC lined up the new COSBY SHOW with holdovers from previous years: FAMILY TIES, CHEERS, and NIGHT COURT. Thursday night was theirs, as was the standing as the number one network in the ratings. If 1985 was the worst year in decades for the situation comedy, 1986 was the best: 29 sitcoms on the air, with 18 of them new. That has since been surpassed, with 42 sitcoms on the air in the fall of 1992.

What was it about THE COSBY SHOW that caused such a turnaround in the fortunes of the situation comedy? THE COSBY SHOW was noted for its lack of pretension and gimmickry. It simply told a story, or sometimes not, about how Dr. Huxtable, an obstetrician, his wife, the lawyer, and their five children interacted, often with a learning experience, always with gentle humor. The audiences loved it, putting THE COSBY SHOW at the top of the ratings almost every week, and putting the sitcom back on as a staple of the television schedule.

In 1987 a new variable entered the equation: a new network, Fox. In order to compete against the Big Three (ABC, CBS, NBC), Fox needed to be different. Seeing that the Big Three were basically conservative in their programming, not showing programs that were too far out of the mainstream, Fox decided that being outrageous would be in. They started showing programs that went against the norm: if COSBY, with its extremely functional family life, was the norm for NBC, then it made sense for Fox to do the opposite -- put on a family that was as dysfunctional as possible. Thus was born MARRIED...WITH CHILDREN, the antithesis of COSBY, filled with sexual innuendo, familial hatred, problems with no solutions, incompetent parents and disrespectful children. This was followed by THE SIMPSONS (1989), HERMAN'S HEAD (1990), and WOOPS! (1992), all of them exploring the dark side of human nature, but always doing it with a laugh.


Comedy on television came almost intact from radio, doing a visual version of popular shows. The situation comedies were of the bumbling husband type. But in 1951 I LOVE LUCY altered the face of the sitcom and of television itself. Shows were now filmed rather than kinescoped, shot with three cameras in front of a studio audience. The characters became more real to the audience and set the tone for sitcoms for years.

With FATHER KNOWS BEST the sitcom moved into the home and family with a new sense of warmth and reality, concentrating on character rather than nonstop action. THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW continued the trend with the family, using the single-parent rather than full family. In addition, it started the idea of the spinoff for the creation of new shows.

McHALE'S NAVY moved the sitcom out of the home and began the exploration for new locales and gimmicks around which to build a show. The idea of gimmicks hit its height with BEWITCHED and I DREAM OF JEANNIE.

THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, in 1962, broke the middle-class pattern in plot and characterization, and produced an even greater surge in the use of the spinoff, and a trend toward the ruralization of situation comedy.

Yet another idea for programming was the attempt to spoof that which was popular in a serious form. For example, GET SMART was a parody of James Bond.

THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW took account of a changing America and allowed women a more realistic place in the world of situation comedy, showing that wife and mother were not the only possibilities for women.

A new dimension to the situation comedy was illustrated in the premiere of ALL IN THE FAMILY, first in a long line of Norman Lear sitcoms. It was a break with the innocuousness long associated with television comedy and opened the door for controversy, social and political satire, and dark comedy.

The social consciousness of television comedy was further heightened with the premiere of a new type of situation comedy, the dramedy. M*A*S*H was the first of this type, and, though it has never excelled in quantity, the dramedy is of such quality that it consistently ranks high in the ratings.

The situation comedy went on a downslide in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but it was brought back with a vengeance when Bill Cosby premiered in his third sitcom, THE COSBY SHOW, a show that focuses on family and gentle humor.

A few years after COSBY, Fox, a new network, found a new audience by violating all the norms established by the Big Three networks. Introducing dysfunction as a source of comedy, they attracted audiences that had shifted away from the other networks.

The situation comedy has changed considerably from its days of raucous bumbling and slapstick. The emphasis seems now to be on wit, warmth, and character, rather than halfwit, heat, and action. Nonetheless, the sitcom continues to evolve.

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