Mark Fraser: Day One Hundred and Eight – The Sitcom: Addendum

Posted on April 18, 2011 by

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My my, it seems my post about The Sitcom has generated rather a lot of hits. Somehow. No one even reposted it or retweeted it on twitter. Interesting…

Anyway, I just want to clarify a couple of things:

The sitcom is considered by many TV networks to be a “low text”, meaning that it is regarded as nothing but pure entertainment, distinct from other more realistic genres of television. In short, it is not seen in the same regard as drama or documentary. It might be quite easy to take what I said about sitcoms as demeaning to the form in some way, but that’s not the case.

Simply put, it’s important to highlight how it has taken the best part of 50 years for the sitcom to evolve and even then, it has only done so by replacing traditional sitcom elements with elements from other genres (like the docusoap style of The Office for example).

They all look like this, in the end.

Similarly, for all the reasons previously outlined the sitcom has struggled to gain any serious recognition both academically and critically, for many years.

What’s more important to realise though, that as the sitcom has mutated over the years it has allowed us to reconsider not only what we should find humorous, but also what the markers of humour actually are.

The traditional sitcom is filled with various markers that tell us what we’re supposed to laugh at and when. The obvious one is, of course, the audience laughter track (which serves a dual purpose in that it also gives us an ‘electronic audience’, giving the feeling of a communal and thus more music hall or vaudeville like experience) but also the emphasis on theatrical performance and the comedians acting.

Recently, there are more sitcoms which are replacing the traditional aspects of the genre, with devices found in other genres. Often binning the hugely theatrical and comedic nature of the actors performance, and the laugh track, making it very difficult for us to know what we’re supposed to laugh at. We’re still distanced from the action, and engaged in it, but unlike the sitcom where a staple of the format is that it is deliberately aware that its fiction, newer shows that use elements from other genres, dispense with this knowing self awareness of its own fictional setting.

We find The Office awkward, but where are we supposed to laugh at it? We find Spaced surreal, but are all its pop culture references funny? There are, of course, other markers that make us aware that we’re seeing something funny, but the more obvious ones are gone in these types of shows.

It's awkward, but do we laugh BECAUSE it's awkward?

Basically, the sitcom has never really been taken seriously and this due to its stable, generic nature. It’s this nature that has often turned me off of the big, safe shows with canned laugher, three camera set ups and three walled sets.

Comedy is subversive, and should say the unsayable. Old style safe sitcoms are not subversive. They are do not deal with social issues, political issues or any kind of real issues at all and this is because the sitcom has often had to be a commerical product. Generic and safe because it has attract wide audiences, often to the detriment of narrative cohesion or realism.

Sorry for the rambling. I just wanted clear up that I’m not against sitcoms, simply that to me, they do not do what comedy should do it.

If you got this far, thanks for reading.

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Posted in: Mark Fraser