Sitcom: What It Is, How It Works


Richard F. Taflinger, PhD

This page has been accessed since 29 May 1996.

I began this book because, as a student of theatre and a child of the television age, I believe that television, the most ubiquitous form of entertainment in the United States today, deserves the same in-depth examination that drama and film have received. Such has not been the case. Indeed, criticism of television entertainment has been pretty much limited to research into television's sociological, political, and legal effects, and reviews. I therefore decided to examine television as drama.

The study did have to be limited: television is an extremely broad area covering news, sports, public affairs, information, advertising, and, of course, entertainment. I elected to confine my study to commercial prime-time (8:00 - 11:00 pm) television, and the form of programming called the situation comedy.

There were two things I wanted to accomplish with this study: 1) trace the development of the situation comedy from 1950 to 1993; and 2) develop a set of criteria describing the situation comedy in the various forms it assumes, based in general on more than 40 years of observation, in specific on the study of hundreds of examples, and the application of two sets of principles, the neo-Aristotelian principles of drama, and the six criteria I found for comedy. The two sets of principles are considered separately because the neo-Aristotelian may be applied to any television program, while the principles of comedy should apply only in the case of comedy programs.

The neo-Aristotelian principles I used for my study were action, character, thought, spectacle, music and diction. The elements of comedy were: 1)the action appeals to the intellect rather than the emotions; 2)the action is inherently human; 3)the beings carrying out the comic action behave in a mechanical manner; 4) there is an established set of societal norms; 5) the comic actions are incongruous to the norms; and 6) the action is perceived as harmless by the audience.

The trends in situation comedies since 1950 show a move toward a more liberal attitude about subjects of humor. In other words, in the element of thought, instead of societal norms such as a-woman's-place-is-in- the-home, or horses-can't-talk, or the-man-is- the-master, as in the 1950s and 1960s, the norms used in many situation comedies today are attitudes about sex, violence, racism, and other subjects that didn't even exist in early television comedy. The field of permissible subjects has greatly widened, illustrating that ideas and thinking have replaced pat situations with pat resolutions.

The situation comedy can be divided into three types: the actcom, the domcom, and the dramedy, each type characterized by differences in their fundamental elements of action, character, and thought.

The actcom, the original and most numerous type of sitcom, has the following characteristics:

1. The plots are action-oriented, and based on personal crises of a superficial nature.

2. The characters are not complex: few motivations are shown, and the characters are consistent and predictable in action and thought. The main characters are central to every plot, and are the masterminds of schemes to solve the problems and leaders of the action. Supporting characters are not necessary to all plots, are followers and not leaders, and are often dupes and butts of jokes.

3. Writers use no specific themes, the plots written for the purpose of provoking laughter, not to communicate ideas. The characters are superficial in thought, clever rather than intelligent, and show a lack of foresight or consideration of future consequences of their actions.

4. The settings are strictly backgrounds to action, with little sense of personality, either of their own or of the characters inhabiting them.

The domcom has the following characteristics:


1. The plots are character-oriented and based on domestic crises. The first segment of an episode is much like an actcom, but at the point of crisis, character and thought supercede action as the consequences of the action on the character are examined.

2. The characters are complex, with multiple and conflicting emotions and complex motivations. The main characters are emotionally stable and loving, and desire to instill moral values without stifling the personal growth and experience of their children. Supporting characters include the children, who are usually the bearers of the problem, and other who are used mainly as comic intensification and as a sounding board for the main characters.

3. The writer usually has a theme based on intra- or interpersonal relationships, in particular those related to children growing up and maturing in a social world. The characters are usually rational, although their thinking is sometimes clouded by emotion, with attempts at understanding complex issues. They are also usually conscious of future consequences of their actions, consequences that are very important in their future planning.

4. The settings are again a background to the action, but they are much more personalized and in keeping with the personalities of the characters who inhabit them. The setting is almost invariably a home, either a house, or an apartment, comfortable and middle-class.

A dramedy, the rarest type of sitcom, has the following characteristics:


1. The plots are thought-oriented, and examine the effects on characters when they are confronted with societal ills such as warfare or crime, or problems with which they are not equipped, either through training or background, to cope.

2. The characters are generally complex, with multiple and conflicting emotions, complex and mixed motivations, and a sense of self-reliant dependence on each other. In a human dramedy, the characters are concerned with the problems of others, and are generally humanistic and moderate on their view of life, society, and rules. In an advocate dramedy, the characters are concerned with themselves rather than others, and in general are selfish and self-centered, their own thoughts, beliefs and actions, to their minds, superior to all others and the only ones worthy of consideration.

3. The writers always employ a theme, try to communicate an idea, although it is not always a humorous one, that explores a point of view about some subject, usually one related to the effects of stressful situations on human beings. The characters in a human dramedy are constantly thinking, although their thoughts are occasionally clouded by prejudice or preconception. Eventually they achieve understanding, even if they do not embrace a new point of view. They are intelligent, witty, imaginative, and clever. The characters in an advocate dramedy appear to react by conditioned response rather than by thoughtful analysis of a situation. They are argumentative, but are dogmatic rather than reasonable.

4. The settings are backgrounds specialized to the format of the program, and often personalized according to the personalities of the inhabitants. The settings serve to establish the ambiance in which the characters cope with the problems with which they are presented.


The plots in all three types of situation comedy provide four of the six basic criteria for comedy: societal norms, incongruity, appeal to intellect rather than emotion, and the perception by the audience that the occurrences are essentially harmless.

Actcoms show physical actions that are incongruous with reality as perceived by society. Domcoms illustrate the effects on characters of behavior incongruous with the established norms of behavior. The dramedy holds societal norms up for examination by illustrating them in extreme cases. In the case of the dramedy, some occurrences cannot be perceived as harmless, and consequently are not humorous.

The characters in all three types of situation comedy provide the final two criteria for humor: they are inherently human, and, for the most part, they react in a mechanical manner to stimuli.

In recent years, some shows are blurring the line between one type of situation comedy and another. As mentioned earlier, some actcoms, such as CHEERS, mature into pseudo-domcoms, although most episodes are still actcom in nature. Some shows go even further. For example, NIGHT COURT is usually an actcom. However, on occasion there are episodes that explore character, with the characters taking on relationships that turn it to a pseudo-domcom rather than an actcom. There are even episodes that are dramedic, as the characters explore a societal problem and its effect on people.

However, for a show to cross over from one form to another, it must possess at all times those features inherent to each form. NIGHT COURT can, at times, be any of the forms because it has the characters, relationships and settings, as well as the writing and producing quality that allow it that latitude. Such qualities are rare and difficult to develop in the pressure cooker atmosphere of commercial television.


Television has been called many things, most of them unflattering: chewing gum for the eyes, the vast wasteland, junk food for the mind, the boob tube, the vidiot set. However, no matter what is said about it, it cannot be denied that television is the most pervasive single element in American society, dominating time, conversation, attitudes, thought, and the entertainment industry. As such, it is well deserving of an examination that will heighten viewers' awareness of what they are watching. As I discussed the sitcom, I'm certain, dear reader, that many images and memories sprang into your mind. As I wrote this book, I talked about it with many people. Each had their most and least favorite shows, and enjoyed discussing them at length. They particularly enjoyed finding out why they felt the way they did about the shows.

Although this book only covers a single facet of television, it is, I hope, a beginning in understanding what goes into the making of television programming, and will provide a basis for future evaluation.

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