Sitcom: What It Is, How It Works


Richard F. Taflinger, PhD

This page has been accessed since 28 May 1996.

This is a neoAristotelian analysis of the television situation comedy since 1947. Included are my own theory of comedy, the business of television, action, character, thought, diction, music and spectacle as applied to the sitcom, and a listing of all the sitcoms that have been on American primetime television since 1947.

Table of Contents

Domcom Characters

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The invariable question people ask me when I say I'm writing about television is "For or against?". Before I can even draw breath to answer "Neither", their eyes blaze and they proceed to give me their opinions of the terrible muck that TV foists upon an unsuspecting public under the guise of entertainment. Had I instead said that I was writing about theatre attendance at Gold Rush mining camps in the 1850s, or the existence (or lack thereof) of a stage in the Attic Greek theatre, their eyes would glaze, they would murmur a polite "That's nice", and go on their way, shaking their heads and muttering something about esoteric eggheads and Ivory Towers.

Well, in a way they might be right. Gold Rush theatre and Greek stages are not something that impinges upon the life of virtually every person in the United States. Television does.

Television is the major form of entertainment in the world today. By 1986 there were about 150,000,000 television receivers in the United States--more than the number of cars, bathtubs, washing machines, or refrigerators, and not far behind the telephone. In addition, the average family in 1992 watched television seven hours and seventeen minutes a day, or over 50 hours a week, more than the average work week. Television is obviously a major component of American life.

Of course, television as an entertainment medium is very much different from any other performing art. The differences are manifold, but I'll just point up some of the major ones. First, of course, are commercials. One doesn't see that many commercials at a play or the movies (except perhaps at drive-in movies at which the management is trying to get the patrons out of the back seat and into the refreshment counter).

Second, you have a whole different attitude when approaching commercial television than when approaching the theatre. In the latter case you go and sit in a darkened room with the idea of concentrating on that one thing: the play or movie. In addition, you are surrounded by other people with the same idea. Occasionally a station shows a movie (or you rent one) and you invite friends over to watch it with you in silence and absorption. This is not, however, how television is usually watched.

Television is in your home, a very basic fact. Rarely do you sit in a darkened room, surrounded by others intent on watching the tube. On the contrary, there are constant interruptions: the phone rings, it's time to cook dinner, a visitor at the door, housework, any number of things diabolically fighting for your attention.

Third, television is a private enterprise on public property, or, more correctly, carried on through public airwaves. It is therefore subject to Federal intervention. Comparatively speaking, the theatre and movies can do just about as they damn well please, but television must answer to just about anybody.

Fourth, theatre is considered an art; television is considered, particularly by those who run it, an industry, more interested in gold than in the Golden Age.

The last point notwithstanding, television is indeed an art just as much as drama or movies; it's just harder to tell because of all the other things with which it must contend. It is to an examination of television as an art that this book dedicates itself.


This book, although it discusses television in general to a great extent, concentrates on the situation comedy. The art form that is television is an extensive subject. For this reason I decided to survey and analyze only one form, the situation comedy.

The sitcom is the most numerous form of program on television. A conservative estimate of the number of scripts written and produced for this form in the last fifty years is 27,000. However, such scripts as a source of data and examination are effectively nonexistent. Inquiries to the Library of Congress, the National Association of Broadcasters, and the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences yielded nothing. I therefore decided to approach the subject of the sitcom from a different point of view.

Even if there are few scripts available, there is no dearth of productions to watch on television every day and night, including many reruns of programs from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, either in syndication or on television festivals. Therefore, this study is from the point of view of the observer, the person who sits in a chair or lounges on the couch and watches television.


The vernacular of television is filled with expressions, idioms, and abbreviations that have crept into everyday language of American Life. Few people don't know the meanings of such words as zoom, rerun, suds, soap opera, ratings, Neilson, and spinoff, and of course, sitcom. However, to make this book a little easier on the reader (and myself) I decided it would help to coin some new terms. There are two reasons for this. First, for the sake of brevity. Second, to allow instant identification of the types of situation comedy I discuss. This should help in avoiding possible confusion as I discuss aspects of different types of sitcoms. Following the example set by the industry itself, I use contractions to label the various types of situation comedies I, and you, dear reader, will encounter.

The situation comedy, in television vernacular, is called the sitcom. However, this term applies to all types of situation comedy, and, as I will show, there are three distinct types of sitcom. For clarity, I will substitute terms for each type: actcom for the action comedy, domcom for the domestic comedy, and dramedy for the dramatic comedy.

