Mark Fraser: Day One Hundred and Five – The Sitcom

Posted on April 15, 2011 by

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I’ve been studying today.

I’ve been studying sitcoms and it got me thinking….

[This is a long post. If you want to skip to the point, click here.]

Some may not be aware of this but the sitcom was originally created for a way to bring vaudeville or music hall to the radio. These variety acts were put on the air because it was a familiar form of comedy that people identified with in the early days of television. Indeed, sketch shows with canned laughter still follow the same rough idea, but by and large the sitcom was created by US TV networks to give popular vaudeville acts of the era a place on TV in common formats and regular timeslots.

The sitcom then evolved as a compromise between the theatrical underpinning of the vaudeville show and the constrictions that TV and radio created for it. In the early 50s the first sitcom was created, resolving a lot of the tension between both mediums.

And you don’t need to take my word for it. Just check out The Jack Benny Show which is widely regarded as being the first network TV show to strike a balance between the vaudeville traditions of old, dispensing with the sketch show nature of vaudeville, and injecting the first real display of narrative comedy on screen by using regular characters and settings.

As you can see, not a great deal has changed. Although that uses a single camera setup, the CBS show I Love Lucy was the first show to introduce the ‘three camera set up’ which is now standard in all traditional sitcoms.

And it’s been more or less the same ever since. Unlike vaudeville, the sitcom has a repeatable narrative but much like the early sitcoms, some of the more popular “safe” sitcoms are still of the same format. The studio audience is there to not only give sitcoms the theatrical feel of old, but also to pose as the literal fourth wall keeping them both engaged in the action but also distanced from it.

Indeed, for comedy to work effectively in any medium one must be able to identify with what’s going on but also be at a distance from it so we can see the joke at the performer’s expense.

Say hi to your studio audience. Watching you. Everywhere. Always.

The theater vibe is compounded in a number of ways – actors enter from the wings, never from behind the camera, they perform their own routines in a comedic fashion much like you would see in a variety performance, the audience react to every beat, sets are lit from the rafters etc.

It’s no wonder that the sitcom has struggled to be taken as seriously in an academic context as drama does.

For all the sitcom is derived from this stage show style, it’s become a kind of televisiual medium that we all easily identify with. Recent, safe comedies such as Friends, How I Met Your Mother, Will & Grace as well as their British counterparts with things like the (awful) Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, Coupling and the recently cancelled My Family are all basically identical to what sitcoms were like when they first hit our screens back in the 50s.

The Friends set

“BUT MARK, WHY IS ALL THIS RELEVANT TO A BLOG POST?! I hear you ask.

Reading and studying all this stuff as I have over the past three months or so, it’s dawned on me how little I appreciate the old traditional sitcom. If Friends or The Big Bang Theory is on the telly I won’t turn it off unless I have reason to, but anything else – particularly How I Met Your Mother, which I think is terrible – I’ll turn off more or less instantly. Something which is particularly true for British sitcoms of that variety with perhaps the sole exception of Red Dwarf.

These things are popular because they are familiar, safe and easy to watch. There is no character progression, the jokes are tame, the narratives are self contained and each episode always returns things to the status quo, they’re shot in the same way and rely on similar jokes and gags. Indeed, many sitcoms focus not on the dramatic ability of its actors but their comedic ability. To the extent where specific actors are placed in a show because of their comedic skill (Ronnie Barker was in Porridge and Open All Hours, to name a few, but not many will remember much of the plot in any of these shows, but they will know them by his comedic association with them).

He was a legend, though.

All of this is, of course, deliberate.

I’m not alone in thinking this. There is a whole bunch of literature regarding this which discusses the development of the sitcom through the ages and one in particular that studies the British sitcom, the development of which starts and finishes in the one decade.

The point is, and there is one, that I don’t have much time for the sitcom of old. I don’t identify with the music hall traditions that these shows are based on (not many do, to be fair) and although these shows have legions of fans, for me they rarely go beyond the genetic, stable boundaries of their genesis. That’s probably the reason people like them.

This is not to say that every sitcom has always followed that pattern – clearly this is not the case. M*A*S*H is the first thing that springs to mind, but there are probably other earlier examples of sitcoms that have defied the sitcom conventions.

However, since The Office there has been a more pronounced move away from the sitcom of old. The style of The Office is heavily influenced by the docusoap, and the lack of laugh track breaks the barrier between what we see as being funny and where we should laugh. Usually there is a signifier on screen to show the viewer when we should laugh and what we should laugh it, but this is curiously absent from The Office because of what is commonly called “genre hybridity”. The seemingly factual form of the show blurs the boundaries of comedy.

This is the kind of thing I do like. My top five sitcoms, hell my top TEN, all contain shows which are hybrid shows, mixing in other elements from other genres and leaving the viewer free to decide what is funny and what isn’t.

The Bluth family occupy the top spot, incidentally.

As a viewer I like to be challenged. I no longer identify with studio audience sitcoms. Their popularity does intrigue me, though. And if anyone ever struggled for justification for some of the best comedy’s being cancelled because they just couldn’t see why it had low ratings then hopefully this illuminates things for you.

The truth appears to be that the studio audience drive, traditional sitcom is still the same kind of brain off, light entertainment that people go for. It’s easy to see where you should laugh and what you should laugh it. It doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable or uneasy but sadly this is at the expense of innovation and truly funny scripting.

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Posted in: Mark Fraser