Sitcom: What It Is, How It Works
An Examination of the Situation Comedy


Richard F. Taflinger, PhD

This page has been accessed since 29 May 1996.

Disgruntled by Lucy's spendthrift ways, Ricky insists she would feel differently about money if she had to "bring home the bacon". With her neighbor Ethel Mertz' support, Lucy agrees to switch roles for a week--the women will get jobs if the men stay home and do the housework and cooking. The women go to an employment agency, lie about their qualifications, and land jobs at Kramer's Kandy Kitchen. Lucy starts in the candy-dipping section and Ethel in the boxing department, but both fail. They are transferred to "wrapping", where their task is to wrap each piece of candy as it goes by on the conveyer belt. Unfortunately, they find it impossible to keep up with the swift-moving belt and are forced to stuff the excess candies into their mouths, hats, blouses, etc. As "housewives", Ricky and Fred Mertz are doing no better, so the four finally decide to call off the switch.

Anyone familiar with commercial television programming can point to a particular show with a plot like the one above and say, "That is a situation comedy". But what is there about that particular show that makes it fit into that genre, as opposed to a western, or a detective show, or a medical show? There are or have been western comedies (BEST OF THE WEST), detective comedies (SLEDGE HAMMER), and medical comedies (NURSES). It is the purpose of this chapter to clarify just what the components of the situation comedy are.

This chapter is about the situation comedy in general, some preliminary statements about the situation comedy that apply to all types. Following this will be chapters giving details about the plots, characters, settings, and thought from my study of the actcom, domcom, and dramedy.

General Comments



There are three types of characters in situation comedies: main, supporting, and transient. The main characters are those that carry the bulk of the action. In general, there is only one main character, but there may be as many as three.

The limit on main characters is obvious from merely looking at shows. From Lucy in I LOVE LUCY to Balki and Larry in PERFECT STRANGERS to Leonard and Sheldon in THE BIG BANG THEORY, the main characters are the ones that the audience is supposed to watch; what happens to them is important. It is extremely difficult in a half hour to give everyone enough spotlight to make them all main characters.


Supporting characters are members of the regular cast who do as the name implies: they support the main character and often act as foils. There are few supporting characters, for two main reasons. The first is monetary--the more characters the more actors that must be paid. The second reason is more important: in order to maintain interest and understand the story, the audience must be able to identify each character and remember rher personality on sight. When there are too many characters such identification requires a mental effort on the part of the audience, an effort to be avoided as it interferes with aesthetics, involvement, and acceptance of events. WKRP IN CINCINNATI started out slowly because of the number of characters, all of which had to be identified and understood by the audience. Eventually, because of their striking differences and personalities, it was possible to tell them apart without a scorecard, and the show became successful. M*A*S*H also started out with the characters that were in the movie. After the first season several of the characters were dropped: it was possible to develop them all in the movie and give them all something to do. On television this proved impossible.


There is extensive use of transients. Transient characters come in three varieties: the guest star, the small but necessary role, and the necessary but not constantly needed role. The guest star is a major role in a single episode, providing a plot problem. When I LOVE LUCY was set in Hollywood for several episodes such stars as Richard Widmark, William Holden and John Wayne were brought in. Herve Villechais appeared as a guest on TAXI, Danny Thomas played a dual role as both his own persona and a character on an episode of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, and Robert Alda appeared twice as a doctor on M*A*S*H. The role does not have to be played by an established "star", nor need the guest appear in his or her own persona; it can be any actor playing a major role in a single episode.

Small but necessary roles are usually walk-on characters: delivery people, store clerks and customers, and other supernumeraries. They are necessary for the continuity of the plot by acting as agents for plot problems and complications, but they usually contribute little or nothing of themselves as characters.

The third type of transient, the necessary but not constantly needed role, is a supporting role that does not appear in every episode. Often they will appear only two or three times during the course of a season, although occasionally their function is expanded. Bob's therapy group (THE BOB NEWHART SHOW) began as a single plot variation and was expanded to a regularly appearing part of the show. The psychiatrist, Dr. Freedman (M*A*S*H) was on as a part of a single episode about how the personnel coped with the insanity of their jobs, and soon became a regular poker player and medical consultant, almost a supporting character. The Fonz (HAPPY DAYS) was originally planned to be a supporting transient, but soon became the leading character.

Transient characters provide plot problems and complications, or provide those purely mechanical functions of a story, such as delivering packages or notes, revealing complications, etc.

Audience Perception of the Characters

Most of the characters in a situation comedy are sympathetic. The audience can identify with them and their problems and care whether or not they can solve the problems.

However, to provide necessary conflict there is at least one character, usually a supporting character but occasionally a transient, who is unsympathetic. He is, for want of a better term, the villain. HIs function is to provide obstacles and problems for the main characters. Examples of such characters are Mel Cooley (THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW), Frank Burns (M*A*S*H), and Dan Fielding, the district attorney on NIGHT COURT.

The villain is not always a villain, though. A sympathetic side of the character is occasionally shown, particularly if the character is a continuing role in the show. Dan Fielding, although a scum of the earth male chauvinist oinker with the morals of a water buffalo in heat, nonetheless does have feelings and will help a friend in trouble or assist a single mother safely deliver her child. However, this character will continue to conflict with the main character. For example, Ida Morganstern, Rhoda's mother on RHODA, will often try to force her own lifestyle on Rhoda, but she eventually gives in and allows Rhoda to live her own life: at least, on that episode. In another episode she will try a different approach or point of view. Dan, of course, ends a show by leaving a trail of slime.


A factor applicable to all three types of sitcom is that the themes, plots, complications and characterizations are firmly rooted in the idealized American middle-class, either by representing it or departing from it. Because a majority of American television viewers fit into this class, this foundation is of great value: expositions which establish the societal norms against which to measure the incongruity in humor may be greatly condensed, the norms already being known to a majority of the audience. Time, always of great value in so rigidly structured an art form as television, is thus saved, the problem introduced very early in the program and the plot set in motion.

The plots for many episodes will involve a disruption of the status quo by one of the characters attempting to break with the middle-class mores. For example, in an episode of THE ODD COUPLE, Oscar Madison is offered and accepts a job as a writer with a magazine strongly resembling Playboy. His life-style alters drastically toward the sybaritic. However, he is not happy, and only regains his peace of mind and contentment when he returns to his middle-class way of life. As another example, in an episode of EIGHT IS ENOUGH, a friend of David (one of the sons) is killed in an accident. David, taking it very hard and believing that all of his work and clean living is worthless and that one should live for the moment, quits his job and begins to live a hedonistic existence. After a period of dissipation he comes to the realization that his erstwhile middle-class life was not so bad after all, with good food and clean clothes, no hangovers or double-vision, etc., and returns to it.

Not all types of situation comedies extol the virtues of the middle-class. Many of the solutions in a dramedy, for example, will show that middle-class morality and mores are stifling, opinionated, or just wrong. Nonetheless, it is the middle-class that is serving as a foundation and springhead for plot and resolution.

In the following chapters there is a discussion of each individual type of situation comedy, the actcom, the domcom and the dramedy, going into detail about how they use and/or portray plot, character, thought, setting, diction and music.

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