The actcom is the most numerous type of sitcom on television, and can be based on a variety of themes: the family (I LOVE LUCY, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, THE GOLDEN GIRLS), gimmicks (BEWITCHED, I DREAM OF JEANNIE, ALF), places (GILLIGAN'S ISLAND, HOGAN'S HEROES, HARRY), occupations (McHALE'S NAVY, SIROTA'S COURT, THROB). In any case, the emphasis is on action, verbal and physical.

The domcom is more expansive than the actcom, having a wider variety of events and a greater sense of seriousness. It involves more people, both in the regular cast and in transient actors brought into individual episodes. Examples of the domcom include FATHER KNOWS BEST, THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, MY THREE SONS, THE BRADY BUNCH, THE DONNA REED SHOW, ROSEANNE and THE COSBY SHOW.

The greatest emphasis in a domcom is on the characters and their growth and development as human beings. This type of sitcom is called a domestic comedy because it is almost invariably set in and around a family unit: a mother and/or father, and most definitely, children. A major factor in motion picture and theatrical drama is that the events portray the most important thing to happen in the protagonist's life. However, in an episodic television series, the event must not be the most important event in the protagonist's life. If it is, subsequent episodes will be anticlimactic. The domcom neatly circumvents this problem. Children are incomplete adults, the physical and mental and emotional facets of their characters unknown, or at least not fully understood. Thus, the event can be the most important thing in their lives at that time, without it being the most important in their entire lives. They may go through a major crisis without it affecting their future beyond increasing their growth and maturity. (For a more complete discussion of this important aspect of drama, see DOMCOM.)

The problems encountered are more serious and related more to human nature than those in an actcom. The problems, complications, and solutions in an actcom are physical in nature, while in a domcom they are mental and/or emotional. In addition, the resolutions in a domcom are a learning experience for all involved rather than a simple clearing up of a misunderstanding. Concepts of peace, love and laughter are emphasized, as are concepts of family unity.

A dramedy is the rarest and most serious type of sitcom; its entire being is not devoted to evoking laughter from the audience. Its emphasis is on thought, often presenting themes that are not humorous: war, death, crime, aging, unemployment, racism, sexism, etc. The humor is more comic intensification than an end in itself.

The themes are personified, showing the regular characters in conflict with the themes as they affect individuals, not as impersonal labels for intangible concepts. Often two factions are represented, either with two characters in direct conflict with each other, each representing a point of view on the theme, or characters in conflict with the intangible by observing the effects of it on others and attempting to aid them. ALL IN THE FAMILY and MAUDE are examples of the first, M*A*S*H, BARNEY MILLER and NIGHT COURT of the second.


Television is an important part of American life, and, although a great amount has been said and written about its significance and impact on politics, sociology, communications, technology, and the American life style, almost no attention has been paid to the programs themselves as an art form. No one has actually described what appears on the home screen without moralizing or philosophizing about its effects on the world outside the program. It is my purpose to fill this lack for the television situation comedy, to describe what appears on the screen, to find what kinds of plots, what kinds of characters, what kinds of themes or lack thereof are used.

It was not my intention to do a finely detailed examination of scripts or authors' styles. Such a study would take a lifetime, involving as it would what I estimate at some 27,000 individual scripts. My technique was to observe and examine a random sample of programs over the period from 1950 to 1993. This involved watching at least one episode of each of the 680 sitcoms that have been on the air, and between 50 and 200 episodes of many. (Before wondering what sane person would watch 6,000 hours of sitcoms, examine your assumption. What makes you think I'm sane, at least now?)

From this study I derived a set of classifications and criteria for each type of sitcom that may be used in future studies as a guide, as an aid to the present or future creator or writer of comedy and TV shows, or for casual TV viewers who enjoy amazing their friends and confounding their enemies with their incredible insight into television.

To accomplish my purpose I first had to determine what a situation comedy is. To do this I relied on two sources: what other authors called situation comedies, particularly Vincent Terrace, Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, and Alex McNeil, and television itself, by watching the shows and comparing them with the six criteria for comedy.

The second step was to examine the situation comedy according to the neo-Aristotelian principles of drama: plot, character, thought, spectacle, diction, and music. During this examination I looked for various things that would help me in classifying and developing criteria for the situation comedy. From this examination I was able to formulate the findings enumerated in the following chapters.

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